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01st February 2013

The immortal memory: Burns Night address at Exeter College

The toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns was this year given by Jeremy Peat, director of the David Hume Institute. His speech can be read in full below.

Let us get two things straight from the very outset.

1.       First and foremost Robert Burns was a remarkable person and a great bard who has had a huge influence for many centuries on Scotland – with a genuine worldwide reach. It is quite possible to argue that he is the pre-eminent poet ever and anywhere across the British isles. To my non-expert mind he stands head and shoulders above his so-called peer group – even and specifically from my humble perspective Shakespeare.  No wonder there are Burns night celebrations across the globe – my first ever was in Bangkok – and nothing similar for Keats or Wordsworth or Shakespeare. Think on that; Burns is the main man!

2.       Second I am anything but a Burns expert. When asked by your Rector to deliver this address, I dillied and dallied before (rather reluctantly) agreeing. That is not because I am ‘unaccustomed to public speaking’. Quite the reverse during 12 years as Group Chief Economist at RBS (when it remained a respectable institution) I spoke to a wide variety of audiences in UK, US and Europe many dozens of times each year. But that was on economics, a topic (a) about which I knew more and (b) on which it is much easier to fool folk.

But let me also stress that – as designated by the kilt if not confirmed by my accent – I am in large part (emphasis here on large!) a Scot, albeit in sum a mongrel. My father was a proud Glaswegian protestant, while my mother was half Irish catholic and half London Jew. Hence I grew up confused with atheist tendencies. I see no role for myself in Celtic/Rangers conflicts.

But there is no English blood cursing through these veins; and when the sound of Flower of Scotland rattles around Murrayfield rugby stadium I know what side I am on – sadly almost always the losing one! Roll on the 6 Nations, another year of hope lies ahead!

I live in Roslin Glen on the east of Scotland not the west. As a west of Scotland man my father would be upset. He saw Edinburgh folk as tending to being pompous and mean. Folk from the west believe that folk from the east are less than generous with their hospitality – suggesting that the standard greeting is ‘you’ll have had your tea’. There is also the story of the two ladies from Morningside – the centre of posh Edinburgh – who died and arrived at the pearly gates. When they told St Peter from whence they came he responded that they could come in but they would not like it!

The village of Roslin is famous on three counts. First it was the home of the inventor of Bovril – the hot beef drink that permits the survival of many a Scottish football fan on the freezing terraces. Second it is proud of Roslin Chapel – the most wonderful building that was featured in the Da Vinci Code book and film and hence now has 150,000+ visitors each year. Despite the influx of Americans, etc. it remains a must see attraction, with its Apprentice Pillar and carvings of maize and aloe dating from well before Columbus ‘discovered’ America; truly beautiful and fascinating even if the Holy Grail is not buried there

Thirdly Roslin is where Dolly the sheep was cloned – the first ever such activity. We are very proud of this and believe Roslin is the only village in the whole of the UK with the technical ability to be twinned with itself.

But on to Burns; and let me start by quoting Liz Lochhead – the Scottish ‘Makar’ – or national poet – in yesterday’s Guardian – Oxford’s only daily paper I believe: –

She sees Burns as a myth, which ‘we Scots shape to our own likeness, a myth endlessly adaptable. To the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious’

I can empathise with Ms Lochhead, as even before reading that passage I had decided that I would invent my own Burns for this talk, to fit in with the thesis that I wished to present to you – not being dishonest about Burns in any way just taking advantage of his endless adaptability.

There are three elements to my thesis; first Burns as the sentimentalist; then Burns as the patriot – he would have been wholly pro-independence as we approach a referendum in 2014; and thirdly Burns as the socialist who would have loudly opposed the present UK Government’s fiscal policies. I have texts to demonstrate these facts.

First let me be a little sentimental and praise Burns the sentimentalist. We have three special languages in Scotland. The Doric is spoken in the north east and the northern isles, a reminder of Viking invasions and to me incomprehensible. Then there is the Gaelic. I do not ‘have the Gaelic’ but I adore Gaelic singing – the lady singers from the isles of Barra and the Uists in the Outer Hebrides are the most beautiful of face and voice in the big wide world. During my 6 years on the board of the BBC (while it was a respectable institution – or perceived as such) I managed to finalise arrangements for a BBC Gaelic language channel – BBC Alba.

