Some food for thought on the life of the bard Robert Burns.
MIGHT AS WELL BEGIN WITH A DISCLOSURE. I am, indeed, as my name indicates, of Scots ancestry—on both sides, too—not that I had any choice in the matter and therefore can’t take credit one way or the other.
And, like many another citizen of Victoria, I do appreciate the poetry of Robert Burns, preferably enjoyed in the company of a good peaty Scotch (at this time of year putting a tang of smoke into an Atholl Brose that’s been steeping since November).
I also like the occasional kipper.
I’m no a fan of haggis or deep-fried Mars Bars, though, and, no, I don’t own a kilt and never will. More on that later.
Another niggling confession: I was in fact born in England, as was my father, and his father before him, among the Sassenachs. That’s the not-very-affectionate Gaelic term for the English, as aficionados of the hit television series Outlander will know.
In my defence, I was removed from England before I even knew where I was, and although I’m an immigrant to lək̓ʷəŋən territory, I nevertheless can now claim to have settled here in Victoria in the first half of the last century, before about 95 percent of its current living population arrived.
My great-grandfather, his wife and their ancestors, however—as I have never for one second been permitted to forget—all hailed from around the River Tweed south of Edinburgh and just north of Bamburgh. Fans of that other hit TV series The Last Kingdom will recognize Bamburgh as the the model for the fortress of Uhtred, the conflicted Anglo-Saxon strangely reinvented for TV as a Viking war lord with an identity crisis in the time of Alfred and Athelstan.
From there, and from the adjacent and unsparing North Sea coast, my ancestors ventured forth boldly as master mariners, fishermen, shipbuilders, and (sotto voce in the telling of family history) mercenaries, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, murderers, abductors of women, blackmailers, pillagers of isolated farms and eventually as displaced persons and economic refugees.
Every story, even the sunniest family story, has two sides as we journalists quickly discover and must report, which is presumably why we frequently don’t get invited to extended family dinners: “Hey, guess what I found out about Great Aunt Salome!”
And it’s why so many of us roll our eyes at the gilding of history during the public adulations of famous figures like Burns. Experience tells us the monumental feet are almost certainly made of clay.
This small meander is just by way of acknowledging my own cultural connections before some personal musings on the peculiar, romanticized mania over Burns, the Scots poet, farmer, philandering seducer, collector of pornographic verse and seldom-acknowledged social iconoclast which convulses Victoria every January around this time.
HERE IN GREATER VICTORIA, the Burns Night agenda at time of writing, pandemic notwithstanding, was still for pipers to go piping, readers to give poetry readings at his monument in Beacon Hill Park, and tipplers to tipple bracing Scotch whisky at distilleries. There were stacks of haggises at Fraser Orr the Butcher’s, there was commemorative beer brewed by Twa’ Dogs Brewery. Pub nights were planned, not to mention well-lubricated suppers and even better lubricated formal dinners at which well-heeled members of the establishment in Montrose doublets and velvet gowns rise to pay homage to a poet whose poems dismissed their pursuits as greedy, self-righteous, pretentious, high-minded hypocrisy.
Portrait of Robbie Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists
What’s most interesting is how disconnected the icon of Scottish cultural chauvinism has become from the reality of Burns the 18th Century versifier and the significance of what he said.
“Wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us; To see ourselves as ithers see us!” Burns wrote in To A Louse: On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church. Odd how so many of us go to dinners in his honour and think somehow he was writing about somebody else, not us.
The social critic of elitist class snobbery who blew up poetic convention by writing in the colloquial language of ordinary Scots rather than the prissy, pedantic English style that prevailed, is now celebrated by people who clearly don’t really read him with care and tend to get prissy and pedantic should the riff raff of reportage express an opinion in that regard.
For example, now is when Scots, honorary Scots, Scots-by-marriage, wannabe Scots and self-identified Scots of many ethnicities pay homage to Burns by donning their Highland finery.
That finery was once the far more basic garb of peasants who didn’t get to dine on white linen with silver settings and would be amazed to see their cuisine of turnips, cabbage, oats and sheep offal so exoticized by people who drink $80 Scotch and pay $80 a kilo for steak.
It gets weirder. The kilt, for example, is widely thought (not without dispute, naturally) to have been invented by an English industrialist to replace the more cumbersome attire worn by the displaced crofters who were forced to come in from the fields to work in his factories. The Montrose doublet-sporting owners of the fields thought sheep, which ate only grass, made better and less costly tenants and so they cleared the whole lot of crofters off, which proved extraordinarily convenient for English factory owners in need of cheap labour.
The kilt has since been appropriated from the poor workers on the factory floor and fetishized as manly ceremonial attire for royalty, regimental brass hats and those aspiring to some romanticized notion of that same Scottish aristocracy which cleared the farmers off their lands to make way for sheep and then shipped the refugees off as cheap indentured servants and field hands for English plantation plutocrats or to be cannon fodder in England’s many wars—both real and proxy, military and economic—of brutal colonial expansion.
If you want colonial symbolism writ large, look no farther than folks in doublets, ruffles and kilts toasting the Queen in proper English rather than the earthy Scots dialect used by Burns.
Throw a celebratory dinner in honour of Hugh MacDiarmid or Edwin Morgan, among the architects of Scotland’s literary renaissance in the vernacular, and a few professors and their graduate students might show up.
You wouldn’t expect, as Burns enthusiasts do, fans of Chinese ancestry showing up in kilts, or tipsy politicians and CEOs standing on their chairs to toast the arrival of a boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with a mash of lungs and porridge, or ardent women’s rights advocates swooning over “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose” on behalf of one of history’s most accomplished “love ’em and leave ’em” experts.
