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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 21


Immortal Memory at the Atlanta Burns Club

(Editor’s note:  One of the greatest honors a member of a Burns Club can have bestowed on him or her is to be asked to deliver The Immortal Memory on Burns Night.  Such was the case for me on the night of January 28, 2006 at the Atlanta Burns Club in Atlanta, Georgia. My deepest thanks to Vice President Victor Gregg, now serving as President of the club, for his kind invitation.

            The program was long but interesting, and the toasts offered were some of the best I’ve ever heard. Even the haggis was exceptional! The Atlanta Burns Club has the only replica in the world built to the exact measurements of the Alloway birthplace of Robert Burns.

            I stood to deliver my speech around 10:00 p.m. and, even at that late hour, found the packed building to be an alert and attentive audience. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I will always be appreciative of that signal honor and of the opportunity to speak to my fellow members, who were gracious and kind with their comments.)

The Immortal Memory
The Atlanta Burns Club
January 28, 2006
10:00 p.m.

WHO ARE YOU, MR. BURNS?
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA, email: jurascot@earthlink.net


Bronze bust of Robert Burns in library of Susan and Frank Shaw


Atlanta Burns Cottage, January 3, 2002

Photographs by Frank Shaw

Introduction:

It is not my intention to tell you the story that has been told thousands of time. But, I will share some thoughts of mine, and several anecdotes as well, and some quotes from various sources by and about out Bard.

It is said by some detractors that Burns is more praised than read.(1) Some charge that Burns is the most recited poet by drunken men.(2) They maintain that most Burns gatherings are solely for the purpose of meeting to eat and drink and are similar in nature to those who show up for church once a year at Easter.

Hugh MacDiarmid, a/k/a Christopher Muray Grieve, once said, “To create the kind of Scotland that Burns worked for, he (Burns) would have to be forgotten for a quarter of a century.”(3) This is the same poet who said he would sacrifice a million people any day for one immortal lyric.”(4)  It was MacDiarmid that espoused the “Not Burns - Back to Dunbar”(5) and he continued saying it for years. Some have said MacDiarmid was saying that attention should be paid to all Scottish poets, not just Burns. Well, all he had to do was say so!

MacDiarmid is reputed by many to be the greatest Scottish poet since Burns. And, in his own way, he had a much harder time of it than Burns. Trained as a schoolteacher, he was expelled for stealing books. He later caught on with the Edinburgh Evening News and, regrettably, was fired for selling books he had been given to review.

His difficulties continued throughout his life, and he even became a card-carrying Communist. I have it on good report that he wore bright red ties as if to provoke comments about his communist feelings. Another tragedy in his life was the loss of his wife and two children to a coal merchant. MacDiarmid ended up in London where he fell off the top of a double-decker bus, landed on his head, causing much difficulty with headaches, and was lucky to survive. Later on he suffered a serious nervous breakdown.

Yet, he seemed to always come out of whatever trouble he was in, and he continued to write poetry, some of it even great poetry. There was a mellowing towards Burns Clubs and Burns Nights on the part of MacDiarmid, and during the Burns Bicentenary, he delivered The Immortal Memory from Edinburgh for BBC, saying lots of good things about Burns. You can make that kind of turn-around when you are considered the best poet in Scotland since Burns.(6)

Who are you, Mr. Burns?

Allow me to quote a piece about Burns in 1786:

“Who are you, Mr. Burns? At what university have you been educated? What authors have you studied? Who has praised your poems, and under whose patronage are they published? In short, what qualifications entitle you to instruct or entertain us?”(7)  It is believed these words come from James Sibbald, owner and editor of the Edinburgh Magazine.

            So, with all due respect to the publisher, we will ask, “Who are you, Mr. Burns?” Carol McGuirk, noted Burns scholar, succinctly says, “Robert Burns is the only great poet ever to emerge from the British peasant class.”(8)  Yet, he must have done something right since 10,000 people lined the streets of Dumfries for his funeral. I’ve even seen estimates of 12,000 people attending. But, before we get too carried away with the fact that so many people attended the good Bard’s funeral, let’s remember that just last month, the Belfast authorities were estimating that a crowd of 500,000 was expected for the funeral of the footballer, George Best!(9)

“Yes, who are you Mr. Burns?” to have libraries with 5,000 or more books on or about you like the Mitchell in Glasgow and the Thomas Cooper in Columbia, SC       that houses the Ross Roy Collection.

