It is once more my privilege to give
the Immortal Memory Speech and Toast
to Robert Burns.
Born 25th Jan 1759 – Alloway, Ayrshire
Died 21st July 1796 – Dumfries
He lived in an action packed century:
Wolfe, Nelson, Napoléon, Wellington, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Voltaire, Turner, (22 years) Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, James Watt, Turner, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Handel, Beethoven, not forgetting Arthur Guinness, an amazing collection of talent. Of course during this time there was the small matter of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. There was still slavery. In 1742 the Jacobite rising had been crushed and Bonnie Prince Charlie had been sent back in exile to France, and as a result the wearing of kilt and tartan and as was all Scottish music including the playing of the bagpipes were banned.
This was the world that a boy was born into in a small cottage in Ayrshire to humble parents and was to be the eldest of five children.
Four people greatly influenced his life:
His strict Calvinistic father, William Burnes: a very unsuccessful tenant farmer but who was determined that his children be well educated.
His mother Agnes Broun was illiterate but knew lots of songs and poems, and was always singing.
Betty Davidson, a distant relation who told tales of Ghosts, Fairies, Dragons, Giants and the like.
John Murdoch, his tutor, who turned a simple Lowland dialect speaking poor boy into one who spoke perfect English, read Dryden, Milton and Shakespeare amongst others, understood Latin, and spoke fluent French.
Life was tough. The farms were unproductive and the family had to move four times trying and failing to get a productive farm. So all through his childhood, teens and twenties he worked on his father’s farms. The only advantage was there were always young girls working on the farms. His first poem was to one such a girl:
“O once I loved a bonnie lass…”
His father thought it was the devil’s work and forbid him to write any more poetry.
So when his father died in 1784 he started writing poetry again.
Women occupied a lot of his time in between writing and farming. It is said he had affairs with eighty women and had over thirteen children. In 1785 he meets and gives a paper declaring marriage to Jean Armour (still in force up to 1939!!) but her father did not accept it so he went away and fell in love with Mary Campbell and married her. Realizing that it might not be sensible to stay in Britain as Bigamist, he managed to get 163 copies of his poetry published to help pay for the trip. But Mary died and he concentrated on publishing his poetry and managed to get 612 copies of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems published, and then there was the 2nd edition, the third Edition (London) 3,000 copies, and Burns thought all demand had been satisfied and sold the copyright for£100 to the publisher. The Dublin Edition and the American Edition soon followed. This all happened in the space of three years.
He was then accepted by Jean Armour’s father and married her as a successful writer rather than a poor farmer. During this time he travelled far and wide in Scotland and became the darling of Edinburgh Society and he was the must have guest at any Party. It was not just his poetry there were interested in he was a great storyteller and highly intelligent, and of course it helped that he was a handsome man. However High Society is fickle and the amusement of the “ploughman” had worn thin, so by 1789 they had moved on and Burns returned to Ellisland, Dumfries. But the farm was so poor and neglected that he had to supplement his income and got a job as an excise man – a bit like a poacher turned gamekeeper. He received £50 per year, but had to travel in all weathers 200 miles on horseback every week, and of course had to sample the goods. After several years of ill health he died on 21 st July 1796, leaving behind fourteen children, one of which was born on the day of his funeral. 10,000 people turned up to pay their respects, which is an incredible number of people, considering the difficulty of travel and the lack of communication.
What is it that makes Burns so well known and loved after 258 years?
First and foremost it is songs “Auld Lang Syne”, “My love is like a red red rose”, and his poetry, and of course there are so many Scotsmen round the world that want an excuse for a party. But he did some wonderful lines of poetry and songs:
But pleasures are like poppies spread
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed,
Or like the snow falls in the river
A moment white- the gone forever.
One appropriate to Brexit and Trumpland is in his “To a Mouse”
after having disturbed its nest when ploughing a field:
Still thou are blest, compared wi me
The present only touches thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear!
An’ forwaed, though i canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Well as The Man said “nae men can tether time or tide.”
The hour approaches when even this long winded blast must blow its last.
So the time has come to toast the man who despised arrogance, hypocrisy, loved art, truth, beauty, a good party, a good drink with his friends and of course loved the lassies.
and raise your glasses
the toast is to
the Immortal Memory of