Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
If my column today had a dateline, it would be February
24-25, 2009, Washington, D.C. The occasion was a symposium entitled
Robert Burns at 250: Poetry, Politics, and Performance. To
celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns, the
American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, in collaboration with
Library’s Center for the Book, the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center,
and the Scottish Government, found over 150 people from both sides of the
Atlantic gathered in our nation’s Capitol to pay homage to Scotland’s
National Bard. Burns himself would have been so proud, as well as full of
himself, for the recognition and of knowing it was a free event! This
conference was in addition to the 280 events listed in the Homecoming
Scotland 2009 Events Guide which began on December 30 of last year and will
end on November 29, a year in which many thousands from around the globe
will travel back to the auld country to pay their respect to Burns.
Leading scholars, poets, and musicians from both
countries participated. Familiar people like Margaret Bennett, Peggy Bulger,
Valentina Bold, Ted Cowan, Robert Crawford, Nat Edwards, Billy Kay, Ed
Miller, Cate Newton, Patricia Gray, First Minister Alex Salmond, and Poet
Laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan, were among the speakers.
Susan and I made our way to the District of Columbia via
Delta and enjoyed two days of speeches and songs regarding Burns. The
symposium was one of the best ones we have attended over the years, both
here in the States and Scotland. The folks responsible for putting on the
program are to be congratulated on a job well done. It was a joy to finally
put names with faces of those I have known via email or read about for
years. And, of course, it was a special treat to have Sir Sean Connery in
attendance and to hear First Minister Alex Salmond address the group.
Connery may be a wee bit older, but you can still see 007, James Bond,
written all over him.
At the concluding reception, one of the speakers said to
me, “If you’ll buy me a ticket to Atlanta, I’ll speak at your Burns Club.”
Believe me, this particular speaker would be worth every penny, but I do not
speak for the club. However, I did come close to replying, “If you buy me an
airline ticket to Scotland, I’ll speak to one of your classes!”
I come now to a great honor for Robert Burns Lives!
and a tip of the hat to my wife for making it happen. The symposium’s
keynote address was delivered by the First Minister of Scotland, Alex
Salmond. She inquired if a copy of the speech could be sent to her and it
showed up the following week at Waverley House, our wee home by the lake.
With the permission of the First Minister, it is a pleasure to share his
speech with our readers. Many of our self-professed Burns experts and
speakers would do well to sit at the feet of Alex Salmond and learn from him
about Robert Burns, the world’s Bard! It was as good a discourse on Burns as
I have ever heard. One could tell that our speaker was familiar with Burns
and “at home” while talking about him. Here is the Honourable Alex Salmond
speaking about Robert Burns.
First Minister Alex Salmond
Library of Congress, Washington DC
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It is an
honour, as First Minister of Scotland, to be invited to speak to you today,
to celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest Scots of all time.
It is a
remarkable testimony to the power of Robert Burns, that in the 250th
anniversary year of his birth, we gather in this prestigious location to
honour him. To explore his work and find inspiration in his words.
Ploughman Poet to Literary Legend, Burns' journey is indeed a remarkable
one. And today he arrives at a destination which would have far exceeded
even his ambitions. To be commemorated in this, the largest library in the
world, and admired by some of the best minds in the world.
It is a
fitting accolade for Scotland's National Poet. And one which finds Burns in
very good company. Because he shares this library, and this year, with
another great man celebrating a significant anniversary.
referring, of course, to Abraham Lincoln, whose bicentennial year is also
being honoured by the Library of Congress.
as we know, was a dedicated admirer of Burns. During his times as a lawyer -
before he was elected to Congress - a copy of Burns never left his side.
Indeed, colleagues from his law practice said he was capable of quoting
"Burns by the hour". A feat which would have left lesser men, in the words
of poet, "ramfeezl'd".
an expert knowledge of Burns, it is unsurprising that in 1865, Lincoln was
invited to give a short talk in memory of the Bard.
was a man known for his eloquence. But on this occasion the 16th President
chose to decline the invitation, replying:
"I can say
nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of
what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying."
I share with you my reflections on "Burns, Politics and Politicians", I am
conscious that I am about to boldly go where Lincoln has not gone before.
by so many prestigious academics and Burns' experts, my remarks will not be
made as a scholar, but as an admirer and reader of Burns. And of course,
also as a fellow Scot.
like to consider not just the influences which shaped Burns and his views.
