A Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns
January 25, 2011

[These remarks were prepared and delivered by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University. This text is in the public domain, released January 2011]


We now come to the serious portion of tonight’s program, a tribute to the memory of the man whose name graces these proceedings. When I was first asked to give this address, I was very reluctant, largely because, like almost everyone here, although I was very familiar with Burns’ name, I had relatively little knowledge of his work (apart from a few favourite poems). So I tried refusing, but, as those who know him will attest, Bill McColl does not take no for an answer. He pursued me so fiercely that soon I felt like Tam O’Shanter’s mare, Maggie. No matter how much I charged away, the fiends were still nipping at my rear end, and I was in the danger of losing some vital part of my anatomy, unless I conceded. Since there was no bridge I could charge across to end the pursuit, I gave up, and here I am.

In celebrating “Rabbie” Burns we are, of course, also celebrating Scotland or, more accurately, what we scattered people of Scottish heritage would like to think of Scotland in those moments when we remember the place as our sentimental homeland. And so it is customary on these occasions to pay tribute to our ancestry by providing a detailed list of Burns’ great virtues, supplemented by a judicious selection of his verse, to remind us of our distant homeland’s greatest hero, the perfect Scotsman, who embodies all the finest qualities of the noble inhabitants of that country and their scattered family members.

I would like to try something a little different tonight, because it strikes me that what makes Burns worth remembering and celebrating is not his unalloyed virtue but his contradictions. Like most of us, he was not a paragon of all that is best and brightest in the human character. Instead he was a complex mixture of contrasting characteristics, often at war with each other. And these contrasts make him remarkable and far more interesting than the figure created by so many years of chauvinistic canonization. Yes, he was a fierce spokesman for equality and justice (who could pen the oft quoted words, "Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!"), but he also accepted a position as an administrator for a slave plantation in Jamaica (a career from which he was saved at the last minute by the overnight fame his first published book of poetry brought him, a work which, ironically enough, was supposed to earn money to pay for the ship’s passage). He despised hypocrisy, denounced it repeatedly, and wrote scathing satiric poems attacking those who practised it, and yet he willingly (if somewhat guiltily) participated in a process which falsified who he was and what he believed in, so that he could become famous. He wrote stirring verses about the rights of women, but his treatment of them invites us to wonder if he understood the very principles he was urging us to adopt (he himself paid tribute to himself more than once as a fornicator, and he left several pregnant young women in his wake); he was a man of the people, an avid republican, who could purchase the guns from a confiscated French smuggling ship, send them to the revolutionary government in Paris, and fiercely applaud the execution of the king and queen of France (“the deserved fate of . . . a perjured Blackhead & an unprincipled prostitute”), but he could also toady to the aristocrats to give him a patronage job as a tax collector; he was a wonderful companion to his friends (many of whom admired his conversation more than they did his poetry), but was capable of drunken behaviour so disgusting (like re-enacting the rape of Lucrece with his hostess) that close friends refused to speak to him again. Above all, he was a self-proclaimed poet who, rather than devoting his time assiduously to producing his own work, spent the last ten years of his life collecting and editing the work of others (in fact, his best known work, “Auld Lang Syne,” a product of this activity, is hardly an original Burns’ creation). There is enough, even in this short list, to raise a few questions about the picture of Burns commonly presented on nights like this one.

But these ambiguities help to explain his greatness as the national hero of the Scottish people, for if there is one adjective more commonly applied to them than any other, that word is contradictory. Throughout its history, from the very beginning to the present day, the country has had to deal with apparently insoluble contrasts, especially about the true character of its inhabitants: Are they Gaelic or Pict; highlander or lowlander; Catholic, Protestant, or secular rationalist; royalist, republican, nationalist, Covenanter, or Briton. What is our language: Gaelic, Scots (whatever that is exactly), English, or some combination? Even today, there is still a continuing argument over the national dress: Is one is permitted or obliged to wear anything underneath a kilt? No wonder, as Alan Bold has observed, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have been written only by a Scotsman.

Scotland’s history is punctuated with valiant attempts which seem to lead inevitably to dismal defeats. Even the country’s greatest political triumph over its strongest adversary, England, turned out to be a hollow victory, for when James VI assumed the crown of England after the death of Elizabeth I, he rode south, and Scotland ended up being ruled from Westminster, more firmly under the thumb of England than before.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Scottish people have some curious customs. The national flower is a weed, the thistle, and the animal celebrated on the royal coat of arms is an imaginary one, the unicorn. This creature may be almost invincible, but it can be conquered by a young virgin, a fact which may help to explain why Burns spent so much time trying to reduce the number of virgins in his part of the country. The national Scottish cuisine features, at one extreme, the most sublime of liquors, malt whisky, and, at the other, the culinary excrescence of the deep-fried Mars bar (Where haggis fits on this spectrum I leave to the judgment of each member of the audience). People with a Scottish heritage seem to have a bizarre tendency to spend a lifetime working hard, saving money, and shrewdly increasing their fortunes, so that in their later years they can bankrupt themselves on building in some distant land an enormous stone castle (like Craigdarroch or Casa Loma), the design of which, one assumes, comes from the deep recesses of the Scottish imagination. In the world of sports, Scotland has given us one of the most bizarre contests ever devised, the stern psychological test of the game of golf and, at the other extreme, they have come up with the physical challenges of curling and the Highland Games. Given the delight the Scottish people take in throwing unusually heavy objects like curling stones, hammers, and cabers, it is no wonder that one milestone in the history of medical treatments for hernias is named after a Scotsman (the Ferguson Method).

