Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
Scottish poet Alan Bold would be very proud
of his daughter Valentina who has studied and worked among the teachings
of Robert Burns as he himself did. As stated in an earlier introduction
of Valentina (Chapter 89, June 2010), she walks among the world’s
Scottish giants in the research, productivity and teaching of Burns. I
have read and studied her work and always come away feeling I have been
listening to a close friend of the Bard’s.
A couple of years back Susan and I were privileged to hear her
presentation at the annual Burns conference at the University of
Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. Needless to say she is one of
the speakers I continue to remember years down the road, as I am doing
now. It is good to have her return to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!
Valentina, you are welcome to come back anytime. (FRS: 9.21.16)
The Immortal Memory: Befriending Robert Burns
By Dr. Valentina Bold
Dr Valentina Bold FSA Scot
I am delighted to be here tonight, to celebrate the
Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, in such convivial, distinguished, company. I am
very pleased to have the opportunity to appreciate Burns with the Dumfries &
Galloway Befriending Project, which makes such a difference to people across
this region. The aims of Befriending, of ‘enriching young lives through offering
friendship, consistency, empathy and diverse experiences’, seem particularly
compatible with a consideration of Burns’s life and work.
In celebrating the Immortal Memory of this great poet, songwriter and scholar,
rather than taking the obvious route of listing his many achievements, I want to
reflect on own experience of befriending Burns. I’d like to suggest why I think
his memory should be immortal, both to us as individuals and to our wider
community, and invite you to think about what Burns means to you, at a personal
I should confess at the outset that my literary relationship with Burns did not
get off to a good start. I was, initially, a reluctant acquaintance. I neither
exhibited, nor strove towards, empathy for Burns, and I was inconsistent in my
feelings for him. When I started publishing on Scottish literature, in my 20s, I
was arrogant enough to think I knew better than to waste time and energy on
Burns. I felt strongly that Burns and, to a lesser extent Scott, overshadowed
many important, ‘lesser’ Scottish writers. I wanted to speak up for the
undervalued and the unappreciated. I still hold that position to some
extent—although not, now, to the exclusion of Burns.
As a critic, I have always preferred underdogs, particularly those who, unlike
myself, have not enjoyed a formal education and so had to fight hard to be
recognised by those who enjoy advantages in life. I suppose, to that extent, I
was predisposed to liking Burns. However, I preferred lesser known poets like
the ‘Scotch Milkmaid’, Janet Little, born the same year as Burns at Nether
Bogside, by Ecclefechan. She worked as head dairymaid at Loudon castle, sharing
a patron with Burns in Mrs Dunlop. Despite some shared experiences, Burns was
not a particular friend to Little. He had heard of her, and ‘always to the
honour of her character’ but refused to promote her work. Little, in turn, wrote
scathingly of critics who could tolerate a ‘lesson to the heart’ from a
‘ploughman’ but not a ‘rustic country quean’: ‘A milk maid poem books to print;
/ Mair fit she wad her dairy tent’. Then there was James Hogg, the Ettrick
shepherd, who considered himself a writer in direct descent from Burns. His
poetry was far more palatable to my own taste. Burns, from my point of view then
was too much of a celebrity poet to deserve friendship; Little and Hogg were
more my kind of writers. What, more to the point, was there left to say about
I soon had to find out. When I came to live in Dumfries in 1999, as one of the
first five lecturers appointed by Glasgow University at the Crichton, I was
often asked to speak about Burns. In my talks, I would make an assiduous point
of saying something about Burns and then moving swiftly off topic, to speak up
for those other, neglected poets, like those I’ve mentioned. This must have been
extremely irritating for those who were expecting to hear about Burns, both as a
friend and poetic icon. If I offended, or at least annoyed, anyone here tonight,
please accept my apology now.
It was an exciting time though—for Scotland as well as for me—with the new
Scottish parliament. The work of Burns seemed so well tuned to this development.
I remember interviewing various people a couple of years later, to write a piece
about the performance of ‘A Man’s A Man’ by Sheena Wellington on the occasion of
the opening of the parliament. She felt its significance for folk music as well
as politically, and recalled a remark from Dalbeattie resident Phyllis Martin,
who appreciated ‘somebody ordinary’ singing then. Sheena understood this to
mean, ‘I had done the biz for the music in the feeling of my peers, as it were,
[which] was great’.
