Toast to the Immortal Memory of Rabbie Burns

 

Toast to the Immortal Memory of Rabbie Burns,

delivered by Angus Edmonds OAM

on 9 February 2008 at the Sunshine Coast branch

of The Society of St Andrew of Scotland (Queensland)

at a Burns supper in Woombye School of Arts.

 

Like other Scottish societies and associations in Australia, the Sunshine Coast branch of the Society of St Andrew of Scotland (Qld) is holding its Burns Supper in early February – because of clash of Burns Night with Australia Day. It is unfortunate that the Australian-Scottish community can’t celebrate Burns at same time as rest of world.

If he were alive today, Burns would also object to 26 January as a celebration day because strictly – in a historical sense – it commemorates the establishment of a penal colony. This would offend the libertarian sensitivities of a radical thinker like Robert Burns – particularly, as you will hear, as he protested against the transportation to Australia of fellow radicals as convicts.

My ultimate intent is to reflect on Burns’ influence on Australia directly through his poems and songs – and indirectly through his influence on Scottish migrants – and their impact on the development of the Australian character and our development as one of the truly democratic and most egalitarian countries in the world.

Scots or descendants of Scots with poetry in their souls are indebted to Burns. Australia’s national song, Watzing Matilda, was written to the tune of ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Patterson, a man of Scottish descent.  And our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, was written by Scottish migrant, Peter Dodds McCormick, and first performed in Sydney on Saint Andrew’s Day, 1878.   

Burns wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’ – long regarded by many as Scotland’s national anthem, although the Scottish establishment have always resisted having it adopted as such. The argument was that it was too warlike and anti-English. Of course, other great anthems are steeped in the imagery of war – two of the best and most famous being the French La Marseillaise and American, The Star Spangled Banner – both written in the context of battles. Then, of course, the so-called British national anthem has a sixth verse that is anti-Scots, asking Gods help to “sedition hush, And like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush.”

Interestingly the Scottish Rugby Union, another pillar of Scotland’s establishment – quickly adopted ‘Flower of Scotland’ when it was written in the 1970s – and it refers to the same battle of Bannockburn as ‘Scots Wha Hae’ so it is scarcely the historic subject matter that causes the Establishment to reject ‘Scots Wha Hae’.

I remember in the 1950s, how the authorities – although never promising to adopt it as a national anthem, after all they fully accepted ‘God Save The Queen’ as the one and only anthem – pushed the merits of a new song ‘Scotland the Brave’ composed by a Glasgow journalist, Cliff Hanley, in 1951 as a closing number for the singer Robert Wilson’s Christmas concert. Hanley had just returned from a visit to South Africa where he had been entertained by the local Caledonian societies and Cliff had been highly amused at the romanticised notions the kilt wearing and Lauder singing Scots overseas. He wrote the song as a parody of this sentimental view of Scotland. You can imagine the hilarity when he read to his journalist colleagues on a dreich damp and grey Glasgow day the lines:

Far-off in sunlit places, sad are the Scottish faces,
Yearnin’ to feel the kiss of sweet Scottish rain!

So why have the authorities resisted ‘Scots Wha Hae’? It may surprise you to learn that the song was banned in the early to mid 19th century as seditious – and, authorities have long memories – and even in the 20th century ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was suspect, particularly once it was adopted by the Scottish National Party – the proponent of ending the Union of Parliaments, as the appropriate song for Scotland’s national anthem. 

By examining the influences and intent of his song ‘Scots Wha Hae’ we discover the depth and intensity of Burns’ radicalism, a radicalism still in full flight within a year of his untimely death in 1796.

Robert Burns was a member or active sympathiser of the Scots reform movement; he was passionate about independence and democracy. He advocated the abolition of slavery, demanded universal suffrage – including women – a century and more before the suffragettes, sought to enfranchise workers with representatives in Parliament a hundred and fifty years before socialist political parties emerged. He derided the political corruption and payment of placemen and the buying of favours which he denounced in “Parcel of Rogues in a Nation”. He spoke out in favour of the French revolution and wrote The Tree of Liberty, a radical song written after the execution of the French King during late January 1793. He also admired the spirit of the Americans in their War of Independence. He regarded favourably the political system established in the United States as a model for democracies and wrote the Ode for General Washington’s Birthday in honour of the first president.