That’s because most of those who wish to be seen celebrating our literary rock star know not so much about him. I’m certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “the people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns.”
For example, Burns mocked orthodox religion. And at just about all the formal occasions celebrating Burns, there’s a stuffy toast to the Queen—kind of a required observance when you have politicians, RCMP brass and naval commanders on public display. Yet Burns was contemptuous of royalty, its agents and what they represented to him.
An “insolent beef-witted race of foreigners” was the way he characterized his 18th Century royals and their ilk from which the present crew directly descends.
He was scarcely kinder to patriotism and its military servants. Both, he said, were beneath contempt and an insult to God.
“In wars at home I’ll spend my blood, Life-giving wars of Venus,” he wrote in his not-so-often quoted poem Some Lines on the Occasion of National Thanksgiving for a Great Naval Victory. “I’m better pleased to make one more Than be the death of twenty.”
As I’ve noted, Burns took up “this make love not war” philosophy with vigour and it must have been infectious (if one can use that term without irony these days) judging from the number of women who welcomed the great charmer into their beds.
BURNS APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN SMITTEN by every woman he met, married or unmarried, high society lady or barefooted milk maid, and he must have been remarkably charming, perhaps roguishly outré, considering how many appear to have reciprocated.
Strangely, I recall none of this side of Burns from my high school English classes at Mt Douglas Senior Secondary.
Mind you, my favourite English lit teacher at Mt Doug abruptly departed after a parent complained that we had been encouraged to read and discuss Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Daddy Kravitz because, horrors, there was sex in the story. I mean, there was already sex at Mt Doug, not to mention pot—it was 1965 for Pete’s sake—and we all knew about it. I often wonder what that shocked parent subsequently made of Game of Thrones on prime time TV.
Nor can I recall hearing any of the poet’s more bawdy verse—look it up for yourself, I’m not repeating it here for the same reasons—recited at Burns Banquets, either.
I recommend Burns’ Complete Poetical Works. Browse it and you’ll find poems addressed to no fewer than 100 women.
There are love poems, admirations, homages and romantic infatuations for: Mary, Bessie, Chloris, Clarinda, Mrs Riddel, Miss Fontenelle, Miss Burnet, Jean, Jenny, Mrs Oswald, Maria, Peggy, Rachel, Wilhelmina, Lesley, Jane, Margaret, Deborah, Mally, Lucy, Phillis, Euphemia, Maria, Miss Ferrier, Lady Elizabeth Heron, Polly —I’d go on but I really don’t feel like typing another 75 names.
Just to put this in perspective, in1786 Burns was involved with Jean Armour. She left. He took up with Meg Cameron, then he got back with Jean, then he settled out of court with Meg, then took up with Agnes M’Lehose, then settled a paternity suit with Elizabeth Paton, then got involved with Clarinda, a married woman in Edinburgh.
In 1788, while Jean is giving birth to his twins, Burns is writing two letters a day to Clarinda. But in April, he does the right thing by Jean and marries her and then, in November, Jenny Clow bears him a son. In 1789, he settles a paternity suit with Jenny Clow but he’s since met Frances Grose—she bears him a son in August of the same year. Then comes 1790, another busy year. He meets Ann Park, she bears him a daughter on March 31, 1791; Jean Armour presents him with a baby boy on April 9. He breaks things off with Agnes M’Lehose and a year later in 1792, Jean Armour gives birth to his daughter.
By 1793, he’s enamoured of Mrs Maria Riddell, whose husband is away in Jamaica, but in 1794 she dumps him after he attempts, during a recitation, to demonstrate The Rape of the Sabine Women with more drunken ardour than she thinks proper for a proper Edinburgh society soirée—perhaps a cautionary tale for local Burns Night revellers in 2022. Oh, and Jean Armour bears him another son.
All is forgiven by Mrs Riddell in 1795 but on July 21, 1796, he dies, aged 37, presumably of exhaustion. His funeral takes place on July 25 and while Burns is being lowered into the ground in his coffin, Jean Armour gives birth to his last son.
It’s not that the priapic poet was simply callous, tempestuous as his love life appears to have been. His passions just seem to have been more robust than straight-laced convention could contain. He was formally pilloried by the local church, officially condemned as a fornicator and then responded with savage satires mocking the hypocrisy of sanctimonious church leaders prepared to send one soul to heaven while condemning 10 to hell to serve their own self-important vanity.
Statue of Robbie Burns and Highland Mary in Beacon Hill Park
Mary Campbell, possibly the Highland Mary of some of his tenderest lyrics, purportedly so-named because of her heavy Gaelic accent, seems to have been on his conscience. He met her in church, apparently seduced and may have abandoned her and yet, the poetry suggests, was still grieving years after her sudden death at age 23 in 1786 during “a malignant fever which hurried my dear girl to the grave in a few days.”
Or, at least, that’s one story. Contemporary scholars are doubtful of it. Perhaps it’s true, or perhaps she’s a conflation of several women with whom Burns was involved. Most likely, like Burns himself, the inspiring ghost of Highland Mary is another myth concocted to amplify the larger myth of the poet and his cultural importance.
Yet Jean Armour later said that on the third anniversary of Mary’s death, Burns became extremely agitated, went out of a long walk from which he didn’t return until daybreak when he abruptly sat down and wrote the poignant To Mary in Heaven.
In any event, the two myths—the famous (or infamous) bard Rabbie Burns and his maybe muse Highland Mary—are still here in Victoria 228 years later, still being celebrated for all the wrong reasons, their bronzed faces gazing wistfully at one another atop their plinth in Beacon Hill Park while folks who know nothing about them, toast something, exactly what isn’t clear.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.