But also the values he articulates in his work. The kind of political figure
he was. And the impact he has had on others.
two centuries now, Burns has been claimed by almost everyone on - and off -
the political map as one of their own.
has been interpreted - and indeed misinterpreted - by those who wish to
mould it to fit their own ideological design.
point that was made by another Scottish poet, Hugh McDiarmid: "Mair nonsense
has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than ony's, barrin liberty and
been celebrated as a democrat, a nationalist, an individualist, a radical, a
patriot, an internationalist - the list goes on.
He is many
and all things. Part of his enduring appeal is that he simply defies
definition. If we can define him as anything it is as a poet, not a
politician. A consummate artist of verse and song. Not a sloganeer.
work we see the reflection of his life. It is a life which, in Burns' own
words, was driven by "keen sensibility and riotous passions" and which often
lead him on what he admitted was a "zig zag" path.
unsurprising then that his work does the same. What we discover upon reading
Burns is not consistency, but complexity.
Whitman, another member of the Robert Burns fan club, wrote: "Do I
contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I
And so it
is with Burns. He is a man who is singular in his ability to contain
multitudes and encompass contradiction.
Values and Influences of Burns
consider the totality of Burns' life, the contradictions are self evident: A
man who graduated from the soil of an Ayrshire farm to the salons of
A man of
only elementary education whose imagination fired the Scottish
Enlightenment. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, the self-taught Burns 'walked
on his own feet instead of on academical stilts'.
closer examination says something different. In fact, the "heaven-taught
ploughman" had an excellent education - because his Aberdeenshire father
one of the real points of importance for us is that Burns was an educated
man. And one of the important points for Scots is to recall that in the
eighteenth century, Scotland was one of the few societies on earth where a
man of Burns' station would be educated.
an artist who found poetry in the prosaic.
to the station of national bard, whilst still retaining his status as a
his paradoxes, Burns lived by a consistent set of values which he gives
voice to from the earliest satires through to his late political songs.
were shaped by many influences - among them his love of literature, and of
his native land; and an upbringing of industry and hardship.
As a boy,
his imagination was captivated by the great Scottish hero William Wallace
and Robert the Bruce. A man who fought for Scotland's freedom, and who
represented the very spirit of independence.
put it in his autobiographical letter to Dr Moore, reading of his heroes'
exploits sent a wave of patriotism through his veins "which will boil along
there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest".
youngest years, Burns had a strong sense of national identity. A pride in
the land he came from. And an affinity with those who would stand up for
labourer on his father's farm, from the age of 9, Burns was no stranger to
the harsh realities of life. His imagination may have offered escapism, but
his upbringing was an education in poverty.
1770s, the Scottish economy was, according to David Hume, in a "very
melancholy situation", with "continual bankruptcies, universal loss of
credit and endless suspicions".
downturn was felt right on Burns' doorstep. The Ayrshire bank, Douglas Heron
and Company had collapsed, leaving many - including the Burns family -
insolvent. It was an experience which no doubt sharpened Burns' appetite for
of course, a product of his time. As a nation, Scotland was never submissive
to established authority. Nor was Burns.
As a young
man he formed the lifelong ideal that the greatest good was to be "the man
o' independent mind". [A Man's a Man for a' That]
always a man to chart his own course. We see that from his earliest years.
Even as the Burns family faced ruin and hardship, young Robert chose to
exert his own free will in matters of the highest consequence - defying the
authority of his father to go and enjoy himself at a country dance class!
Burns a political figure?
If we were
to express Burns' values in simple political terms, it is difficult to know
where to start.
can do no better than borrow some words struck in the Pennsylvania State
House when Burns was a restless young man of seventeen: that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of
always a man with a strong social conscience, and acute sensibility. He
empathised with others and believed wholeheartedly in egalitarianism.
is the rallying cry of liberty to "Lay the proud usurpers low" [Scots Wa Hae].
Or the recognition that "The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The Man's the
gowd for a'that". [A Man's a Man]
the values which feature time and time again in his work. Values which
transcend culture, class, and continent.
political figure - and perhaps not only as a political figure - Burns is
potent. His work speaks to us and for us all. It is at once universal and
personal. Growing up, Dr Maya Angelou held a deep conviction that "Burns
belonged to me". It is, for most of us, a familiar sentiment.
regardless of our individual circumstances, Burns poetry goes straight to
the heart. For Tom Sutherland, who endured six long years as a hostage in
Beirut, Burns was a source of strength and a symbol of hope - a light in the
is a touchstone to so many of us not because it speaks of ideology. But
because it speaks of humanity.
not talk in the abstract of the principles of egalitarianism. He is the man
who lives by these very principles. Who values every "poor, earth-born
companion, An' fellow-mortal" [To a Mouse]
empathy for his fellow man is discernible in every line of his verse. In his
notebook he confesses he has "Good will to every creature" and identifies
with "all the species".
