Monday, 25 January 2010

Robert Burns: the slightly 'immoral' memory

The Immortal (and slightly) Immoral Memory of Robert Burns - Burns Night, New College, 2010.
[with some minor plagiarising from biographies]   

Wine, women and song…
or, if we like alliteration:
lager, lassies and lyrics…  

Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, given that my research area is early modern kirk discipline, and as a trainee minister of the Church of Scotland… I find myself with a small dilemma:
While Robert Burns may have been a dab hand at writing verse, While he is celebrated nationally and internationally for his keen observation and kind heart – even towards mice.  
While the immortal memory speech is one that should laud and celebrate Mr Burns and lift him almost to noble and heroic stature - it pains me to say it, but let’s be frank –  
Robert Burns was not the Messiah, he was a verrrry naughty boy… 
Ladies and gentlemen, I find myself conflicted in my loyalties and thus, I feel it incumbent upon me to bring you less the ‘immortal’ memory of one Mr Robert Burns, poet,  
and more the ‘immoral’ memory. …  

As the blessed and wondrous St Julie Andrews suggests,  
‘Let’s start at the very beginning , it is, after all a very good place to start’:
On the fateful day of his birth, the 25th of January, 1759, a baby boy was born to William and Agnes Burns in the wee town of Alloway, in Ayrshire – for those non-Scots, it’s somewhere over there.    
As they gazed at their first-born child adoringly,
little did oor Wullie or Aggy dream of their son’s sin-stained, sordid future.  Or, for that matter, that he’d become one of Scotland’s most celebrated literary figures.  That’s the problem with babies - they all look so… innocent… 
From an early age, Robbie was out in the fields, working long, punishing hours with his father – a tenant farmer.   
Evenings were spent huddled round the fire listening to his father reading the bible;  
listening to his mother’s frankly erotic traditional Scots songs and ballads;  
or being entertained by tales told by his mother’s cousin Betty.   
In a letter, Burns recalled with affection that she had ‘the largest collection in the county, of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, witches, warlocks, and other trumpery’. 
Such accounts preoccupied the young boy and later found their way into his work, the most spooky - and silly - being Tam o Shanter - the moral of the story possibly being:
‘don’t drink and ride’.
The tiny cottage Burns was born in was eventually at bursting point with the growing family – of four girls and three boys.  And Robbie and brother Gilbert were encouraged to get an education – initially at a local school and when it closed, via private tutoring.  After the family moved, father William took up their education and even then, the seeds of sinfulness were beginning to show: 
Robbie was moved to question the kirk (!!) – taking a puzzled and sceptical interest in Calvinist theology, a hot matter for debate in the area and which  would later be turned into verse by Burns, in The Holy Fair, The Ordination, The Twa Herds, and Death and Dr Hornbook   

By 1774 Burns was beginning to compose songs. In a letter of 1787 he recalled that in his ‘fifteenth autumn’ he:  
‘first committed the sin … of RHYME’ by making a song for a ‘bewitching’ girl with whom he had been partnered at harvest time.  The poem, was Handsome Nell, written for Nelly Blair.  It begins innocently enough:  
Once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell

But as the poem progresses do we have here a case of double standards by Mr Burns?  I confess, my inner feminist was a little worried when I read
But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a',
Her reputation is complete,
And fair without a flaw.

Burns, being Burns cuts to the chase eventually… and yet, in this, his first attempt at a poem of seduction there is a surprising coyness demonstrated:
A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart;
But it's innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart

In a letter, Burns tells how this 'bonie, sweet, sonsie lass', initiated him in a 'certain delicious Passion' – Nell’s reputation being perhaps not quite as flawless, as portrayed in the song. 

By 1775 Burns was at school again, for a time studying ‘Mensuration, Surveying, Dialling’ in Kirkoswald – again, somewhere over there.  Given the riveting nature of his studies he was soon distracted.  In what could be construed – and for the purposes of this speech I certainly am construing it –  
In what could be construed as a case of:  
another year,  
another girl,  
another opportunity for …  *ahem* 
Burns had a rather passionate encounter with a local girl, thirteen-year-old Peggy Thomson, to whom he wrote two songs: 
Now Westlin’ Winds and I Dream’d I Lay;  
he also larked about, and debated Calvinist theology with local lads. 

As he passed into his twenties, his love-life became a little more… shall we say… complicated. 
With the death of his father in 1784, any restraint towards the lassies he may have had, seemed to cease.  It was the year in which Burns made his first reference to ‘his darling Jean’ - a reference to Jean Armour, who would eventually become his wife, but not until 1788… and after several more illegitimate children - not all from Jean...  
The encounter with Jean possibly resulting in that well-known song by Scottish duo, the Proclaimers
O Jean, you let me get lucky with you…  
or perhaps not – historical evidence is shaky on this point.  

An affair with his mother’s servant Elizabeth resulted in the birth of his first illegitimate child, also named Elizabeth, in 1785, as well as a poem ‘Dear bought Bess’ in which he tenderly celebrates her birth, whilst simultaneously noting the difficulties it has caused:
Welcome! My bonie, sweet wee Dochter!
Tho' ye come here a
wee unsought for…  

Burns and ‘handsome Betsy’ had both been required to do penance for fornication at Tarbolton Kirk… this was wryly celebrated by Burns in the poem ‘The Fornicator’ – not published in his lifetime, and yet gloriously unrepentant in attitude.  Instead of attentively receiving his rebuke, Burns is rather distracted by the 'bare-legs' of his 'handsome Betsey'.  The couple re-offend as soon as they leave church, and so this song is not remorseful in the least: 1/
Before the Congregation wide 
I pass'd the muster fairly,  
My handsome Betsey by my side, 
We gat our ditty rarely;  
But my downcast eye by chance did spy 
What made my lips to water,  
Those limbs so clean where I, between, 
Commenc'd a Fornicator. 

