The Immortal Memory of the Bard: Robert Burns

January 25th holds a special place in the hearts of Scots dispersed throughout the world. On that day in 1759, a poor tenant farming family in Ayrshire, Scotland welcomed another child into their ranks: Robert Burns. Little did he or his family realize that his literary skills would resonate throughout the social fabric of history in ways that enter our everyday lexicon and idioms. Burn’s poems pinpoint the every-man and his struggles in life, pushing us to understand the chaos and natural beauty of the world. This poor farmer turned poet was at the forefront of the Romantic movement who inspired future poets like William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. But why does his memory and poetry carry on into the modern day? Why do his 18th century messages resonate in the 21st century?

Like many ethnic groups who migrate globally, the Scottish Diaspora exported not only the people, but the accompanying culture as migrants settled in new, foreign continents. Incidentally, Burns dinners became a significant cultural export with Scottish communities. Burns dinners (or Burns Nights) are commemorative events where people gather to honor the life and works of Robert Burns by sharing a traditional Scottish meal and reciting poetry. There is a wealth of collective knowledge on the dinner’s procedures, but no dinner is complete without the keynote speech: the Immortal Memory. This address is typically given by a scholar or Burns aficionado who extols his accomplishments and significance in Scottish culture. Just like the massive repertoire of Burns literary knowledge, Immortal Memories can be structured in any way the speaker wants to reflect on for the dinner. Some adopt a strictly biographical approach, others place in a historical context, the political stance, or a jovial fashion like Burns himself. By the evening’s end, the audience departs with a more profound appreciation of the Bard.

Robert Burns writing at his desk

Circling back to the seeded question, why does this carry on into the modern day, Burns’ poetry inculcates the human spirit arising from the challenges of life. Examining the broad Scottish historical narrative, Scots possess a tenacity allowing them to plant roots and adapt in otherwise stressful environments. Burns moved from one tenant farm to another a majority of his life, perplexed by how to provide steadily for his family. Scottish communities retain these lessons through Burns dinners. This quickly became an established ‘cultural community’ whereby people with a shared heritage maintain their practices through societal cohesion. Burns dinners are an integral part of these cultural communities that provide people with a tangible connection to history. That’s why Burns’ message carries on: descendants of the Scottish Diaspora keep the tradition alive by adopting his poetic themes to modern times.

My Own Immortal Memory of the Bard

Thank you to everyone joining us this special evening as we honor the life, works, and memory of Scotland’s favorite son and wordsmith, Robert Burns. This solemn, nearly 200-year-old tradition is the focal point for Scots across the globe; from Australia to North America, to Africa, and Europe. Distinctive geographies are united through the shared message of a cultural icon like Robert Burns. For our first-time attendees, we’re glad you are here and hope we exceeded your expectations. For our Burns Dinner veterans, make sure the first-timers glasses are filled as we dive into what makes this occasion the hallmark of our heritage.

Why are we gathered here and what makes this night so important? Burns’ poetry impacted us more than he could have anticipated. The struggles, achievements, and lessons he experienced throughout his short life are a microcosm of not only the Scots, but applicable to all people. Burns saw the world for both its faults and beauty; putting the human condition into a linguistic craft resonating throughout history. He endured financial hardship, heartbreak, bad luck, blissful love, fame, notoriety, fatherhood, camaraderie, and recorded it all through masterful skill of prose and song in his native tongue. Tonight, we celebrate his works and what they mean to us not only as Scots, but at our core, human beings in an ever-changing world.

Some historical background is necessary when recalling the life of a man like Burns. Born on January 25th, 1759 in Alloway, in the region of Ayrshire, he came into the world in a small cottage of a struggling farming family with six other siblings. His father William Burnes built their cottage (which is a historic site and museum today), but when Robert was 7 years old, the family moved to another farm in Ayrshire called Mount Oliphant.  Burns received a minimal education. By the age of 15, he left school and began working alongside his father in the fields. When conditions faltered at Mount Oliphant, the family moved to Tarbolton. In 1784, William died and the family continued to struggle under the burden of tenant farming and financial woes, but the hard life shaped Burns’ personality and perspectives on life. While working in Irvine, Burns met a sea captain named Richard Brown who Burns remembered; ‘he encouraged me to endeavor at the character of a poet.’ Burns began writing, recording local songs, stories, with his earliest works becoming famous in later years. By 1785, Burns was under dire financial burdens. Practically every farm he labored returned meager profits, perpetuating the cycle of poverty he’d known his whole life. A friend offered him a job in the West Indies as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation, but he couldn’t even afford the boat journey and another friend, Gavin Hamilton, persuaded him to publish his volume of poetry. In 1786, Burns’ first publication ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ immediately became a best-seller. The Kilmarnock volume was the foundation of all his literary skills and prose.

