The Scottish Referendum on independence being a little less than 6 months ago, this may be a good time to ask ourselves how Burns might have voted. Of course, if Burns had been able to vote in the referendum, he would have been 255 years old and probably senile.
Had he been born in 1959, rather than in 1759, the age problem falls away as tonight he would be celebrating his 56th birthday. The gutterpress and paparazzi would have ensured that he would not become Scotland’s national bard, but his Facebook status (In a relationship. It’s complicated) would be interesting; especially when the spellcheck tries to cope with “Fair fa’ yer honest sonsie face”, or “Wee sleekit, coo’rin’ tim’rous beastie”.
When Burn’s wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’ he published it anonymously. Patriotic song or not, it is an incitement against the crown and, therefore, treason. Burns was, no doubt, familiar with the story of James Reid – the Jacobite piper hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the 1745 rebellion.
While it is debatable that the court ruled that the Great Highland Bagpipe is a weapon of war (4 other Jacobite pipers were, respectively, banished, imprisoned, freed and fate unknown), art critics of the day obviously had exceptionally high standards and martyrdom for the sake of your art is not a career path with a pension scheme; not even 72 virgins waiting in Paradise.
In 1790, Burns asked “What are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from the Union that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence, and even her very name”?
It is difficult to overstate the poverty and the hardships of the ordinary people in 18th century Scotland and much of Burns’ popularity as a poet stems from his identity with the common man and his ability to write of their lives in their vernacular.
He also, in A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, criticised some of the tactics used to persuade the Scottish Parliament to accede to the Act of Union of 1707.
Up to this point we can confidently say that Robert Burns would have voted ‘yes’ for an independent Scotland. And probably be completely wrong.
As Alexander Pope famously observed: A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again
Robert Burns’ public persona as the ploughman poet was carefully and deliberately crafted and enabled him to enter levels of society, both high and low, from which he might otherwise have been excluded.
Burns was well educated and, while his farming venture was not sufficient to support a family, it must be remembered that the soil was poor and crop rotation a poorly understood concept.
The romance of his poetry hides that Burns was pragmatic and a realist. Among the options he considered was emigrating to Jamaica. Had he done so, would he, like Thomas Jefferson, have struggled with the contradiction of declaring, as a self-evident truth, that “all men are created equal”, while living in a slave-owning society?
As Samuel Johnson noted in the years before the American Revolution, “Why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Perhaps this conundrum persuaded him against the move.
Of more immediate interest to us; if Robert Burns had crossed to the West Indies, would Burns Nicht still be celebrated with tartan and haggis, or would we be wearing Rasta beanies and puffing ganja?
In the end, needing to provide for his family, he became an Exciseman, a career that even tax collectors could find problematic.
This position, at least in UK, has its own interesting story. Following a poor harvest in 1644, Charles 1 placed a tax on whisky and the Scottish Parliament restricted the right to distil to upper and noble classes. The result, quite naturally, was the proliferation of illicit stills. As you probably know, this is also the origin of the shebeen, a Gaelic word that South Africans have adopted as their own while retaining the original meaning.
After the Union Act of 1707, parliament created the Excisemen, whose task it was to end illicit distillation and the smuggling with which it had quickly become associated. It was a difficult and dangerous, often fatal, undertaking as the Excisemen were generally outnumbered and inadequately armed. There was also a certain sympathy towards the illicit stills and the smugglers. Consider Rob’s poem “The De’ils awa’ wi’ the Exciseman”, with the fourth verse, as an example, reading:
There’s threesome reels, there’s foursome reels,
There’s hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance ere came to the Land
Was, the deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman.
Burns was not a supporter of the Stuarts and, writing to London’s The Star newspaper in 1788, said of the 1715 and 1745 rebellions “That they failed, I bless God, but I cannot join in the ridicule of them.”
He also endorsed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William of Orange deposed James VII & II. Or, more accurately, he supported the bill of rights that finally, at least in Great Britain, forever ended absolute monarchy. Writing to Robert Graham in 1792, Burns said “I look upon the British constitution, as settled at the revolution, to be the most glorious on Earth, or perhaps that the wit of man can frame.”
Politically, Burns was a supporter of Charles James Fox, the Whig politician who opposed Pitt the Younger in parliament. His waistcoat was even in the same colours as Fox’s, which in turn were the colours of General George Washington and the American colonists. Burns supported the colonists’ call for independence.
At the same time, he never called for the dissolution of the Scottish / English Union. Scotland’s economic hardship after the failed Darien Scheme (the ill-conceived, ill-planned and badly executed Scottish attempt at colonisation on the Isthmus of Panama) played an important role in uniting the parliaments.
England was prepared to rescue its northern neighbour, but the price was Scotland’s independence. A. G. Macdonell in “My Scotland” notes the Scottish tendency to flamboyance and the irrational belief that a glorious defeat is preferable to a pedestrian victory. We probably caught it from the English.
Incidentally, the Macdonell to whom I refer is not the Chief of the Society, but is famous for another book “England Their England” and especially his description of the village cricket match. If you have not read it, your education is incomplete.
I like to think that Burns, carefully considering all the factors, would have concluded that the ‘yes’ campaign was an invitation to yet another Darien Scheme. Or maybe to display the reckless courage that drove the clansmen to attack the government army at Culloden, when the Redcoats clearly held all the advantages.
When France declared war on Britain in 1793, Burns let go of his intellectual support of the French Revolution and joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers when it was formed in 1795. As much as he criticised the union, he was prepared to risk his life in its defence.
Burns’ eldest son, also Robert, became a civil servant in the Treasury in London, while sons William and James both achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the East India Company’s army. There is much truth in the story of the Scot who visited London. Asked on his return what he thought of the English he replied “I didn’t meet any. I only dealt with management.”
That the Scottish National Party timed the referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn shows a praiseworthy grasp of good marketing. Perhaps they should have remembered the (most likely apocryphal) story of the Royal Navy as it lay off Trafalgar. When Nelson flew his famous signal, an English sailor nudged his shipmate and said “Do you hear? ENGLAND expects that every man shall do his duty”. To which he received the reply “Aye. Scotland’s lads do not need reminding.”
Yes for independence or yes for the Union. Which what Robert Burns have seen as his duty?