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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 14


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA

            Since we have heard him emcee many of the Scottish and Highland Games for years, most of us in the South are very familiar with the voice of Bob Barr. Bob is the son of Scottish parents and has had a keen interest in his Scottish ancestry since childhood. He was born and raised in Tarrytown, NY, is a graduate of the New York Maritime College and Miami University (Ohio), and served as a Lieutenant (JG) in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. 

Mr. Barr has served as the Master of Ceremonies for over 100 Scottish Games and Tattoos in the Southeast for 30 years, retiring at the Stone Mountain Highland Games in 2002. He has also been the featured speaker for numerous Burns Nights Suppers, banquets and other Scottish functions throughout the Southeast. 

Bob retired in 1989 after a 35-year career in marketing and public relations with the Eastman Kodak Company.  He and his wife, Jean, now reside in Deland, Florida.

In 1991, the District Council of Stirling, Scotland, presented him with a Certificate of Appreciation in recognition of his efforts to promote friendship between Scotland the U.S.A. 

This talented and gracious man has agreed for me to use the speech he delivered in Winter Haven, Florida to The Islanders Scottish Society for their Burns Night on January 22, 2000. Burns Night will be celebrated throughout the world by hundreds of Scottish organizations, as well as local Burns Clubs. It is a special time for Scottish folk to wear their clan colors – for the men to show off their kilts and trews, and for the women to don their scarves, shawls and other appropriate Scottish dress. It is a gala time where Burns is honored as he has been for over 200 years, and it is a pleasure to share with you now the insights of Bob Barr.  (FRS: 11-08-2004)

TO THE IMMORTAL MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS
By Robert Barr, Jr.

Robert Barr, Jr.

            Now, it’s one thing to say that the Scots celebrate the memory of Robert Burns, but his work is also recognized and his memory honored by tens of thousands of non-Scots around the world…and that is the theme of my talk tonight.

            Robert Burns has had more speeches delivered about him, more statues have been erected in his honor, and more clubs or societies have been named after him than any other man of letters anywhere in the world! The last I heard, there were about 950 Burns Clubs worldwide. (1)

            The first Burns Club was founded in 1801, five years after the poet’s death, in Greenock, Scotland. The second Burns club was founded in Paisley, Scotland, in 1805. Another early Burns Club was founded in Dumfries, Scotland, and listed Sir Walter Scott as one of its members.

            Apart from Napoleon, there are more books in the British Museum about Robert Burns than there are about anyone else. (2) And no country, not even Scotland, has done more to perpetuate the name of Robert Burns than our own country, the United States of America.

            Robert Burns lived among the people and spoke for them, using the language of the working class man, as no other poet has before or since. With the passing of the years, the theme of the poet grows stronger and stronger. His words ring out in such a simple, direct, yet eloquent manner.  For example:

“But while we sing, ‘God save the King’
We’ll nae forget the people.”

            How did Burns and his work come to be so popular worldwide? That’s an interesting question, for aside from a brief visit to the north of England, he never traveled outside of Scotland. The poetry of Robert Burns has been read and enjoyed worldwide for these many years because the people in these countries understand what he is writing about….just as the Scottish peasants of Burns’ day understood.

            The words of Burns are a timeless message of the dignity of toil, the right of all men to freedom and a contempt for hypocrisy and tyranny. Unfortunately, one only has to ready today’s daily newspaper headlines or watch the television news to see that hypocrisy, greed, and tyranny are still with us…but then again, so are love, honesty, and a man’s admiration for a pretty woman!

            And I would say to anyone that does not understand the beauty of the words of Robert Burns…take a few minutes, read one or two of the 400 or so poems he wrote, and then I think the meaning and the beauty of the words will come to you.

            Now Burns did enjoy a few weeks of glory in Edinburgh, but otherwise he pursued a rather humdrum existence for most of his adult life as a poor farmer and tax collector in the harsh countryside of rural southwest Scotland. Although he was a bit of a celebrity with the local townsfolk, he met no one of note. (3)

            Here are just a few examples of how often Burns is referred to in connection with countries other than Scotland or with people other than Scots:

-- Burns wrote frequently of his sympathies with the French revolutionists. These writings were usually in the form of frequent letters to the local newspapers. (4)

-- On November 22, 1788, Burns defended the American cause and wrote the following in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, “…I dare say the American Congress, in 1776, will be…able and…enlightened and, that the Fourth of July will be…sacred to their posterity…” (5)

-- He not only sided with the American revolutionists, but on June 25th, 1794, he wrote an ode for General George Washington. (6)

“…But come ye sons of liberty,
Columbia’s offspring brave as free.
In danger’s hour, still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the royalty of man.”

            These writings are quite amazing since Burns was at the time employed as an exciseman or tax collector for the Crown!

