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The Immortal Memory By Len Murray

Ajit Singh was a student with me at Glasgow University.
One Burns day he asked me why do the Scots make such a fuss about Robert Burns?
I said probably because he was a good poet.
But Ajit had other questions for me.
In his native Calcutta there is apparently a very celebrated Burns Supper every year.
And he asked me why this should be?
What did Robert Burns have to do with India?
And, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to say that I couldn't tell him.

And thus it was that I started to wonder why Robert Burns is so important to us.
We have other poets, and other writers, and other heroes, yet we do not afford them the veneration that we afford to Robert Burns.
And why should this be?
Perhaps more importantly why should other nations and other peoples celebrate the birth of a Scottish poet?
And why are these celebrations so unique?
The English have Shakespeare; the Irish have Joyce; the Americans have Longfellow; the Italians have Dante; the Germans have Goethe.
Every one of them an internationally known and respected figure.
But to none of them is paid the type of homage that is paid to Burns, even in their own country let alone abroad.
There is no institution of a Shakespeare supper nor any Joyce Junket nor Longfellow Lunch nor Dante Dinner.
Not even a Goethe Guzzle.
There is no international acclaim of any of these writers, great tho they may be.
Yet Burns is universally acclaimed.
Why should all of this be?

Ever since the first celebration of his birth in January of 1801 the institution of the Burns Supper has existed.
And a chain of universal friendship and fellowship encircles the world because of it.
Wherever friends meet and friends eat the name of Robert Burns is revered.
When the Burns Supper in Dunedin is finishing it is still under way in Perth in Western Australia.
And meantime they are sitting down in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore.
And an hour or two later they are seated in Calcutta.
And this chain of friendship follows the setting sun westward, through Asia, the Middle East, Africa and across the Mediterranean to Europe and to this country, and then over the Atlantic and across that great continent of America to its Western seaboard and beyond.
And so on right around the world and right around the clock.

And on 25 January of each year and for many days before it and after it there is not an hour in the day or night when a Burns Supper is not taking place somewhere on this earth.
I read just the other week that this year there were Burns Suppers in over 200 countries in the world.
And there is no other institution of man of which that can be said.

There are even more statues of Robert Burns than of any other figure in world literature. Indeed if we discount figures of religion, then only Christopher Columbus has more statues than he worldwide.

No other writer of any nationality has been afforded such universal acceptance.
And why should this be?

It cannot be just for his poetry.
For every country can boast of its poets.
Scotland has produced other poets of the highest quality in Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson and James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd.
Nor can it be on account of his prose; because Scotland produced two of the world's greatest prose writers in Walter Scott and the incomparable Robert Louis Stevenson.
Neither is revered to the extent that Robert Burns is and I hazard a guess that few people know when they were born.
But the world knows of the significance of January 25th.

And something else.
RB lived and worked during the time of the great Scottish Enlightenment, that period in the late eighteenth century when Scotland produced more men of letters, more men of learning and more men of science than did any other nation on earth.
And in just about every discipline known to man a Scot was in the lead.
In Edinburgh we had David Hume, eminent philosopher and one of the finest brains that Europe has ever known.
And on the other side of Charlotte Square lived his close friend Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations turned the World of Economics on its head when it was published.
And while these two were the Twin Peaks of Scottish intellectual achievement of the time they were by no means the only heights.
For we had leaders in science and in mathematics; in physics and in chemistry; in geology, in engineering, in medicine, in jurisprudence, in exploring.
And in architecture Scotland led the world with the Adam brothers from Kirkcaldy; commissioned from St Petersburg in the east to Boston in the west and whose style was taken up and copied not just by architects but by craftsmen in silver and in iron; in pottery and in stone; by furniture makers and by bookbinders.
And their influence spread throughout the world.

It was also the age of the zenith of Scottish art.
The age of Runciman and Ramsay and most of all Henry Raeburn.

Yet notwithstanding all these great men of that time it was the Star o' Rabbie Burns that rose abune them a'.
And why should it be?
And why does that star shine more brightly than any other in the firmament of Scottish life and Scottish history?

First of all, perhaps, because of what he did to preserve the literature, the language and the heritage of Scotland.
And God knows he did more than any other.

But what is much more significant, he did it all at a time when a wave of anglicisation was almost overwhelming Scotland.
It had begun as a trickle with the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
It reached spring-tide proportions with the Union of the Parliaments in 1707
But it became a tidal wave following upon the crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden in April 1746.

The Heritable Jurisdictions Act and the Disarming Acts were passed.
The bagpipe was declared an instrument of war, the tartan was proscribed, a proscription that would endure for 36 long and horrible years.
Hundreds were executed; many more were transported to the colonies
Robert Burns called them "evil days" and he wrote of them
They banished him beyond the sea
But ere the bud was on the tree
Adown my cheeks the pearls ran
Embracing my John Highlandman

But och! They catched him at the last
And bound him in a dungeon fast
My curse upon them every one-
They've hanged my braw John Highlandman.

