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Robert Burns Lives!
An article by Patrick Scott - "The Immortal Memory"

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

Since beginning my Scottish quest in the mid-1990s, it has been my pleasure to meet some mighty wonderful people who have assisted me in writing articles, purchasing Scottish books, offering sound advice when asked and, more than anything else, sharing friendships. Dr. Patrick Scott is one who stands tall in all four categories.

I have watched Patrick over the years and can say, without a doubt, that there is no one more dedicated to their profession than he.  He is an asset to the University of South Carolina, where he is Director of Special Collections at the library, working with Ross Roy and the Roy Collection, and Professor of English.  What he brings to the job, money cannot buy. His only motivation is to excel at his work, and he does so with honors! On top of all of that, he is a gentleman.  It is a joy to bring you the Immortal Memory Dr. Scott delivered at the Atlanta Burns Club on January 24, 2009.

on the 250th Anniversary of his birth
Burns Club of Atlanta, January 24, 2009

Patrick Scott

Mr. President, Mr. Vice-President, friends, fellow-Scots, fellow-Burnsians:

It is an honour and a privilege to be invited to propose this long-traditional toast, and it is a special honour to invited to do so, in this special anniversary year, here among friends in this special place.  For more than forty years now, I have heard from people I admired and admire, older colleagues and friends, of their proposals on such occasions, and I recognize that I am in many ways unqualified.  It should of course be my senior colleague, and your honorary member, Ross Roy, proposing such a toast, and I know he sends his greetings and good wishes.

I am a little daunted, but I am not the first to be daunted by Burns.  His first editor and biographer James Currie confronted “with astonishment” “the huge and shapeless mass” of Burns’s literary remains, “the complete sweepings of his drawers and of his desk,” and famously felt himself to be unqualified, “an entire stranger” to the man of genius he must describe.  Burns’s successor as poet of rural Scotland, James Hogg, sighed wearily as he began his Burns biography, “So I am set down to write a memoir of the life of Robert Burns,” and concludes even more defensively “As this is now the seventh narrative that has been given to the world of this extraordinary man’s life, it cannot be expected that I can produce anything new.”  And the best of the fourteen or more new books about Burns published so far this year, Robert Crawford’s The Bard, from which more anon, reports a friend warning him that a new Burns biography would be “the world’s least necessary book,” and advises that anyone writing on Burns in Scotland today “requires an instinct for self-defense and, ideally, a Kevlar vest.”  But Currie, Hogg and Crawford were undeterred, the blood of Braveheart perhaps flows in our veins, and I shall take courage from their example. 

I thought at first of talking about what I know—Burns and his great gamble to become a Poet, “To try my fate in guid, black prent,” and so talk about his books and printing and the printed voice of his poetry.  Burns almost uniquely, certainly more completely than any other poet, brought together the spoken and sung and printed voices, preparing for the survival of the poetic voice in the coming age of an industrial book production, when the poetry of Burns would ride a wave of social change and cultural innovation he could never have foreseen.  And now this week the image of Burns enters a Second Life with the launch in Vancouver of a digital statue to the Bard.  But such are only the mechanics or infrastructure of immortality. 

Burns himself had few illusions about the accuracy with which future literary reputations might be predicted:

'There's ither poets, much your betters,
Far seen in Greek, deep men o' letters,
Hae thought they had ensur'd their debtors,
A' future ages;
Now moths deform, in shapeless tatters,
Their unknown pages.'

Of course what happened to the ither poets didn’t happen to him.  Future ages have recognized their indebtedness to Burns, and his pages are certainly not unknown.  But he did not live to reap the rewards of his enduring.  So, skipping tactfully over the Bard’s parenthetical disdain for “Colledge-classes” and higher education, I thought perhaps I should talk about something more timely—if not the wealth of Burns, then The Wealth of Nations, Burns as the contemporary of Adam Smith, and banks and bank failures—his own life and his father’s having suffered by the collapse of the Ayr Bank of Douglas, Heron in the 1760s,--and the shock this past week, at 8 a.m. on January 18, 2009, seeing the Bank of Scotland, the first Scottish bank, founded in 1695, finally going under to a London-based take-over after 313 years of independence, though apparently retaining its façade in Scottish high streets.  Burns like his father before him knew economic volatility.  He had ploughed a stony furrow in youth, and worried in his last years over the future of his wife and children.  And like Adam Smith in Smith’s second great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Burns saw the basis for life, as this Club notably does, not in markets alone but in human relations, in sociability and fellow feeling.  These are times especially to value auld acquaintance, the hand of friendship, and a cup or two of kindness.  Burns would write election ballads in support of Patrick Heron, son of that banking family whose failure had overshadowed his own father’s life. But I thought that was an itch not yet ready to be scratched. 

