Last Saturday 25th January 2020, saw yet another celebration and recognition of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, “Rabbie” to his friends, born 25th  January 1759. Rabbie was in fact Robert Burness until he chose to shorten his last name at the age of 27.  Burns is now known worldwide for his political and environmental poetry, which resonates today. According to Google Books, “There are more statues of Robert Burns in the United States than there are of any American poet.” His poem and song  A Man’s a Man for a’ that  has been translated into other European languages.  Here are some quotes from it, (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_a_Mouse for a Side by side comparison of the  original Scots and the English translation ) :

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

“The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.”

“For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s coming yet for a’ that,

That Man to Man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.”

Environmental quotes from To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785 include:

“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!”

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!”

InA Poet’s Welcome To His Love-Begotten Daughter(This is an annotated version from the Halifax Burns Club of Canada),  Burns was far ahead of his time in ridiculing the social and religious conventions against illegitimate children. He promises his daughter that he will always love her and her mother and that she will be as well educated and cared for as any child born in wedlock. 

An entertaining  paper given by Professor Robert Crawford at the 2014 Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS) Conference on The Poetry of Robert Burns analyses key Burns poems and songs from the perspective of gender, masculinity and male role models, “topics that matter to girls as well as to boys’”. Professor Crawford explains why Burns is fun to read, “more so than all the other Romantic Poets. It will make you laugh, but is also deep enough to argue and ponder over” He argues that one of Burn’s most popular poems, Tam ‘O Shanter, A Tale, is about sex and gender and that  the ‘Heroic Tam’ of the poem “lusts after, ejaculates at, is threatened by and ultimately  fears and flees the feminine.”

Professor Crawford  asks the question, “This poem about sex, gender, alcohol culture and wild imaginings is able to appeal to teenage audiences and to older audiences – Why?… Is there something disquieting about having the man who wrote this as our National Poet.”

(A fair question since, a 2nd September 2015 Herald Scotland  article, Descendants of Robert Burns, notes that “ Robert Burns had 12 children by four women – nine by his wife Jean Armour. Seven of his children were illegitimate, including the first four by Jean Armour, legitimised by their parent’s marriage in 1788.”)

However, Professor Crawford  also makes the point that Burns was not an uneducated farm worker, an impression created by the publisher of  his first published work in  1786 ,Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Burns was educated at home by his father and later at the Dalrymple Parish School.  He had read The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith, published in 1759, the year of Burns’  birth. In thatwork, Adam Smith replaced the traditional concept of “moral sense”  with a new concept “Sympathy”, which Adam Smith regarded as the ability to “mirror” someone else’s feelings.

Burns would not have agreed with all of Adam Smith’s ideas on Sympathy but the basic concept aligned with Burns’ own concept “That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.”

This view is supported by A Dutch Man Looks at the Thistle: European dimensions of earlier Scots literature, and how they matter to present-day Scotland

This Scottish Literature International Lecture by Dr Theo Van Heijnsbergen (University of Glasgow) was given at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on January 28, 2020. The event was sponsored by Michael Russell MSP and  supported by the Scottish Government.

The flyer for the event  gives a warning from Dr Van Heijnsbergen:  “Too many modern readings of pre-nineteenth-century literature in Scots are based on careless Romantic assumptions, perpetuated by lazy reading. If we truly seek to re-connect with that earlier literature and link it meaningfully to present-day Scottish culture, we need to unedit ourselves as readers and commit to reading that literature afresh, as it was read at the time, in a European context. Expect to be reformatted, for good.”

Dr Van Heijnsbergen’s warning finds an echo in a 19th January 2020 article,  Alan Bissett: Reading the mind of Rabbie Burns, in Edinburgh’s The National, which highlights some of Burns’ inconsistencies:

a simplistic case is often made for Burns as a ‘‘lover of women’’ and even as a feminist. There is no doubt that he adored female company – not just for their bodies, but for their minds too – and that he famously wrote in support of women’s rights, a deeply unfashionable cause in the 18th Century.

