The real Robert Burns

THE New Year would not be the same without a song and a dram or two in memory of the Scottish poet Rabbie Burns. He is a much-misquoted and often misunderstood man, a creature from a different age, an era of radical economic, social and political change. He is often hailed by God-fearing Ulster royalists as a champion of their cause. They beat upon tartan biscuit tins and wave the Saltire knowing little about the poet and his views on the issues of his times.

The real Robert Burns was a Scottish nationalist and republican fellow-traveller who poked fun at clergymen and the king. He was an ambitious farmer’s boy who hung around with smugglers, a drinker and a life-long philanderer who fathered 12 children by four women – the last born on the day of his funeral. He never wore a kilt for it was a Victorian invention. Tartan and the bagpipes, symbols of the Jacobite highlanders who plotted to put a Catholic king upon the throne, were banned until he was 23. He was an angry young man who churned out hundreds of second-rate ditties and bawdy ‘Merry Muses’ for drinking money. Though he enjoyed considerable celebrity during his lifetime, he died in debt. However, in his own words, ‘a man’s a man for a’ that.’ The poet’s gift for entertaining has long been admired and the political content of his work is now regarded as influential all around the world.

Though there is no evidence that he visited this island his ties with Ulster, where many thousands shared his Ayrshire blood and his views, were deep and strong. Newspapers and publishers in Belfast were among the first to print his work in 1787. Much of it is gathering dust in the Linen Hall library. Ulster’s poets corresponded and visited with him and their work was a major inspiration for Protestant republicans during the 1798 United Irish rebellion. “He was, in many respects, the tutelary poet of radical Ulster,” according to Liam McIvanney of the University of Aberdeen. Burns’ sister Agnes married an Irishman called Gault, lived in Co Louth for most of her life and is buried in St Nicholas’s Church in Dundalk. A memorial, nearby, was erected by friends and admirers on the centenary of the poet’s birth. Burns’ son Robert was given a civic reception when he visited Belfast in 1844 and two of his daughters are believed to have married businessmen from the city. The Belfast Burns Association first met in 1872 and holds its next Burns’ Supper at the Chimney Corner Hotel on January 21.

Burns’ politics have long been the subject of heated debate among scholars and enthusiasts for he lived in an era that saw the birth of the modern republic, in the American War of Independence and French Revolution, and at a formative time in the history of the British Isles, between the 1745 rebellion in Scotland and the 1798 rising in Ireland. A growing industrial revolution made it a period of great social change as tenant farmers were forced off the land. It was also a time of bitter divisions within and between churches. Burns tolerated monarchy, as long as it served the people, and though he penned The Dumfries Volunteers for royalists sat ‘silent and be-hatted’ as it was performed in the town. He was lucky not to lose his job as a taxman after an inquiry into his radical politics. The year before his death Dumfries Loyalist Club branded him one of The Sons of Sedition some of whom were transported to the penal colonies. There is some evidence that he expressed support for American, French and Irish republicans. The Canongate Burns, a collection of ‘lost’ poems discovered in 2001, includes an Ode for Hibernia’s Sons described by Andrew Noble of Strathclyde University as ‘explosively treasonable.’

“No Spartan tube, no Attic shell,

No lyre Aeolian I awake,

 ’Tis Liberty’s bold note I swell:

 Thy harp, Hibernia, let me take!”

He had little faith in the Union and harked back to the golden days of Scottish independence, ‘Glorious’ William Wallace and ‘Avenger’ Robert Bruce. He distrusted Westminster as a distant and corrupt regime filled with selfish landowners and ‘purse-proud’ merchants.

“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.”

A Man’s a Man for a’ That was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 by the folk singer Sheena Wellington from Dundee. Wellington was made an honorary president of Greenock Burns Club, considered the first Burns Club, in January 2006. She became the first woman in the club’s 204-year history to be invited to give The Immortal Memory – the traditional supper speech in honour of the poet. The Glasgow-born editor of the Irish Times Bertie Smyllie, addressing the Belfast Burns Association in 1947, described the poet as ‘an intellectual communist’ for his work sings the praises of working people who were denied a vote and a share of rising national wealth. “For Lords or Kings I dinna mourn … An honest man’s the noblest work of God.”

Burns was a liberal Presbyterian who detested the intolerance of orthodox Calvinists and Catholics. The New Light doctrine he cherished had its origins in Ulster in 1720. In a letter of 1788 he outlined his beliefs to ‘Clarinda’ Agnes McLehose: “I hate the very idea of controversial divinity; as I firmly believe that every honest, upright man, of whatever sect, will be accepted of the Deity.”

Burns was the Bob Dylan of his day, a free-thinker and outspoken political commentator who struck a chord with young people, patriots and reformers. His popular protest songs highlighted the need for parliamentary reform, devolution of power and religious freedom. Causes than men and women of independent mind are still fighting for today. Those who celebrate the 261st anniversary of this birth this month, and drink to his immortal memory, remember that the real Robert Burns belonged to no man and yet belongs to us all.

© Maurice Neill 2019