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Robert Burns Lives!


The Life of Robert Burns
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Part IV

We come now to the concluding article on Burns, one of “bits and pieces” about “Rabbie”! I wish there had been additional space to give you a more comprehensive portrait of Scotland’s National Bard. I purposely did not write about the normal chronological events of his life from birth to death, with all the family and business matters in between. I wanted you to know something about his poems and songs. You can learn about his many lovers, his quarrels, his aspirations, and his failures from other sources. There is no doubt he was a man’s man, a poet’s poet, and a master songwriter.

I love Robert Burns, not just for his genius in writing poetry and songs but also for his human qualities. He was a man, period! He did not try to mask his feelings for the people he loved or disliked. His satire would make a fool of you if he despised you. He worked hard. He drank hard. He wrote freely. He loved unconditionally. He knew success. He knew failure. There is a lot of Burns in a lot of us. At times I think he would make a good member of Clan Shaw.

There are several libraries around the world that many Burns scholars frequent. Although not a scholar, a few years ago I stood awe-struck in the middle of the Burns Room in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. It is much the size of the high school basketball court I remember playing on as a youngster in my hometown of Mullins, SC. I marveled at the over 5,000 volumes in the Mitchell Library about Robert Burns. Unfortunately, there was no one on the staff who could answer specific questions about the Burns collection or on Burns himself - the last Burns specialist had gone on to a better paying job elsewhere.

But, more happily, I have also stood in the middle of the Rare Books Library at the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library in Columbia and could not believe the outstanding G. Ross Roy Collection of Burns, Burnsiana, and Scottish Literature. That library collection has over 5,000 volumes as well and is the largest collection on Burns outside Scotland. More importantly, they have G. Ross Roy, who is probably the world’s foremost authority on Burns today. And, just as importantly, they are blessed to have as their University Librarian for Special Collections, Dr. Patrick Scott, a Burns scholar in his own right. The library has been described by renown Burns’ scholar Dr. Kenneth Simpson in his book Burns Now as “the foremost center of Scottish literary study in North America”.

It has always bothered me that, on his deathbed, Burns begged George Thomson to loan him £5. If you are lucky enough today to find a copy of his only book, POEMS, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, you had better be prepared to fork over $100,000, if not more. Many so-called “pirated” editions of his book were published before copyright laws came into being. His book was pirated and published in Belfast, Dublin, Philadelphia, New York, and other major cities. “Pirated?” you ask. Yes! Copyright laws did not exist in those days to protect the young author. Many of these books today sell for obscene prices. As a result, he never received a penny from the numerous editions that flew of the presses around the world. Some of these today sell between $1,000 to $5,000, if not more.

James Johnson and George Thomson published songs written by Burns in The Scots Musical Museum and the Original Scottish Airs. He refused to be paid for this work. He felt these songs belonged to his fellow countrymen, and if anything, the songs were a gift from him to them. How many songs did he write? Some say around 400, but Dr. Roy says Burns can be credited with 312 songs. He points out that there are another 39 songs, some are by Burns and some are not. Auld Lang Syne was written before Burns’ time, but in a recent phone conversation Dr. Roy said “the one we sing we attribute to Burns because he did so much with the song”.

No matter how many women he loved, he always went back home to Jean. Most women would have tossed him and his things out the door and moved on with their lives, but not Jean. She had patience and love for him like none of the others. She birthed him nine children and, if that was not enough, she took in one child by other women. It was not the wag down the street that said, “Oh Rob, he should have had two wives.” It was Jean!

Robert Burns was a verbal swordsman. Robert Crawford points out that “Burns crossed swords with Kirk, language, literature, King, government, and himself.” One would do well not to tangle with this marksman. He could sear the hide off his opponent without striking a flint! Few, if any, were a match for his genius or his caustic wit. He took no prisoners. He did not win all the battles he took upon himself to fight, but he came close. By the early 1790s, his reputation had grown from local village rhymer to Scotland’s most celebrated poet. Worldwide recognition would follow.

I first studied Burns in 1954 as a high school junior in North Charleston, SC. I still have that book entitled England in Literature.  The ten pages on Burns that we studied in Mrs. Grimes’ English class have only a few marks on them. Two are in parentheses with the word “know” written across the top in red pencil. They are: “The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley/An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain/For promised joy!” from To A Mouse, and “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” from To A Louse. Little did I know that 50 years later nearly 800 books on or about Burns would be housed in a small room off my office that I have affectionately named “The Burns Room”.

Another Burns connection to the Shaw name is the number of Shaws who purchased the 1787 Edinburgh edition of POEMS, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Listed in both the “skinking” and “stinking” Edinburgh issues are the following Shaws: George, Samuel, Charles, Irvine, Charles, David, Captain J., and one subscriber simply listed as Mrs. Shaw. Noteworthy about or among these Shaws were Samuel, a writer from Edinburgh, Captain J. Shaw of the late 76th Regiment, and one of the two listed with the name Charles bought three copies, as did Irvine. Altogether, Shaws purchased a total of 13 Edinburgh editions.

According to The Burns Encyclopedia by Maurice Lindsay, two more Shaws played a small part in Burns’ writing. Andrew Shaw graduated from the University of St. Andrews with a Doctor of Divinity degree and later became Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews. He gained the reputation as a good speaker yet was supposedly a very shy man. Andrew was one of the two Shaws of “The Twa Herds”. The other Shaw in the Burns poem was David Shaw, Moderator of the General Assembly in 1776, the year the great romance between America and Britain came to an end. It is claimed David Shaw never wore reading glasses, wrote neatly until his death at age ninety-one, and never had wrinkles or furrows.

More interesting is a man who took it upon himself to raise money for Burns’ widow, Jean, and their children. His name was Sir James Shaw. Remember the name. He didn’t forget his roots as he was from Kilmarnock where Burns and John Wilson, the printer, published the original book of poems by Burns. As I recall, James Shaw raised more money for the widow and her children than anyone. (Some of the Lions of Edinburgh who made such a big-to-do over Burns never gave a penny to the widow’s fund. Most notably among that group is Hugh Blair, professor and minister.) Gavin Sprott writes in Pride and Passion that “this Ayrshire man who had made good in America settled in London and eventually became Lord Mayor of the city in 1805”. Shaw also helped to secure positions for Burns’ sons – “Robert in the Stamp Office in London, and commissions for James and William with East India Company”.

Since I began this series of articles, Kenneth Simpson has teamed with Colin Baxter, he of postcard fame, in publishing the finest little book on Burns that I have seen. It is simply entitled, ROBERT BURNS. You can order this book directly from the publishers, Colin Baxter Photography, Ltd., Grantown-on-Spey, Moray PH26 3NA, UK.  Payment of £3.95 can be made by Visa or MasterCard, plus £3 for shipping/handling. I heartily recommend this book to all who have an interest in Robert Burns.

This concludes our series of articles on Robert Burns, and I appreciate Meredith asking me to write about him. It has been a privilege to share my thoughts about Scotland’s National Bard. If you are interested in further insights on Burns, you may find my regular column, Robert Burns Lives!” on www.electricscotland.com of interest. I also write book reviews and interview authors in separate columns. Click on The Family Tree in the same website and follow the links to the three articles that appear quarterly. It would be an honor to have you come along with me on the journey of books, authors and Robert Burns that I started several years ago. (FRS: 8-24-05)


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