And all things English were being embraced.
Even the ladies on the streets of the old town of Edinburgh, members of one of the few professions even older than mine, advertised their attractions, however few, in the new English tongue.
And schools teaching the newly arrived language were springing up all over the country.
The most prominent was one in Edinburgh (where else?) led by an Irishman called Sheridan.
And Scottish parents were sending their children to Oxbridge for some odd reason rather than Leyden, Utrecht or Paris where they had gone in the past.
And that tide reached its high water mark in 1782 when the sycophantic James Craig, architect of the New Town of Edinburgh, created a perpetual memory to that family who had presided over the greatest carnage known in this country when he called the streets of his new town after them.
And so we have George Street, and Hanover Street, and Frederick Street and the rest.

The wave of anglicisation did almost irreparable harm not just to the language, but also to the culture and the heritage of Scotland.
A Scots Poet of the day called James Beattie then Professor of Moral Theology at Marischal College Aberdeen, wrote, "Poetry is not poetry unless it is written in English."
I have never heard incidentally of a James Beattie Supper.
That objectionable Englishman Samuel Johnson wrote: "The great, the learned, the ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase, and the English pronunciation, and in splendid companies Scotch is not much heard, except now and then from an old lady." Robert Burns was some old lady.

That, then, was the age in which Burns lived and wrote and that was the society in which his works appeared.

Thankfully Robert Burns did not think the way of Beattie and Sheridan and the rest.
"The Poetic Genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha - at the Plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my natal Soil, in my native tongue."

And so he wrote most of his poetry in his native tongue in obedience to that poetic genius.
He wrote against the cultural tide running at the time and he wrote in the teeth of prejudice against his native language.
But he wrote with a beauty, with a simplicity that no other, whether before him or after him, has ever achieved.
Till a' the seas gang dry my dear
And the rocks melt wi' the sun
And I will luve thee still my dear
While the sands o' life shall run.

Thirty words ladies and gentlemen.
Thirty, simple unforgettable words.
And everyone a monosyllable.
No one else could write with such simplicity.

Look at the range of his writings.
For in the works of Robert Burns we see the whole cosmos of man's experience and emotion, from zenith to nadir, from birth until death.
And mankind are born and beget their kind and die.
Look at the quality of his works.
The greatest tale in any language is Tam O Shanter, just as the greatest satire is Holy Wullie's Prayer.
He also wrote the world's greatest love songs.
No matter the type of writing his work is always supreme.
Of course to him, his most important task was not his poetry but it was preserving the traditional folk songs of Scotland.
Auld Scotia's meltin' airs he called them.
And in this his efforts were Herculean.
And they were a labour of love.
He collected these traditional songs wherever he went and he patched them and he mended them, then he burnished them till he had produced things of beauty, every one of which is a priceless gem.
One cannot imagine Scots music and song without the contribution of Burns.
And you and I would belong to a nation stripped of much of its traditional music and song.

But it is when we consider his love songs that we see the perfection of Robert Burns.
For all the love songs which flowed from his pen are without equal.

There can surely be none in any language greater than:
Ae Fond Kiss and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas forever.
A dozen simple words, but what words do you know in any language that convey more.
Sir Walter Scott would say of that song that it contained "the essence of a thousand love tales."
It was written, as you know, to Agnes McElhose when they parted in December 1791.
She set sail on a forlorn journey to the West Indies hoping for a reconciliation with her husband - an errant Glasgow Lawyer who had run away to Jamaica.
(The first but by no means the last recorded example of one of my profession running away for one reason or other.)
It was all in vain and she was back within months, but that's another tale for another day.
But Clarinda (as their correspondence called her) never forgot Robert Burns.
And she would write in her diary for 6 December 1831. 'This day I shall never forget. Parted with Burns in the year 1791 never more to meet in this world. Oh may we meet in heaven!'

There is no couplet more mournful than that which comes from Ye Banks and Braes:
And ma fause lover staw ma rose
But ah he left the thorn wi' me.

No song is more poignant than the last one he ever wrote:
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.
Dedicated to young Jessie Lewars who nursed him in his last days here in Dumfries.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.

A song that illustrates the genius of Burns.
For he took what was a bawdy ballad where an old lady complains of her husband's lack of virility and he transformed it into what is surely the most beautiful hymn to marriage.

