Now that Johnny Depp and the warlocks of Tinseltown are to work their magic on the persona of Robert Burns, we can all look forward to a whole new twist to the Burns cult, if and when a film of his life appears. Not that it needs it.
According to James MacKay’s massive biography of Burns, no poet in history – not even Shakespeare – has had so many statues erected in his honour. At the last count, there were 180 of them, and all over the world. Only Lenin in his heyday generated more. Until a few decades ago, all 3,500 Carnegie libraries in the US had their busts of the Bard. Burns has been translated into at least 50 languages. The last Russian translation sold more than a million copies. Rob o’ Mossgiel has become one of the left’s great icons.
All of which begs the question: why? Why did a poetry- writing, song-collecting, social-climbing, small-farmer-turned-bureaucrat contrive to climb into the socialist pantheon? It has always struck me as odd. Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of the Scottish left, which is inclined to view Scottish history with rose-tinted spectacles. Maybe Burns has benefited from the same mindset that transformed Charles Edward Stuart – the epitome of royalist reaction – into some kind of 18th- century Che Guevara. But whatever the reason, Burns is now one of the left’s favourite children. But I, for one, am not at all sure that he deserves it.
First, I would like to make my own position clear. I defer to no one in my admiration for Burns the poet. He is Scotland’s gift to the world. His skill as a wordsmith is second only to that of Shakespeare. He is the consummate demotic poet. One mark of the man’s greatness is the number of Burns-coined phrases that have passed into common usage. Among them: “A man’s a man for a’ that”; “Man’s inhumanity to man”; “To see oursels as others see us”; “The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men”; “The awkward squad”; “Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you”; “Freedom and whisky gang thegither!” There are many more.
And as cult figures go, Burns is harmless. The rituals attached to him usually consist of folk getting together every January to scoff a plate of haggis, tatties and neeps and sink a dram or two, after which various councillors and/or ministers toast “the lassies” and the “immortal memory” (that is, Burns himself). Usually someone gives a rendition of that piece of epic nonsense, “Tam O’Shanter” and someone else warbles “Ae Fond Kiss”. The proceedings can vary from the dire to the delightful. No one is ever likely to be damaged by his enthusiasm for Burns – unless he overdoses on haggis or falls foul of poisoned neeps.
But the sheer dottiness (or at least uniqueness) of these occasions never seems to occur to anyone. No one asks why the English do not gather at Shakespeare’s birthday to roister with roast beef and warm beer? Or why the Germans do not stage Goethefests at which kilos of Wurst and cabbage are put away? Or why the French do not celebrate the birth of, say, Racine with a feast of coq au vin? A Burns supper with haggis trimmings is a bit like the Italians honouring the birth of Dante Alighieri by getting stuck into pizza.
My point, I suppose, is that just about every Labour Party in Scotland stages one of these strange happenings. There may well be Tory party Burns suppers, but I’ve never heard of one. The Bard was long ago hijacked by the left in the belief that he was some kind of proto-socialist. They believe that he was someone who wielded his pen against everything that socialists (retrospectively) despise: foreign and domestic tyrants; Calvinist hypocrisy and the tyranny of the ministers; the overweening patronage of the gentry; the cruelty and snobbishness of the British and Scottish Establishments.
In fact, Burns’s politics were as multifaceted as the man himself. They were certainly not consistently radical. He was just as likely to wax conservative as revolutionary. The man who wrote “A fig for those by law protected!/Liberty’s a glorious feast” and “A man’s a man for a’ that” also wrote “Who will not sing God Save the King/ Shall hang as high’s the steeple”. Burns’s various right-wing ditties are hardly ever recalled, but there are plenty of them. When Admiral Rodney trounced the French in 1792, an exultant Burns wrote: “The next in succession I’ll give you: The King!/And who would betray him, on high may he swing!”
Burns was at turns Jacobite and Hanoverian. He might also be described as the first Green, having written poems on and around daisies, hares, woodlarks, waterfowl, mice and lice. On top of which he was also given to outbreaks of naked Scottish nationalism. It was Burns, after all, who penned the words to “Scots Wha Hae”, which remains the official anthem of the Scottish Nationalist Party (“Flower of Scotland” notwithstanding). Trying to separate Burns’s politics from the way he was feeling at the time is heavy going.