-- Over 200 years ago, while Burns was still alive, a bishop of the Portuguese Church confessed that he soothed his soul, not by saying his prayers, but by repeating the love poems of Robert Burns. (7)

-- In 1896, the Queen of Rumania wrote at the 100th anniversary of the death of Burns:

“Scots, your Burns is not yet dead,
His wondrous song has never fled.” (8)

-- The English poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were close friends. In 1803, Wordsworth and Coleridge traveled to Scotland and visited Burns’ grave. Wordsworth was so moved that he composed a poem. A few of the lines are:

I mourned with thousands, but as one
More deeply grieved, for he was gone.
Whose light I hailed when first it shone,
And showed my youth how verse may build
A princely throne on humble truth.

            A few weeks after visiting Burns’ grave, Wordsworth wrote another poem entitled “To the Sons of Burns.”  A few lines from this poem are:

‘Mid crowded obelisks and urns,
I sought the untimely grave of Burns.
Sons of the bard, my heart still mourns with sorrow true,
And more would grieve, but that it turns trembling to you!

            And here are a few interesting examples of Burns’ popularity by some American celebrities:

            -- On St. Andrew’s Day, 1875, in Memphis, Tennessee, a speaker said “…There is another part of Scotland of which I would speak…coming down from the heroic to that of the softer region of poetry…the land of Burns…the sweet plough boy poet! There stands yet the ruin of Kirk Alloway. Its roof has fallen, its floor is gone, and Tam O’Shanter shall never again see the witches dance in it.  What dear old memories rise at the names intimately associated with Scotland’s and nature’s sweet singer.” (9)

            The man who delivered these interesting words in 1875 was Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America.

            Here are a few lines written by a foremost American poet in honor of Robert Burns.  It is entitled simply…Robert Burns:

I see amid the fields of Ayr,
A ploughman who in foul or fair, sings at his task.
So clear we know not if it is
The laverock’s song we hear of his,
Nor care to ask.

Touched by his hand, the wayward weed becomes a flower;
The lowliest reed, beside the stream is clothed with beauty;
Gorse and grass, and heather,
Where his footsteps pass, the brighter seem.

But still the burden of his song,
Is love of right, disdain of wrong;
Its master chords are manhood, freedom, brotherhood;
Its discords but an interlude between the words.

And yet to die so young,
And leave unfinished what he might achieve!

            These eloquent words were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (10)

            Ralph Waldo Emerson, famous American poet and philosopher, on the centennial of the birth of Robert Burns, delivered a eulogy in Boston on January 25, 1859. (11) A few sentences from that eulogy are, and I quote:

            “That Robert Burns, the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men today that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities --- that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and in social order, has changed the face of the world…

            …The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the ‘La Marseillaise’ are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom that the songs of Burns…

            …He is an exceptional genius.  The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns…

            …(the songs and poetry of Burns), they are the property and the solace of mankind…”

            -- The birth of Robert Burns has become a gala event in the People’s Republic of China where about 100 of his poems have been translated into the Chinese language, and every Chinese poet knows his work, while a few translated verses are taught to all Chinese students. (12)

-- The Chinese people consider the northeastern provinces of China as the Highlands. During World War II, the Chinese Highlands were occupied by the Japanese. Burns’ poem, “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” was used as a symbol of resistance by the Chinese against the Japanese troops. (13)

            I have also read that “Auld Lang Syne” is sung at Chinese, Japanese and Russian weddings.

            A few years ago while Jean and I were touring Scotland, we spent several days in the little town of Falkland, near St. Andrews. A group of Japanese businessmen were also visiting Falkland at the same time and were invited to a dinner by the local Scots to commemorate their visit. Through the kindness of our Scottish friends, we were invited to join the party. After a nice dinner, the Scots sang a few Scottish songs and proposed several toasts to their new Japanese friends. The Japanese guests responded with toasts of their own and then offered to sing a few Japanese songs of friendship. First, however, they wanted to sing a special song, taught to all Japanese school children and a favorite of the Japanese people. This special song was “Coming through the Rye.”

            Burns suppers are held each January in the countries of Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the U.S.A. They are also held in China, Japan and Russia.

            And, there are some humorous stories about Burns Suppers:

            -- In 1979, 300 Scots flew to Moscow to attend a Burns Supper. Along with their baggage, the Scots brought 200 pounds of neeps, 200 pounds of haggis, and 30 cases of Scotch whisky to help with the celebration. When the Russian customs officers learned the reason for the large shipment of the special food and drink, they relaxed the regulations and let it all enter the country duty free! (14)

            Burns Night on the western front during World War I is described in that humorous poem, “The Haggis of Private McPhee” by Robert W. Service.  Incidentally, Robert Service was born in England, raised in Scotland but emigrated to Canada at the age of 21. (15) Just a few lines from that poem, I think, are appropriate:

“Hae ye heard whit ma auld mither’s posted tae me?
It fair makes me hamesick, “ says Private McPhee.
And whit did she send ye?” says Private McPhun,
As he cocked his rifle and blazed at a hun.

