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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 12

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

For years, Jim Hewitson has been one of Scotland’s best writers. His book, Tam Blake & Co: The Scots in America, became a favorite of mine when it was recommended to me in 1996 my wonderful North Carolina cousin, Floridel Bristow. It was a best seller then and is still selling strong today. Word on the street has it that Jim has been a journalist, lobster fisherman, gypsy, author, graveyard grass-cutter, broadcaster and light laborer. (Gypsy? Light laborer?  Oxymoron?) Jim says he is currently an immature student at the University of Aberdeen. He worked at The Herald for 25 years and is the author of Scotching the Myths: An Alternative Route Map to Scottish History; Clinging to the Edge: Journals from an Orkney Island; Astonishing Scotland: A Cheeky Thesaurus of Scottishness; Rebecca the Raccoon; Far Off in Sunlit Places: The Scots in Australia and New Zealand, and the now popular Jim Hewitson’s Scottish Miscellany from which I have received permission from the author to use in this column. He has two books due out this year: The Scots at Sea and A Book of the Dead.

In a recent email, Jim wrote: “If you and any of your friends, family and acquaintances are coming to Scotland, Morag and I run a homely wee bed and breakfast. Cheap rates for old pals!” I’m sure we will take him up on it sometime in the future, but I hope all 70,000+ subscribers of The Family Tree do not show up at the same time. Welcome, Jim Hewitson, to our wee column on Robert Burns Lives!

Ca’ Canny wi’ the Satire, Robbie!
By Jim Hewitson

  Three lawyers’ tongue, turned inside out,
Wi’ lies seamed like a beggar’s clout;
Three priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinking, vile, in every neuk.

                                                                        -- Robert Burns

These are four lines excised from the original version of “Tam o’ Shanter” and they are seldom, if ever, seen nowadays. Robert Burns is such a national hero, a legendary Scottish icon, that it’s occasionally nice to hear that he was fallible and happy to be guided, just like the rest of us.

In the year 1793, “Tam o’ Shanter”, arguably his most famous and well-beloved poem, underwent a strange, if minor, makeover which involved something uncomfortably like an accommodation of political correctness.

In 1791, Alexander Fraser Tytler, an Edinburgh advocate, Professor of Universal History at Edinburgh University and a man of letters, got hold of a sheet of Grose’s Antiquities in which was printed the very first public version of “Tam o’ Shanter”. He was already familiar with Burns and wrote a letter to the poet praising the work in glowing terms, particularly the bard’s description of the witches’ Sabbath in Kirk Alloway in which he said Burns displayed “a power of imagination that Shakespeare himself could not have exceeded.” His blood, he declared, had run cold on reading these stanzas and he predicted that Burns would go on to eclipse the greatest poets of his day.

Ah, but, the learned professor did have one little reservation. In the scenes when Burns is describing the paraphernalia of the Sabbath, the bard turns his wit briefly on the legal profession and the clergy. Said Tytler:

The descriptive part might perhaps have been better closed than the four lines which succeed, which, though good in themselves, yet, as they derive all their merit from the satire they contain are here rather misplaced among the circumstances of pure horror.

Burns responded by letter and resolved that “the hit at the lawyer and the priest, I shall cut out”. When the 1793 edition of the poem appeared, the offending lines were missing.

In a first draft, that was also cut, Burns had criticised doctors too. Thomas Crawford, an expert on the work of Burns, says that this group of professional people were stock figures who were regularly the butt of eighteenth-century social criticism.

In conclusion, it is the opinion of many today that not much has changed.  (FRS: 6-26-04)

Return to August/September 2004 Index Page | See Robert Burns Lives!


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