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Robert Burns Lives!
 Volume 1 Chapter 17

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA email:

Our guest columnist, Abb Gunn, is a product of New Mexico, the grandson and great grandson of homesteaders during the 1880s when the area was still Indian territory. His educational studies, outside of New Mexico, carried him to New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Delaware. Earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Temple University and a Masters of Music degree at West Chester State University, Abb did further post graduate studies at the University of Texas-Austin.

Abb Gunn is very active in the Scottish Community. In 1993 he was appointed genealogist of Clan Gunn Society of North America, and in 2000 assumed these duties for the worldwide Clan Gunn Society. He is a member of the St. Andrews Society of Atlanta.

His favorite hobby is an unusual one – growing palm trees – of which he has over 200 in his yard. In the Atlanta area, this can be quite a challenge, but Abb has only lost two over the last 14 years. He is considered by some as an authority on raising temperate palms, including native species of Georgia, Brazil, Afghanistan, Europe, Mexico and the Canary Islands. Abb’s gardening interests also include a large collection of hybrid irises, his favorite plant. He is also a fan of S-gauge railroading – he still has his American Flyer train set from his childhood!


By Abb Gunn
Delivered at the St. Andrew’s Society of Atlanta’s Burns Night Dinner
Druid Hills Golf Club
January 15, 2005

I am indebted to the Burns Club of Edinburgh and David Sibbald for the four essays I will adapt for tonight.

If we look at Robert Burns in the context of the social and cultural forces of the Scotland of his day, we are more able to understand his achievement and place him in perspective.

The Union of Parliaments (1707) came with the threat of the total submergence of Scottish culture. Burns, among others, chose a path of rediscovery of their own national traditions. By revival and development, they find a satisfaction that will compensate for political impotence. His letters are fine examples of Standard English yet he chose to use the Scots dialect and old Scottish verse forms when writing poetry. His development was toward a new harmony of English and Scots with complete mastery of each, the perfect example being "Tam O’Shanter". He was never a backwater poet using an obscure language but fused the two to raise awareness of the Scottish Nation from local incidents to the National, International, and Universal level.

Burns was known as the poet of the people and he does encompass every emotion in his songs but there is more to him than that. We must place ourselves in the 18th Century and be aware of world conditions and influences on society. In his letter of 1793 enclosing the poem "Bruce’s Address at Bannockburn", more commonly known as "Scots Wha Hae", he refers to the recollection of that glorious struggle for freedom, especially the success of the French in beating back enemies of the Republic (post revolution).

The poem, although cloaked in an historical format, was really a rallying call to all Scots, indeed, all humanity, to withstand tyranny and oppression. There are other examples - "The Rights of Woman - of inspiration at work. The poem was written for Louise Fontenelli’s benefit night and is frequently used in the Toast to the Laddies at Burns suppers, but that is only the surface. The title would remind us of Thomas Paine’s "The Rights of Man", a political rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s "Reflections on the Revolution in France".

The American Revolution was considered a success in general - a violent war followed by a democratic government and a stable political power. The Americans proceeded mostly by trial and error, Articles of Confederation replaced by a Constitution and the country evolved. Thomas Paine and Robert Burns expected the French Revolution to follow the same pattern. As the drama unfolded, disillusion set in as the regicide of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette led the British Government to worry about anti-monarchical sympathies in places like Scotland. To even read "The Rights of Man" became a treasonous and dangerous activity. People with government jobs (like Burns) had to be very careful of public behavior. There are many parallels between Robert Burns and Thomas Paine, both excisemen, but where Burns knew how to grovel and back down, Paine served prison time.

Burns had every reason to be afraid. By mid 1793, Scottish courts were giving severe sentences, including deportation, for simply reading or distributing "The Rights of Man". Burns did not, however, recant his positions. He went "underground". The passion was still there but it had to be disguised. Though both editions of his collected poems published in his lifetime, the Kilmarnock and Edinburgh, contain captivating poetry, there is an enigma that nowhere can be found poems with biting condemnation of oppression by church and state that abound in those poems published after his death.

No one reading through the editions could have realized that there were forces driving Burns to attempt to improve the lot of his fellow men and women. The enigma of his fame is further compounded by his funeral - full military honors, two regiments of the British Army and militia, thousands paid their respects, the coffin was processed to St. Michael’s Churchyard (Dumfries) for burial in an unmarked grave.

We in the 21st century tend to take for granted the freedoms we enjoy and find it difficult to appreciate how oppressed the 18th Century Scots were. Though it was technically possible to express a political opinion in print, it could result in a heavy penalty. Burns was well aware of this when in 1794 he wrote:

They banished him beyond the sea,
But ere the bud was on the tree,
Adown my cheeks the pearls run,
Embracing my John Highlandman.

John Higlandman’s crime was to wear highland dress and be loyal to his clan. Burns had to consider the wisdom of publishing poems that touched on human rights. He communicated his humanitarian view by word of mouth and private circulation of his poems. He had to be constantly on guard against the threat to his liberty from the authorities. Consequently his criticisms were very effectively veiled. In "A Dream (1786) he dropped his guard when he criticized the crown and political establishment based upon a mistaken assumption:

Thoughts, words, and deeds, the statute blames with Reason
But surely dreams were ne’er indicted Treason.

Burns believed that he could trust those to whom he had given copies of his poems but with some his trust was misplaced. Mr. Tytler of Woodhouselee removed four lines from Tam O’Shanter" because they criticized the church and legal profession. The manuscript of "Love and Liberty" in Burns handwriting in the Edinburgh University Library is substantially different from the renamed version, "The Jolly Beggars", renamed and published in 1802. Though he never became a martyr or suffered a penal colony, the blunt truth is that we have lost sight of the names of most of the martyrs. However, we have not lost sight of Burns. His views were known in Scotland during his lifetime, and after his death the world began to learn how deeply he had been committed to Human rights.

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