To the immortal memory of Robert Burns

Speech delivered by Frank Chalmers at Dundee Burns Club’s 160th Annual Burns Supper on 25 January 2020.

Frank Chalmers delivers the Immortal Memory
Frank Chalmers delivers the Immortal Memory

First of all I’d like to thank Graham Ogilvy for inviting me out of exile in London to offer this appreciation of Robert Burns. Graham, it’s a real privilege to be here in Dundee tonight.

This weekend, people in many parts of the world will be celebrating Robert Burns as a romantic poet, a writer of amazing love songs, and as an environmental poet – and heavens knows we could do with a Robert Burns nowadays wielding his pen in defence of the environment.

We all know the lines from Burns’ poem To a Mouse: ‘Poor wee, couring timorous beastie…’ In the poem, Burns reflected on how the animal’s habitat was being destroyed by the actions of a solitary ploughman. Earlier this evening we received friendly greetings from the Freemantle Burns Club in Australia – a country that has become a living metaphor for this tragedy. In Australia, an estimated one billion animals have recently been burnt to death, and many thousands of farm animals have been culled to save them from incineration. These events have occurred because of individual selfishness and industrial abuse of our climate on a world scale.

In Burns’ time there were only the first glimmerings of how industry might dominate the planet. As a youngster, Burns was taken to visit the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk because it was such a unique place, but the gatekeeper wouldn’t let him in. He wouldn’t have known that the owner of that iron works, Roebuck, had only a few years earlier financed the young inventor James Watt, who went to Birmingham and was developing the rotary engine, which would kick-start the industrial revolution. Industry did not, however, sweep through Scotland till long after Burns’ time.

Burns and most people in Scotland, looked to the land or to the weaving to make a living, but that way of life was also undergoing massive change. New root crops were coming in – potatoes had, for example, recently been introduced to Scotland – and wealthier farmers were stealing a march on tenant farmers by using a range of new mechanical implements. It was no longer enough to be able to work the soil under your own capacity – you needed capital, something that was in short supply for Burns’ father, and later Burns and his brother.

They struggled, to make enough even to pay the rent for their land, and in his poem The Twa Dugs, Burns expressed his vitriol at the situation. He wrote:

Poor tenant bodies, scant o’ cash
How they maun thole a factor’s snash;
He’ll stamp and threaten, curse and swear
He’ll apprehend them, poind their gear
While they maun stand wi aspect humble
And hear it a’, and fear and tremble.

Burns lived at the start of an epochal change in Scotland. He was born fourteen years after the clans under Bonnie Prince Charlie were shot to pieces on Culloden Moor. That battle signalled the final death of feudalism in Scotland, but not of feudal and even pre-feudal practices.

In Burns’ day there was no welfare state to fall back on and no trade unions to take up your cause. So what could people do?

Living in exile in London, I always follow the results of Dundee and Dundee United, both of which are, sadly, not yet back in the Premiership. Each club, I believe, now has 3,000–4,000 season ticket holders. That figure is worth reflecting on, because in Burns’ time, there were only 3,000 people allowed to vote.

And I’m not talking about in what would become Dundee West, where we are this evening, or even in the area around Dens Park or Tannadice. There were only 3,000 voters in the whole of Scotland. All men of course, like this gathering here! And every one of them could be bought for a price – money, a government appointment, or some other inducement to ensure that they cast their votes in defence of privilege.

Virtually all of the votes were controlled by a handful of rich merchants or landed gentry, who in turn were controlled by the King’s representative in Scotland – Henry Dundas. And, of course, the Scottish Parliament couldn’t make a stand – because there wasn’t one.

Burns hated the fact that Scotland had lost its independence. He wrote:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitors’ wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

And he meant in the Scottish nation!

Today we have more than four million people entitled to vote in Scotland.

But Burns and his fellows didn’t just live under economic hardship and the yoke of London rule, they lived in fear of a religious gestapo.

In Scotland, in Burns’ time, it was sinful:

  • for any woman to wait outside a pub – never mind go in to one,
  • for any Scottish town to hold a market on a Saturday or Monday – as these were the days next to Sunday
  • for any woman to live alone or with unmarried sisters.

And among the worst of sins was to be caught having sex outside marriage – despite the fact that sex was probably the most popular adult pastime, as there was no TV, radio or cinema. There were pubs and social groups, and singing and poetry – although Burns would have to be careful with the audiences.

Burns wrote about sex, but he also wrote about its implications. In The Trogger, a Burns poem you won’t have been taught at school, Burns wrote:

As I cam down by Annan side,
Intending for the border,
Amang the Scroggie banks and braes,
Wha met I but a trogger.
He laid me down upon my back,
I thought but he was jokin,
Till he was in me to the hilts,
O the deevil tak sic troggin!

What could I say, what could I do,
I bann’d and sair misca’d him,
But whiltie-whaltie gae’d his arse
The mair that I forbade hime:
He stell’d his foot against a stane,
And doubl’d ilka stroke in,
Till I gaed daft amang his hands,
O the deevil tak sic troggin!
Then up we raise, and took the road,
And in by Ecclefechan,
Where brandy-stoup we gart it clink,
And the strang-beer ream the quench in.
Bedown the bents o’ Bonshaw braes,
We took the partin’ yoking;
But I’ve claw’d a sairy cunt synsine,
O the deevil tak sic troggin!

That poem couldn’t be published until after Burns’ death or he would have faced the wrath of the church establishment.