Interesting Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang the leader of the Scottish community in Australia in the mid-19th century proposed a federal system of government modelled on the United States, with a Senate and a House of Representatives. His one time ally and follower, Henry Parkes, later took up this idea and became as we know ‘The Father of Federation’ – in which case Lang, like Burns a native of Aryshire, should be recognised as the ‘Father-in-law’ or perhaps ‘The grandfather of Federation’. But I digress.

The French Revolution in 1789 encouraged Scotland’s developing middle and working classes to believe that they too could participate in the governance of the country. Liberty trees, a French revolutionary symbol, were planted around Scotland on market crosses, and ideas of political reform were being publicly debated.

In December 1792 a democratic organisation called the Friends of the People, created out of numerous Reform Societies seeking moderate democratic reforms had emerged across Scotland. However, the French Revolution turned into ‘The Terror’ of 1793, with the widespread public execution of nobles and priests, the British Government set out to quash the Radicals. Burns himself was investigated as a possible member of the Friends of the People.

Freedom of speech was restricted by the government, and leading members of the Friends of the People, like Thomas Muir of Huntershill in Glasgow, the Unitarian minister Thomas Palmer, and William Skirving of Dundee, were arrested and tried for sedition before Scotland’s famous hanging judge Lord Braxfield. Despite a strong defence by Thomas Muir, a lawyer, they were all found guilty- these so-called Scottish Radical Martyrs – and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay.

In fact, Robert Burns wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’ as a rallying cry, prompted by the trial of Thomas Muir and the other Scottish Radical Martyrs.  In a sense he replicated something of the spirit of La Marseillaise which had been so successful in France in stirring the masses. Perhaps, Burns hoped that ‘Scots Wha hae’ would serve a similar purpose.

‘La Marseillaise’ is a song written and composed in Strasbourg on April 25 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, ironically a royalist who was almost sentenced to die by the guillotine, Its original name was Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (‘War Song for the Army of the Rhine’), and its lyrics are heavily oriented against the Prussian and Austrian armies which were attacking France and defeated at the Battle of Valmy. It became the rallying call of the French Revolution and received its name because it was first sung on the streets by volunteers from Marseille upon their arrival in Paris in August 1792 and met with huge success becoming famous across all of France.

The similarities between the two songs are striking – composed within 18 months of each other. Both are battle songs and deal with the defence of a country against a neighbouring invader. They both contain call to arms, refer to sons in chains, the bringing down of tyrants, and the share a similar sentiment as well as imagery and the exaltation of the concept of liberty. However, there are significant differences. La Marseillaise’s  lyrics are quite blood-thirsty and almost crude and lack the simple nobility of Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae.’

As a collector of old Scots tunes and airs, Burns was familiar with the tradition that the old tune ‘Hey tutti tatie,’ was the battle march of King Robert the Bruce’s Scottish troops at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In a letter to George Thomson, dated about 31st August 1793, just after the trial of the Scottish Radical Martyrs, Burns wrote that he reflected on “my yesternight’s evening walk” on the association of  “the old air, ‘Hey tutti tatie'” which he said “has often filled my eyes with tears” with the Bruce’s struggle for Freedom and Independence, but he had “no idea of giving myself any trouble on the subject until the accidental recollection of the glorious struggle for Freedom of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming Mania.” Burns’ fervour – obviously stirred by the Martyrs’ trial that very month rather than the medieval battle is also reflected in the manner in which he closes his letter. After the text of the poem – Burns adds in exclamation: “So may God ever defend the cause of truth and liberty as he did that day! Amen!” George Thomson, aware of the potential trouble that the song could cause the poet, did not publish ‘Scots Wha Hae’ until they appeared in Thomson’s Scottish Airs in 1799, three years after Burns’ death.

‘Scots Wha Hae’ was in fact first published anonymously in the London Morning Chronicle, a radical anti-Government (anti-Pitt) publication, in May 1794, eight months after it was sent to Thomson. In sending the poem for publication, Burns also aware of its potential to bring retribution from the Government, wrote: “In the meantime, they are welcome to my ode; only let them insert it as a thing they have met with by accident and unknown to me.” The fact that Burns had the song published first in England is more evidence that the song was not anti-English. Indeed, it is a song written in standard English (for a wider English and Scottish audience), with only few verbal Scotticisms, with no attempt by Burns to reflect ancient terminology, and, most importantly, espousing modern political thought.

Listen again, this time taking account of the radicalism of Burns’ words, in the last verse of the song:

By oppressions woes and pains,

By your sons in servile chains,

We will drain our dearest veins,

But they shall ga’e free.