Whilst telling of the joys of Betsy, Robbie was also enjoying the bliss of lovers elsewhere…   
He and his ‘darling Jean’ also discovered she was with child. 
More periods of public penance ensued, with Burns calling the church fathers the ‘fornication police’ and the stool of repentance the ‘creepie chair’…  
Penance is not such a visible feature of Presbyterianism these days - we are much more subtle:  
It’s no coincidence that the forms on which you sit, ladies and gentlemen, bear a remarkable resemblance to the stools of repentance that Burns would have stood on – and it’s often been said that sitting on these benches is an act of penance indeed. 

Dedicated historian that I am, I have searched in vain to find any mention in session records whether Burns was made to do penance in the jougs –  
a type of iron collar chained to the outside wall by the kirk door. 
Given the sinful, unrepentant nature of the man, however, I’m sure Burns would have occasionally been heard to remark in passing  - ‘nice jougs’…. 

Following his public penitential humilation, Burns responded by penning ‘Holy Willies Prayer’ directed at William Fisher, an Elder of the Church.  In it, Burns rails against the hypocrisy of the religious establishment.  The poem describes an imagined prayer made by Fisher, in which the Church Elder's own indiscretions are defended: 
O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an' swearers swear,
An' singin there, an' dancin here,
Wi' great and sma';
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a'.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg-
Thy pardon I sincerely beg,
O! may't ne'er be a livin plague
To my dishonour,
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

With Jean sent off to Paisley by her parents, in hope of that relationship being severed, Burns turned his attentions elsewhere, to the mysterious ‘Highland Mary’….  In the spring of 1786, Burns wrote: 'My Highland lassie was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love.’   
We know very little of Mary but what we do know is that it’s believed that both exchanged Bibles and possibly some sort of matrimonial vows.  However, Mary died - possibly from a fever contracted when nursing her brother Robert, or possibly as a result of premature childbirth. 
Meanwhile, in September, 1786, Jean gave birth to twins.  Burns abandoned plans he had for going to Jamaica… not only due to Jean and the children, but also because his writing looked likely to finally pay off – his ‘star’ was rising due to the publication of his book "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" 

In November, Robbie travelled to Edinburgh where he was treated as a celebrity … and where, never being one to let the main chance go by, he had several dalliances and possibly fathered a child.  The most curious of his affairs was with with ‘Clarinda’ who he met in December 1787.  Writing as ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’, Burns and Nancy Maclehose began a remarkable and intense affair - that was apparently unconsummated  - via the medium of correspondence. 
Even amidst the passionate correspondence with Clarinda, Burns still managed to have an affair with Jenny Clow who gave birth to a son in November 1788…. 
Nor did it stop him from sleeping with Jean who was already pregant with twins.  Burns formerly married Jean in August 1788… and this rather put a damper on the relationship with Clarinda. 

He began working as an exciseman and travelled throughout Dumfries in the course of his duties.  At the end of March 1791, he fathered yet another illegitmate child – daughter Elizabeth … with bar-maid Ann Park.  Timing being everything, only nine days later, Jean would also give birth.  
Burns continued to correspond with Clarinda and they met for the last time in December 1791, exchanged locks of hair and parted.  The most famous poem resulting from their affection was Ae Fond Kiss written as she left for Jamaica to reconcile with her husband. 

Burns’s last eighteen months were marked by illness and family bereavement.  Even when gravely ill, he still had an eye for the lassies, and his last poem was written for his seventeen-year-old nurse, Jessie Lewars:  
Oh wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea
Ma plaidie tae the angry airt
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee.

Burns died at home, in Dumfries, on 21st of July 1796, and far from dying due to the effects of living a debauched disolute life, it’s believed that he died most probably of rheumatic heart disease complicated by bacterial endocarditis. 

And so ended the life of the immoral, immortal Burns… 
but was he so immoral?
Again, my dilemma: 
it would be easy to condemn the man  as merely irresponsible, and yet...
Unlike many men of his age who fathered children out of wedlock, and who in our modern language might be termed a serial father, Burns loved and provided for his children - all 12 or perhaps 14 of them.  He never merely abandoned the women he slept with, he fully accepted his responsibility – offering to take the child or pay for their upkeep… he loved them and tried to ensure they were cared for and educated. 
And in the midst of a short life, lived very much to the full, he gave us the most beautiful love poems possibly ever penned. 

Burns was, as we have seen, a passionate man and his passion extended beyond the lassies to the whole of humanity… and to creation itself. 
In an age of revolutions and social upheavals, 
In a time when privilege and poverty were so starkly contrasted...
Burns was ultimately a humanitarian – 
On the side of the poor and oppressed, the common folk… 
His pen became the voice of the people – more so for he chose to write in his native dialect at a time when it was unfashionable and language was being heavily anglicised in Scotland. 2/

Given his life and his loves,  
His attitudes to the kirk, 
was there ultimately a place for Burns in heaven? 
In my own mind’s eye I  picture him walking into heaven, meeting God with a bit of a rueful shrug, and God meeting him with a resigned smile, saying – 'ah, alright then laddie.' 

I close with these last words of Burns, who said of himself: 
"God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for. But if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes."
No figure in world literature has ever written with such compassion for his fellow human beings.  
Passion, and compassion 
perhaps this is what makes Robert Burns immortal … and which still touches our hearts even today…  
Ladies and gentlemen, please fill your glasses and be upstanding for the toast:
I give you 'The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns'
c. N. Macdonald

1/for an interesting discussion on the poem, see cover notes to the poem, found in -
2/ see Len Murray's ending remarks on Burns at


liz said...

Wonderful Nikki. Well done! From one who now lives "somewhere over there"!

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