We know that he was made to sit on the cutty stool in front of the whole Kirk to be harangued by the minister because he’d been caught having sex.

At that time, however, even the church was in political turmoil – divided between the ‘ald lights’ (the reactionary Calvinists), and the ‘new lights’, who were more liberal.

This is actually what Holy Willie’s Prayer is about – the different political tensions in society. Burns castigates the hypocrisy of one of the church elders and shows him praying to God, asking for the destruction of the more liberal people he doesn’t agree with.

Lord hear my earnest prayer
Against the presbytery of Ayr
Thy strong hand, Lord, mak it bare
Upon their heids
Lord, visit them
And dinna spare them for their misdeeds

But earlier in the poem, Burns shows up Holy Willie and the reactionaries in terms of their own sins – in this case of illicit sex! Holy Willie says:

Oh Lord, yestreen, thou kens, wi Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg
Oh may it never be a living plague to my dishonour
An I’ll never again lift a lawless leg upon her

Besides, I further maun avow
Wi Leezie’s lass, three times I trew
But Lord, that Friday I was fou
When I came near her
Or else thou kens, thy servant true
Wad never steer her.

Again, no publisher would dare handle the poem until after Burns’ death. It had to be distributed by hand through the villages.

But Burns’ words were also aimed at making a positive change. He was sixteen when the American Revolution overthrew the British Monarch and the colonies declared independence. He was inspired, and he wrote in praise of George Washington, but the American war of independence also created a crisis in Scotland. Food prices soared and the markets that the Ayrshire farmers and weavers relied on were destroyed. A terrible summer and an early winter made things even worse, wiping out all the crops and leading to famine. Robert’s father struggled to pay his debts and under the strain of this his health broke down completely. The Sheriff’s officer arrived at the Burns’ Lochlea farm with a warrant for his sequestration and the town crier rang his bell round the parish announcing the news. William Burns was only saved from arrest and imprisonment… because he died.

Three years after Burns’ first book of poetry was published, a call went round the world from the French National Assembly in its ‘Declaration of the rights of man’. It said, to paraphrase:

Men are born free and equal… the Law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society… the Law is the expression of the will of the community.

Organisations, calling themselves The Friends of the People, sprung up across the country, and they and their leaders began to distribute material supporting the ideas of liberty, including Thomas Paine’s tract, The Rights of Man. The authorities did everything they could to crush them.

Two of the leading fighters for democracy in Burns’ time, the Reverend Fish-Palmer, from Dundee (someone who I’m sure Graham has previously spoken about in conjunction with George Mealmaker), and Thomas Muir, from Glasgow, were arrested, kept in Woolwich hulk prisons and then transported to the furthest side of the globe, and I think, in Fish-Palmer’s case, to his death.

Burns became known as a champion of their ideas. The folk of Dumfries, when he was living in that area, loved him not only as a poet but also as a potential people’s leader. In another poem that couldn’t be published in his lifetime, Burns wrote:

Heard ye o’ the tree o’ France
I watna what’s the name o’t
Around it a’ the patriots dance
Weel Europe kens the fame o’t
It stands where ance the Bastille stood
A prison built by Kings, man
When superstition’s hellish brood
Kept France in leading strings, man…

… Wi’ plenty o’ sic trees, I trow
The warld would live in peace, man
The sword would help to mak’ a plough
The din o’ waar would cease, man
Like brethren in a common cause
We’d on each other smile, man
And equal rights and equal laws
Wad gladden every isle, man.

When the crowd in a Dumfries theatre sang Ca Ira (the song of the French revolution), which means ‘It will be fine’, or ‘It will come’, Burns was there. He was a terrible singer by all accounts, but you can imagine him beating out the time for them and giving them the lead. It will come!

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament, our country’s first governing body in almost 300 years, Sheena Wellington from Dundee led the parliament in a rendition of Burns’ A Man’s a Man for a’ That, including the words ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that’. That song was written by Burns in 1793, at the height of fervour for the French revolution.

Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man, had also been a leader in the American revolution, so it makes you wonder, with this week’s news about the Presidential impeachment hearings, what is now going on in the United States, with the President declaring any criticism of him to be fake news.

Despite Burns himself being hounded by the authorities in his day, he wrote presciently:

Here’s freedom to them that would read
Here’s freedom to them that would write
There’s nane ever feared that the truth should be heard
But they whom the truth should indite.

Thomas Carlyle tells of how Burns could enter an inn to stay the night if he was travelling in other parts of Scotland, and even if it was one o’-clock in the morning, word would spread like wildfire until everyone was up out of their beds demanding that Burns read them some of his verse.

Burns’ poetry is regarded as being for the people because he was one of the people and, then as now, he could project a vision of the future that showed how things could be different.

Today, in times of poverty, of division and destruction of the environment on a global scale, Burns still offers us hope for the future and a trust in our ability to deliver it.

In November, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland when we host the next United Nations International Climate Conference. We are heading for a climate catastrophe and the potential destruction of our way of life. But there is still hope.

Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, Burns asked us to recognise our common humanity and strive for a positive and internationalist vision of a future. He wrote:

The golden age we’ll then revive
Each man will be a brother
In harmony we all shall live
And share the earth together
In virtue, trained enlightened youth
Will love each fellow creature
And future years will prove the truth
That man is good by nature

That is why Burns’ words are still relevant today. So please raise your glasses to toast Robert Burns, the democrat, the radical, the environmentalist, and Scotland’s Bard.

The bard!