Lay the proud usurper low

Tyrannts fall in every foe

Liberty’s in every blow,

Let us do or die.

 

‘Scots Wha Hae’ was only one of several Burns’ poems and songs published anonymously. For example, the then highly seditious pro-democracy song, A Man’s A Man, encapsulating the radical ideas of Tom Paine, the author of The Rights of Man. was published anonymously in the Glasgow Magazine in late 1795.

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,

The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

 

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

 

Then let us pray that come it may,

(As come it will for a’ that,)

That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,

Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s coming yet for a’ that,

That Man to Man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.

 

And Burns had much to fear. His health was not good -imprisonment or transportation would have killed him – and his hold on his government job as an exciseman was tenuous. Perhaps his advocacy of radicalism cost him advancement – and could have cost him his job. If he had been charged with sedition, he could be transported as a convict. Or worse, traitors were still being executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered. The last Scot to be so executed was David Tyrie convicted of spying for the French and executed in 1782, and the last person to be punished under British law in this fashion was the Irish rebel Robert Emmet in1803, although this barbaric method of execution actually remained on the statute book until 1870.

And clearly the British Government regarded ‘Scots Wha Hae’ as seditious. It was banned, and when, years later, in 1820, with unemployment widespread and rampant inflation, 16 000 protested in Paisley, the band supporting the protesters was arrested just for playing Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Hae’.

Sadly, in a way the establishment had its victory over Burns after his death. He was romanticised as the Ploughman Poet. His love songs and nature poems were exalted and even his anti-clericalism and outrage against hypocrisy and privilege was ignored as the Victorians created a sentimental account of Burns’ values through the promotion of simple family life and faith to almost canonical eminence of a single poem, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. However, this is to overlook or gloss Burns’ advocacy of the virtues of the “patriot” in the last stanza, which carries an ambiguous if not subversive political charge in light of the conditions at the end of the eighteenth century.

O Thou! who pour’d the patriotic tide,

     That stream’d thro’ Wallace’s undaunted heart,

Who dar’d to, nobly, stem tyrannic pride,

     Or nobly die, the second glorious part :

     (The patriot’s God, peculiarly Thou art,

      His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward!)

     O never, never Scotia’s realm desert ;

But still the patriot, and the patriot-bard

In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard!

No matter what gloss others might attempt on Burns’ work, it is impossible to hide or ignore his humanitarianism and the honest intent and true spirit that shine through in song after song, poem after poem: his promotion of liberty and equality, his rejection of hypocrisy, oppression, corruption and proud outward show, and his embrace of ‘the honest man … of independent mind’ that lies at the heart of Burns.

Many of the songs of Robert Burns were committed to memory for singing and recitation by Scottish migrants to Australia. He migrants also brought with them collections of teh songs and poems of Burns.

Dr Bill Bell, Centre for the Study of the Book, University of Edinburgh, has researched the lists of books that migrants bought prior to migration or ordered from Scottish bookshops. It can safely be claimed that the poetical works of Robert Burns could be found in almost every Scots settler home. Scots also made sure that copies were donated to the libraries established in School of Arts and Mechanics Institutes. It is appropriate that we meet tonight in the Woombye School of Arts.

The songs of Burns were also spread through the activities of Burns Nights and the other social gatherings of Caledonian and St Andrew’s Societies. There was something about Burns the man that also resonated in the hearts and minds of the growing Australian community. He was a man of the land, a man who knew hard times, but despite his difficulties he celebrated life. He enjoyed a drink, he was convivial. He promoted a knock-about character like Tam O’Shanter – with his larrikin ways. Burns had no time for cant and hypocrisy, no time for the Unco’ Guid, the Holy Willies. Burns exalted the common people, he championed equality and independence. All of this resonated and made sense to the settlers of the young Australia.

The extent to which Robert Burns helped shape the Australian character and democracy we can only speculate. We know that his works were well known and much loved by the Scottish- Australian community, and the influence of that community on Australia and its institutions has far outweighed its numerical strength. Suffice to say that the songs and poems of Robert Burns have – and continue – be appreciated and shared, and something of his thought, particularly his radical thought on equality, and liberty, and democracy retains its potency today.

And in toasting The Immortal Memory of Rabbie Burns tonight, we pay tribute not only to the passion and power of his work and its enduring quality, we acknowledge that as Australians we owe him a debt of gratitude for all that he has been and continues to be in our community and the indefinable contribution his thought has made to the very being of the Australian experience and way of life.