But it is in his songs to his beloved Jean that we see a different Burns, a joyous Burns, inspired by as deep a love as man can experience.
His bonnie Jean - But Armours the jewel o' them a'- Jean Armour, the wife who understood him and whom he loved more than anyone else on God's earth.
He dedicated 14 songs to her, most notably perhaps:
Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best.
And he finishes the poem with that magnificent couplet:
There's not a bonie bird that sings
But minds me o' ma Jean

All of these things which I have mentioned perhaps explain the immortality of the memory of Robert Burns to the Scots.
But what of his universality?
Why is he so relevant, as Ajit Singh asked me near half a century ago, to Calcutta, to peoples all over the world, in a way that no other writer is?

He lived in a world of either opulence or oppression.
By accident of birth all were born with privilege or in poverty.
With privilege there was wealth and position.
Without it, there was destitution and despair.
And it was that world of privilege and position, poverty and injustice that Burns hated and constantly condemned.
And the sentiments of change, drastic change in society, then being kindled in Europe, sentiments which would drive the Americans on to Independence and the French to Revolution, they were still anathema to huge swathes of the privileged in this country and elsewhere.
Burns, however, was above all a humanitarian, one who cared for the people like no one before him.
His sympathies were with the poor and the oppressed, the common folk, his fellow man.
And he had a love for all men that no other writer, before him or after, of any age, or of any country, had ever shown.
And so the pen of Robert Burns became the voice of the people; and he expressed the thoughts and the hopes of the people.
"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."
"Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others," he wrote, "this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity."
No figure in world literature had ever written with such compassion for his fellow man.

I read a few years ago in, I think, The Telegraph of the Englishman who wanted to institute the Shakespeare Supper and he forecast that it would soon rival our own.
And I have wondered ever since what message Wm Shakespeare had left to the people of the world.
And I still can't think of one.
But RB left one, a message for all men; for all nations and for all times.
It is a message of friendship; a message of fellowship; but above all else a message of love. It is a message that is just as relevant and just as vibrant today as when it was written over two hundred years ago.
"It's comin' yet for a that an' a' that,
That man tae man the world o'er shall brithers be for a' that."

He died at the age of only 37.
We can but marvel at what he achieved and wonder what he might have achieved had he lived his full biblical span of three score years and ten.

The twenty-first of July 1796, the day of his death, must surely rank as one of the darker days in the history of Scotland.

And four days later, on the day of his burial, his beloved Jean, was giving birth to their son Maxwell whom she named after William Maxwell the doctor who had prescribed bathing in the cold waters of the Solway up to the armpits as a cure for Burns' endo-carditis.

And when the funeral procession finally fell silent as it was wending its way through the crowded streets of this town, just as it got to the gates of St Michael's Kirkyard an auld buddy was heard to enquire "An wha will be oor poet noo?" a question still unanswered two hundred and six years later.

When William Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest of England's poets, learnt of the death of RB, he wrote:
I mourned with thousands, but as one
More deeply grieved, for he was gone.
Whose light I hailed when first it shone
And showed my youth
How verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.

Robert Burns and his memory will be immortal, not just to Scots peoples everywhere; but to people of every nation and every race and every colour whose lives have been touched by this unique genius.

Tell your children aye and your children's children about him and tell them just how lovely is the legacy which he left; for they will never have one that is more beautiful.

This, ladies & gentlemen, is what the Immortal Memory means to me and these are some of the thoughts which I wanted to share with you; thoughts for you to take away and to dwell upon, from time to time, so that if ever you are asked, as I once was, why do we make a fuss about Robert Burns, you will be able to tell them.

Tell them if you will that he did more to preserve the language, the culture, the heritage, the traditions, aye the very nationhood of Scotland than did any other.
And he did it all when Scotland as a nation faced the greatest threat to its very existence that it has ever known.

We have a culture, a tradition and a heritage of which we should be immeasurably proud.
For they are equalled by few and surpassed by none and we owe more of that to Robert Burns than to any other individual.
James Barke once wrote that there can be no greater poet than Robert Burns:
"Before he can be surpassed, a new race will have to be born, a different and greater species than homo sapiens."
James Barke was right.

This is an unforgettable night for me, Mr President, because of the honour you conferred upon me in inviting me.
I am intensely proud to give you this toast, the proudest toast for any Scot to propose.
I have had the privilege as you know of proposing it in many places throughout the world.
But to be asked to propose it here in Dumfries, at a gathering of the Robert Burns World Federation, that body which has done more than any other not just to promote Robert Burns, but to preserve this vital part of Scotland's heritage, then that is surely one of the greatest honours that can be conferred upon any Scottish speaker.
And I am very conscious of that honour and I shall always be grateful for it.

I said a moment or two ago that this is the proudest toast for any Scot to propose.
And so it is.
But it is also the proudest toast for any Scot to drink.
For it recalls surely the greatest Scot of all time.
It is a toast which we should drink with joy and with pride.
Joy at his memory and pride in the heritage which he left us.
Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, fill your glasses, aye fill them to the very brim and raise them high as I give you the greatest Scottish toast of them all, the Immortal Memoryof Robert Burns.