The Immortal Memory: John Bryden’s Burns Supper Speech, Stockholm 2017

My old friend’s speech for January 28th this year. “Burns is one of the reasons I am proud to be a Scot, a socialist, a nationalist, and an internationalist. Burns was all of these things, but much more.”

Burns supper

Gamle Stan, Stockholm, Saturday 28th January 2017

The Selkirk Grace

“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.” 

Robert Burns

The Immortal Memory, John Bryden

It is a great pleasure for me to propose the toast of The Immortal Memory tonight. Burns is one of the reasons I am proud to be a Scot, a socialist, a nationalist, and an internationalist. Burns was all of these things, but much more.

There are many other poets and writers past and present, but few if any have the popular veneration given to Robert Burns. The Swedes have Astrid Lindgren and Vilhelm Moberg; the Syrians have Francis Marrash al-Halabi (19th C humanist and poet); the Irish have James Joyce, the English have Shakespeare; the Americans have Longfellow; the Germans have Goethe. But none have an annual feast in their honour, not even the great bard Shakespeare! And these Burns suppers are held around the entire world: every year on 25th of January not an hour of day or night passes without a Burns Supper is not taking place somewhere on earth. And small wonder! In Burns you meet Birkies, Tam O’Shanter, Kirkton Jean, Soutar Johnie, Drunken Charley, John Barleycorn, Auld Nick, glib-tongued Aiken, Holy Willy and a host of other memorable and still recognizable characters, as well as more normal types like Bruce, Wallace, Clarinda, Betty and the rest!

Burns was born on 25/1/1759, and died aged 37. His family were rather poor tenant farmers on about 30 hectares. His father, together with neighbours, founded a village school when Burns was six, and hired a teacher for their children. When the teacher left after three years, his father continued to teach Robert and his brother Gilbert. Burns read widely and understood Latin, as well as helping his father on the farm. He was, as we say, ‘a lad o’ pairts’.

An insight into the young Burns is provided by his involvement in establishing the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club in 1780 with his brother and other local lads. The club was founded as a “diversion to relieve the wearied man worn down by the necessary labours of life”, and young Robert, then only 21, was elected its first President. The club drew up rules of membership at their first meeting, one of which required that: ‘Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex. No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the Club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall upon any pretense whatever be admitted.’

 This rule illustrates the cast of his thinking that formed his life and work, and the spirit of Burns suppers.

By the way, apologies to the ladies here present for the unfortunate use of the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘humanity’. It is countered by the following fragment from his poem ‘The Rights of Women’ (1792)

“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

Yes, this was before the suffragettes and women’s lib., and certainly pre-dated socialism and human rights laws!

Tonight, to spare you the customary very lengthy speech, I want to focus on only two key features of Burns life and work. First and foremost, his humanity and his love of life – and of love. Second, his combination of staunch nationalism with internationalism, which some might regard as a contradiction.

Burns’ humanity is clear in his song ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ that’ where he castigates love of rank, money and ‘tinsel’, ‘birkies’ even though they may be called ‘Lords’, and extolls honest poverty “The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.”

Inspired by the French Revolution, the poem ends in a forecast of universal brotherhood:

“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.” 

Burns hated pomp, circumstance, hypocrisy and fundamentalists, especially of the religious variety.

In a poem on a so-called military victory he rails against powerful hypocrites in a stanza that remains relevant today:-

“Ye Hypocrites, are these your pranks

To murder men and gie God thanks
Desist for shame, proceed no further
God won’t accept your thanks for murder.”

Perhaps he does this best of all in Holy Willie’s Prayer where he castigates the fundamentalist Calvinist preachers who believe in the literal truth of the Bible

“O lord thou kens what zeal I bear when drinkers drink and swearers swear an singin here and dancin there wi great and sma but I am keepit, by Thy fear….. “

One of the Burns poems I learned as a child was ‘To a mouse’. Here he is the ploughman observing the field mouse who home has been disturbed and who seeks shelter for the winter. The mouse is the small tenant farmer at the mercy of the landlord, or the working man or woman at the mercy of their employer. Burns is trying to encourage the mouse who has  ‘panic’ in its ‘breastie’

“But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me!”

(It was ironic that the reason I learnt this poem was because it was given out as a punishment in school, to be written out 50 or 100 times!)

Burns was a lover of women. His favourite may have been ‘Clarinda’ , who was the Mrs McLehose he met in Edinburgh. When Clarinda resolved to re-join her dreadful husband in Jamaica, Burns wrote the song ‘Aye fond kiss and then we sever’ after their last meeting. In the poem he says

 “But to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love forever.”

