Immortal Memory

An example of a speech to propose a toast to “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”

This speech was delivered at a Burns Supper in Abingdon in January 2019.

In my day to day life, two of my favourite sources of information and opinion are the Daily Telegraph and BBC Radio 4. Neil MacGregor recently had a series of five short programmes entitled “As Others See Us”. Neil MacGregor is a very distinguished person, Member of the Order of Merit, a former director of the British Museum, born in Glasgow and educated at Glasgow Academy and New College, Oxford. In the introduction to each of the programmes, he included three 20 second sound bites. One of these was the voice of the Scottish actor John Laurie reading the lines:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

John Laurie is best remembered as Private Frazer in Dad’s Army. He came from Dumfries and was educated at Dumfries Academy and was famous during his life as a reciter of the poems of Burns.

Surprisingly, I don’t think that MacGregor referred to Burns in any of the programs. Clearly, he expected the Radio 4 audience to recognise the source of the name of the programme series. The programmes were interesting, diverse and entertaining, but did not yield a coherent view of “How Others See Us”. By “Us”, I think MacGregor meant the British people as we approach Brexit. The day following the last of the programmes, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, had something to say in his weekly column about MacGregor’s programmes. Essentially, Moore thought that this was a wasted opportunity to contribute something to the Brexit debate. However, this led to a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph from a Professor Peter Jones of Norfolk.  Commenting on the title of the programmes, he said that this was almost a pulpit platitude in Burns’ day; it was a central plank in Adam Smith’s lectures published in 1759 as “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”.  He also went on to say that Burns was citing Cicero as the original source, although Cicero was himself summarising Greek philosophers for his fellow Romans.

Well, there you have a connection from:

  • Radio 4 to:
  • The Daily Telegraph to:
  • Robert Burns to:
  • Adam Smith to:
  • Cicero to:
  • The Ancient Greeks.

Of course, Burns did not claim that the idea was original, however he appears to have acquired ownership of the idea.

I think “To a louse” is an interesting poem, written after seeing a louse on a lady’s bonnet in church in 1786, and I would like to quote the final of the eight sextets.

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:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

By the way, apologies to the ladies here present for the use of the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘humanity’. It is countered by the following fragment from his poem ‘The Rights of Women’, which you will notice is written in standard English.

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.

I do not often listen to Women’s Hour on Radio 4, but I was walking along the Kent and Avon canal on Thursday morning, and they discussed Burns. It was very interesting, and they even discussed this poem. They summarised it as Burns said that women should have the rights of “protection”, “respect” and “admiration”.

I would now like to turn my attention to another matter. Burns lived in a time which is known as the Sottish Enlightenment . It is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate how that time changed the world. In 1600, most people believed in things such as the following:

  • The world is flat;
  • The sun revolves around the earth;
  • It is possible to make gold from base metals;
  • Witches, werewolves, hobgoblins, leprechauns, elves, fairies, ghosts.

By the time of Burns, 1760 onwards, no educated person in Scotland seriously believed in any of these things. Later, we are going to hear the Tale of Tam O’Shanter. The humour in the poem rests on the listener being sceptical about the existence of Cutty Sark, and all the rest of them.

Some of the great advances which emerged from the enlightenment include:

  • The Newtonian laws of motion;
  • The rights of man;
  • The abolition of slavery, capital punishment and religious persecution.

There were many notable Scots who had influence which extended well outside of Scotland and they are still remembered today. They include:

  • Adam Smith, the economist;
  • David Hume, the philosopher;
  • Joseph Black, the chemist;
  • James Watt, the engineer.

What about the ladies? Well, Mary Sommerville who lent her name to Sommerville College in Oxford was the first lady to be a member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was born in Jedburgh in 1780 and became a distinguished scientist, encouraged by some distinguished scholars of her time. Her picture is now on the new Royal Bank of Scotland £10 note.

When preparing this talk, I read an article on the internet by Professor Sir Tom Devine. He asks and tries to answer the question “Why did the enlightenment happen in Scotland, and during the 18th Century?”. He identifies several factors:

  • The universities – Scotland had 5 when England had 2;
  • European engagement – many of the scholars spent time studying or working in Europe. For example, Adam Smith wrote “the Wealth of Nations” while living in Toulouse in France;
  • Peacefulness – the 18th Century was relatively peaceful following the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745;
  • The reformation – The Church of Scotland had adopted Protestantism and was generally tolerant of new ideas, and supportive of education for all;
  • Education – even in rural areas, universal literacy was being adopted.

Many scholars consider that the ideas of the Enlightenment led to the ideas supporting both the American and French Revolutions.

So, what does this have to do with Burns? Well, a great deal.

Burns was and still is, the personification of the enlightenment, and his works did much to communicate the ideas of the Enlightenment. Despite a modest start in life, Burns was well educated, articulate and prolific. His works were first published in Scotland by William Smellie, the man who invented Encyclopaedia Britannica, itself a product of Enlightenment. His works were very popular, and it gave Burns the status of a pop star of the day, a sort of Sir Billy Connelly of his time. Everyone wanted to meet him, and he met the young Sir Walter Scott when Burns was in Edinburgh. Many of the today’s ideas of Scottish identity, kilts, highland dress, and the like were invented by Scott for the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh in 1822.

Burns was supportive of the French Revolution and he had strong Scottish Nationalist views too. Poems such as “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled”, still resonate in Scotland today, although “Oh Flower of Scotland” which is a derivative is, if anything, even more popular.

When the Scottish Parliament met for the first time in 1999, the singer Sheena Wellington sang “A man’s a Man for A’ That”. You can watch it on You Tube; it is very moving. The entire parliament joined in with the soloist for the final verse.

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.

Well, finally I would like you all, Ladies and Gentlemen, to join me in a Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

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