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03rd February 2012

The immortal memory: Burns Night address at Exeter College

Exeter College was delighted to welcome Magnus Linklater, former editor of The Scotsman, to give the Burns Night address recently.

The immortal memory: Burns Night address at Exeter College by Magnus Linklater

I was told by your rector that I had to make this address light-hearted. I was told I should not presume too deep a knowledge of our national bard. And I was told that it would be appreciated if I wore a kilt. I have fulfilled the third request. Now for the other two.

This is a terrible joke. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, is being shown around a local hospital. Towards the end of the visit, he is shown into a ward with a number of people with no obvious signs of injury or disease.

He goes to greet the first patient and the chap replies: “Fair fa’ your honest sonsie face, Great chieftain e’ the puddin’ race! Aboon them a’ ye tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm; Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace as lang’s my arm.”

Boris, being somewhat confused (easily done) goes to the next patient and greets him. The patient replies: “Some hae meat, and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it, but we hae meat and we can eat, and sae the Lord be thankit.”

The third starts rattling off: “Wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae hasty, wi bickering brattle!”

Boris turns to the doctor and asks: “Is this the mental ward?”

“No” the doctor replies, “It’s the Burns unit.”

OK, it’s not quite up to the standard you expect at Exeter College, but it gives me a way in to explaining a bit about the Burns phenomenon. And it is a phenomenon. This poet, who wrote much of his verse in the broadest of Scots, whose lines require subtitles at best, sometimes wholesale translation, lays claim to being the world’s most popular poet. There are more statues of him throughout the world than any other writer – 20 in America, 16 in Australia, a dozen in Canada. In Russia last week there were more Burns suppers than in any country outside Scotland. In Japan, I’m told, when the traffic lights turn green, they play a Burns tune, Coming thru’ the Rye, to alert pedestrians. The ritual of Auld Lang Syne, a Burns song whose title alone is baffling, brings to an end almost every public celebration in the world. And his work is constantly recycled. Since his death in 1796, there have been no fewer than 2,000 editions of his poetry published, and 900 volumes of biography.

In Scotland, he is virtually part of the country’s DNA. Last weekend, my wife Veronica and I attended the Burns supper in our small village in Perthshire, where she once delivered the Immortal Memory, an essential component of Burns Night. Everyone knew all the familiar songs, they listened attentively to a talk on the life of the Bard and his relevance to Scotland today. They toasted the lasses, consumed haggis and drank copious amounts of whisky. It’s a ritual as well-embedded as Christmas or Hogmanay. I can think of nothing equivalent in British culture.

And here is another remarkable thing. Burns’s world-wide popularity really took off with the strait-laced Victorians who first clasped him to their bosom, and made a folk hero out of the simple ploughman, who loved whisky and women, and wrote extremely bawdy verse. He was hardly a Victorian role model. His famous clandestine volume The Merry Muses of Caledonia, were judged so obscene that they were banned in Britain until 1965, and even now, I am quite unable to recite any of them to you tonight for fear of committing what, in Scotland, would be called lewd and libidinous behaviour. Suffice it to say that you will find here descriptions of the human anatomy rather more intimate and hilarious than anything to be found in the Oxford Book of English Verse.

Burns’s early years were spent in rural poverty, and great hardship on a farm in Ayrshire with poor land and even poorer prospects. His father was a subsistence farmer who died young. His mother could read the bible but not write. However, a maid in the house, Betty Davidson, had, wrote Burns later: [quote]

“the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, kelpies, elf-candles, deadlights, wraiths, apparitions, giants, enchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy; but had so strong an effect on my imagination that, to this hour, in any nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places…”

He picked up traditional tunes as well as stories, and Burns, who had a good ear for music, is remembered as much for his songs as his poetry. He was in trouble with girls almost from adolescence, but it was they who first moved him to write. “The sweetest hours that ere I spent were spent amongst the lasses-o” runs the chorus of one of his songs.

He was also in trouble with the church. He was made to sit on what was called the stool of repentance, to confess his sins after having got a local girl pregnant, but it does not seem to have concerned him much, and even as he as being castigated by the minister, he could not help scribbling a bit of doggerel verse:

“My downcast eye by chance did spy What made my lips to water, Those limbs so clean where I, between, Commenc’d a Fornicator.”

Hardly the words of a true repenter. Burns’s reputation as a ladies’ man was to become a defining characteristic, and greatly exaggerated. One biography claimed that he had 70 illegitimate children. In fact, of the 13 children he was known to have had, nine were with his faithful wife Jean Armour, who not only stuck with him but inspired some of his greatest love poems.

