Immortal Memory: What Scotland’s Robert Burns Can Teach Us about Nationalism
Today in Scotland and elsewhere, people will celebrate Burns Night with various traditions that honor Robert Burns, the Ploughman Poet who was born on this day in 1759 in Ayrshire. This year I hosted such an evening for the second time and followed as much of the customary schedule as possible: Bagpipes welcomed guests (thanks to Spotify since I doubt my neighbors wanted an actual bagpiper in my front yard). I gave a welcoming speech, said the Selkirk Grace, and recited “Address to a Haggis.” Guests could sample haggis, or at least the closest substitute I could find stateside (maybe if we sign that trade deal with the UK post-Brexit we can remedy this intolerable trade barrier). During the toasts, one friend gave an “Address to the Lassies,” and another gave a “Reply to the Laddies.” For dessert I made whipped cream from scratch for the first time to make a scotch-infused cranachan, served with shortbread. After dessert, we sat around and did readings of Burns’ poetry including “Jolly Beggars” and “Highland Mary”—more accurately, we butchered the Scots dialect and puzzled over words like usquebae and unco. Of course, everyone had as much scotch as they could responsibly wish, especially hot toddies on winter’s most frigid night thus far.
As host my responsibilities included giving the “Immortal Memory,” a toast that educates guests about Burns or his poetry. Because few attendees knew much about him—many didn’t realize we have “Auld Lang Syne” because of him—my toast has usually been just a review of his short life. Last year my speech highlighted his numerous lovers, for which he’s infamous; in addition to various other liaisons, he fathered at least 14 children with six women. Reading a book of his poetry can be nearly comical when a poem on one page profoundly professes to one lassie:
And by thy een sae bonie blue,
I swear I’m thine for ever, O!
And on thy lips I seal my vow,
And break it shall I never, O!
And then later, he says to another lover:
My girl she’s airy, she’s buxom and gay;
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite:
She’s always good natur’d, good humour’d, and free;
She dances, she glances, she smiles upon me;
I never am happy when out of her sight.
All who know Burns know his lassie shenanigans, and some wink at these with a chuckle (“Aye! Rabbie loved the lassies!”) or downplay them without considering how his actions damaged women such as Jenny Clow. If “The Rights of Woman” is the only feminist-esque poem we have from him, our image of him is complicated but still overwhelmingly negative. His character flaws can make one wonder how well he’d fare in the #MeToo era, and we must expect more from men today. In her “Reply to the Laddies,” a friend of mine summarized this scoundrel and rascal in a word: cad.
This year my toast focused less on his lovers and more on his hypocrisy. True, he railed against the church—which chastised him for being a “fornicator”—and clergy for their hypocrisy, but it appears Burns failed to live up to his own standards, too. Politically, he was a radical and loved freedom; his poetry shows an appreciation for the downtrodden. In “To a Mouse,” which he wrote when his plow hit a mouse nest, he laments over what he had done, and some see a political critique of Scotland’s uncaring elites in this. And in “The Slave’s Lement,” he empathizes:
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.
Yet while suffering poverty and having fathered at least three illegitimate children, he bought a ticket for Jamaica, where he planned to become a slave driver. Was he simply helpless after his farming failures, or was this a cry for help, trying to get pity from others? Maybe, but these excuses don’t improve his character much. At best, he appears puerile, threatening to participate in what he knows is the worst kind of inhumanity unless others relent. At worse, he demonstrates horrendous selfishness: the radical only loves freedom for others when it’s easy for him, but if he needs cash, ethics are rubbish.
Later, we see cowardice when, based on his political leanings’ logic, he should have acted more forcefully. After he gained fortune and fame as a poet, Burns became an exciseman for the government in Dumfries. But he was still known for his radicalism, which led to a time when someone accused him of singing a French Revolution song about hanging and burning aristocrats, though he denied this and kept his job after an investigation. Then he gave he gave a toast critical of Great Britain’s war with the French Republic: “May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause.” Burns wrote a letter to his drinking companions asking them to keep quiet about this so that he wouldn’t lose his job. Now, I understand his financial situation, would probably disagree with some of his leanings, and recognize he may have had more nuanced beliefs. But if he believed his radicalism, if he thought he saw injustice, should he have used his fame and spoken out more forcefully, even if it meant risking his job? He seemingly wants to appear radical without actually risking anything serious.
Should Robert Burns’ character flaws—whether his promiscuousness, selfishness, hypocrisy, or cowardice—mean we forget his positive contributions to the Scottish nation? Or should those who love Scotland ignore the bard’s sins so that his nation may appear greater?
C.S. Lewis—if I may be forgiven for citing an Englishman—describes in Four Loves how citizens can have a righteous love of country. While he speaks positively about “love of home,” he is more skeptical about loving a country’s history, including the “great deeds of our ancestors.” The Anglican warns:
The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings. The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker. As knowledge increases it may snap and be converted into disillusioned cynicism, or may be maintained by a voluntary shutting of the eyes.
Here we have good cause for tossing the poet into the bin. Including such a scoundrel in national mythmaking could even risk the nation’s survival once citizens learn about his misdeeds and fall into disillusionment. But Lewis offers nuance:
I think it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study.
One can love a nation or country’s history as long as he or she studies it seriously. This means admitting to the ancestors’ shabby doings. While we can talk about Burns’ contributions to the Scottish nation—including his collection of over 700 works, recognition of society’s downtrodden, influence on future poets, preservation of Scotland’s folk songs, and saving his nation’s culture from that scourge creeping from the south, Englishness—we should remember how he fell short. After all, we’ve also fallen yet can still be used for God’s good purposes.
Therefore, on this Burns Night, let me raise my nip of scotch in a toast to remember this rascal’s successes and learn from his failures.
Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor. He earned his master’s degree in international relations from the University of St. Andrews.
Image Credit: Robert Burns, 1759 – 1796. Poet, by Alexander Nasmyth, 1828. Location: Scottish National Gallery. Source: Google Art Project, via Wikimedia Commons.