What do we call you, Mr. Burns?

Your dear friend, William Nicol, that gifted and irascible Latin teacher you once named a son after, addressed you in a letter as “Dear Christless Bobie”. I believe it is the only time that anyone ever called you “Bobbie”. Help me, Mr. Burns. What do we call you? Some of your friends called you “Robert” or “Robbie”.  Others maybe a little closer to you called you various names like “Rob”, “Rab”, “Rabbie”, or “Robin”. Some today get upset if anyone ever dares call him “Bobie”. However, and more interesting, nothing that I can find has ever been said or written about Nicol calling him “Christless”.(10)

Burns had another detractor or critic during his lifetime named James Paisely, who in 1788 published a book entitled Animadversions of Some Poets and Poetasters of the Present Age, Especially R____B____. Paisely wasted no time in calling Burns “an infidel poet” and “a champion of Satan”.(11) Funny, the only reason Paisley is remembered today is because there was a Robert Burns for him to attack. Some people think they can only turn their lights brighter by dimming the lights of someone else. This is an excellent case!

Even those who should have known better took shots at Burns.

In 1956, at the St. Louis Burns Club, noted for publishing the Immortal Memory of their guest speakers, Michael Gerard said: “One of the dullest and mosy unsympathetic accounts of Burns was written by a fellow Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the reason for his failure may be found in his confession. “I made a kind of chronological table of his (Burns) various loves and lusts, and have been comparatively speechless ever since’”.(12)

Whatever the sins of Mr. Burns, and God knows there were many, of which he acknowledged, I find the statement by Stevenson somewhat hypocritical since this is the same man who pursued a married woman half way round the world.

Stevenson did publish an article on Burns in 1879 that became widely known. What a lot of people do not know, however, is that in 1875 he wrote an article for the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that the editors rejected. Interestingly, it was turned down because the essay conveyed a “view of the poet that was too critical of Burns” and was “not in accordance with the accepted Scotch tradition.” The earlier article has haunted Stevenson even until this day.

Writing in the 1947 issue of The Burns Chronicle, A. Angus says, “Stevenson’s lack of charity in dealing with Burns had its own retribution as it turned many of his country against him. To some extent it may be responsible for the opposition that arose to the proposal for a memorial to him after his death.”(13)

I have been all over Scotland and never seen a statue of Stevenson, but I have seen many of Burns and a few of Sir Walter Scott. I am aware of some statues of the characters from the books of Stevenson being unveiled in the recent past, and I’ve been made aware of the statue of Stevenson in San Francisco. Recently I learned of the Robert Louis Stevenson Edinburgh Club, and their feeling is that “the question of a statue is complicated and sensitive” in that a “lobby feels he did not approve of statues”. Instead, there is a memorial to Stevenson to help children with respiratory problems, which in my book is most commendable! There is a most worthy book entitled The Edinburgh Literary Companion by Andrew Lownie that tells of Stevenson being honored in the Princes Street Gardens. “The gardens have several literary memorials including one to Robert Louis Stevenson - A Grove of Birch Trees Designed by Ian Hamilton Findlay, artist and poet”.(14)

I do not want to sound uncharitable to Stevenson. I read him and currently have 65 books on or about him in my library. Factual matters can be shared or stated and still accept the scholarship and genius of Stevenson. One of the complaints about some Burnsians and Burns Clubs is they gloss over the shortcomings of Burns. I do not. I accept him as the person he was in life, poetry, and song. I will do the same with any writer or poet, including Stevenson.

