Burns’s Immortal Memory celebrated at Exeter College
The toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns was this year given by Sir David Forbes Hendry, former Head of the Economics Department at the University of Oxford. His speech can be read in full below.
The Immortal Memory
Scotland at the time of Burns’s birth on January 25, 1759 was one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 had only recently ended in a disastrous battle on Culloden Moor; housing was crowded, squalid and unsanitary; disease rampant; a bad harvest spelled famine; the average age of death was around 40; and most children died before age five. Jean Armour, Burns’s wife, bore him nine children, but only three survived infancy. Hardly propitious times.
Yet all was not lost due to the unintended consequences of the religious fundamentalist, John Knox, 200 years earlier. Knox believed that everyone should read the Bible, so required every parish church to provide schooling for its local children. Once literate, many read much more than Bibles. Even by 1583, Scotland had four universities, whereas its much larger and richer neighbour to the south still only had two in 1820. By 1760, Scotland had a highly educated population. Consequently, following the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, Scots had taken over many enterprises from the English including most of the Port wine trade (quintessentially English since the Treaty of Windsor in 1373â€”the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world, which is still in force), and much of the tobacco and cotton trade. American Higher Education still follows the Scottish tradition of four year degrees with a broad curriculum. About a third of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were Scots despite comprising a small percentage of the colonists.
Edinburgh was already known as the Athens of the North, by analogy to Athens in the Age of Pericles around 450BC, not just because Scotland was forging intellectual, cultural and technological revolutions but also because, in an act of outstanding vision, the Town Council of Edinburgh, under the leadership of Provost George Drummond, in 1766 commissioned the development of a New Town of splendid mansions set in circles, squares and park-lined wide streets, an early example of high quality town planning.
The ‘Select Society’ formed in the 1750s was at the centre of Edinburgh’s path-breaking discussions of the intellectual issues of the day. Its members included economists like Adam Smith and David Hume, Lord Kames and Frances Hutcheson (philosophers), John Playfair (mathematician), Joseph Black (chemist), James Hutton, the founder of geology, Robert Adam the architect, and James Watt of steam engine fame. A friend of many of these was a certain Duncan Forbes of Culloden, who was Lord President of the Court of Session for Scotland. He knew both Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland, and had tried unsuccessfully to prevent the 1745 battle near his house. He was my 8th great grandfather, and in the family tradition, I have Forbes as my middle name.
The time was ripe for a talented ploughboy such as Robert Burns to startle society with his extraordinary poetry, when almost all farm workers elsewhere in the world were illiterate. Burns himself had had a mixture of schooling, receiving some from his tenant-farmer father. Robert Burns had a fine eye for the details of life, from a fieldmouse disturbed by his ploughing (To A Mouse), through celebrations of eating (Ode to the Haggis, Selkirk Grace) and drinking (Tam O’Shanter), love (My Luve is like a red, red rose) and friendship (Auld Lang Syne), to an early appreciation of the beauty of the countryside (The Banks O’ Bonnie Doon), combined with an extraordinary gift for recording his feelings in poetry.
Burns wrote mostly in Broad Scots, the majority language of Scotland at the time, where Gaelic was spoken in the North, and English was also common. His contemporaries Adam Smith and David Hume also both spoke Broad Scots, yet wrote some of the finest English prose of their day. There is an amusing correspondence between them, as Hume lived mainly in London, with one letter by Hume regretting that on meeting King George III, he could, to quote ‘control my pen but not my tongue’. Often, Broad Scots was used to tease the English, so some commentators have thought that Hume insulted the King, but actually he probably inadvertently spoke in Broad Scots, so left the King as bemused as some of you might be by Burns poems!
Burns could of course also write beautiful English, as in:
‘Pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flower–the bloom is shed, or like the snowfall on the river, a moment white, then gone forever’.
Much of his trenchant political writing was in English, so his choice of Broad Scots emphasized his strong Scottish nationalism, though it must have limited his potential audience to those who could understand that language. Doing so restricted his income, which was a perennial worry for him. A classic is his ‘Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn‘ which begins:
Scotts, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled, Scotts, wham Bruce has aften led, Welcome to your gory bed, Or to victorie.
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour; See the front o’ battle lour; See approach proud Edward’s power- Chains and Slaverie!
Many of you may have seen Braveheart, where Scots’ shields appear to stop English arrowsâ€”well, a longbow was the nuclear weapon of its day, as French Knights learned too late at Agincourt, and it still outperforms a Colt 45 in terms of penetrating armour. The key reason the Scots won Bannockburn was Edward’s stinginess: archers cost about twice foot soldiers, so he took too few of the former.
