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Robert Burns Lives!
"Inspiration on Inauguration Day" by Clark McGinn

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Several years ago, thanks to Walter Watson, then President of The Robert Burns World Federation, my wife Susan and I were luncheon guests of a dozen or so members of The Burns Club of London at the world renown Caledonian Club not far removed from the very heart of London. Walter had been our superb Burns Night speaker at our Atlanta Burns Club earlier in the year and he, along with his lovely wife Liz, had visited with us to see our Burns book collection. Included with the London invitation and directions to the club from the Honorary Secretary, Jim Henderson, was this phrase that any Scotsman worth his salt would love and chuckle over…”There is no sign outside but the large Saltire over the entrance is as good”.

Those who turned out to greet us were mostly past presidents and council members of the club. James Fairbairn, then Vice President and member of the Caledonian Club, had reserved a private dining room, replete with statuary of Robert the Bruce on horseback which was placed in the middle of the mantel piece. Not only did we enjoy some of the best haggis I’ve ever eaten, prepared by their very own Scottish chef, but we met some of the best Burnsians we’ve ever had opportunity to meet on our trips throughout America, Europe and, in particular, Scotland and England. It was at this luncheon that I met Clark McGinn, and we have kept in touch ever since. It is my pleasure to welcome him to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! I also look forward to his sharing another article with us in the future. But first, let me tell you a bit about Clark.

Clark McGinn was born in Ayr and started talking at an early age (and has hardly stopped since). Educated at Ayr Academy and the University of Glasgow, where he debated actively: winning the UK national competition (The Observer Mace), representing the UK (on the ESU Tour of the U.S.), and founding the World Student Debating Competition (which is now the second largest student competition in the world and in its 26th year). He passed enough exams in between speeches and debates to graduate with an MA with honours in philosophy. He qualified as a banker and has worked in major institutions in London and New York. He is happily married to Ann and lives in exile on Harrow-on-the-Hill in North West London. Since 1976 Clark has performed at Burns Suppers across the globe and is now known as a writer on Scottish subjects with The Ultimate Burns Supper Book and The Ultimate Guide to being Scottish, both published by Luath Press. He is an occasional columnist for the Scottish Government's 'Scotland Now' e-magazine ( and has written for The Scotsman and other national newspapers. Clark supports two charities: The English-Speaking Union and Glasgow University's development campaign.

By Clark McGinn

You can only imagine the feelings a man must have the night before he is to stand in front of the American people and take the Presidential Oath to lead them through the coming four years. Tonight must be even more tumultuous in Barack Obama’s mind, for tomorrow after 42 white predecessors and 220 years, a young African American will be watched by the world as he makes history at the stroke of noon on the Capitol steps.

He may take inspiration from two historical anniversaries falling over the next weeks: the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln on 12th February and also the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns this coming Sunday. The first is an obvious stimulus to Obama because Lincoln is his avowed hero, a fellow Illinois legislator and the author of the Emancipation Proclamation - it will even be Lincoln’s bible that is used for the Oath – but beyond the fact that he enjoys poetry (he is having an Inaugural Poem written as part of the ceremony) what relevance does Burns have for Obama?

The first reason is the connection between Abe and Rab – for Lincoln was a lover and capacious recitor of Burn’s poems throughout his life. He developed his rhetorical prowess by reading, memorising and spouting almost all of Burns’s longer poems. While splitting rails or drafting laws, the words of a country lad from Ayshire inspired his thoughts, so much so that  a bust of Rabbie sat prominently in his presidential office until his murder. Lincoln led the toasts to Burns in Springfield’s 1859 centenary festival, but he was amazingly self deprecating when it came to his literary hero, later declining to give the Immortal Memory speech, saying:

“I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.”

And that’s from the author of the Gettysburg Address!

The bond between Burns and the US president goes right back to the beginning of the office.  Ever a man to praise rebellion against tyranny, it is unsurprising that Burns’s poem to George Washington caught the first president’s eye. In it, our poet sees the spirit of independence and the pride of William Wallace reborn on the American continent. Burns said of it:  ‘liberty... you know how dear the theme is to me’ and so, even as an employee of the defeated King, Robert felt compelled to pen praise to the farmer who overturned oppression.

As an ordinary man with extraordinary poems, Burns met with widespread acclaim across the new country - American printers in Philadelphia and New York were amongst the first to pirate the Edinburgh edition of the works and it was one of these copies that Thomas Jefferson gave Washington to read at his Mount Vernon estate. 

And here’s a third fan. Jefferson is one of the most gifted thinkers and writers of his (or any other) day – JFK famously told a White House dinner of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  Yet this planetary brain found solace and challenge in the rhymes of a man with maybe six months formal schooling all told.  Jefferson, who penned ‘life, liberty and happiness’ also carved ‘ a man’s a man for a’ that’ over his fireplace at home and repeatedly averred that no writer could eclipse the words and sentiment of a poet born in Scotland, but whose thoughts reverberated through America and by capturing its dream in verse.

Another president, a Nobel prizewinner himself– Theodore Roosevelt – was introduced to Burns ‘s works by the Scots-born pioneer of the national parks, John Muir, whose extraordinary ability to quote the Bible and Burns in equal measure was in the same league as Teddy’s photographic memory.  The pair of them hiked through Yosemite declaiming Burns, extolling Scottish scenery and confirming man’s place as part of, not the owner of, nature.

Four very different men and four very different presidents.  In death they are the four carved into the towering rock of Mount Rushmore, in life they held a common love of our poet.

It has been a long time since the president has faced such acute problems at home and abroad, and generations have passed since any president-elect has borne such a burden of expectation from his people and the world. Will he read these poems and, like John Steinbeck, be struck by the ploughman’s words to the mouse he’s upturned?

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
   Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
   For promis'd joy!”

Or will he look forward and, in the changes he called for – even epitomised – in his campaign, will he see:

“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.”

These words have influenced the greatest of America’s presidents but their real strength is that many, many ordinary American men and women have been stirred by them too over these two centuries. At the Burns Centenary in 1859, a US cobbler said ‘Burns confirms my former suspicion that the world was made for me as well as for Caesar.”  That is the effect Robert Burns has on all of us.

Tomorrow and for the coming four years, let us pray that the words of Burns will inspire the new President.

©Clark McGinn


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