Another writer who should have known better was Principal Sharp who wrote about Burns in a less than flattering manner. Two quick references suffice at this time. First, of Holy Willie’s Prayer, Sharp said, “Those who have loved most what was best in Burns’s poetry must have regretted that it was ever written.” Secondly, Sharp says of the Jolly Beggars that it is “strange not to say pitiful”…“that the same hand which wrote the Cotter’s Saturday Night should have stooped to write the Jolly Beggars.”(15)

Burns, once again, had his detractors during his lifetime, but he never let that bother him. He has had detractors many times since his untimely death in 1796. Yet, I know of no poet or writer that is lionized today with meetings in their honor like those of Burns, and I am not just talking of the January 25th Annual Burns Night Dinners. For example, our own Atlanta Burns Club, founded in 1896, meets the first Monday of each month, rain or shine!

What are you to others, Mr. Burns?

Let’s look at two men who were book collectors. Carl Sandburg tells us in his Lincoln Collector they were Oliver Barret, the great book collector, and Charles Gunther, a candy manufacturer and book collector. This is not only a classic portraiture of book collectors, but it is a story about Burns’ writing. Barrett saw a manuscript in the handwriting of Robert Burns and they were the verses to Auld Lang Syne. The conversation goes something like this:

Barrett: “I want this ‘Auld Lang Syne’.”

Gunther: “I know how you feel. I went over to England and I got it and I had to pay a lot of money for it.”

Barrett: “I want it now. You know how it feels to have it, and I don’t know how it feels.”

Gunther: “I will sell you this ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and you write out the receipt that any time I want it, I can buy it back at the same price.” Barrett took it home.

A week later Gunther was on the phone saying:

“Bring back the ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ You know, I haven’t been able to sleep. I
hear the waves of Lake Michigan pounding at night and I think about it, and
now it is gone and I am not going to last many years. Let me have it back”.
(16)

What do you think of when you think of Burns?

When you think of Burns, what comes to mind? Is it his love for whisky? Women? Mankind? Poetry? Children, both in and out of wedlock? For me, I will narrow it down to one word. PASSION. Burns had passion. Passion for all he did in life, particularly for his poems, songs, wife, country, whisky, children, women, fellow-an and his fellow Masons.  Plain and simple, Burns was a passionate man. Without passion he would not have been the Robert Burns we know.

It is said that long ago the Greeks did not write obituaries. They asked only one question: “Did he have passion”? It was with passion that Burns defied his father to attend the dancing hall that caused a breech between the two that even death could not remove. Rab was a rebel with a cause and he had a rebellious streak a mile wide.

It was with passion that Burns wrote poetry about his heroes - Wallace, Bruce and the Stuarts. It was with passion that he would stand up for his beliefs. It was with passion that Burns displayed a defiant spirit as evidenced early in life with his long hair in a knot. He was a man of passion for his fellowman and could write:

“While we sing, God save the king,
We’ll nae forget the people.”

He was called by many a “people’s poet”.  He was very much a social person enjoying the company of men and women. In the Border and Highland trips he recorded, it is evident that a most important aspect of his trips was the enjoyment of meeting the people. 

Two of his characteristics standout for me.

First, the fierce love of his native land. This seems to be every native son’s dominant characteristic. I’ve never met a Scotsman who did not express great love for his “auld country”. Look around you tonight at Eddie Morgan or Billy Hutton, and you will find their native land is a common characteristic among them.

Secondly, his love of freedom stands out. If there ever was a man who hated tyranny or hated oppression of any kind, that man was Robert Burns. He wrote of independence for both France and America.

Regarding the American Congress of 1776, Burns wrote, “that the fourth of July will be as famous to their posterity as the fifth of November”. That will send you running to your history books to find out I am talking about Guy Fawkes Day, which is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires. This was a misguided attempt to kill the king and Parliament with a huge explosion to rid the country of its Protestant rulers and restore the Catholic faith. But, the big difference between the two celebrations is we celebrate victory and they celebrate failure.  

Once at a banquet Burns was asked to drink to the health of Prime Minister Pitt. He replied, “I will give you a better toast - George Washington.” Coupled with other things that he had said, done or written, whispers abounded that he was a traitor. How dare they say the author of “Scots Wha Hae with Wallace Bled” is a traitor!

