Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
It is a joy to welcome retired Professor
Patrick Scott back to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! He has and will
continue to be a great supporter of RBL, and I attribute much of the
success of this website over the years to him and several writers like
him. A hearty thanks to Patrick who has proven to be not only a great
contributor to our site but a wonderful friend of mine. He is one of the
finest scholars around and a man who is a friend to my entire family.
Thanks again, Patrick! (FRS: 4.13.17)
Patrick explained that this is an expanded and revised version of his
briefer notice of the book in the last Studies in Scottish Literature.
He writes: “I felt that I had not brought out sufficiently the interest
and importance of Christopher Whatley’s book, and that it deserved
fuller discussion.” Christopher Whatley is Professor of History at the
University of Dundee, and his new book was published this past November
by John Donald, an imprint of the Edinburgh publisher Birlinn. He
contributed an earlier article titled “Robert Burns: Patrician Protégé,
People’s Poet” was included on Robert Burns Lives!, as no. 139 (May
2012), which gives fuller biographical information. (P. Scott: 4.13.17)
How the Victorians Monumentalized Robert
Christopher Whatley’s Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People
reviewed by Patrick Scott
Christopher Whatley’s new book on how the
Victorians quite literally made a monument out of Robert Burns may seem
secondary to the study of Burns himself, and its major focus, on public
statuary, might seem a mere side-issue to his achievement as a poet. But
Professor Whatley’s book has a fresh and distinctive perspective to
offer. The main historical phenomenon is surely known to most Burnsians:
Burns was famous, and admirers around the world used public statues to
demonstrate how important he was. Professor Whatley’s book brings to the
table a large number of new case studies of the Victorian
memorialization of Burns, but accounts of Burns’s 19th century
popularity are certainly not lacking. One thinks of Donald Low on the
Critical Heritage, James Mackay on Burnsiana, Robert Crawford and others
on the American reception, more recently Carol McGuirk and Corey Andrews
on the construction of Burns as literary icon, Thomas Keith on American
Burnsian statuary and Mauchline ware, Whatley’s own major project with
Murray Pittock and Pauline Mackay on the Burnsian material heritage (on
which this book draws), and much else besides. Bill Dawson’s index to
the Burns Chronicle has over five pages of entries for articles on
statuary and monuments. Some readers may perhaps feel it unlikely that
the picture will be significantly altered by accumulating further
detail, and the book’s opening pages, an awestruck account of the huge
crowds at the 1877 unveiling of the Glasgow Burns statue, illustrate the
risks of this kind of study—as the evidence piles up, statue by statue,
the impact of further crowds, however huge, diminishes.
Professor Whatley’s special contribution,
however, is to write as an historian, alert to the wider currents of
social change within which Burns became a very malleable national icon.
He has got a lot of new information, and his adroit summaries of major
celebrations and speeches draw both on manuscript materials and on
newly-accessible accounts from contemporary newspapers. But most of what
has been published by earlier researchers has left us with a patchwork
of individual examples, rather than an overarching story, and Professor
Whatley’s book puts the separate cases in context, providing a useful
sense of how much changed from decade to decade. The perspective that he
provides on Victorian attitudes often comes from shrewd quiet irony
rather than from direct discussion, but the narrative is based in
detailed understanding of the differences in each city or town and of
each historical moment where and when a new statue was to be erected.
The endnotes reveal how much Whatley’s account is underpinned by recent
historical scholarship. It is worth noting that Whatley’s study focuses
solely on the memorialization of Burns in Scotland itself, rather than
globally, but the level of historical context he gives would be
dissipated if he had widened the focus to the Scots outside Scotland and
the Burns monuments that they erected.
The story Whatley tells centers on the
continuing tension between Burns as the icon of the common man and Burns
as icon of a relatively class-less Scottish identity. On the one side
there are the immense crowds of voteless working men who flocked and
marched in procession to each unveiling, and who had often contributed
money to the projects in multiple small donations through their unions
or lodges. These were the crowds who celebrated Burns and stood
patiently looking on during lengthy orations delivered without the aid
of sound systems. On the other side are the earnest committeemen, and
local boosters, the provosts and baillies, who might initiate a project,
and the wealthy or aristocratic patrons who encouraged it and maybe
seemed to take it over. It was this second group, itself quite mixed and
not always harmonious, who after each unveiling attended lengthy formal
dinners to toast each other in mutual self-congratulation. Making a
statue actually happen involved uneasy interaction or jostling among all
these groups. What Whatley focuses on is what motivated each group in
backing the public celebration of Robert Burns.