With such high-level recommendations it felt, at times, as if I was being shoved
towards Burns, by my work, my place and, arguably, by fate. At that time I was
becoming interested in other South West writers, particularly James Barke, so I
approached Luath Press about editing his ‘Immortal Memory’ series for
publication in 2009. They said yes but, unfortunately for me, Alan Taylor had
the same idea.
Luath suggested that, instead, I should edit a new edition of Burns’s Merry
Muses of Caledonia. Engaging with these bawdy texts gave me a new insight into
Burns as a holistic writer, who celebrated poetry and song in whatever form.
Partly, this was a pose. In circulating erotic material, in manuscript, to
trusted friends—Provost Maxwell of Lochmaben, or John McMurdo of Drumlanrig.
Burns sought to flatter—he hinted at their broad-mindedness. Equally, he
showcased himself a gentleman collector of risqué materials; worthy of
befriending by self-styled social superiors.
The songs of the Merry Muses made me think of Burns, perhaps paradoxically, more
kindly. They represent the worldview of the eighteenth century drinking club.
They are a relatively tame group of texts, playfully designed for consumption by
men. They have their own characteristics, for instance they highly rhythmic,
reflecting the actions they describe, and use easily-understood euphemisms.
There is the statement, for instance, in ‘Ye Hae Lien Wrang Lassie’, ‘Ye’ve let
the pounie o’er the dyke, / And he’s been in the corn, lassie’. That song is
still one of my favourites, taking an empathetic view to the still-relevant
topic of unexpected teenage pregnancy.
Having learnt to appreciate Burns’s worldiness, I came to a better understanding
of his skill as a collector of traditional songs, and of his contributions to
the tradition. I built a stronger friendship with the poet, and felt comfortable
participating in the first Homecoming Year in 2009, where conferences and
gatherings throughout the world welcomed his international community of
admirers. I must credit, too, my long-standing friendship with Gerry Carruthers,
co-director of Glasgow University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and with
senior scholars like the late Ross Roy and the still living Robert Crawford. The
community of friendship around Burns appreciation, as we see tonight, itself
deserves appreciation. In short, I’ve come to rethink my previous opinions about
Burns for what they were: plain stupid. To make amends, I offer my hand now,
with a touch of embarrassment, to Burns—his was always outstretched in
I appreciate that Burns’s work—as a poet, song writer, and collector—is, quite
simply, magnificent. His memory fully deserves to be immortal. For one thing, he
is a chameleon in his writing. We can take the experiences that we want from
Burns’s work, much as we can from a good friendship. His poetry is, in many
ways, almost interactive, full of universal meanings, of value as individuals.
There is the love of fair play, delivered with a light hand in ‘The Rights of
Woman—spoken by Miss Fontenelle on her benefit night’ here in Dumfries in 1792:
‘While Europe’s eye is fixed on mighty things, / The Fate of Empires and the
fall of Kings; […] Amid this mighty fuss, just let me mention, / The Rights of
Woman merit some attention’. So, too, in ‘Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn’,
written a year later, Burns dismisses the ‘Chains and Slaverie’ of former times,
praising ‘Freedom’s sword’ and the right to ‘FREE-MAN stand, or FREE-Man fa’,
rejecting the ‘Oppression’ of ‘Tyrants’ in favour of ‘LIBERTY’.
This is not to say that Burns’s work can, or should, be reduced to simple sound
bites or viewed through superficial and casual acquaintance. Some people want to
do this. Around the 25th of January this year, for instance, I was approached by
a TV programme which was theming their Burns night slot around the referendum.
They had, the researcher told me, found someone to argue that Burns was a
nationalist—would I be prepared to take the other side and discuss him as a
unionist? I said no, largely because I don’t see Burns can be classed as either
one or the other.
Burns’s opinions are, from a twenty first century perspective, much harder to
pin down—partly because he kept his cards so close to his vulnerable chest. He
has to be seen in his late eighteenth-century context, almost a hundred years
after the Union of the Parliaments, and living through the changing times of the
French revolution, from the late 1780s onwards. If anything, he might be
described as what Grassic Gibbon termed a ‘cosmopolitan’: international in his
interests and eclectic in his politics, open to exploring new ideas rather than
to party agendas. To use another twentieth century quote, just as Hugh
MacDiarmid said of himself, echoing Walt Whitman, Burns could equally be
described as containing ‘multitudes’. He is what Kenneth Simpson called a
Burns is at once the poet who celebrated an international, almost
proto-communist vision in ‘A Man’s A Man’, as well as being the ‘company man’
treating his life in an implicitly self-deprecating way in 1792 in ‘The De’il’s
awa wi’ th’Exciseman’. He is the self-proclaimed and proud ‘Fornicator’, but he
is also the sentimental writer of ‘A Red, red rose’ and his own, sanitised ‘John
Anderson’. The scholarly song collector, who made such an impact in the Scots
Musical Museum enterprise is also the man of the ‘Sabine Rape’ incident at
Friars Carse in 1793.