However, the most curious thing about this paradoxical country is its adoption of a poet as its national hero. So far as I know, Scotland is the only land which has so honoured the poetic profession. And this is all the more curious when one reflects on the quality we most immediately associate with the Scottish people: a hard-working, inventive philosophical, scientific, and business spirit which has contributed so much to commerce, to the intellectual achievements of Europe, and to practical inventions used all over the world—everything from the steam engine, logarithms, and radar to marmalade, Maxwell’s equations, and Dolly the cloned sheep. Scottish people, so we believe, have an unusual genius for making money (or at least not spending it carelessly). Canada’s political, commercial, and intellectual history is a tribute to these qualities, for it littered with Scottish names—Fraser, Mackenzie, Eaton, MacDonald, Bell, Fleming, Dunsmuir, and on an on—so that here, more than anywhere, we associate a Scottish heritage with hard work, scientific genius, and practical success, not with scribbling unprofitable verses.

In Burns’ own time, the ironies of Scotland’s culture were very much in evidence. In the century before his birth, Scotland had witnessed a series of disillusioning and disastrous defeats. The Covenanters’ attempt at a distinct Scottish constitutional monarchy with the Kirk given a commanding role had failed and Scotland had been occupied by Cromwell’s army. The Act of Union in 1707 had united England and Scotland, to the dismay of most Scottish people. The last gasp of the Jacobites was snuffed out when Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated in 1745, and the Highland clans had been devastated at Culloden in 1746 (after which wearing a tartan became illegal). And yet parts of Scotland were the envy of Europe. Edinburgh was a centre of Enlightenment progressive thinking and well-reasoned public policy (which produced, among other things, the first public education system in Europe). Many civilized Europeans regarded Scotland as the most enlightened country in the world: “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization” declared Voltaire.

In this strange time, Burns’ first volume of verse in 1786 (at age 27) arrived as an announcement to those people who wished to promote a stronger sense of a truly Scottish identity that their Messiah had arrived. Here they saw clear evidence of a poetic spirit uncontaminated by any foreign (especially any English) influence. Here was, as one critic put it, our “Heaven-taught ploughman,” whose work confirmed the genius of the people and apparently justified the cry from a decade before, “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?” Burns was immediately offered to the public as proof of the health and strength of the Scottish national character, which had no need for anything but a purely Scottish environment. Conveniently forgotten in the fabrication of this myth was that Burns had received an excellent education, not merely from Heaven but also from his father (an education which included Classical, European, and English literature), and that if Heaven indeed had taught Burns to plough, then it had not done a very good job, for Burns’ career as a farmer was a disaster.

Burns became famous very quickly, and the experience left him feeling uneasy. Much as he enjoyed the popularity and willingly participated in the process which made him a household name in cultural circles, a part of him resented being seen, not first and foremost as a poet, but rather as the saviour of Scotland.

That I have some merit, I do not deny, is my own opinion; but I see, with frequent wringings of heart, that the novelty of my character, and the honest, national prejudice of Scotsmen . . . have borne me to a height altogether untenable to my abilities.

Burns’ fear that the legend might swallow up the man, that the grandeur of the national hero might take attention away from the poetry was prophetic, so that by one of the curious ironies of history the canonization of the poet has, in the opinion of many modern observers, had a deleterious effect on the writing and appreciation of poetry in Scotland.

The creation of the Burns’ myth has no doubt given Scotland and its far-flung offspring many benefits, for every country needs its heroes and who could denigrate welcome annual celebrations like this one when we wax nostalgic about our ancestors? And if we grow very sentimental at such a time, what’s wrong with that? But the fact is that Burns’ amazing reputation, the acknowledged quality of his best poetry, and his years of work collecting and editing traditional verse did not encourage any sort of revival of poetry in Scotland or attract any followers. Quite the reverse. Some of those lamenting this influence have commented that in Scotland for a long time there seems to have been a feeling best expressed by the opinion, “Here we don’t need poetry. We have the great Rabbie Burns. There no need for anything more.”

One way of recognizing this point is to ask people to name another well-known Scottish poet. The name that most immediately comes to mind is William McGonegall, who is celebrated as best-known bad poet in the history of literature written in English. On the ground that one should never let slip a chance to read a sample of McGonegall’s work, let me offer a short selection from what is by far his most popular poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” As I recite these lines, I’d like you to remember that they are from the best known poem of Scotland’s second most popular poet.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Burns would undoubtedly have been bitterly upset at these frequent observations about the state of poetry in Scotland. For at the core of his being, beneath all those contradictions, Burns was, first and foremost, a poet, a man who believed in and constantly celebrated the beauty and importance of the work to which he devoted so much of his own life. Thus the fact that what history has done with his memory has helped to diminish the importance of poetry in his native land is one of the cruellest ironies of this paradoxical man and country.

So I would urge us, when we offer a toast to the immortal memory, to remember the man, not the myth. If we are interesting in thinking about Burns at other times of the year, let us return to his writing—his poems and letters—and develop a keener appreciation for the man he really was, in the spirit of his famous lines:

What though on hamely fare we dine, 
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that; 
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; 
A Man’s a Man for a’ that: 
For a’ that, and a’ that, 
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that; 
The honest man, tho 
e’er sae poor, 
Is king o’ men for a’ that. 

To the immortal memory of Robert Burns . . .