Crowds at the Burns Monument, Alloway, for the Celebration in 1844
Engraving from the Illustrated London News,
Courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection, University of South Carolina
Separate chapters of Whatley’s book explore
the way Burns was claimed or fought over in successive generations, and
the chapter titles usually pick out one specific theme (Toryism,
Chartism, Religion, socialism). In practice the chapters range more
widely. It seems worth providing a chapter by chapter summary, as some
of the most original and interesting sections are on topics not
reflected in the relevant chapter title.
After a broad-ranging introduction, chapter 1 examines the role played
in some of the earliest celebrations by Scottish landowners, often Tory
in politics. Burns was the poet of a hardworking Scottish “peasantry,”
and Scottishness was identified with the agriculturally-based and
a-political lifestyle he depicted in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”
Whatley highlights this attitude in a detailed discussion of the Burns
festival at Alloway in August 1844, organized in part as an answer to
growing local political unrest by the fiercely-Tory essayist John Wilson
and a local Ayrshire aristocrat the Earl of Eglinton (who had previously
organized the notorious mock medieval Eglinton Tournament). However,
Wilson and Eglinton’s formal celebration with invited orators at the
Burns Monument was confronted by the banners and processions of more
radical urban Burnsians who arrived in Ayr on special trains or by
steamer down the coast, marching from Ayr to Alloway to reclaim Burns
for their own class.
Ch. 2 follows up this contrast by exploring how political reformers in
the 1830s had stressed Burns’s radicalism, not only in well-known songs
such as “Is there for honest poverty,” but also in items newly recovered
or attributed to Burns, but of less certain authorship, such as “Why
should we idly waste our time,” first published by Cunningham in 1834,
and “The Tree of Liberty,” first published by Robert Chambers in 1838.
The economic hardships of the late 1830s, and the “hungry forties,”
encouraged this focus, which became associated with the Chartist
movement, backers of universal suffrage, or one man one vote. In a
period of social flux and unrest, even in rural Scotland, not only
Burns’s politics, but his celebration of working-class sociability, and
his astringent anticlericalism, also struck a chord. And his poems also
provided a model to countless aspirant poets for whom vernacular Scots
was the language of the people. While neither of these first two
chapters is dealing with material that is completely new, both have a
depth and nuance that is welcome on topics that are sometimes
In chapter 3, Whatley looks at the Burns centenary celebration in
January 1859, and at the many different celebrations held throughout
Scotland and elsewhere. On January 25 that year there were fifteen
celebratory events in Edinburgh alone, including a formal banquet with
the Lord Provost attended by 700 people, a total abstinence Burns dinner
that attracted 1500 attendees, and a Working Man’s Festival that drew
2000). Whateley’s initial focus is on the continuing social tensions in
the Burns movement, expressed in rival radical and Tory celebrations in
many towns, and on the differing extent of male exclusivity at events.
But in the brief final section of the chapter (pp. 87-92), he takes up a
topic that has not, as far as I know, been treated seriously in the
earlier Burnsian literature: this is the resistance, even hostility, to
Burns of many Scottish religious believers. For most books about Burns,
it is axiomatic that Burns’s kirk satires were justifiable attacks on
clerical pretension and religious hypocrisy. But Burnsian celebrations
provoked criticism not only from ministers, but from the total
abstainers in their congregations. Whatley looks at both sides in the
debate, showing that in the mid-19th century such vocal pro-Burnsian
clerics as George Gilfillan and Peter Hateley Waddell were still in the
Chapter 4 moves from looking at the wider social picture to a more
granular examination of the men (nearly always men) who promoted Burns
and Burns monuments at a local level. It looks first at the emergence of
local Burns Clubs, and annual dinners rather than grand banquets for
special events, and then it turns to the motivation of the civic fathers
who promoted a Burns statue as a necessary marker of their community’s
importance. As Professor Whatley points out, civic pride was an
important factor in the near-universal decision by the committees to
commission original statues newly sculpted for their town alone, rather
than a copy or duplicate casting of a statue elsewhere. At some level,
of course, almost all Victorian Burns statues recognizably derive from
the full-length Nasmyth portrait (how else would they seem life-like?),
but those who commissioned them also wanted their town to have a statue
that was unique.