“A haggis! A haggis!” says Private McPhee;
“The bravest big haggis I ever did see.
And think!  It’s the morn when fond memory turns
Tae haggis and Whuskey…the birthday o’ Burns.

We must find a dram; then we’ll ca’ in the rest,
And we’ll hae a Burns Nicht, wi’ all the best.”

            The poem continues on, but unfortunately, the Burns Supper had to be cancelled for Private McPhee and his buddy, Private McPhun, were later wounded, and the haggis was “dinged all tae hell” (received a direct hit) by a German shell.

            At one time, every library in the U.S.A. established by Andrew Carnegie was provided with a bust of Robert Burns…that amounted to 3,460 busts of the Scottish poet in American libraries around the country! (16) There are almost 200 statues and monuments to Burns in countries around the world. (17) As a matter of fact, on Tuesday of next week, the 241st anniversary of the poet’s birth, a new statue will be unveiled in Alberta, Canada. 

            Regarding statues, Burns far outstrips Shakespeare or any other poet in the number of statues erected in his honor. Other than royalty, only Christopher Columbus and Lenin in his heyday surpassed Burns in this regard. (18) Statues of Burns can be found throughout Scotland, as well as in the cities of Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, San Francisco, Montreal…and even in Cheyenne, Wyoming! That’s right, in the center of Robert Burns Park in Cheyenne stands a bronze statue of Robert Burns. This statue is considered by many to be the finest likeness of Burns anywhere in the world. (19) The statue was erected in 1928 and was the work of the foremost Scottish sculptor of the time, J. S. Gormley. When Mr. Gormley completed the sculpture, he said to his wife, “I’ve completed my great task, my highest honor, the zenith of my career.  Now I shall rest.” He then lay down on a couch and fell into a sleep from which he never awakened. (20)

            The only replica in the world of the birthplace of Robert Burns is located on Alloway Place in Atlanta, Georgia. It serves as the headquarters and meeting place of the Burns Club of Atlanta which was founded on January 25, 1896, 100 years after the death of the poet. The cottage was built in 1910 to the exact measurements of the original cottage in Alloway, Scotland. (21)

            In closing, let me briefly mention why the poetry of Robert Burns is so very special to me. My parents were born and raised in Scotland. During my youth, I recall my father often reciting lines of Burns’ poetry as he went about his daily task of raising a family…and, I was told, so did his father, who as a young man, worked on a farm in Ayrshire. At my mother’s funeral in 1981, just days before their 60th wedding anniversary, I helped my father select a few lines of Burns’ poetry to be included in her funeral service. This is what my father selected for the minister to read:

My love is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
My love is like the melody,
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I.
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun,
And I will love thee still my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And from another poem of Burns…

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever,
Ae farewell, and then forever.
But to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met - or never parted –
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Fare thee well, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee well, thou best and dearest!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever,
Ae farewell, alas, forever!

After the service, the minister told my father that those few lines of Burn’s poetry were the most beautiful words he had ever spoken at a funeral ceremony. 

            Ladies and gentlemen, I have tried to point out that Robert Burns is not only the poet of Scotland but the poet of men and women throughout the world. I’ll close now by reading perhaps the best known of all the thousands of lines of poetry written by Robert Burns. In spite of being over 200 years old, they are as appropriate today as when they were first written:

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

            Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast…….to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns! 

 

Bibliography

(1)       The Scottish Banner, January 1987
(2)       The Highlander, April 1977
(3)       The Highlander, January/February 1987
(4)       The Highlander (date ?)
(5)       The Highlander (date ?)
(6)       The Collected Poems of Robert Burns
(7)       The Highlander, January/February 1987
(8)       The Order of Scottish Clans Fiery Cross, 1947
(9)       Scotland and the Scottish People, Jefferson Davis, 1875
(10)     The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(11)     Lend Me Your Ears by William Safire
(12)     Fergus M. Bordewich, publication unknown, February 12, 1984
(13)     Ibid
(14)     The Scottish Banner, January 1987
(15)     The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service
(16)     The Biography of Robert Burns by James Mackay
(17)     Ibid
(18)     Ibid
(19)     Cheyenne, Wyoming Arts Council
(20)     The Highlander, May/June 1981
(21)     The Highlander, January/February 2000


Return to December/January 2005 Index page  |  Return to Robert Burns Lives Index

 


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