Why Scots owe Burns a debt of gratitude for the impact he has had, and continues to have, on our great country.

burns

I have to concede that I don’t know a great deal about Burns. I know he was born in 1759 in Alloway and died just 37 years later in Dumfries.  I know he wrote poems and songs, but that’s about it. So in drafting this blog I wanted to learn more about the man and how he has influenced modern Scotland. To do this we have to look at when Burns lived and his values.

Just 50 or so years before his birth, the act of union had taken place. Scotland had joined with England. England had 5 times the population and 36 times the wealth. Scotland did not have equal riches, but Scots equal partners. Amongst the benefits Scotland brought to the table was education. As well as a literate general population, we had a highly developed university system – five universities, to England’s two.

By the time Burns was born, Scotland was successfully combining its educated population with English gold to create the Scottish enlightenment. Indeed, he was to be a key part of this intellectual movement.   This movement, combined with our protestant work ethic, enabled Scotland to hit above its weight and become more affluent. However, much of the “hitting” took place in the Empire and focussed on tobacco and slavery.

We should not pretend that by the time of Burns’ birth that everyone was happy with the union in Scotland. After all, the 1715 Jacobite rebellion would have been within living memory and his parents would have lived through the 1745 rebellion. Indeed, his grandfather is likely to have lived through both uprisings (his DoB is unknown, but Burns’s father was born in 1721).

Given that Burns’ family no doubt discussed these events, it is tempting to wonder what he made of Scotland’s constitutional position both then and now. It is notable however that in over 600 works published by Burns there is hardly a mention of the Jacobite rebellion. His attachment to the Jacobite cause was purely sentimental, and he had no desire to see the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Furthermore, as Alex Salmond once said, “No-one should ever try to pigeon-hole Burns into party politics because he was far too big for that”. Nonetheless, Mr Salmond did go on to suggest that Burns would have voted Yes in the referendum because “From tip to toe, Robert Burns was a 100% Scottish patriot” – as if one can’t be a patriotic Scot and oppose the will of Alex Salmond.

The problem Mr Salmond faced was that although he could extend the referendum franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, allowing the dead of the 18th century to vote was beyond even his abilities! Furthermore, we can’t imagine what Burns would make of Scotland today and our ruling class in Holyrood. More interesting than how Burns would have voted in the referendum is how he influenced politics today.

So what were Burns’ values? For the Burns family the 1745 rebellion coincided with his grandfather taking on the lease of a farm.  When the farm encountered financial problems just two years later, Burns’ father moved to Edinburgh where he worked for two years landscaping gardens in the area now known as “The Meadows”. In 1750 he moved to Ayrshire and worked as a gardener until 1786. He then became a head gardener and leased seven acres of land at Alloway where he built the cottage which was later the birthplace of Burns.

So Burns would have grown up in a household which knew what hard work was, but he would also have been familiar with the wealth of the laird. At the same time the world was also changing more in the second half of the 18th century than Scotland had in the first:

  1. Britain became the dominant power on earth.
  2. The slave trade began to crumble (Burns was almost part of it)
  3. America fought an 8 year war of independence (messy, but perhaps quicker than a “once in a lifetime” referendum).
  4. Australia was discovered (or perhaps rediscovered).
  5. The French revolution took place.

Just as the world was changing, so was Scotland:

  1. Wearing tartan and the kilt was again legal.
  2. The Forth-Clyde Canal was opened.
  3. Scotland’s first proper lighthouse was built.

In the 18th century the opening of the  Forth-Clyde Canal and the construction of lighthouse at Kinnaird Head would have been massive engineering endeavors. Due to good maintenance,  we still benefit them today.

Like many other Scots, Burns worked hard and sought a better life for himself. He moved from farmer, to mill worker to white collar tax collector. This experience and growing up on a farm would have shaped him more than anything and this is reflected in his works. Burns reports and reflects on the lives of ordinary Scots, and freely insults and attacks the privileged in society  – the clergy, the wealthy and  government employees like himself. On politicians he said, “all would rule, but none obey”.

Indeed his sympathies for Wallace, Bruce and the French Revolution were all rooted in his opposition if tyranny and subjugation of the poor.

Even if we look at a Burns poem which we learn at school, To a Mouse, we find that it offers more than meets the eye. On the surface it tells the story of a mouse whose home has been destroyed by a ploughman. However, is also a  depiction of how the ordinary man is equally vulnerable to external forces. As a tenant farmer, Burns was particularly aware that the best laid plans of mice and men may often go wrong. However, man suffers even more through worry than the mouse which apparently only lives in the moment.

