I have to concede that I don’t know a great deal about Burns. I know he was born in 1759 in Alloway and died just 37 years later in Dumfries. I know he wrote poems and songs, but that’s about it. So in drafting this blog I wanted to learn more about the man and how he has influenced modern Scotland. To do this we have to look at when Burns lived and his values.
Just 50 or so years before his birth, the Act of Union had taken place. Scotland had joined with England. England had 5 times the population and 36 times the wealth. Scotland did not have equal riches, but Scots became equal partners. Amongst the benefits Scotland brought to the table was education. As well as a literate general population, we had a highly developed university system – five universities, to England’s two.
By the time Burns was born, Scotland was successfully combining its educated population with English gold to create the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, he was to be a key part of this intellectual movement. This movement, combined with our protestant work ethic, enabled Scotland to punch above its weight and become more affluent. However, much of the “punching” took place in the Empire, and focused on tobacco and slavery.
We should not pretend that by the time of Burns’ birth everyone was happy with the union in Scotland. After all, the 1715 Jacobite rebellion would have been within living memory and his parents would have lived through the 1745 rebellion. Indeed, his grandfather is likely to have lived through both uprisings.
Given that Burns’ family no doubt discussed these events, it is tempting to wonder what he made of Scotland’s constitutional position. It is notable, however, that in over 600 works published by Burns there is hardly a mention of the Jacobite rebellion. His attachment to the Jacobite cause was purely sentimental, and he had no desire to see the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Furthermore, as Alex Salmond once said, “No-one should ever try to pigeon-hole Burns into party politics because he was far too big for that”. Nonetheless, Mr Salmond did go on to suggest that Burns would have voted Yes in the referendum because “From tip to toe, Robert Burns was a 100% Scottish patriot” – as if one can’t be a patriotic Scot and oppose the will of Alex Salmond.
The problem Mr Salmond faced was that although he could extend the referendum franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, allowing the dead of the 18th century to vote was beyond even his abilities! Furthermore, we can’t imagine what Burns would make of Scotland today and our ruling class in Holyrood. More interesting than how Burns would have voted in the referendum is how he influenced politics today.
So what were Burns’ values? For the Burns family the 1745 rebellion coincided with his grandfather taking on the lease of a farm. When the farm encountered financial problems just two years later, Burns’ father moved to Edinburgh where he worked for two years landscaping gardens in the area now known as “The Meadows”. In 1750 he moved to Ayrshire and worked as a gardener until 1786. He then became a head gardener and leased seven acres of land at Alloway where he built the cottage which was later the birthplace of Burns.
So Burns would have grown up in a household which knew what hard work was, but he would also have been familiar with the wealth of the laird. At the same time the world was also changing more in the second half of the 18th century than Scotland had in the first:
- Britain became the dominant power on earth.
- The slave trade began to crumble (Burns was almost part of it)
- America fought an 8 year war of independence (messy, but perhaps quicker than a “once in a lifetime” referendum).
- Australia was discovered (or perhaps rediscovered).
- The French revolution took place.
Just as the world was changing, so was Scotland:
- Wearing tartan and the kilt was again legal.
- The Forth-Clyde Canal was opened.
- Scotland’s first proper lighthouse was built.
In the 18th century the opening of the Forth-Clyde Canal and the construction of lighthouse at Kinnaird Head would have been massive engineering endeavours. Thanks to good maintenance, we still benefit from them today.
Like many other Scots, Burns worked hard and sought a better life for himself. He moved from farmer to mill worker to white collar tax collector. This experience, and that of growing up on a farm, would have shaped him more than anything, and this is reflected in his works. Burns reports and reflects on the lives of ordinary Scots, and freely insults and attacks the privileged in society – the clergy, the wealthy and government employees like himself. On politicians he said, “all would rule, but none obey”.
Indeed his sympathies for Wallace, Bruce and the French Revolution were all rooted in his opposition to tyranny and the subjugation of the poor.
Even if we look at a Burns poem which we all learn at school, To a Mouse, we find that it offers more than meets the eye. On the surface it tells the story of a mouse whose home has been destroyed by a ploughman. However, is also a depiction of how the ordinary man is equally vulnerable to external forces. As a tenant farmer, Burns was particularly aware that the best laid plans of mice and men may often go wrong. However, man suffers even more through worry than the mouse which apparently only lives in the moment.
It is this perspective that led to UNESCO declaring Burns the world’s first ‘people’s poet’ because he began the practice of writing poetry, prose and songs about the commonplace experiences of the poor.
People as diverse as Bob Dylan and Colin Fox, the SSP leader, claim Burns inspired them. I disagree with Fox on many issues, but I don’t doubt his commitment to fairness and equality. But when we look at impact of Burns on society, towering above both Fox and Dylan is Keir Hardie – the man who started the democratic revolution that delivered the NHS and the welfare state. Hardie said that he owed more to Burns “than any man alive or dead”. Indeed, Hardie rejected Marxism in favour of a humane and popular approach to politics that came out of his Christianity and the works of Burns. Referring to the ideas of humanity and equality found in the works of Burns, Hardie told a friend that “Burns point of view” was superior to a socialism of “German formulas” (Marx).
So in conclusion, we in Scotland should be proud of the way Burns has influenced political thinking and his role in inspiring the likes of Hardie. However, I would say that we should perhaps concern ourselves less about what Burns would have thought about Scottish independence and more about his values and how they can continue to shape Scotland to meet the needs of ordinary Scots. The problem we face is that Scotland’s ruling political elite, and I include all the media in that, find the constitutional politics more interesting than the job of making Scotland a fairer and more equal society.
Therefore, in toasting the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns next week we should pay tribute not only to the passion and power of his work, but we must acknowledge that as Scots we owe him a debt of gratitude for impact he has had, and continues to have, on our great country.