Immortal Memory - by Peter Kormylo - Delivered at the Howff Club Anniversary Dinner in the Globe Inn
It is January 2011 - and we are gathered here to celebrate the foremost evening of the Scottish Calendar. Our mirth and fun extends far beyond these shores for around the world wherever Scots & their friends are gathered to commemorate Robert Burns they are sure to experience – a magical evening.
My Immortal Memory tonight is dedicated to the years that Burns spent in Dumfries with a focus on aspects of his life linked to the spot where I am proud to say that our Burns Howff Club has met for a century and more - the Globe Inn...for within its historic 400 year old walls, and in the streets neighbouring the Globe, Robert Burns lived out some of the most interesting and intense incidents of his short life.
In 1926 Hugh MacDairmid composed the poem “A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle”. In it he wrote...
Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s, barrin Liberty and Christ
Tonight, in an attempt to avoid the nonsense, I hope that my brief orchestration of quotes from his letters, poems and songs will allow the Bard to elaborate on his Dumfries years for himself.
Burns and the Globe Inn are firmly linked with pivotal moments in his life, moments of triumph and disaster, pain and passion, dirt and deity.
When he moved to Dumfries on the 11th November 1791, the town buzzed with sessions of the circuit courts, cattle and horse fairs and seasons when the Dumfries and Galloway Hunt joined with the Caledonian Hunt to hold races on nearby Tinwald Downs.
Dumfries was THE place for routs, assemblies, balls and all manner of social events. More importantly it had become a garrison town and the officers of the Fencible Infantry and cavalry regiments stationed here added to the glittering social life.
.But his years as an exciseman were to put him under the magnifying glass of the whispering classes, the unco guid and rigidly righteous of Dumfries, many of whom adhered to the 11th Commandment. The 11th Commandment being “Thou shalt not be found out”.
In the Globe, his “favourite Howff”, he routinely found the intellectual and social stimulation of the kind that he had enjoyed during his meteoric rise to fame in Edinburgh. But in his mature years, which sadly proved to be his final years, the deep social injustices of the time began to close in on him.
Cast your mind back to 1793, picture the Bard in the Globe settled in that atmospheric, snug in his chair, “fast by an ingle bleezin finely” and at his elbow the hospitality of the Hyslops, and an audience of sharp witted friends and acquaintances. Burns being by turns whimsical and philosophical, and at all times extravagant in his use of language and metaphor. On the table is spread a newspaper fresh from the coach journey from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Soon he and his friends would
“Lay aside their private cares
To mind the Kirk and state affairs
They’ll talk o patronage and priests
Wig kindling fury in their breasts
Or tell what new taxation’s coming
And febrile at the folk in London”
Burns, unable to curb his passion for political comment, begins to dissect the news. He would comment on THE WORLD’S STAGE then, as it is tonight, a stage filled with reports of floods, disasters, famines and wars. So what has changed?
But this was a time when the ripples of revolution had put Britain on red alert. The French had led their king, and many of the nobility, to the guillotine. Here in Dumfries the population was polarising, not only between Whigs and Tories, but more menacingly between the radicals and the royalists.
There seemed to be no middle ground. Just round the corner in the King’s Arms on the 18th January 1793 an ultra right wing group calling themselves “The Loyal Natives”, founded their club and launched a number of noisy dinners with provocative toasts.
On the 4th June each year –on the king’s birthday - they organised raucous demonstrations, parading through Dumfries wearing patriotic sashes daring others to block their way. Not surprisingly these confrontations frequently led to fisticuffs and breaches of the peace. “Ca ire!” and “God save the king!” had become tribal war cries.
Burns’ diamond stylus never lay idle. He was notorious for scribbling comments on window panes – and the Globe was no exception. But tonight I shall focus on only one etching - the most ominous. Lines long removed from the window where he wrote...
In politics if thou wouldst mix
And mean thy fortunes are
Bear this in mind - be deaf and blind
Let great folks here and see.
Burns of course ignored his own advice. He could never be deaf and blind – he had mixed with the great folks but had not always been impressed.
Ye see you birdie cad’s a lord what struts and stares and a that
though thousands worship at his word
he’s but a coof for a that.
He didn’t just stop at great folks. His Dumfries years signalled an acceleration of biting comment on all things political. When he wrote to Alexander Cunningham he looked and laughed at the political hierarchy of the time.
What is politics? Answer:
Politics is a science wherewith, by men of nefarious cunning and hypocritical pretence, we govern civil polities for the emolument of ourselves and our adherents.
What is a minister? Answer:
A minister is an unprincipled fellow, who by the influence of hereditary, or acquired wealth; by superior abilities, or by a lucky conjuncture of circumstances, obtains a principle place in the administration of the affairs of government.
The Globe became Burns’ parliament where he routinely immersed himself and other like minds in issues of religion, education and politics, in concepts radical and democratic.