So I needed to back up a little and reflect, not just what I might say, but why. I am a Scot of the diaspora, genetically diluted, linguistically challenged and culturally deprived.  My father was born and brought up in Edinburgh, a fellow of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, leaving that beautiful precipitous city in 1929, on the brink of the last Great Depression, for medical practice in an unlovely east Lincolnshire town where in due course he met my mother.  His father, my grandfather, was born in Edinburgh, and educated at George Heriot’s Hospital, now famous as the original of Hogwarts, right by the bus stop I used when I taught in Edinburgh nearly forty years ago.  His father, my great-grandfather, had walked into Edinburgh seeking work in the early 1850s, from his father’s home in the Lowther Hills, on the Dumfriesshire/Ayrshire border, the highest settlement in Scotland, the leadmining village of Wanlockhead, where the rains beat from the west over a walled graveyard full of James Scotts and Thomas Scotts and William Scotts otherwise unknown to history.  My genealogical brother confronts in fact less a family tree than a family hedge, and like many Scots, we have cousins and more distant kin in Canada and New Zealand and the United States (including I must hope at some degree the Club’s current president [William Scott Henwood]).

Yet as far as I know none of my forefathers were Burnsians.  They were all bookish—little Wanlockhead had a library from the early 1700s,-- and they were characteristically men of independent mind, but they were not Burnsians.  I now recognize that my father often quoted the pithier bits of Burns, but without attribution.  At Leicester in the late 1960s, I taught alongside the dreamy Scottish poet G. S.  Fraser, who had left Scotland after World War II to earn a living in London, and when I knew him was just rediscovering Burns, returning to a poet long tarnished for him by his martinet father’s proprietorial advocacy.  Those here tonight who learnt Burns father to son, son to grandson, are greatly privileged.  In 1970 I moved to Edinburgh, but there Burns belonged to the growing number of Scottish literature specialists; it was assumed, rightly, that a mis-education in England would have taught me little or nothing about the greatest and most Scottish of Scottish authors.  It was less formally, through books lying round the house from my American wife’s research and teaching in the School of Scottish Studies, that I got to read Burns and about Burns.  It was not till I moved to South Carolina, and then not really till I began to work more closely with Ross Roy and his great Burns collection, that I began to explore Burns’s writings and life and the Burns literature, or to feel comfortable talking about him with long-time Burnsians, who, however kindly, all seem to know everything already, like the locals of Tanzania who on independence took down the statue to Dr. Livingstone, Discoverer of Lake Nyasa, on the ground their people had known about the lake all along and it didn’t need rediscovering.  Burns does not need rediscovering, or another statue, but a comprehensive guide to what is already known about him would not be the world’s most unnecessary book.   

Yet my long-wasted unBurnsian years, and my defensive urge to explain them, only serve to exemplify a crucial difference between an English upbringing and a Scottish education.    When the rosy-cheeked urchins of a Victorian English village were spoon-fed their Catechism, their first questions, like the story I’ve told so far, were simple, empirical, social  enough: What is your name? followed in the second question by the gradual tightening round them of the family and social net: Who gave you that name?  In Scotland, however, the luckless bairns, the six and seven-year-olds shivering on the hard benches of some chilly kirk, were confronted with a question at once more intellectual and more egalitarian: What is the chief end of man?  Another of my favourite Scottish authors, George Douglas Brown, from Cumnock, near Ayr, once described a group of young farmers teasing one of their friends who at a dance had been in animated and intimate conversation with the same girl all evening.  What, they asked him, had the couple talked about? “Och” he replied (as people seem to, in late nineteenth-century Scottish stories), “Och, it’s a grand topic, the freedom of the will.”  In great things and small, not just in religion, but in politics, and much much else, the Scottish tradition is preeminently an intellectual tradition.