The next stage for any budding artist and writer was to establish oneself in the social scene in Edinburgh, which Burns did in 1786, where he promoted his Kilmarnock volume and was well received; it was here that he inspired another budding writer, Walter Scott. He stayed in Edinburgh for two years, forging important friendships and expanding his literary repertoire. Burns returned to farming in 1788, moving to Dumfries and found additional work as an exciseman, collecting taxes on duties as a fallback to keep him and family fed. The next great literary contribution came with his work writing songs for the Scottish Airs for the Voice by George Thomson and Scots Musical Museum with James Johnson, whom he met in his Edinburgh days. He put words to Scottish folk melodies and airs which he collected, and composed his own arrangements of the music. He collected and preserved folk songs, even putting his own poems to traditional music. Thanks to Burns, local songs and stories could be heard throughout Scotland.

When examining Burns’ achievements, one would think he escaped his poor beginnings, accomplishing a great deal of wealth and valuable connections. However, farm labor, travel, and a chronic heart condition since childhood took a strenuous physical toll. His liberal political views, along with supporting the French Revolution, alienated many of his Edinburgh friends and Burns proved his patriotic loyalty by joining the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. But the light of Burns’ life extinguished; he died on July 21st, 1796. He was survived by numerous lovers, his wife Jean Armour, twelve children, close friends, and a legacy that brings us here.

Burns wrote and compiled hundred of songs and poems in his short life, many he collected from his travels. He wrote and recited much of his poetry in both Scots and the Scottish English dialects. Themes on nature, love, man’s relationship with the natural world, human struggle, class inequality, republicanism, religion, and nationalism were common in his works; he championed the basic rights of man and was leery of the moral codes of the privileged few. Readers both loved and loathed his poetry, as some believed his radical political views won him few friends, but others rejoiced that a voice for the downtrodden, common man speaking up at a revolutionary time in history. The passion, brazen language, and ideal devotion inculcated in every poem has labeled Burns an inspiration to the group of emerging Romantic era writers, like William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott.

An Immortal Memory’s uniqueness stems from the notion that the speaker crafts an explanation of Burns in their own way. His messages are impactful and tonight, the connection between man and the natural world resonates profoundly. To A Mouse; written in 1785, speaks volumes to this important, yet fragile relationship. A story behind this poem tells that Burns composed the poem on the spot after cutting his plow through a nest of field mice:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a pannic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

Thy wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!**

Robert Burns plowing a field when he disturbs a nest of mice

Poetry delivers more than a story. It teaches us lessons about life that we have difficulty accepting. When Burns plowed through his field and upturned the nest of mice, he understood what he’d done. A natural force disrupted the fragile bond between nature and its creatures. The mice needed the nest to survive the winter and just as his plow tore through the soil, chaotic forces disrupt the relationships between a creature and nature. We live in fear of nature as it can turn without warning. Whether it be a flood, fire, storm, or earthquake, our livelihoods are fickle in the face of nature. The mice prepared their nest for a long winter, building their home together as a social union with the land. Burns felt that empathy when his plow destroyed their hearth. He understood the pain of losing a home, the nomadic life of tenant farming, and prevailing uncertainty of the future with life’s uncertainty. Nature’s chaos stays with us and we see its ravages around the world. Ferocious hurricanes in the Atlantic, shattering earthquakes in Mexico, raging wildfires in California, drought and famine in sub-Saharan Africa, subzero blizzards, or torrential floods right here in Missouri; our best laid plans go awry when nature unleashes chaos from ground and sky. Burns knew the natural dangers, but also saw its beauty. A deep blue sky, the bright sun, the warm light shining down on the fields, and how every creature builds a home in the rolling green hills. We are both men and mice; building homes for our family to give us a place of comfort and joy. Their sudden destruction gives them sanctity making home a place like no other.

 

This night, Burns’ memory springs eternal by his words, message, and love for life. We Scots embody his words through our actions of altruism, love, courage, resilience, and communal spirit binding all Scottish people across the Diaspora. I ask you, friends, to charge your glass and be upstanding:

‘To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
May we see the natural world from his eyes,
Its radiant splendor from oceans to shimmering skies.
May we never forget its delicate, fickle bond
As the labor for all men’s plans, can soon be gone.
May we love the world for its faults and joys,
And give us a respite from its ceaseless noise.
May we have the home for which our heart yearns,
As we remember the morals of the Bard, Rabbie Burns.’
To Robert Burns!

**Abridged version of ‘To A Mouse‘ Click the Poetry Foundation link to read the entire poem; ‘To A Mouse

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