He was not alone in his views. His closest friends and acquaintances were no fools, they were well informed, visionary professionals - Syme his Excise superior, Lawyer William McCracken, and Doctor James Mundell. Other friends were perhaps less respectable like Wullie Nicol – but then he was from Annan.
But it was another medical man, an aristocrat, one year younger than Burns, who became one of his closest friends. William Maxwell, Jesuit educated and newly returned from practising Medicine in France. Maxwell was the son of a notable Jacobite and while in France he had joined the National Guard. He had witnessed the execution of Louis XVI – Burns admired him inordinately....
Burns soon began broadcasting his political views with a blunderbuss, with the kind of lines that he wrote to Mrs Dunlop on the fate of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette, underlining “deserved fate of a certain pair of personages - what is there in the delivering over a perjured Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute into the hands of the hangman...”
Other friends of the poet, David McCulloch of Ardwell, had also been in France and had seen the Fall of the Bastille first hand. Burns was surrounded by a circle that was now well known in Dumfries for its anti government and liberal views. But what rankled these radicals were the blatant advantages of the privileged classes - bankers!
Picture the political reality - less than one percent of the population of Scotland was entitled to vote!!!
His Dumfries years led not only to his attempts to send cannon to the French Revolutionaries but, as we now know, to his membership of the anti establishment Friends of the People. By this time he was not only under scrutiny by his masters in the Excise but by Robert Dundas’s extensive security apparatus centred in Edinburgh and reporting to London. Little wonder that after the 1793-94 Sedition trials Burns should write;
The shrinking Bard adown an alley skulks
And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks
Tho there his heresies in church and state
Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate
On the morning of the 21st January 1793 Louis XVI was led to the guillotine. War with France was to play havoc not only with trade and the work of excisemen but was to breed political suspicion on a grand scale and at every level of society.
Years earlier, during his Stirlingshire tour, lines written in the Carron Inn came back to haunt him…
The injured Stewart line is gone,
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race, to honour lost —
Who know them best despise them most.
The lines had become notorious. They were written on a window of one of the public rooms of the Carron Inn, and there they remained to be seen and read by every visitor who cared. Copied into many travellers' note-books, like e-mails, they never went out of circulation.
No wonder Dundas and the establishment feared Burns. He was a literary genius who could pen rousing political sentiment effortlessly. The pen has always been mightier than the sword and a pen in the hands of a man like Burns would prove to be political dynamite during times of social unrest.
Listen to his own description of his visit to Bannockburn... in his manuscripts we find the following emotive paragraph:
“The field of Bannockburn — the hole where glorious Bruce set his standard. Here no Scot can pass uninterested. I fancy to myself that I see my gallant, heroic countrymen coming o'er the hill, and down upon the plunderers of their country, the murderers of their fathers; noble revenge and just hate glowing in every vein, striding more and more eagerly as they approach the oppressive, insulting, blood-thirsty foe. I see them meet in gloriously triumphant congratulation on the victorious field, exulting in their heroic royal leader, and rescued liberty and independence.”
Imagine the power of a battle cry like” Scots wha hae” - so powerful it was not published until after his death.
Burns imagined himself to be Bruce addressing his 8000 outnumbered and starving Scots who knelt to pray before their maker on the field of Bannockburn. They faced the prospect of being butchered by Edward 2nd’s 18000 trained and disciplined soldiers.
How do you rally the underdog? You do it with words like this...
Scots ...wha hae wi Wallace bled
However this rousing cry to battle preceded perhaps the most politically potent lines that Burns ever wrote.
A Man’s a man for a that…is regarded by many as The Marseillaise of Equality: the rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.
The honest man, tho eer sae poor
Is king of men for a that
A prince can make a belted knight
A marqis, duke and all that
But an honest man’s aboon his might
It would take hours to catalogue Burns involvement in the politics of his Dumfries years .Nor do we have time this evening to examine any one chapter in detail.
Be assured, as fast as he was honing his poetic genius and journalistic talent his friends, within and outwith the Excise, were trying to protect him from himself.
Fate would have it that, towards the end of his life, his energy and passion for Liberty and Equality began to intensify only to be met with the final cruel stages of endocarditus and a leaking heart valve.
We all know the rest of this terrible chapter. His futile visits to the Brow Well. His meetings with friends who recognised the pallor of approaching death upon his countenance.
When he wrote an elegy on the death of Robert Ruisseaux he may have been summarising his own life.
Now Robin lies in his last lair
He’ll gabble rhyme, nor sing nae mair
Cauld poverty wi hungry stare,
Nae mair shall fear him;
Nor anxious fear, nor cankert care,
E’er mair come near him
To tell the truth, they seldom fash’d him
Except the moment that they crushed him
For sune as chance or fate had hush’d ‘em
Tho e’er sae short
Then wi’ a rhyme or sang he lash’d ‘em
And thought it sport.
Gentlemen I invite you to rise with me in Toasting -
The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.