I’ve talked at length about how I came to know Burns, centuries after his death,
and I’ll close with a few remarks on the privileged people who met him and
remembered him first hand. In his Life of Robert Burns the Nithsdale poet and
stonemason Allan Cunningham, who shared Burns’s enthusiasm for the songs and
cultural traditions of South West Scotland, expressed a real empathetic
affinity. As a child, Cunningham heard the first public reading of ‘Tam
O’Shanter’, at his father’s home at Sandbed, by Ellisland. He wrote of Burns’s
in Nithsdale as a happy combination of ‘ready materials for song: hills with
fine woods, vales with clear waters’ as well as ‘dames as lovely as any recorded
in verse’ and ‘characters, in whose faces originality was legibly written’.
Cunningham states that:
[Burns] did not limit himself
to the charms of those whom he could
step out to the walks and admire: his lyrics give evidence of the
wandering of his thoughts to the distant or the dead […] to the
charms of lasses with golden or with flaxen locks […] The poet’s
favourite walk in composing his songs was on a beautiful green sward
on the northern side of the Nith, opposite Lincluden; and his favourite
posture for composition at home was balancing himself on the hind-legs
of his arm-chair.
In his fellow poet, Cunningham
recognised an awareness of a community of Nithsdale people which stretched from
the past to the present and linked tradition and place into a very special
Burns had a very special relationship with this area, and its folk, celebrated
explicitly in works like ‘The Banks of the Nith’:
How lovely, Nith, thy
Where bounding hawthorns gaily bloom […]
May there my latest hours consume,
Amang the friends of early days!
We should never apologise, then,
for claiming Burns for Dumfriesshire, despite his Ayrshire origins. He felt a
genuine affection for this place and its people, as special, supportive, and
affectionate: as a set, in other words, of empathetic friends. There is plenty
of evidence of his wider regional befriending. In a letter of June 1794, Burns
praised the ‘charmingly romantic & picturesque’ scenery around Dumfries. More
than that, he expressed his appreciation for the ‘honest men & bonie lasses’ he
knew in this ‘deserving & enchanting part of the kingdom’.
Burns’ Dumfriesshire is a place of genuine values: of honest people, and of
enduring moral—in a human sense—engagement. It sometimes seems to me that, like
J.M. Barrie (who described his time in Dumfries as ‘the happiest years of my
life’) that despite the anxieties that afflicted him, and the ill health he
suffered during his last years here, he found a peculiarly sustaining set of
friendships among Nithsdale and Dumfriesshire folk.
This is the region where he met ‘gowden-locked Anna’ of the Globe (1790) but it
is also where he engaged in happy family life. At the house on what is now Burns
street, he found peace with Jean Armour, who survived him until 1834. This
special woman kept alive his immortal memory in a very direct and personal way
for many people who knew and visited her, as a living link to Burns. Prior to
their marriage, Burns had shown unkindness to Armour, as in the infamous letter
to Agnes Maclehose, highlighting Armour’s ‘vulgarity of soul’. After they wed,
he was uniform in his praise for Jean, describing her as having ‘the handsomest
figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and kindest heart in the
Burns especially appreciated Jean’s singing voice, ‘the finest “wood-note wild”
you ever heard’. Songs like ‘It is na, Jean, thy bonnie face’ hints at a shared
love that went beyond the physical: ‘Something in ilka part o’ thee / To praise,
to love, I find, / But dear as is thy form to me, / Still dearer is thy mind’.
An early, passionate attachment developed into a close, affectionate, and
mutually nurturing relationship. Jean’s memory deserves celebration alongside
the immortal one of her husband.
To conclude, Befriending Burns, I think, takes energy, time and commitment. To
understand Burns’s work, specifically requires the qualities of ‘consistency’
and openness to ‘diverse experiences’ that Befriending promotes. I hope my talk
tonight encourages you to reflect on your own history of befriending Burns and
to think about why he matters in your life, as well as to Scotland, and to the
world. For his compassion, awareness of community, relationships with others
and, above all, his invitation to literary friendship, can I invite you, now, to
raise your glass, to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.