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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 24

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA,

Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns

There has been much written about these two literary giants individually over the years. Everyone has their favorite, but at this time in my studies, I’ll take them both like a coin with two sides. At my house, you cannot have one without the other.

Interestingly, one wrote many books and poems. The other wrote only one book of poetry although additional poems were added to later editions. One became rich from his writing and publishing while the other had to work a thankless job to provide a meager living for his family. One took ten years to build the house of his dreams and the other lived in farm houses or in town rental properties. One became bankrupt but worked himself out of insolvency while the other flirted with bankruptcy all of his life. One entertained his king at one of the biggest and grandest celebrations ever held in Scotland when one-seventh of the population of Scotland turned out to greet George IV. The other, as far as I know, never had the opportunity to look his king in the eye, much less sit at a meal with the king or be knighted by him.

Yet, the latter is far more celebrated annually by Scots around the world than the former. As to which is the best literary representative of Scotland, that will be left to the individual to decide. What I would like to do with this article is list various references regarding Sir Walter Scott’s deference, and love for Robert Burns.

            Most of us are familiar with the one time in history when Scott and Burns actually met and had a conversation. Scott, a mere lad of fifteen, met the twenty-seven-year-old Burns in the “winter of 1786-87” in Edinburgh while visiting in the home of his good friend, Adam Fergusson, where the movers and shakers of “Auld Reekie” met to lionize the newly discovered poet Burns, who would become known as Scotland’s National Bard, then and now. Scott recalls a second sighting of Burns in the streets of Edinburgh one day after their initial meeting, but there evidently was not an opportunity to speak.

Many years later, Scott wrote to his son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, that he recalled the poet’s eyes as they “glowed under the influence of feeling”. There must have been excitement in those eyes for Scott to recall and describe the scene so vividly. Scott went on to describe how self-confident Burns seemed in the presence of the city’s literati, and he writes of Burns’ appearance as an “old-time farmer”, all of which left an indelible impression on the young teenager. Scott referred to Burns as “the Boast of Scotland”.

Hesketh Pearson, in his wonderful book, Walter Scott, His Life and Personality, (published in 1954 and a book on Scott that I highly recommend to one and all) tells the story of an old school chum and business partner of Scott’s, James Ballytyne, asking Scott how his own genius compared to Robert Burns. Scott left no doubt that Burns was number one when he replied, “There is no comparison whatever: We ought not to be named in the same day.”

There is another great quote by Scott in Edgar Johnson’s definitive two volumes on Sir Walter Scott, The Great Unknown. I have used it for years in speeches and articles since it shows Scott’s true feeling about his older literary colleague: “Long life to thy fame and peace to thy soul, Rob Burns. When I want to express a sentiment which I feel strongly, I find the phrase in Shakespeare or thee.” Scott, always humble, went on to say, “The blockheads talk of my being like Shakespeare - not fit to tie his brogues.”

When Charles Robert Leslie, the painter commissioned by Professor George Ticknor of Harvard to paint a portrait of Scott, was working at Scott’s Abbotsford home, he asked if he would likely be able to meet with a haggis. Scott, ever the considerate host, replied, “I don’t know a more likely house than the one you are in” and Scott had a haggis prepared for the following evening. Later Leslie tells how, “holding out his hand over the dish, Scott recited Burns’s Address to the Chieftain of the Pudding Tribe, or To A Haggis. We do that at each Burns’ Night or, as my St. Andrew’s Society of Atlanta members like to say, “Burns Nicht”, a nice Scottish touch. Incidentally, Leslie played another part in Scott’s life when he carried a mourning ring to Scott which had been left to Sir Walter by none other than his good friend, Lord Byron. .

Another favorite quote of Burns that Scott often used was “Come, firm resolve, take thou the van/ Thou stalk of Carle-Hemp in man”. I haven’t taken the time to research its meaning, so I will let the Burns scholars sort that out.

Hesketh Pearson says “Of his (Scott’s) contemporaries his favourites were Joanna Baillie, Crabbe, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, and  Southey.” I wonder if Burns ever dreamed he would be included in such great literary company by one of Scotland’s top two or three greatest writers?

A son of Burns, home from India on leave, was once guest of honor at Abbotsford. He and his wife dined with Scott. Again the affable host invited the neighboring gentry for a special meal, and the crowd was so large they spilled out from the dining room into the library and Chinese drawing room. (This comes from Johnson’s Volume II, and I’ve never understood why someone who has written the definitive volume on Scott does not tell you which son of Burns was the honored guest.)

In the 1897 issue of the Robert Burns Chronicle, there is reference to thousands of items about, by, or belonging to Burns being exhibited in Glasgow. There was one item on loan from the Abbotsford Library that sparked a bit of excitement. It was a copy of a Burns book owned by Scott that he had written his name in.             

I will close with this notation even though it has nothing to do with Burns. I always like to point out that, unknown by many Americans or Scots for that matter,  Scott is remembered quite frequently in Washington, DC and any place the President of the United States of America goes where “Hail to the Chief” is played. It comes from The Lady of the Lake written by my favorite Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott.

If any of you have other references of Scott’s deference to Burns, please let me know at the above email, and I will include them in a future article on the two great Scots! Naturally, proper credit will be given. (Frank R. Shaw, 11-9-06)

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