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
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.
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
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
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
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:
wrote frequently of his sympathies with the French
revolutionists. These writings were usually in the form of
frequent letters to the local newspapers. (4)
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
Columbia’s offspring brave as free.
In danger’s hour, still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the royalty of man.”
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
“Scots, your Burns is not yet
His wondrous song has never fled.” (8)
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
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
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
-- 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
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
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)
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:
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…
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
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,
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.
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!
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.
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
(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,
(10) The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(11) Lend Me Your Ears by William Safire
(12) Fergus M. Bordewich, publication unknown, February
(14) The Scottish Banner, January 1987
(15) The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service
(16) The Biography of Robert Burns by James Mackay
(19) Cheyenne, Wyoming Arts Council
(20) The Highlander, May/June 1981
(21) The Highlander, January/February 2000