by C. David Dent (email@example.com • http://wildandbad.com)
I was asked to deliver this “toast to the immortal Memory of Robert Burns” last year just after the last Burns Dinner. I have had a year to prepare and hopefully you’ll appreciate that I’ve waited until the last minute to actually write a year’s worth of impressions, travel, reading, and reflection into a 20 minute essay.
At the time I was asked to do this, my wife, Heather, and I had already planned a trip to Scotland. We had very few details of where we would be and where we were going other than a start and end date. So it was simple enough to plan part of the trip to be in Ayrshire where Burns had lived most of his life.
In Alloway, the Burns museum allowed us an opportunity to examine much of Burns personal effects and to walk through parts of his life illustrated in the poems, songs, art and politics of his day. It is a marvelous museum, by the way and I strongly urge you to visit it if you get the chance. It served, ultimately, as an overview of the connection I found myself making.
There was a Lad – 1787
There was a lad was born in Kyle,
But whatna day o’whatna style,
I doubt it’s hardly worth the while
To be sae nice wi’Robin.
Robin was a rovin’ Boy,
Rantin’rovin’, rantin’ rovin’;
Robin was a rovin’Boy,
Our monarch’s hindmost year but ane
Was five-and-twenty days begun,
‘Twas then a blast o’Janwar’Win’
Blew hansel in on Robin.
The Gossip keekit in his loof,
Quo’scho wha lives will see the proof,
This waly boy will be nae coof,
I think we’ll ca’him Robin.
He’ll hae misfortunes great and sma’,
But ay a heart aboon them a’;
He’ll be a credit till us a’,
We’ll a’be proud o’Robin.
But sure as three times three mak nine,
I see by ilka score and line,
This chap will dearly like our kin’,
So leeze me on thee, Robin.
“Guid faith,” quo’scho, “I doubt you Stir,
Ye gar the lasses lie aspar;
But twenty fauts ye may hae waur-
So blessins on thee, Robin.
Immediately it was obvious that that the “personal” side of Burns was more complex than than the “ploughman poet” of popular culture. “Rabby” was jovial, likeable, industrious but something of an odd peg in his place. He was a farmer but one who had a solid education. He was single and yet was engaged in supporting both his birth family and later on own family. He was a devoted lover and yet he played the field.
His father had seen that he was educated. Paying for tutors and good schools Burns education, like his six younger siblings, was a matter of pride for William Burness. He saw it as a way for them to be aware, informed, and take control of their lives in a country where so few options were held out to the working poor.Burns, for his part, learned well (except for singing, it seems he could not hold a note in a bucket) while continuing to work hard on the family farm.
My Father Was A Farmer (1782)
My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O,
And carefully he bred me in decency and order, O;
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing, O;
For without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding, O.
Then out into the world my course I did determine, O;
Tho’ to be rich was not my wish, yet to be great was charming, O;
My talents they were not the worst, nor yet my education, O:
Resolv’d was I at least to try to mend my situation, O.
In many a way, and vain essay, I courted Fortune’s favour, O;
Some cause unseen still stept between, to frustrate each endeavour, O;
Sometimes by foes I was o’erpower’d, sometimes by friends forsaken, O;
And when my hope was at the top, I still was worst mistaken, O.
Then sore harass’d and tir’d at last, with Fortune’s vain delusion, O,
I dropt my schemes, like idle dreams, and came to this conclusion, O;
The past was bad, and the future hid, its good or ill untried, O;
But the present hour was in my pow’r, and so I would enjoy it, O.
No help, nor hope, nor view had I, nor person to befriend me, O;
So I must toil, and sweat, and moil, and labour to sustain me, O;
To plough and sow, to reap and mow, my father bred me early, O;
For one, he said, to labour bred, was a match for Fortune fairly, O.
Thus all obscure, unknown, and poor, thro’ life I’m doom’d to wander, O,
Till down my weary bones I lay in everlasting slumber, O:
No view nor care, but shun whate’er might breed me pain or sorrow, O;
I live to-day as well’s I may, regardless of to-morrow, O.