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

The author notes that while the above is “all very stirring and admirable”,  Burns was also capable of treating women abominably, e.g. by  serially cheating on his wife Jean Armour, especially in fathering a child by the local barmaid just ten days before Armour gave birth to his son.

Burns saw himself as a musician first and foremost, his poetry inspired by the music.  Burns a Fidler and a Poet “was designed to introduce a little known Robert Burns. For over 200 years, he has been misrepresented as Scotland’s national ‘poet’, yet he was, preeminently, a song-writer. The lecture considered Burns’s background as a fiddler and folk artist.” In this lecture by  Professor Fred Freeman, Visiting Professor of Traditional Music at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, gives clear examples of how Burns was far ahead of his time. Burns  made major contributions to George Thomson‘s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum.  Professor Freeman notes that  Burns wrote hundreds of letters to  George Thomson insisting that his songs could not be played by the orchestras of his day.  Professor Freeman plays a range of examples contrasting the conventional approach with the Burns approach.

Wikipedia, notes that “The first volume of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice  was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume two, and he ended up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection, as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.”

Wikipedia also notes that “To his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779”,and describes his subsequent indiscretions with a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline. One of the Belles was Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Wikipedia describes the consternation of Jean’s father, who  “was in the greatest distress, and fainted away…. Although Armour’s father initially forbade it, they were eventually married in 1788.  Armour bore him nine children, only three of whom survived infancy.”

The Mither Tongue Tribute to Robert Burns quotes from his letters:

“God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for, but if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes.”

“Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others,” he wrote, “this is my criterion of goodness;  but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity.”

The Tribute gives details of the wave of Anglicisation that was almost overwhelming Scotland following the crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden in April 1746.

 “The Heritable Jurisdictions Act and the Disarming Acts were passed.   The bagpipe was declared an instrument of war, the tartan was proscribed, a proscription that would endure for 36 long and horrible years.   Hundreds were executed;  many more transported to the colonies.

All things English were being embraced.   Schools teaching the newly-acquired language were springing up all over the country…. That, then, was the age in which Burns lived and wrote and that was the society in which his works appeared.”

Burns response was:

“The Poetic Genius of my country found me at the plough and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my natal soil, in my native tongue.”

The Mossgiel farm had been unsuccessful and to support his family Burns had accepted  a job in Jamaica at a sugar plantation owned by Dr Patrick Douglas of Garrallan, Old Cumnock, and run by his brother Charles. Burns was to be a “book keeper” (assistant overseer of slaves). To raise funds for the trip to Jamaica, Burns was persuaded to publish the Kilmarnock edition of his poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the Kilmarnock edition resulted in an invitation to promote a Second Edition in Edinburgh, which Burns accepted eagerly, cancelling his trip to Jamaica.

Through the  eyes of 16-year-old Walter Scott,  Wikipedia describes how Burns was received in Edinburgh:

His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.

—?Walter Scott

Burns refused to take any payment for his work on songs, regarding it as his contribution to the National culture. The Documentary  In Search Of Robert Burns  reports that Burns extravagant lifestyle had put him into debt at the end if his life, so much so that he had to write two frantic requests for loans to pay a debt to a haberdasher. Burns had been ill for 10 months and was very frail.   The loans were provided but Burns was already dead of a heart attack brought on by severe pulmonary problems. A sad story, but the Documentary points to  happier ending, describing how  a life-sized model of Burns’ head was  reconstructed by forensic scientists.

What did Robert Burns look like? Burns Birthplace Museum on the many faces of The Bard

by Richard Moss | 18 February 2015  tells us that

”A life-sized model of Burns’ head, reconstructed by forensic scientists from the University of Dundee in 2013 using Burns’ skull as well as surviving portraits and a silhouette from his lifetime, join the contemporary creations to offer what Museum Director David Hopes describes as a ‘rare chance to reflect on the personality of Burns through portraiture’.
‘Images of the Poet say as much about us as they do about Burns,’ he adds. ‘The Real Face is therefore an opportunity to see Burns and to see ourselves – and our relationship with him – in entirely new ways.’”


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