It is this perspective that led to UNESCO declaring Burns the world’s first ‘people’s poet’ because he began the practice of writing poetry, prose and songs about the commonplace experiences of the poor.

People as diverse as Bob Dylan and Colin Fox, the SSP leader, claim Burns inspired them. I disagree with Fox on many issues, but I don’t doubt his commitment to fairness and equality.

But when we look at impact of Burns on society, Towering above both Fox and Dylan is Keir Hardie – the man who started the democratic revolution that delivered the NHS and the welfare state. Hardie said that he owed more to Burns “than any man alive or dead”. Indeed, Hardie rejected Marxism in favour of a humane and popular approach to politics that came out of his Christianity and the works of Burns. Referring to the ideas of humanity and equality found in the works of Burns, Hardie told a friend that “Burns point of view” was superior to a socialism of “German formulas” (Marx).

So in collusion, we in Scotland should be proud of the way Burns has influenced political thinking and his role in inspiring the likes of Hardie.  However, I would say that we should perhaps concern ourselves less about what Burns would have thought about Scottish independence  and more about his values and how they can continue to shape Scotland to meet the needs of ordinary Scots. The problem we face is that Scotland’s ruling political elite, and I include all the media in that,  find the constitutional politics more interesting than the job of making Scotland a fairer and more equal society.

Therefore, in toasting the immortal memory of Rabbie Burns next week we should  pay tribute not only to the passion and power of his work, but we must acknowledge that as Scots we owe him a debt of gratitude for impact he has had, and continues to have, on our great country.

 

Thanks to: Megan Coyer, Colin Fox, John Knox, Blair McDougal, Ralph McLean et al.

Oh, and I liked this:

 

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22 thoughts on “Why Scots owe Burns a debt of gratitude for the impact he has had, and continues to have, on our great country.

  1. Edwin Moore (@GlasgowAlbum) says:

    Fabulous poet as was recognised by all the Romantics and his stature has if anything grown over the years. As a satirist and lyric poet, he has few equals.

    Tte problem is the man himslef. As Robert Crawford pointed out, his willlingness to become a bookeeper (in practice an overseer) on one of the many Scots-run slave plantatations in Jamaica changes what we think of him and there is no getting round it. Also his attitude to women is problematic. The letter in which he boasts to a friend about having rough sex with Armour in a barn survives and it is the letter of a boor.

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  2. Stewart Dredge says:

    A fair and well-meaning assessment, Scott, though I see you are still blinkered by your view that Scotland’s “developing interest in constitutional politics” is some kind if national self-indulgence next to the “job of making Scotland a fairer and more equal society.”
    As you know, a growing number of left-wing Scots find your failure to see that the two are inextricably linked as laughable as Keir Hardie did. Hardie believed that the British Empire was slowly dying and that Scotland and Ireland had no long-term future chained to it. Burns, however, lived when it had become the only game in town and serious thoughts of fruitful national independence really would have been self-indulgence. Yet Burns was a romantic and in “Scots wha hae” and “Parcel of Rogues” he set himself in earlier times to use the notion of independence to make contemporary political points.
    Would he and Hardie have supported independence today? It doesn’t really matter though Hardie undoubtedly would have, had he lived through the age of Thatcher and New Labour. Perhaps Burns would just have emigrated as he planned the last time!

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  3. Stewart Dredge says:

    It seems the people of Scotland disagree with you, Scott. Maybe you should have read some Burns before starting to write about him:
    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion…..

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    • DrScottThinks says:

      Remind me, what was the outcome of the referendum?

      Claiming that independence would magically change Scotland into some sort of socialist nirvana is somewhat disingenuous.

      The fact that an SNP staffer (you) would claim that whilst implementing a Tory budget in Holyrood is complete hypocrisy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Stewart Dredge says:

    I don’t believe in magic nor Nirvana, Scott. I would rather see yours and my grandchildren running Future Scotland than David Cameron’s and George Osbourne’s. I consider that a very moderate ambition.

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    • DrScottThinks says:

      I voted No due to the financial implications of independence. Everything I read suggested that the cuts that would come with leaving the UK would be worse than what Cameron is inflicting. There is a reason that the SNP were never open about Scotland’s finances during #IndyRef.

      Did any independent economist say we’d be better off with independence?