But cheerful still, I am as well as a monarch in his palace, O,
Tho’ Fortune’s frown still hunts me down, with all her wonted malice, O:
I make indeed my daily bread, but ne’er can make it farther, O:
But as daily bread is all I need, I do not much regard her, O.
When sometimes by my labour, I earn a little money, O,
Some unforeseen misfortune comes gen’rally upon me, O;
Mischance, mistake, or by neglect, or my goodnatur’d folly, O:
But come what will, I’ve sworn it still, I’ll ne’er be melancholy, O.
All you who follow wealth and power with unremitting ardour, O,
The more in this you look for bliss, you leave your view the farther, O:
Had you the wealth Potosi boasts, or nations to adore you, O,
A cheerful honest-hearted clown I will prefer before you, O.
[Side Note: This is one of Burns’ “English poems”. He wrote a few but he is most famous for his “Scots’ Dialect” works]
Burns had cultivated an entourage he called the “Bachelors Club” and from that circle he came to meet members of the local Temple of the Freemasons. If any point in Burns history could be said to be critical it was his joining the Freemasons. He was quickly recruited and rose through Freemasonry and built for himself a reputation as reliable, clever, and trustworthy. His connections made through the Freemasons would propel him ever higher.
Burns had vices, however drinking was likely not one of them. Burns drank, certainly, but not excessively or notoriously. But “the lassies” on the other hand… Burns enjoyed the chase of seduction. He loved the “pitching woo” and he certainly loved consummating his love. And he was very good at it.
Being the eldest of six children in his family he certainly knew how babies were made. And he excelled at that as well. What he seemed to lack was commitment once he’d sealed the deal (so to speak). He continued to pursue other women and father children with them. Ultimately he fathered 14 children (8 with Jean and 5 with 5 other women) only 11 of all his children survived childhood.
But to call him a philanderer or an adulterer is to oversimplify the situation. Burns wrote to a friend, Alexander Cunningham, on 24 January 1789, the day before his thirtieth birthday: I myself can affirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately from this delicious source. It is the spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the chearless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay.
His poetry and letters also show that he deeply loved all of the women with whom he had relations, but he had a very hard time committing to a monogamous relationship with any of them.
Jean Armour was considered to be his “wife” from 1786 onwards. And that only after a two-year pursuit by her father did he finally agree to acknowledge Jean as such. She must have loved him in return as she even agreed to take in one of his extramarital children to raise as her own. Ultimately, despite his many dalliances, he said of their marriage that it ‘was not in consequence of the attachment of romance perhaps; but I had a long and much loved fellow creature’s happiness or misery in my determination, and I durst not trifle with so important a deposit. Nor have I any cause to repent it.’
Buy Broom Besoms [A]
I maun hae a wife, whatsoe’er she be;
An she be a woman, that’s enough for me.
Chorus: Buy broom besoms! Wha will buy them noo?
Fine heather ringers, better never grew.
If that she be bony, I shall think her right:
If that she be ugly, where’s the odds at night?
O, an she be young, how happy shall I be!
If that she be auld, the sooner she will die.
If that she be fruitfu’, O! what joy is there!
If she should be barren, less will be my care.
If she like a drappie, she and I’ll agree;
If she dinna like it, there’s the mair for me.
Be she green or gray; be she black or fair;
Let her be a woman, I shall seek nae mair.
[Side Note: This is attributed to Burns but is likely a song he picked up in his travels, nevertheless it hits his ‘randy spirit’ on the mark. The buying of brooms was a common Scottish metaphor for female sexual adventures.]
He was a good farmer, if not a successful one. Bad land, bad timing, and ill health all dogged his efforts. He turned to other industries like flax processing only to have the plant burn down. He was considering emigration to Jamaica to be a plantation overseer but even the planning for that went badly and he abandoned that course.