So let me pass from autobiographical evasion to the harder question, ritual perhaps at this annual feast, but salutory nonetheless.  Why does Burns  have an “Immortal Memory”?  Why should we here tonight in Atlanta like thousands of others around the world be once again commemorating a poet nurtured in one of the poorer and smaller if prouder and more distinctive countries of Europe—in what a self-critical Scotsman once described (inaccurately) as “a little shabby scraggy corner of a remote island, with a climate that cannot ripen an apple”?  (Edinburgh Review, 1824).  Why did it ripen Burns? David Hume, one of those Scots who, we are told, invented the modern world, posed much the same question: “Is it not strange,” Hume asked, “is it not strange that at a time when we have lost our independent government . . . [when we are] unhappy in our accent and pronunciation; speak a very corrupt dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that in these circumstances, we should really be the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe?”  Yet for all the trials of Scottish life and culture over the past 250 years, for all the eroding and absorbing power of a larger and usually richer neighbour, Scotland is still and increasingly proud of its literary heritage, and Burns is commemorated more today than ever.  Well over a thousand separate Burns Suppers have been registered this year on the Scottish government’s official web-site, and there are gatherings like this from Cape Town to Copenhagen, from Singapore to Sierra Leone, from Vladivostock to Vancouver. 

Patrick at Craigmillar Castle near Edinburgh

The reasons for the reverence in which Burns is held are twofold—it is a tribute to his poetic genius and also a recognition of him as national icon.  Of his poetic genius, his inexhaustible quotability, I need speak here only briefly.  Burns was a writer with an enormous range of different gifts, in whom one is constantly finding new good things, who can express a whole variety of different feelings and ideas, who nonetheless has a distinctive character and voice of his own, feelings and ideas for each life-stage and a myriad of life-experiences, yet who is constantly being simplified by those who would claim one or another gift or trait as the “real” poet or the “real” Burns.  He eludes all such attempts.  Burns first became known locally as wit and satirist, and his satires have long outlasted the local events and personalities in which they originated.  He first attracted wider recognition, however, as a poet who celebrated the humble life and common experiences of rural Scotland—as Henry Mackenzie’s “heav’n-taught ploughman.” We all know how partial and limiting a label that became.  Think only of the archetypal ploughman poem, “To a Mouse,” and then think of its complex interweaving of experience and empathy with philosophical reflection:  the conversational tone of the first stanza:

Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle!

mutating into the quasi-parodic philosophy of the second:

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,


I didn’t know till just last week, when I read it in Crawford’s new book (and I’m comforted that neither Jim Montgomery nor David Morgan Jones knew it either), that the famous opening of “To a Mouse” takes its most famous adjective from Burns’s early reading of John Ray’s The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, which Ray asserts “make provision for the preservation and security of weak and timorous creatures.”  Burns had read the book years before and the word had stuck.  Pace Mackenzie, Burns was never a bumpkin, but nor was he a plagiarist.  He assimilated.  Those contrasted first stanzas might seem to bifurcate Scots experience and English-language philosophizing, but the first famous phrase of the poem shows them as one culture, not two, nesting the philosophic echo within the firsthand observation (“cowran, tim’rous beastie”) till the inexorable coulter of modern scholarship came along to expose it.  And experience and the philosophical make one culture also in the poem’s great conclusion:

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

. . . och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear

And that great conclusion is simple mainstream spoken Scots, the spoken tongue not the written language.  Similarly, Burns’s address to the food he made Scotland’s national dish, as we have heard tonight, is Scots, not English.  Its celebration of the “sturdy Rustic,” like Burns’s compassion for the field-mouse, and his longer and more ambitious celebration of the idealized cottar’s Saturday night with the family—honest porridge and heart-felt prayers—all made an impact far beyond Scotland herself, as expressing and valuing everyday experience, local community life, rather than metropolitan culture.  The Cottar is sometimes brushed aside as anglified and sentimental, Gray’s Elegy warmed over, but I was very struck recently by the farmer’s return home after work;

At length his lonely cot appears in view,
Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;
Th' expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through
To meet their dad, wi' flichterin' noise and glee.