It is an
empathy which is not partisan. Whether it is for a monarch or a mouse, Burns
is someone who is always on our side. As he concludes in the "Second Epistle
to J. Lapraik", we can always "Count on a friend, in faith an' practice, In
time I was in the United States, just over one year ago, I heard the then
Presidential candidate Barack Obama on breakfast television. He was asked
what he had been taught by his grandmother. He said her lesson was a single
President Obama is guided by that quality through the coming years then not
just America, but indeed the whole world will be better for it.
Nationalist, A Democrat, A Radical
an affinity for his fellow man, and he expresses that affinity in the
language of the common man. Indeed, in the case of his songs, it is also in
the medium of the common man.
decision to write in Scots - more accurately, in Lowland vernacular Scots -
is surely evidence of his egalitarianism in action. He believed that popular
speech had poetry in it - that the words of "The honest man, tho' e'er sae
poor" could enrich us. [A Man's A Man]
Burns explained his use of the Scots language as mere pragmatism, saying: "I
have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. In
fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish."
modest about his ability to write in the English language. But there is
evidence he need have been so.
likely, his use of Scots was a declaration of his patriotism and pride in
his own Scottish culture.
Advertising himself as "The Bard", Burns' ambitions went far beyond the
horizons of Ayrshire or the drawing rooms of Edinburgh.
to be the voice of Scotland. And poems such as "The Cotter's Saturday Night"
established him as just that - a poet capable of speaking for the entire
Burns had confidently assumed the role as national poet. It is his voice
which defines Scotland as: "bold, independent, unconquered and free".
it is not merely his choice to write in Scots which earns him the title of
'nationalist'. It is also his commitment to safeguarding the literature,
culture and spirit of the nation he loved.
on a nationwide tour, Burns collected and refashioned the old songs of
ancient Scotland. Preserving the oral tradition and honouring Scotland as a
no ordinary curator. He was also a creator. He did not just collect and
conserve the songs, he reworked them. Songs that would inspire others and
give voice to the values of the Scottish people. It was a cultural project
with profound and long lasting political impact.
nationalism was built on an internationalist perspective. Indeed it is
America, and not Scotland, which is the first nation named in his poetry.
the first great Romantic poet to ever write about America. His interest in
America goes hand in hand with his democratic instincts.
We see in
poems like "When Guilford Good" a man informed of world events, and
motivated to publicly write about them. Burns was unafraid to be a democrat
- I should make clear that has a small 'd' - when democracy was considered a
dangerous, suspicious practice.
It is easy
to forget that Burns wrote at a time when democratic sympathies were
considered 'radical'. When those supporting electoral reform were arrested
for 'seditious and disorderly behaviour'. And in the case of advocate Thomas
Muir, when giving such opinions a fair hearing before the law secured you a
one way ticket to the penal colony, Botany Bay in Australia.
political climate did not deter Robert Burns from expressing his views.
After all, he considered himself "bred and educated in revolution
when he worked as an Exciseman, he remained loyal to his own nation and his
Crawford mentions in his tremendous new book, "The Bard" - Robert Burns
continued to collect and write the songs of Scotland, thanks to his pay
cheque from the British Government. There would have been others content to
merely take the money and run. Burns, however, took the money and sang.
with the British Government did not stop Burns from voicing his dissent
wherever he saw injustice. Always "the man o' independent mind", he would
write to the Edinburgh Evening Courant, under a pen name, John Barleycorn,
to argue the case for the Scottish distillers, being unfairly taxed by the
London Parliament. 'Twas ever thus.
course of action characterises Burns as a man of some cunning, but also
quite some principle. And of course as a man who knows that: "Freedom and
Whisky they gang thegither".
choose to label Burns as nationalist, democrat or radical, he is always a
man of inner integrity. A man who values true not titular worth.
these ideals which define his life and give substance to his work.
paraphrase Henry David Thoreau: Burns was a man who could sit down to write,
because he had stood up to live.