      If you oppose Cameron, why did your boss (Gordon Mcdonald MSP) help impose the Tory budget on Scotland? What difference exists between the SNP and the Scottish Tories on tax policy?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Stewart Dredge says:

    What does “impose the Tory budget Scotland” even mean?
    Swinney cannot pick and choose which tax bands he wishes to increase tax in. If he adds, say, 3% to one band he has to do the same for them all so any tax rises by the Scottish government would necessarily hurt the poor most. I know this is what Labour wants but the SNP will not go down that road. And, by the way, until we know how The Fiscal Framework pans out we don’t know whether Westminster would simply claw-back any tax rises up here. Suggesting no difference exists between the SNP and the Tories on economic policy is daft in the extreme but is illustrative of what today’s hopelessly divided Labour Party has become.

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    • DrScottThinks says:

      Let me ask again: What difference exists between the SNP and the Scottish Tories on tax policy?

      As for the ” Fiscal Framework”, why can’t the SNP be open about these discussions?

      The SNP could have ended the council tax freeze for the richest Scots, but they decided not to.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stewart Dredge says:

    The SNP manifesto in 2015 said it would back the end of Labour and Tory austerity, supported by both in the vote just a year ago, though a few Labour rebels did refuse to back the Tories. It also supported the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of income tax, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance and the abolition of non-dom status. Of course Labour had already ruled out any co-operation with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament so they would have landed us with current Tory policies anyway, another reason they deserved the Red Tory label from their former supporters.

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  7. DrScottThinks says:

    These were all policies lifted from the Labour manifesto: “It also supported the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of income tax, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance and the abolition of non-dom status.”

    Let me ask again: What difference exists between the SNP and the Scottish Tories on tax policy?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Stewart Dredge says:

    You asked how the SNP’s policies differed from the Tories’.
    Anyone else would just have googled it but I took the trouble to give you a few examples because I know your SNPBAD brain doesn’t work that way.

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  9. Stewart Dredge says:

    The SNP Tax policy doesn’t differ between Holyrood and Westminster. Does Labour’s? We know that Kezia Dugdale said that Labour’s manifesto would be “the most pro-business” in the party’s history as she seeks to steal the SNP’s policy of supporting small businesses. Of course, she can say any old crap she wants as Labour has already conceded defeat and its policies will never be put to the test. When will we see Labour’s policy on tax? Wait a minute, you could just tell us now, Scott, though you’d have to make it up yourself!

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  10. Stewart Dredge says:

    Again, unlike the Tories, the SNP supports the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of income tax, a tax on bankers’ bonuses, a bank levy, a mansion tax, a crackdown on tax avoidance and the abolition of non-dom status. It also supports Scottish independence which will place all Scotland’s revenue raising powers in the hands of the elected government of the people of Scotland. Labour campaigned with the Tories to ensure that these powers remain in George Osbourne’s hands. For example, we need to be able to alter tax rates within individual tax bands and to create new tax band beyond the ones which already exist. We are unable to do so and that is a direct consequence of Labour’s alliance with the Tories to leave Scottish economic powers at Westminster. Do you now regret campaigning with the Tories to strengthen Osbourne’s strangle-hold on the Scottish economy?

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    • DrScottThinks says:

      1. You are living in the past – the SNP have voted against the 50p tax rate since May.
      2. What new income tax band do the SNP want to introduce?
      3. Where are their plans for a mansion tax in Scotland?
      4. Where are their plans for a bankers’ bonus tax in Scotland?
      5. Will the crack down on tax avoidance extend to SNP MP’s?

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Stewart Dredge says:

    1) what vote? 2) SG can’t introduce new bands. You campaigned with the Tories to ensure that was the case 3) SG can’t introduce a mansion tax. You campaigned with the Tories to ensure that was the case. 4) SG can’t impose a bankers’ bonus tax. You campaigned with the Tories to ensure that was the case. 5) Margaret Hodge et al.

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    • DrScottThinks says:

      Your SNP boss, Gordon McDonald MSP, voted against Labour’s plan to reintroduce the 50p tax rate (when the power comes) and invest the money in education.

      On the other points, you are making my argument for me. These are non-polices.

      AGAIN: What difference exists between the SNP and the Scottish Tories on tax policy?

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  12. Stewart Dredge says:

    They are not “non-policies.” They are policies which apply only in the context of Scotland being ruled by Westminster. If you are saying that Scottish MPs, effectively have no power at Westminster, then YOU make my point for ME.
    As you are well aware, high-band taxes can only be increased if low-band taxes increased by the same percentage. That is what you campaigned for in the referendum. Is Scottish Labour in favour of increasing the taxes of low-paid workers?

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