Burns’s priority was to get by. Like most of us, he was no hero. He seems to have had no compunction in swearing a long and solemn oath to King George III when he signed up as an Excise officer in 1789. The £50 a year that the job carried (later raised to £70) was his immediate goal (his health was failing and he had mouths to feed). He counted himself a “lucky fellow” when his gentry contacts got him the post.
And although the Excise was one of the most unpopular arms of the British state, Burns never stinted in his stern work. His superiors were pleased with him: “an active, faithful and zealous officer,” one of them reported, “who gives the most unremitting attention to his duties.” The old story – beloved of the left – that Burns got into trouble for buying a brace of cannon from a confiscated ship and trying to send them to the French revolutionaries is sheer bunkum.
And then there is Burns and women. Modern Scotland likes to chortle over the notion of the Bard as a roguish lad with an eye for a pretty woman. But there is more to it than that. By rights, he should rank high in the demonology of left-inclined feminists. All the evidence is that Burns was a selfish and reckless womaniser who had no compunction about abandoning the young women he impregnated. He fathered 13 children by six different women – Elizabeth Paton, Jean Armour, May Cameron, Jenny Clow, Anne Park and Mary Campbell (the “Highland Mary” of the sentimental song), who probably died in childbirth.
His attitude to them all was dreadful. After he learned that young May Cameron was pregnant in June 1787, he wrote to his crony Ainslie asking him to “. . . send for the wench and give her ten or twelve shillings and advise her out to some country friends”. While he was writing his prissy “Clarinda” letters to Agnes MacLehose, he was tupping her maidservant Jenny Clow. Clow got pregnant and then had to seek redress in the courts. The fact is, Burns’s sexual strategy was shag and dump; to leave the girls with fatherless children and then sneer at their only source of support – the Kirk.
The Kirk, of course, is usually cast as the poet’s enemy. “Holy Willie” Fisher and “Daddy” are invariably painted as villains in the Burns story, with the Bard as the long-suffering victim of their cant and sanctimony. The picture the left likes to paint is of Burns the ecclesiastical rebel: the people’s champion against the petty tyrants. But again, this is to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. The Church of Scotland of the time was in the hands of the “moderates” – liberal Anglicised ministers appointed by the gentry that Burns was striving hard to join. By attacking minority “evangelicals” like Fisher and Auld, the poet was playing the lairds’ game. He was lining up with the Establishment. He was being entirely orthodox. It was evangelicals such as Auld and Fisher who were on the people’s side, as was proved when they finally despaired of the hegemony of the lairds and walked out in 1843 to found the Free Church of Scotland.
There is also a common belief that Burns died unloved, poverty-stricken and shunned by the Establishment of Scotland and Dumfriesshire. Nothing could be further from the truth. His wages were never stopped during his sickness (although they could have been), his widow Jean Armour had a decent pension from His Majesty’s Excise and his estate was owed £200 (about the equivalent of £40,000) when he died. And far from being buried unsung in an unmarked pauper’s grave (like Mozart), the Bard went out with full military honours. The pomp was impressive. His corpse was dressed in the uniform of the Dumfries Militia (of which he was a founder member), his coffin was drawn through Dumfries on a gun carriage and the streets were lined by an honour guard of troops from the Angus Fencibles and Cinque Ports Cavalry led by Robert Jenkinson, later Lord Liverpool, prime minister of Britain. A few years after Burns was buried, the Cinque Ports Cavalry was used to put down a demonstration of radicals at Tranent in East Lothian. They killed 15 men, women and children.
Far from shunning Burns and his family, the British Establishment treated them rather well. Much better, in fact, than today’s poets can expect. Burns had three surviving sons. The oldest – Robert – became a civil servant in London. His gambling debts earned him the sack, but he was paid off on a generous pension thanks to his late father’s name. The two younger sons – James and Maxwell – joined the army of the East India Company, that great instrument of British colonialism. Both became colonels and retired to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, archetypes of Imperial Britain. They only returned to Scotland once, to take tea with the ghastly Nancy MacLehose (Clarinda).
None of this detracts from Burns the man of letters. He remains the greatest demotic poet that Scotland (and perhaps even Britain) has produced. But he was a man of real complexity struggling to succeed (and rise) against powerful appetites and rocky health, and in politically difficult times. In many respects, Burns was the classic Scotsman on the make. But his reputation as one of the hero-martyrs of the left hangs on a distinctly shoogly nail. It will be interesting to see just how Brad Pitt and Hollywood cope with Rob o’ Mossgiel’s life, times and fornications.