My Personal Pilgrimage

I began my Scottish pilgrimage or quest about 15 or years ago, late in life sadly. But, once I found out about my Scottish heritage that comes from the lovely Isle of Jura, once I found out that Scottish blood courses through my veins, I have gone full speed. However, that is nothing new for me because I have always considered myself an average man, and I have had to run hard all my life to catch up with whatever dream I was chasing or whatever devil I was fleeing!

One of my passions is books. When I began my Scottish journey, I bought books on or about Scotland. I bought all kinds of Scottish books. I devoured many of them and wanted the rest for future research and study. After all that is what a library is for. Today there are 3,000 Scottish books in my home. When I fell in love with Burns, and that is what I did unashamedly, I bought books on Burns and devoured a lot of them. Today there is a room adjacent to my library/office that is the Burns Room and contains over 900 books on or about Burns.

Not satisfied with just reading about Scotland and Burns, Susan and I have been to Scotland time after time, totaling 15 trips. We went to see for ourselves the things we read about. We have owned land in Scotland and still have a wee patch. More importantly, we have friends in Scotland, and we do more than swap Christmas cards. They add meaning to our Scottish quest. Their joy as well as their pain is ours. I have brought or had shipped back to Atlanta more Scottish books than the law should allow. Scotland is our Auld Country, too.

I’ve stood in the room where Burns died wondering about this man of the people, this “People Poet” and could only ask as others have before me…

Can you imagine Scotland without Burns?

Can you imagine Burns without passion?

Conclusion:

 

I want to thank my dear friend Beth Gay, Editor of The Family Tree, which is found on www.electricscotland.com, for sharing this illustration with me. There is an old Mexican tradition concerning death that says you die three times:

Once - when you cease to breathe
Once - when you are buried
Once - when your name is never spoken or mentioned again on earth

That is to say, you still live as long as your name is spoken and remembered on earth. Do you think the name of Robert Burns will cease to be spoken or remembered? Burns will never experience the third death!(17)

In a chorus by Handel are these words…

“His body is buried in peace-
But his name lives forever”

Elton John, a sometime Atlanta resident over at Park Place, played and sang “Norma Jean” at the funeral of Princess Diana at Westminster Abbey, and I actually heard it this afternoon while getting ready to come to the Burns Cottage tonight. It goes…

“Your candle burned out long ago,
Before your legend ever did
I would have liked to have known you…”

Let me be clear that I look forward to meeting Robert Burns one day. Since he is the poet of the people, the “people’s poet”, we should get along okay. But, I’m not in a hurry to meet him, not right away!

Finally, the New Testament of Hebrews says in 11:4…

“He, being dead, yet speaketh” (King James Version)

       “He, being dead, still speaks”    (Modern Version)

I’ve said all of this to say to you that the name of Robert Burns will never die! He still speaks!

It is to Robert Burns:

A man of passion;

A man of freedom and independence;

A man of verse and song;

A man of the people;

It is to Scotland’s native son and national bard

That I ask you to stand, charge your glasses, TO THE IMMORTAL MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS, the “People’s Poet”!  (FRS: 2-6-2006)

 


(1) The Truth About Burns, D. McNaught, p. 202

(2) Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, Robert Crawford, Ed., p. x

(3) Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance, Duncan Glem, p. 103

(4) Ibid, p. 180

(5) Ibid, p. 40

(6) Immortal Memories, John Cairney, pp. 254-257

(7) Early Critical Reviews of Robert Burns, James D. Ross, p. vii

(8) Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era, Carol McGuirk, p. xiii

(9) UK NEWS, November 26, 2005

(10) Robert Burns The Man and The Poet, Robert T. Fitzhugh. p. 1

(11) Carswell, The Life of Robert Burns, p. 327

(12) Cairney, p. 223

(13) The Burns Chronicle, 1947, pp. 44-45

(14) The Edinburgh Literary Companion, Andrew Lownie, p. 74

(15) Familiar Studies of Men and Books, Robert Louis Stevenson, pp. 35-36

(16) A Passion for Books, Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, pp. 260-261

(17) The Great Scots Newsletter, Beth Gay, Vol. 2, Issue 2, p. 2