He had to take a job as an exciseman. Even so, his loyalty to his government supervisors was always in question. He joined the volunteer infantry unit in Dumfries as a show of support for the British government. Burns was never rich, however, he did manage to be comfortably middle-class and had many acquaintances among the upper classes of Scottish society.
So Bachelor and family man, farmer and poet, independent spirit and government man, Robert Burns could see both sides of any story and sometimes even from the perspective of having been on both sides. This explains how in one breath he could write so passionately of Scottish Independence – “Scots’ wha hae” for instance – and in another breath speak of British sovereignty in “The Dumfries Volunteers” – a tune which became quite popular in England and somewhat cemented Burns as a Loyal Brit.
“The Dumfries Volunteers” (1795)
Does haughty Gaul invasion threat,
Then let the loons beware, Sir,
There’s wooden walls upon our seas,
And volunteers on shore, Sir.
The Nith shall run to Corsincon,
And Criffel sink in Solway,
Ere we permit a foreign foe
On British ground to rally!
O let us not, like snarling tykes,
In wrangling be divided;
Till slap come in an unco loon
And wi’ a rung decide it.
Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!
The kettle o’ the kirk and state,
Perhaps a clout may fail in’t;
But deil a foreign tinkler loon
Shall ever ca’ a nail in’t.
Our fathers’ bluid the kettle bought,
And wha wad dare to spoil it;
By heaven! the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it.
The wretch that wad a tyrant own,
And the wretch his true-born brother,
Who would set the mob aboon the throne,
May they be damned together!
Who will not sing, “God save the King,”
Shall hang as high’s the steeple;
But while we sing, “God save the King,”
We’ll ne’er forget the people.
[Side Note: I enjoy this piece because it starts out as an English verse, but goes clearly ‘Scot’ towards the end]
Suddenly, I began to see how Robert Burns had become what people expected of him. He was what he had to be. We all adapt to our situations. We all have things we love passionately and things we feel deep in our soul. Robert Burns, as does everyone, identified fully with his situation. And through his poetry he takes us on his journey as a man in love, or a farmer enjoying nature and reveling in the good honest labor, or as a countryman swelling with pride in his nation.
And yet, underneath all of that, there is an undercurrent of determination to be something better. Burns himself knew the value of hard labor, but he was weary of gaining nothing from all his hard work. His poetry tantalizingly offered rewards both monetary and social. And so when a friend suggested that he publish a book of his writings he determined to leave behind “one last foolish thing”.
Unfortunately, he could not afford to pay the printer for the books. And yet, ever clever, he presold editions to his friends to meet the bill. Kickstarter in 1786 fully funded by 350 subscribers (many of whom were his Freemason brethren) at three shillings apiece.
Fortunately his poems were well received. But even with recognition, his book alone was insufficient to support himself and his (growing) family. Undeterred, Robbie continued to work a full-time profession and to collect songs and write poems in his off-time. He toured Scotland and lectured in people homes. He published additional collections of poems and songs.
Burns kept copious notes on everything and he applied the same hard work ethic to his poetry as he did his other occupations. In his lifetime Burns wrote almost 700 songs and poems; 467 of them between the time when he published his first collection in 1786 and 1796 when he died of complications from pleurisy and pneumonia.
So I found myself standing in the crowded graveyard in Dumfries on a rainy day where the mausoleum of Robert Burns stands, filled as it is with the graves of his family, friends, patrons, and supporters. I’d travelled, in just a few days, from the tiny cottage where he lived as a boy, through the humble apartment in Mauchline where he and his wife shared their troubles, and then to his final resting place in Dumfries.
I started to feel a connection not just to the words he wrote but to the man he had been: Handsome, charming, jovial, industrious and resilient. He was adaptive and clever. He evoked something everyone wants: a love of life, music and a distinct identity expressed in a lively manner. It is that “everyman” quality that we can identify within ourselves. A heart-string that resonates with the life of a poet from (nearly) 250 years ago.
Charge your glasses, laddies and lassies: “To the Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns!”