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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns the Improviser by Robert H. Carnie

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

This is the last speech I have at this time from the files of the late Dr. Robert Carnie. His son Andrew has been quite gracious in allowing me to share the work of his father with our readers. Just who is Robert Carnie? This Dundee Scot is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and earned a PhD in English literature. His life was spent teaching at various colleges in England and Scotland and then for 20 years at the University of Calgary in Canada. Bob was also an author, and his inspiring and wonderful book, Burns Illustrated, published by the Calgary Burns Club, was reviewed October 30, 2008 on my website A Highlander and His Books and can be found at

Like most of us who speak and write about Robert Burns, Dr. Carnie was an avid collector of signed decorative books on Burns. In 2006 this wonderful book collection was donated to the University of Calgary. Dr. Patrick Scott, Director of Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, and Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, said in the Significant Scots section on that “Bob was the bard, distinguished life member and past president of the Calgary Burns Club and a life member and frequent speaker at the Schiehallion Scottish Society.” To read more about the remarkable Dr. Carnie, please refer to (FRS: 7.22.09)

Burns the Improviser
By Robert H. Carnie

a pamphet Dad published in 2000 (called Burns 200, a guide for Burnsians), published by the Schiehallion Scottish Club in Calgary
A pamphlet
Robert H. Carnie published in 2000 (called Burns 200, a guide for Burnsians), published by the Schiehallion Scottish Club in Calgary

At this time of year - The Burns Supper season - I am always looking for something fresh and different to say about my favourite Scottish poet.  Among home-grown Scots, expatriate Scots, and the poet's countless admirers in the rest of the world, there is a good deal of unanimity about their favourite parts of Burns's poetic output.  Amongst his narrative pieces, most people like or love 'Tam 0' Shanter, the 'Cotter's Saturday Night' ,' Holy Willie's Prayer,' and 'The Twa Dogs',  and  I don't think I've ever met a lover of Burns who did not relish  his countless  memorable songs -'Auld Lang Syne', 'Ae fond Kiss,' (which was one of the three pieces I read to you last year) 'Corn Rigs',  'Scots wha hae' and dozens of others that spring to mind.  But Burns had another talent that is not so often celebrated, and that is his ability, to compose, 'off the cuff' and apparently without much previous thought, little snatches of verse - two, four , eight or 16 lines - which commemorate, celebrate, or excoriate some event or experience in his own life.  Burns was indeed a ‘natural poet' who wrote verse spontaneously. He disconcerts 20th century academic critics by refusing to take his poetic art too seriously.  In the poem 'The Vision' he refers, almost contemptuously, to his song writing activities as 'Stringing blethers up in rhyme/ for fools to sing.' As he puts it in one of his less well known poetic epistles:

Some rhyme a neebor's name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu' cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash.
And raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun

As my former colleague at St. Andrew's University, Donald Low, says in his collection of critical essays about Burns (I quote): 'Burns is an improviser of genius. Improvisation in art proves disconcerting to people accustomed to impose a tidy conceptual framework on what they study'.  But tonight I don’t want to philosophise about the differences between improvised art and schematic or planned art, and I am equally sure none of you want to hear me blether on that subject!  Instead, I would like to recite to you a few examples from the hundreds of  short poems - epigrams, epitaphs, bon-mots, and occasional poems, to demonstrate how skilled Rabbie Burns was at writing short pieces 'off the cuff'. The first one is a note of thanks. When  the new house at  Burns's farm, Ellisland, was being built,  the poet had no place to go away from his family, and  Captain  Riddell at Friar's Carse gave the poet a key so that he could go, any time he liked, to think and write in a little hermitage, or summer house, in the grounds of the estate. This is Rabbie’s reply to an invitation to dine from Captain Riddell:

Dear Sir, at onie time or tide,
I'd rather sit wi' you than ride;
Tho' t'were wi' Royal Geordie:
And truth your kindness soon and late
Aft gars me to mysel look blate -
The Lord in Heaven reward ye!

Few patrons of a poet can have received a more affectionate and sincere letter of thanks.  It is a great pity that a drunken party at the Friar's Carse mansion house, some time later, should have so marred Burns's friendship with the Riddell family. Another forgotten slip of happy verse that Burns wrote in this part of the world are the lines:

Envy, if thy jaundiced eye,
Through this window chance to spy,
To thy sorrow thou shalt find,
All that's generous, all that's kind,
Friendship, virtue, every grace,
Dwelling in this happy place.

