I was honoured to be asked earlier this week to give the Immortal Memory address at this Saturday’s Caledonian Society Burns Supper and so, when I can find time, I am spending it researching and writing my speech. I am sure many of you will be familiar with Scotland’s most famous son and erstwhile Bard. You will know that: he is considered to be one of the great Romantic poets; that he wrote largely in the Scots dialect; and that he had a notorious predilection for both the fairer sex and Scotland’s most famous beverage! However, you may not know (and I certainly didn’t) that there are more statues dedicated to Burns around the world than any person in history with the exception of Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus. Likewise, I did not know (perhaps to my shame as both a Scot and an English teacher!) that he wrote a poem in praise of the American Revolution, and General George Washington in particular, and neither was I aware that Abraham Lincoln was an avid devotee- Milton Hay, one of Lincoln’s clerks reported that:
“He [Lincoln] could quote very nearly all of Burns’s poems by memory. I have frequently heard him quote the whole of Tam O’Shanter, Holy Willie’s Prayer, and a large portion of The Cotter’s Saturday Night from memory. He acquired the Scottish accent and could render Burns perfectly. ... I have been with him in that little office and heard him recite, with the greatest of admiration and zest, Burns’s ballads and quaint things. That was one of the sources of his wisdom and wit.”
It was a very pleasant surprise to learn of this devotion of Lincoln’s to Burns but perhaps it should not come as so much of a shock. After all: both men knew what it was to recover from repeated failure and hardships, especially of the financial kind; both men were inspired by, and inspired in others, a great sense of national pride; both men hated hypocrisy and conceit; but above all, both men were optimists, especially when it came to their fellow human beings. Where others saw baseness, ignorance and inferiority, whether looking down on Scottish peasants or American slaves, they saw nobility, integrity and dignity.
But what has struck me most during the course of my research is how Burns managed to strike that balance between national pride and international brotherhood that seems so obviously missing in our current world.
Burns’ devotion to his country is clear in his choice of the Scots dialect for his poems, in his clear love for the land itself and the people who farmed it and, of course, in his scything satirical takes on the conquering English and their stooges, the Scottish nobility.
Frae the friends and Land I love
Frae the friends and Land I love,
Driv'n by Fortune's felly spite;
Frae my best Beloved I rove,
Never mair to taste delight.
Never mair maun hope to find
Ease frae toil, relief frae care:
When Remembrance wracks the mind,
Pleasures but unveil Despair.
Brightest climes shall mirk appear,
Desart ilka blooming shore;
Till the Fates, nae mair severe,
Friendship, Love and Peace restore.
Till Revenge, wi' laurell'd head,
Bring our Banished hame again;
And ilk loyal, bonie lad
Cross the seas, and win his ain.
Yet at the same time Burns was a staunch advocate for the rights of the individual, especially those downtrodden by poverty and oppression (hence his aforementioned support for the American Revolution and perhaps explaining why Lincoln felt such a connection to his work). To Burns this advocacy had to go beyond mere sympathy or even empathy and become active, loyal and personal support, in short, Brotherhood.
A Man's a Man for a' That
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that,
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that!
But an honest man's aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that,
The pith o' Sense an' pride o' Worth
Are higher rank than a' that.
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 comin yet for a' that,
That Man to Man the warld o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.
(I wonder if you can guess which current public figure I visualize as the “cuif” (feckless male to be ridiculed) of stanza 3?!)
When asked by candidates for teaching roles at KISU what I value most about our school I immediately talk about our young people. They have many admirable qualities but one of the ones I am most proud of is that they are completely colour blind! It gives me great joy and pride to see friendship groups around school made up of children from 3 or 4 different continents. Preparations for International Day have begun, and to me it was the best day of last year, but celebrating our cultural and ethnic diversity is not the only way in which we try to develop a sense of brotherhood in our young people: it also is in our approach to team sports, to outdoor education and to community service.
I trust Burns would approve!