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January Presentation: Robbie Burns

Speaker: Coral Lindsay

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

Robert Burns still inspires marked public devotion centuries after his death. Every January 25th (more or less) in most corners of the world, his admirers gather to partake in boisterous rituals known as Burns Suppers.

There's usually some poetry and song, plus a meal of cock 'o leekie soup, followed by Haggis with mashed neeps and tatters (turnips and potatoes). Such events may be “dry” - or include an appreciation of good scotch whiskey.

   Robbie Burns Plate

With or without libation, Haggis should ideally be piped in with due ceremony and then slit with a dirk whilst “Address to a Haggis” is recited in good Scots dialect. Dinner is followed by toasts to the bonnie lassies and braw laddies, etc.

Well, we skipped all that! But for our Burns appreciation our own Coral Lindsay shared more about the man who is arguably Scotland's best known poet and best loved cultural champion to an appreciative audience of 41 at Knox Presbyterian Church in Manotick.

Lindsay was greatly impressed by how well-educated Burns was - despite growing up in abject poverty. Never rich in a material sense, he nevertheless managed to create lasting wealth - in terms of poetry, song, fellowship and love. As Lindsay explained, Burns was handsome, intelligent and charming – possibly a genius.

There is more to Burns' life than could be crammed into a short evening talk. As such, this article takes the liberty of including supplemental material to support and expand on Lindsay's points.

According to Wikipedia, when Walter Scott was just 16, the future novelist met Burns, and was greatly impressed by the encounter:

His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents... there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.

Burns was also famous (notorious?) as a ladies' man. Lindsay offered up a partial roll call of women Burns loved. (Some on this list responded in kind. Others declined the honour.) Nelly Kilpatrick, Peggy Thompson, Mary Morrison, Anne Rankine, Alison Bagby, Jean Armour (his eventual wife) Betty Paton, Mary Campbell, Anna Park, Jenny Clow and “at least four more”. As Burns biographer DeLancy Ferguson wrote: “it was not so much that he was conspicuously sinful as that he sinned conspicuously.”

   Coral Lindsay presenting

Burns fathered 15 (acknowledged) children over a not-terribly-long life span, 9 of which were born to  Burns and his legal wife, Jean Armour. Sadly, with the high infant mortality rate of that period, only 3 of their children reached adulthood. Poverty, a childhood of grinding physical labour and chronic illness also contributed to Burns dying young, at age 37.  

He must have had a magnetic personality. The website Burns Poetry.com put it this way:

Among those who knew Burns personally, more than one rated his conversation above his poetry. Maria Riddell wrote: "Many others perhaps may have ascended to prouder heights in the region of Parnassus, but none certainly ever outshone Burns in the charms - the sorcery, I would almost call it, of fascinating conversation, the spontaneous eloquence of social argument, or the unstudied poignancy of brilliant repartee."

Surrounded by her own extensive display of Burns memorabilia and books, Lindsay presented a variety show, intermingling the tale of his life with music and song. Scott Cameron rendered some fine piping while his sister Margaret demonstrated impressive twirling (or “flourishing”) drum sticks, sans drum.

Lindsay and a chorus line of lovelies drawn from the audience also gave us the well-known song “Comin' through the Rye”. Many assume this is a song about cutting through a grain field. But Lindsay theorizes it's about girl watching: an appreciation of the view as the lassies traversed stepping stones across the shallows of the River Rye, holding their skirts high to not get soaked. (This interpretation is supported by http://sangstories.webs.com/cominthroughtherye.htm )

A proper appreciation of Burns is enhanced by grasping the context of his times. Scotland had become part of Great Britain under 1707's Act of Union. By 1714, Great Britain was ruled by the House of Hanover (George I, II, III , etc.) Many Scots longed to restore their own House of Stuart and spent nearly 60 years fighting for that cause. A loss at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 crushed those hopes and changed Scotland forever.

   A bust of Robbie Burns

The English were fed up with so much rebellion – which was plain treason from their point of view.   Jacobites not killed at Culloden faced a “no quarter” retaliation that gave little mercy to age or gender. Even after that turmoil calmed down, Scots faced years of arrest, execution, imprisonment or deportation. Estates were seized and the clan structure was weakened. A way of life was intentionally destroyed. It was not a happy time to be a Scot - though the diaspora that resulted from that defeat (and land enclosures that followed later) did help populate the colonies with enterprising Scots.

The “Dress Act of 1746” even made it a crime to wear highland apparel an tartans under the following penalties: “For the first offence, shall be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offence, to be transported to any of His Majesty's plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.”

That law was repealed in 1782. In later centuries highland dress became extremely popular, even among British aristocracy. But suppression of Scots culture and political aspirations was the norm during Burns’ lifetime (1759 – 1796).

Although Lindsay reports Burns was a lowlander, who did not play the pipes or wear a kilt himself, his steadfast determination to preserve Scottish song, verse and culture was a dangerous endeavor at that time.

As if that wasn't bad enough from the authorities' point of view, Lindsay explained that Burns was also a republican, not a monarchist, and favored reform causes that would improve the lot of ordinary people.

While Burns did write a significant body of his own poetry and lyrics, he is also credited with preserving hundreds of traditional songs and poems by his prolonged effort to collect what he encountered in travels and taverns. Speaking of taverns, Lindsay makes the case that Burns was not a lush, the taverns were where the songs were, or could be heard more easily.

While he is best-known for poetry and song, Burns lead a life of great diversity. He knew enough about  flax production to win an award and enough about farming to be a candidate for a newly created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh (a position he declined).

Burns knew Latin and French, and was well-versed in philosophy, politics, geography, theology and mathematics. He was a Mason and even a conscientious soldier (what we might call a reservist today) after he joined the  Royal Dumfries Volunteers, at a time when many feared invasion from the French.

(Note: Burns as soldier is explained by Linda Daly at: http://www.milwburnsclub.org/contrib/soldier.htm  Burns as a freemason is detailed by Todd J. Wilkinson at: http://www.robertburns.org.uk/freemason-robertburns.html )

 All in all, he was certainly a remarkable man.

Post-talk questions ranged from curiosity about the average diet and life-span of that period, to how the many women in Burns' life may have felt about all the other women in his life. (His wife, Jean, did raise at least one of Burns' several illegitimate children. She out-lived Burns by 38 years.)

Speaking from the audience, Ed Anderson shared that growing up in Scotland his school taught Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, etc., but not Burns. He remarked the language in many Burns works sounds almost foreign to him.

We closed by holding hands whilst singing a Burns-connected song nearly everyone has heard, even if they do not know it as a Burns song: “Auld Lang Syne”. In post-talk conversation, Lindsay remarked that Burns was nearly charged with treason more than once and was perhaps only saved from prosecution by his broad popularity.

Although his life was short and difficult, education, wit, prose and song were egalitarian tools Burns used to craft a meaningful existence.

Lindsay is a retired teacher and school librarian. She's an author and an avid reader who has spend decades studying her own region's heritage. Lindsay summarized her feelings about Burns this way: “Considering he had nothing, I like his personality. He was defeated, but he wouldn't lie down and die. He did not give up.”  

   Singing and dancing in honour of Robbie Burns