Burns wrote these lines with his diamond ring on a window at the Queensberry Arms at Sanquhar. Burns often called there while travelling between Mauchline and his farm at Ellisland.  He clearly believed in praising human goodness. Burns was a keen observer of the houses of the great and rich that he visited, and once, when he was in the library of a Scottish nobleman, he was shown a splendidly bound early edition of Shakespeare's Works, where the text was severely damaged by insect pests. He jotted down the following four sarcastic lines about distorted values:

Through and through the inspired leaves,
Ye maggots, make your windings;
But 0, respect his lordship's taste,
And spare the golden bindings!

Another of my favourite short satiric pieces that Burns dashed off about the high and mighty of this world is the one called 'The keekin' glass', i.e. 'the looking glass'. He tells the story of an ancient and learned Scottish  judge who had got so drunk the night before that, coming into the drawing-room at Dalswinton Inn, he pointed at the landlady's daughter and asked her father 'Wha's yon howlet-faced thing in the corner?'  The young lady, Miss Miller, was much upset at being called 'howlet-faced' (owl-faced)so, to cheer her up, Burns, who was also staying at the inn, wrote the following four lines, and gave them to her:

How daur ye ca' me 'Howlet-face',
Ye blear eyed withered spectre?
Ye only spied the keekin' glass,
An' there ye saw your picture!

Burns was not fond of civil servants either. He particularly disliked a man called Thomas Goldie, a commissary of the sherriff-court in Dumfries and the President of a right wing political club called 'The Loyal Natives' whose political views were anathema to a democrat like Burns. So he wrote this quatrain about Thomas Goldie's lack of brains and the thickness of his skull!

Lord, to account who does Thee call,
Or e'er dispute Thy pleasure?
Else why within so thick a wall
Enclose so poor a treasure?

The next mock-epitaph, out of the scores that Burns wrote, that I'd like to quote to you is the one that he wrote on James Humphrey, stone-mason in Mauchline, a man famous locally for his fondness for argument and debate, and for his ability to lose all the debates in which he took part. Jamie Humphrey lived for 48 years after Burns, and he loved to recall his losing debates with the poet. Burns wrote in the 1780's this famous 'phony' epitaph on him:

Below these stanes lie Jamie's banes:
O Death, it's my opinion,
Thou never took such a blethrin' bitch
Into thy dark dominion.

On his travels throughout Scotland, Burns wrote a great many of the 'off-the-cuff' little poems which were collected and added to his complete Works after his death. When Burns was on his Border tour in 1787, he spent some time with the family of his friend Robert Ainslie, at the family farm at Berrywell in Berwickshire. As he tells us in his Journal, he went with the family to church in the town of Duns on Sunday.  He was seated next to the unmarried daughter, Miss Rachel Ainslie. When Burns saw her looking in vain in her Bible for the text given out by the fiery preacher on his theme 'The Impenitent Sinner', he offered to find the passage for her, but instead he wrote the following lines in the fly-leaves of her Holy Book:

Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
Nor idle texts pursue;
'Twas guily sinners that he meant,
Not angels such as you!

It will be no surprise to most of you that Burn's Journal records that Miss Ainslie was an attractive young lady: 'Her person was a little embonpoint but handsome; her face, particularly her eyes, full of sweetness and good humour; she unites three qualities rarely to be found together: keen solid observation; sly, witty remarks; and the gentlest, most unaffected female modesty.'  I think Rabbie was paying more attention that day to the bonnie lassie sitting next to him, than to the preacher's sermon!

Burns also greatly enjoyed his visit to the Highlands of Scotland in September, 1787. When he and his friend and fellow traveler William Nicol went up Glengarry to Dalwhinnie, he recorded the following four lines:

When death's dark stream I ferry o'er'
(A time that assuredly will come)
In Heaven itself I'll ask no more,
Than just a Highland welcome.

Finally, one of my personal favourites among the mock epitaphs- an eight line poem entitled 'On a wag in Mauchline'. It is about James Smith, a close friend of the poet. Smith was brought up very strictly by his stepfather, but he rebelled, and along with Rabbie and a man called John Richmond, Smith was regarded as one of the 'wild lads' of the local district. The third member of the triumvirate, John Richmond, got his girl friend Jenny  Surgeoner, (who was later his wife), pregnant, and had to do public penance. James Smith, after failing in a variety of jobs in Scotland, went, as Burns himself almost did, to Jamaica, and died there before 1808.  Burns wrote the following lines about Smith:

Lament him, Mauchline husbands a',
He aften did assist ye;
For had ye staid hale weeks awa',
Your wives they ne'er had missed ye!

Ye Mauchline bairns, as on ye pass
To school in bands thegither,
 O tread ye lightly on his grass --
Perhaps he was your faither

I hope the little taste I've given you tonight of Burns's improvised verse will encourage you to read some of the poetry of Burns outside the well established favourites. Thank you for your attention.

RHC 14 January, 2000.

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