He burst on the literary scene in Edinburgh in 1786, at the very nadir of his fortunes, when, saddled with debt and following a fraught love affair, he had decided to emigrate to the West Indies. He had even booked his passage, and was ready to join the ship taking him to Kingston, Jamaica, when he found himself lionised by Edinburgh society.

What were the qualities that made him so popular then, and still reach across the generations today? Reading his poems, or listening to them sung, one is struck by their simplicity, their directness, their poignancy, their beauty. As Ian MacIntyre, one of his biographers, puts it:

“He is not Dante, he is not Pushkin, Keats or Wordsworth. It was not given to him, as to Shakespeare, to illuminate our moral universe. He does not even, all that often, make us think. But he makes us laugh and he makes us cry, and in doing so, most precious of all poetic gifts, he heightens the sense we have of our common humanity.”

His love poetry has words of the utmost simplicity, which go straight to the heart. His poem, Ae Fond Kiss, includes these lines:

“Had we never lov’d sae kindly Had we never lov’d sae blindly Never met – or never parted We had ne’er been broken-hearted

Ae fond kiss and then we sever Ae fareweel, alas, for ever Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee Warring signs and groans I’ll wage thee.

And perhaps his most famous:

O my Love’s like a red red rose That’s newly sprung in June O my love is like a melodie That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonie lass, So deep in love am I, And I will love thee still, my Dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry –

Till a’ the seas gang dry my dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; I will love thee still, my Dear, While the sands o’ life shall run.

There is another reason for his popularity. It is his radical politics, which strike a chord with liberal opinion everywhere, and are freely adopted by anyone keen to champion a popular anti-establishment chord. He lived during the volatile revolutionary period of the 1780s, and got into trouble for appearing to endorse the guillotine and the persecution of the French aristocracy. He caused a scandal for refusing to stand for God Save the King at a concert in Dumfries, and was caught singing the French revolutionary hymn, Ca Ira in public, a highly dangerous thing to do.

He wrote a poem about William Wallace and the Scottish war of independence in the 14th century, which caught the revolutionary mood:

“By Oppression’s woes and pains! By your sons in servile chains! We will drain our dearest veins, But we shall be free

“Lay the proud Usurpers low! Tyrants fall in every foe! Liberty’s in every blow Let us do or die!”

His ode to equality, “A man’s a man for a’ that” was as popular in Communist Russia as it is at any trade union gathering. It was even sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. It includes the lines:

A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that; But an honest man’s abon his might, Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that! …

Then let us pray that come it may, (As come it will for a’ that,) That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth, Shall bear the gree, an’ 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.

It was Burns who first used in public the phrase The Rights of Man, later adopted by Thomas Paine.

But just in case you think Burns fits easily into a left-wing radical mould, his own life constantly challenges the caricature. He worked for the government as an excise-man, was a member of the local volunteer army in Dumfries, and served in the Royal Company of Archers, about as establishment a body as you can find in Scotland. He was very fond of dukes and earls, and particularly duchesses and countesses, who were equally entranced with him. And when he died, he was buried with a full military bodyguard in attendance. “Don’t let the awkward squad fire over me,” he told his best friend on his death bed. But they did exactly that. He left behind one of his most moving love poems, written as he lay dying, and given to the pretty 18 year old who tended him during his final illness.

I’d just like to say one other thing about a poet and national hero who is hard not to love: he was a man of great wit and humour. His poem Holy Willie’s Prayer, which mocks Christian hypocrisy, is wonderfully funny, and his epic poem Tam O’Shanter, has more memorable quotations in one poem than I any I can think of. This, about Tam’s wife: ”our sulky, sullen dame, Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

Burns remains a political icon. This year, as Scotland embarks on a historic debate which could end in independence, our national bard is once again at the heart of it. Alex Salmond, First Minister, quotes him as a likely ally, pointing to his endorsement of a Scotland where equality and the common bonds of humanity are guiding principles.

But I’m not so sure. Burns was a cautious character, not at all keen on causing too much trouble, permanently anxious about his finances, worried about losing his job as an exciseman, highly critical of people who threatened the security of the state. I think he would look very closely at his bank balance, shake his head, and conclude, as he did in an article, written in 1788, that there is much to commend the status quo. It was about being “a Briton”, and it applauded the Golorious Revolution of 1688 which was to bring the Hanoverian dynasty to the throne. It ends: “I will not, I cannot enter into the merits of the cause, but I dare say the American Congress in 1776, will be allowed to have been as able and enlightened, and …as honest as the English Convention in 1688; and that the fourth of July will be as sacred to their posterity as the fifth of November is to us …”

So here in 2012, on the 253rd anniversary of his birth, I claim Burns as a Unionist. But I doubt if the argument will end there.

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