The word ‘dad’ long precedes Burns’s day, and is not even exclusively Scots, but this is I believe the first time a major poem used the word ‘dad’ convincingly.  We all know such moments of experiential truth are but a single strand in Burns’s writing.  As I’ve suggested, he was never simply a rural poet.   He had profited from the Scottish zeal for the “democratic intellect.”  His satires, and verse-epistles, and occasional poems, and political songs, and election addresses, all show a well-stocked mind as well as a characteristic voice.  But those moments of recognition remain magical.

From all this variety of poetic skill, all this well-assimilated intellectual acuity, Burns turned more and more to writing and rewriting songs.  Some of his songs were satiric, true; some bawdy, true also; some were historical ballad-pastiche, perhaps, but good ballad-pastiche; some now seem a bit drawing-room-pretty, maybe; but greatly and centrally Burns’s songs were the lyrical expression of traditional feelings, mainstream feelings, about love and landscape and hope and betrayal and parting and, recurringly if surprisingly, loneliness.  There is a haunting strand of melancholy running through Burns’s writing.  I shall not dwell on it on this most sociable of occasions, but I mention it merely to show that there are still perhaps other Burnses to be discovered or explored, new shadows to be added to the familiar portrait. 

For most of the last years of Burn’s brief life he was collecting the surviving songs of the national tradition, with far fewer new poems in other genres.  It is surely through the songs that he is now best known, and it is for them that he is remembered not just as poetic genius but also as Scotland’s national bard.  Burns’s intense awareness of national identity spoke to readers the world over, especially in the early nineteenth-century as Romantic nationalism swept across Europe and beyond. Perhaps such a national identity could only ripen in a country where nationhood was, to some degree, threatened.  Burns’s articulation of Scottish identity provided the model round which other peoples articulated their nationality, not only in his own period but through the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe and on to the new nationalisms of the twentieth century.  This side of Burns spoke, as it still speaks, to the Scots of the diaspora, to us—there are we are told over thirty million people of Scots descent in the United States alone.  And with devolved government in Scotland, and the opening of the Scottish assembly or Parliament at Holyrood, Burns’s songs have an increased national edginess in Scotland as well. 

Burns as national icon, patriot bard, the voice of national identity, speaks to people of many nationalities, not just to Scots, and still speaks in an age when national boundaries and identities seem to blur.  He is a national poet but also a global poet.  He lived in dangerous times, times of revolutions both good and horrific, through from the hopeful 1780s to the fearful 1790s, the years, Crawford tells us, that first coined the word terrorist.  At his best Burns took the long view.  His was a poetry that looked forward, not just backward, in words that are still moving and inspiring, hopeful without being merely sentimental:

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
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.

It is right on this occasion to remember that the same blend of hope and realism that Burns asserted for the future of mankind he also asserted about himself and his future reputation, neatly anticipating what surely has indeed been the verdict of history on his amazing life and his equally amazing achievement:

'He'll hae misfortunes great an' sma',
But ay a heart aboon them a'.
He'll be a credit till us a':
We'll a' be proud o' Robin!

            And it is characteristic of his achievement that the verdict he imagined gossips passing on his own life is one any of us could wish also for ourselves, a heart aboon misfortunes and a life of credit to others.

Our commemoration tonight is in a long tradition, and we need not doubt that there is credit due and greatness to be commemorated.  In the Scottish Borders and Highlands, as in the Appalachians and many other mountainous countries, the traveler in older times, traveling on foot or by horse, was guided over hilly countryside by heaps of stones, cairns.  Cairns are landmarks, and they are also often commemorative of a person or an event.  It was the custom, the duty, of each passing traveler to help maintain the cairn against the ravages of time and weather by adding a chuckie, a single small stone.

Our commemoration tonight adds our stone, our chuckie to the cairn. So I ask you now to be upstanding, and to raise your well-charged glasses, to Robert Burns, to poetry, to Scotland, and to the IMMORTAL MEMORY.

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