Chapter 5 (“Keeping the lid on the Burns genie”) and Chapter 6 (“Burns,
Scotland and socialism”) look at the different perspectives late
Victorian orators drew from the same poet. Very often those in charge of
commemorative events quoted Burns on brotherhood as expressing the
disappearance or irrelevance of class conflict (ch. 5), while Scots
involved in, for instance, the campaign for crofters’ rights or the
emergent socialist movement in urban Scotland quoted the same lines as
showing his identification with working-class Scots and condemned much
middle-class commentary on Burns as mere sentimentalism. One might note
that among politicians speechifying about Burns one can find not only
the Scottish socialist leader Keir Hardie and the first British Labour
prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, also a Scot, but also a Scottish
Liberal prime minister, landowner, and book collector, Lord Rosebery. In
Whatley’s trenchant phrase, “in turn the parties hijacked Burns for
their own purposes” (p. 162).
Ch. 6 also includes two of the interesting subtopics that don’t show up
in chapter titles. Both concern the quest for the “real Burns,” if not
necessarily the most realistic Burns. One is the story of Scottish
reaction against some of the late Victorian Burns statues commissioned
from London-based sculptors, most notably F. W. Pomeroy’s statue for
Paisley. In 1895, an anonymous article in the Burns Chronicle by “An Art
Student” asserts “in most of the statues of Burns, the art has not
equaled the enthusiasm” (quoted p. 150). The spotlight in this section
is on the splendidly-named Edinburgh sculptor, painter, poet, and
nationalist James Pittendrigh McGillivray (1856-1938), one of the
“Glasgow Boys” who upended Scottish art in the 1890s. As an apprentice
in the 1870s McGillivray had worked on statues of Thomas Campbell and
David Livingstone, but his Robert Burns for Irvine was his first major
independent commission. “Burns by an Englishman is impossible,” he wrote
(p. 153), but even among his Scottish predecessors, he approved only of
two early nineteenth-century stonemasons, John Greenshields and William
Thom. Breaking free from the expectation that Burns must look like
Nasmyth’s portrait, McGillivray set out to portray a Burns “who
personified the ‘soul’ of Scotland, the ‘world spirit’ of which ‘was not
really born till Burns touched his eyes’” (quoted p, 155). This kind of
nationalist idealism was a slippery slope. By the 1920s, Whatley tells
us, McGillivray was hailing Burns as “social revolution incarnate,” a
“potential Mussolini with, in the browbeaten Scotland of his day, little
stuff out of which to make black shirts” (ibid.)
More mainstream Burnsians also wanted to find the “real Burns,” and
sometimes this involved being selective about the facts of Burns’s life
or the range of his oeuvre. The Burns Federation, and the Burns
Chronicle itself, certainly played an important (if not always
wholehearted) role in promoting a more realistic Burns, without in any
way espousing a radical Burns. Nonetheless it was a conservative
critique of Burns, William Ernest Henley’s essay on Burns in the
Henley-Henderson Centenary edition (1896), that drew the Federation’s
particular ire (see Whatley’s comments on p. 159). As we all know, the
research in the Henley-Henderson edition remains immensely valuable, if
not infallible, and Henley, like his collaborator T. F. Henderson, fully
recognized the genius of Burns as vernacular poet, but the Federation
could not forgive any criticism of Burns the man.
Whatley’s brief and elegiac concluding chapter 7, on Burns in the 20th
and 21st centuries, starts, as one might expect, with the disparagement
of the Burns cult in the modern Scottish Renaissance, and with the Burns
Federation response to MacDiarmid’s scathing satire in A Drunk Man Looks
at the Thistle. He proceeds to discuss the development of the Burns
brand for tourism and other commercial purposes, and the continuing and
unquestioned use of Burns as an almost-nonpartisan national icon (in,
for instance, the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999). He
contrasts that omnipresent commercial image of Burns with the relative
neglect of the surviving Burns statues. There is indeed a very striking
contrast to be made between the huge and ebullient crowds in the
Victorian photos with the much smaller groups of generally elderly
Burnsians in photos from annual wreath-layings in the 21st century.