The wars with England essentially began in 1057 when they were invited to help overthrow the last of the Northern Scottish Kings, called Macbeth. While Macbeth had killed Duncan to acquire the throne, Shakespeare’s version misrepresents Macbeth, as he brought peace and prosperity to Scotland for almost 20 years. The lowland nobles led by Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore (whose English wife, Margaret, established the feudal system in the lowlands, but failed in the Highlands) then ousted and killed Macbeth. Canmore paid homage to William the Conqueror, precipitating 250 years of English interference and wars of independence, ending at Bannockburn in 1314â€”the year Exeter College was founded.
Burns published his first volume of poetry in 1787, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect and it was an immediate success: he was suddenly a celebrity. He had planned to flee his debts and abandon Jean Armour by going to the West Indies to oversee work on a plantation, and had actually recorded his feelings in Lines Written On A Banknote in 1786:
Wae worth thy power, thou cursed leaf! Fell source o’ a’ my woe and grief! For lack o’ thee I’ve lost my lass! For lack o’ thee I scrimp my glass! I see the children of affliction Unaided, through thy curst restriction: I’ve seen the oppressor’s cruel smile Amid his hapless victim’s spoil; And for thy potence vainly wished, To crush the villain in the dust: For lack o’ thee, I leave this much-lov’d shore, Never, perhaps, to greet old Scotland more.
Instead he went straight to Edinburgh, where he was hosted by all the gliterati and nobles of the time, including the Select Society of which he became a member.
Burns was a prolific writer, with around 550 attributed works in his short life. His writings came at the start of the â€˜romantic revival’, influencing Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley as well as Walter Scott. The Banks O’ Bonnie Doon begins:
Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon, How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair? How can ye chant, ye little birds, And I sae weary fu’ o’ care!
That worry arose from his love life, which was profligate to say the leastâ€”he had children with several women and affairs with many more, perhaps a reason for his prolific love poems, some to facilitate seduction (often unsuccessful), some as parting billet doux. The most famous example is:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June: O my Luve’s like the melodie, That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, So deep in luve am I; And I will luve thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Unfortunately, the reality is that Burns was a fickle and unfaithful lover, but perhaps he drew inspiration from his many failed affairs.
Burns views on fellowship and human relations seem to have been influenced by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments published in 1759 (when Burns was born). As an aside, his friend David Hume wrote to Smith humorously at the time ‘I proceed to tell you the melancholy News, that your book has been very unfortunate: For the public seem disposed to applaud it extremely…. You may conclude what Opinion true Philosophers will entertain of it…’ That book is where the famous phrase ‘Invisible Hand’ first appears, with the Wealth of Nationsâ€”published in that vintage year of 1776â€”written to reconcile markets with fellow feeling.
This is a pertinent topic in view of the recent financial crisis, especially as Burns own life and his father’s suffered greatly from the collapse of the Ayr Bank of Douglas, Heron & Co in 1773 after the Bank of Scotland, founded in 1695, refused it loans: Bank of Scotland itself was taken over in 2009 facing a similar problem.
Perhaps Burns most famous writing relates to this theme of friendship and recognizing the worth of others, including Auld Lang Syne, and A Man’s a Man for a that:
That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that. For a’ that and a’ that A Man’s a Man for a’ that
Having sold the copyright of his poems to his publisher, Burns had no royalty income so joined the Customs and Excise in 1789. He wrote sarcastically about it in The Deil’s Awa Wi’ The Exciseman in 1792.
We’ll mak our maut, and we’ll brew our drink, We’ll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man, And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil, That danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman.
Worse still, until his death at 37, the demon drink took a large a hold on him. Yet he wrote some memorable works during that time, including his great poem Tam O’Shanter. It is estimated 10,000 people turned out for his funeral in the small town of Dumfries.
So why do Scots remember this man every year rather than its heroes, kings, scientists or engineers, of which it has plenty? Scotland has had a turbulent history, with major tussles for power between the lowlands and highlands, which the lowlands won. My distant ancestor played a part in that, by helping towards legislation which essentially endowed Clan Chiefs with ownership of Clan lands, eventually leading to the Highland Clearances as those Chiefs abnegated their responsibilities to their clansmen, and turned the land over to more profitable sheep farming. So much for fellow feeling.
Thus Scotland had a double Diasporaâ€”a voluntary 18th Century one to England and the colonies, benefiting from a comparative advantage in education; and a forced 19th Century Clearance amid great misery. The desire to uphold memories of their beautiful homeland led to creating traditionsâ€”kilts were an ancient dress in the Highlands, but unique coloured tartan kilts associated with specific Clans were designed by Walter Scott for the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822.
What better way to pay homage to and maintain a real link with Scotland than by celebrating this great and extraordinary poet ploughboy; an ardent nationalist who wrote in the vernacular on the grand themes of love, friendship, brotherhood, and Scotland’s countryside. That is why there are Burns Suppers, and that is why we are here tonight. Please be upstanding and toast Robert Burns, poetry, Scotland, and the Immortal Memory.
David Forbes Hendry, January 2011