Who among us would not say that they would have given their back teeth to write a line like that?

There is an entire book of letters between the couple.  Burns met “Clarinda” in 1787 when he was only 28. When she was leaving for Jamaica a year later Burns wrote in a letter dated April 1788

“Fair Empress of the Poet’s soul,

And Queen of Poetesses

Clarinda, take this little boon

This humble pair of glasses

And fill them high with generous juice

As generous as your mind

And pledge me in the generous toast

The whole of humankind”.

“Clarinda” whose real name was Agnes Craig or Mrs McLehose, lived a long life into her 80’s, and in her old age she had a great friend in the Calton Hill area of Edinburgh called Mrs Moodie!

Burns had a number of other relationships, and had a daughter out of wedlock with Betty Paton. In those days this was rather scandalous, and the poor children often suffered as a result. However, Burns made a point of publicly welcoming the child with a poem. The best line is when he says to his daughter Sweet fruit o’ mony a merry dint”

I will leave the meaning of the word ‘dint’ in this context to your fertile imaginations!

I will read the first three verses of the poem

“Thou’s welcome, wean; mishanter fa’ me,
If thoughts o’ thee, or yet thy mamie,
Shall ever daunton me or awe me,
My bonie lady,
Or if I blush when thou shalt ca’ me
Tyta or daddie.

Tho’ now they ca’ me fornicator,
An’ tease my name in kintry clatter,
The mair they talk, I’m kent the better,
E’en let them clash;
An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless matter
To gie ane fash.

Welcome! my bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for,
That I shall swear!

On Scottish Nationalism, Burns was appalled by the manner in which Scots lost their nationhood in 1707 when the Scottish Parliament agreed to Union with England. Burns agreed with Fletcher of Saltoun and many others in attributing the agreement of the parliament, which was formed mainly by the aristocracy, to English bribes. [1]

Burns feelings about these ‘bribes’ are made very clear in his poem “Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation” written in 1791.

Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,
Sae fam’d in martial story.
Now Sark rins over Solway sands,
An’ Tweed rins to the ocean,
To mark where England’s province stands-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English stell[2] we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

O would, or I had seen the day
That Treason thus could sell us,
My auld grey head had lien in clay,
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour,
I’ll mak this declaration;
We’re bought and sold for English gold-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

The theme is taken up in a song ‘This is no my plaid’ which my cousin Aileen Carr sings in the collection for tonight. Incidentally, the song was from the Greig-Duncan collection of traditional folk songs of N E Scotland. Gavin Greig was one of the collectors, and he was also related to both Burns and to Edvard Greig through Burn’s mothers family. As we would say today, it’s a small world!

Time has allowed me to give only a very brief and partial view of Burns, and the many dimensions of his tragically short life. Yet during his 37 years he became a major collector and improver of old Scots songs, a teller of stories, a prodigious writer, a wit, a farmer, an exciseman and a soldier – not to mention, a famous (or perhaps more accurately ‘notorious’) lover. Coming in the years of transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, his dream was for an internationalist and socialist future.

As a Scot, I am very proud to give you this toast. It is a toast which we should all drink with joy and with pride, and, in a characteristically inconsistent way, with both reverence and irreverence in equal measure.

I ask you all…Scot or not…to fill your glasses and raise them as high as you can, as I propose the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. 


[1] At least part of those bribes were compensation for those many aristocrats who had invested a sizeable proportion of their (and Scotland’s) assets in the ill-fated attempt to establish a new colony in central America – Darien as it was called (now Panama). It was an effort to break the monopoly of the (English) East India Company. Unfortunately most of the settlers died of disease, and the aristocrats lost their investments. The Darien venture, as it was known, cost Scotland up to a quarter of its liquid assets.

[KH] The Scots colonists didn’t know that Panama was infested with malaria and expected the English Caribbean colonies to supply them with food; they were starved out instead. Scottish exporters of salt and coal faced high English tariffs before the Union and may have hoped for a boost by joining the English free trade area. Unfortunately, they were weaker than their competitors in the Newcastle area and suffered from the removal of the tariff barrier. No doubt bribes were a factor too, but… Robert Burns was a better poet and lover than political economist, a term introduced to Britain by a Jacobite exile, Sir James Steuart, in 1767.

[2] Stell= Still (distillery for spirits)

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