Whatley takes this contrast as emblematic that Burns no longer actually
holds the Scottish public imagination. This chapter seems the most
likely to attract debate or dissent from Burnsians, but it merits
This is an important book. Whatley has much to say to non-Burnsians and
those interested in post-Burns Scottish culture. His book should be
required reading for anyone interested in the back-story to how Scottish
cultural identity developed in the Victorian period. For Burnsians, this
book fills out what was already known about 19th century Scottish
attitudes to Burns, and every Burnsian reader who perseveres will find
material that is new. It brings together in a very modestly-priced
volume a huge amount of scattered information on individual statues and
events that is quite difficult to obtain from other sources; earlier
locally-produced books are often not even in major libraries, modern
scholarly articles are often limited to expensive subscription-based
sites, and most modern scholarly books are absurdly expensive. Spread
through Whatley’s pages is a distinctive argument about the period, a
story of the recurrent strength of the people’s voice in 19th century
Scotland, even when excluded from formal political power, and the role
not just of Burns himself as symbol, but of his poems and songs in
articulating the hopes and aspirations of subsequent generations.
Immortal Memories is readably written, and based on wide research, and
can be warmly recommended.
Details about the book:
Author: Christopher A. Whatley
Title: Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People.
Publisher: Edinburgh: John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn, 2016.
Pp. xii + 244. Paperback, £14.99. ISBN 97819110900086.
“An Art Student,” “Statues of Burns,” Burns Chronicle, 1st series 5
Corey Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: the Cultural Production of Robert
Burns, 1785-1834 (Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi, 2015).
Robert Crawford, in Sharon Alker, Leith Davis, and Holly Faith Nelson,
eds., Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012),
Edward Goodwillie, The World’s Memorials of Robert Burns (Detroit,
Thomas Keith, “Burns statues in North America, a survey,” in G. Ross
Roy, ed., Robert Burns in America (Kirkcaldy: Akros, 2001), 22-33.
____________, and David Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware: A Collector’s
Guide (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002).
Sofiane Kennouche, “The History of Robert Burns Statues around the
World,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 231 (January 26, 2016):
Donald A. Low, ed., Robert Burns: the Critical Heritage (London:
Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1974)..
Carol McGuirk, Reading Robert Burns: Texts, Contexts, Transformations
(London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014).
James Mackay, Burnsiana (Ayr: Alloway Publications, 1988).
Pauline Mackay, “Robert Burns Beyond Text: Introducing a New Resource
for Robert Burns Research,” Burns Chronicle (Spring 2011): 42-43.
______________, “Objects of Desire: Robert Burns the “Man’s man” and
material culture,” Anglistik, 23 (2012): 27-39.
Murray Pittock, “Burns: Monument and Memory,” Robert Burns Lives!, no.
225 (October 21, 2015):
_____________ and Pauline Mackay, “Beyond Text: Burns, Byron and their
material cultural afterlife,” Byron Journal, 39 (2011): 149-162.
______________ and Christopher Whatley, “Poems and festivals, art and
artefact, and the commemoration of Robert Burns, c. 1844-c. 1896,”
Scottish Historical Review, 93 (2014): 56-79.
Christopher Whatley, “Burns, the People’s Poet, and Dundee?,” in Kirsty
Gunn and Anna Day, eds., For a’ That: A Celebration of Burns (Dundee:
Dundee University Press, 2009), 68-76.
_________________, “Robert Burns, Patrician Protégé, People’s Poet,” BBC
History Magazine (January 2011); repr. Robert Burns Lives!, no. 139 (May
_________________, “Robert Burns, Memorialization, and the ‘Heart
Beatings’ of Victorian Scotland,” in Murray Pittock, ed., Robert Burns
in Global Culture (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 224-260.
_________________, “’It is said that Burns was a Radical’: Contest,
Concession and the Political Legacy of Robert Burns, ca. 1796-1859,”
Journal of British Studies, 50 (2011): 639-666.
_________________, “Serendipity and a stature: Dundee, Robert Burns, and
‘a monument worthy of Scotland,” in P.R. Rossner, ed., Cities: Coins:
Commerce (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012), 175-186.
_________________, “Transatlantic Reception and Commemoration of the
‘Poet of the Scotch,’” in P. Westover and A. W. Rowland, eds.,
Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century
(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 237-265.
_________________, “Local History and the Nation: Commemorating Robert
Burns, 1859-1914,” Scottish Local History, 96 (2017): 3-9.
Robin L. Woodward, “MacGillivray, (James) Pittendrigh (1856–1938),”
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004).