The sentimental part of me has also discovered the beauty of female voices singing Burns in the Scots tongue. Burns was both sentimental and a truly licentious man, he allegedly stated that women are beautiful and foolish – beautiful so that we will love them and foolish so that they will love men. And love them he did as your Rector has described, fathering many children from multiple relationships – with yet another such relationship being explored in the Scottish press this very week.

Nevertheless, his love poetry is remarkable – commended to all trying to make an impression on their desired ones! The sound of Eddie Reader (who for those with long memories starred with Fairport Convention and sang with Robbie Coltrane in the BBC’s epic ‘Tooty-Fruity’)– singing ‘One Fair Kiss’ or ‘Love is Like a Red, Red, Rose’ is enough to turn the head and heart of the hardest of adored ones! Having heard from the Oxford Fiddlers you will appreciate the beauty of his words. Those with sore hearts must go out and buy the CD of Eddie Reader singing Burns and listen away – and no doubt sob away – to those tunes in particular. Those who wish to go a-wooing should buy the disc for their desired one – or if really brave recite the poems or sing the songs.

Allow me to be brave and recite a brief passage: –

O my Love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in spring
O my love is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass
So deep in love am I
And I will love thee still, my dear
Till all the seas gang dry.

Enough before I burst into tears!

No room for sentimentality now as I turn next to why the great bard would have opposed George Osborne’s stringent fiscal policies. (How’s that for a real cheese to chalk moment!)

I pray in aid the famous Burns poem to the mouse. Which was apparently written after he had spotted a thresher in the field destroy the home of a field mouse, laying that mouse and its family exposed to the worst that a Scottish autumn and winter could throw at them. Let me cite two stanzas:

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

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste
And weary winter comes fast
And cosy here, beneath the blast
Thou sought to dwell –
Till crash! The cruel cutter passed
Out through thy cell

The analysts of Burns see this poem as a socialist cry to arms, drawing parallels with the state of mankind – and I can see a present day Burns seeing ‘a broken social union’ justifying an ‘ill opinion’ of our Chancellor – and drawing parallels between the mouse family that was ‘cosy here beneath the blast’ and the changed state of many in today’s struggling UK. But then as I have learned from a daughter who is an English literature academic there are uncertainties of interpretation of words in that subject just as there are uncertainties in interpreting numbers in economics.

My final element of the thesis was Burns as the nationalist. Certainly he unites the Scottish nation and diaspora in a manner unlike all others – comparable only perhaps to the universal scots’ view of the English. He had strong views on the Act of Union: –

What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane

We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation

He would presumably favour a yes vote in the independence referendum, being only too keen to dispatch the ‘parcel of rogues’ from the Scottish nation! Or just maybe he would suspect that we had developed our very own parcel of rogues at the Parliament in Holyrood.

My hope is that we will have a continuing debate in the run up to the autumn 2014 referendum that is more in the spirit of Hume than that of Burns – we need a debate that is transparent, objective and informed, laced with a goodly dose of scepticism.

That is enough recitation and enough parallels for one evening. But I do not wish you to be left with a false impression of Burns. Yes he was a sentimentalist, a socialist and a nationalist – but he was also a rogue and a womaniser.

A story is told of him and his brother Gilbert leaning over a farmyard wall watching the hens and the cockerel scratching about. One of the hens gives the cockerel the eye and he starts to strut across the yard to do his manly duty. Just then the farmer comes out and scatters seed about the yard. The cockerel stops and starts to peck at the seed. On seeing this Rabbie turns to his brother and says ‘Gilbert I pray that I will never be as hungry as that’.

All the evidence suggests that this proved to be the case for our licentious bard.

So that is Robbie Burns – sentimentalist, socialist, nationalist and womaniser – but most of all an enduring genius with words, the great craftsman

I would now like you all to charge your glasses and be upstanding while I propose a toast: –

‘To the Immortal memory of Robert Burns’

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