The political impact of Burns
difficult to define Burns. I have struggled for years, and will continue to
do so. And even this most expert and most eloquent gathering may still
falter to find words that do him justice.
impact he has had, and continues to have, is unequivocal. For Dr Maya
Angelou, it is Robert Burns' who best articulates and dignifies the struggle
"The African American struggle for Freedom reminds me all the time of the
struggle for freedom all over the world. It is because of my identification
with Robert Burns, with Wallace, with the people of Scotland for their
dignity, for their independence, for their humanity, that I can see how we
sing 'We Shall Overcome'."
doubt, Burns has left an indelible thumbprint on the world. His influence on
the hearts and minds of millions is beyond question and beyond
Scots - myself included - Burns is still the voice which dignifies
Scotland's quest for freedom.
Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, after a gap of almost 300 years, it
was Burns' words which rang out to the nation - through the wonderful
rendition by Sheena Wellington of "A Man's a Man for a' That".
the words chosen to signify the re-opening of the Parliament, and a new
chapter in Scotland's story.
disdain for the Act of Union, which sealed Scotland's fate in 1707, is of
course well documented in the poem "Parcel of Rogues".
centuries later, the people of Scotland elected a pro-independence
government - the government I am proud to lead - to revisit that decision.
And this time the decision will be made democratically, by a referendum of
the people of Scotland.
Burns' influence goes far beyond the shores of his homeland. He has been
admired by those who hold the very highest political office.
were Abraham Lincoln's moral compass. Burns' words the inspiration for
Frederick Douglass, Burns' was esteemed as a "true soul". The first book
Douglass bought after he escaped slavery was a copy of Burns poetry - which
he later passed on to his oldest son.
speaking at a Burns Supper in New York in 1849, Mr. Douglass said 'Though I
am not a Scotchman, and I have coloured skin, I am proud to be among you
this evening.' He then pointed to a portrait of Burns and continued, 'And if
any think me out of my place at this occasion (pointing at the picture of
Burns) I beg that the blame be laid at the door of him who taught me that 'a
mans a man for a' that'.'
cultural impact is equally impressive. It can be seen in the work of a long
line of literary admirers. Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson,
Robert Frost. Some of the great American voices who learnt from the greatest
influence is seemingly everywhere. Without Burns both John Steinbeck and J.
D. Salinger would be without titles for their most celebrated works. Frank
Capra would have searched in vain for the right ending to his movie, "It's A
some 40 million diaspora across the world, it is the poetry of Burns which
provides a strong and lasting link to their ancestral heritage.
day Robert Burns touches our lives. "Auld Lang Syne" is the most recited
song in the world. A global anthem that celebrates the value of enduring
friendship. Which urges us to embrace unity, and overcome division.
It is a
powerful message. Amid a profound body of work.
two days offer a tremendous opportunity to explore Burns' further. To reach
a closer understanding of the poet and a richer appreciation of his work.
to understand Burns deeply, one has to first understand the country he came
from. The place where he lived, loved and endlessly sang in celebration of.
his 250th year, there really is no better time to make that voyage and visit
Scotland. In this landmark year, now is the time to truly discover Robert
Burns. To walk in his footsteps. To enter the house where he wrote his
finest verse. To experience the land that he loved. To be part of his story.
this year, our Homecoming year, the country is alive with celebration. With
over 300 events underway right now, right across Scotland, to commemorate
Burns and the country of which he was proud to call himself "Bard".
perhaps the world's greatest friend. His poems a "cup o' kindness" which
sustain us, even when times are hard. And as a man who always enjoyed being
one of the "hairum-scairum, ram-stam boys", it is right that we celebrate
moment, this year in Scotland, is like no other. Which is why we are
inviting everyone, everywhere - at home and abroad - with an affinity for
Scotland, a pride in your Scottish heritage, a love of Robert Burns, to come
and join us.
gentlemen, we continue to celebrate, study, read and recite Burns because
his are the values which endure.
empathy, egalitarianism and humanity.
It is a
legacy that transcends partisanship, or political persuasion.
It is the
abiding message of how to live in fellowship with others and how to love
one's fellow man.
It is a
message that, in difficult times, reminds us that what is in our hearts, not
what is in our wallets, is what enriches us.
is why two and a half centuries after his birth he remains, not just
Scotland's Bard but everyone's.
A man for
today, tomorrow and all time.
(FRS: Robert Burns Lives!