The Immortal Memory



For me it’s a real honour to provide the Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. As a theme I would like to talk about the language of Burn’s poetry.


If you do not understand a word of Burn’s poetry, you are not alone! But it may surprise you to know the Scots language Robert Burns used is still alive and well. If any of you have visited Scotland north of Edinburgh and Glasgow you may have encountered it. The only way to describe it is “indecipherable”.


As an example of the accent, and Burns at his best, here's a piece in which he describes his teenage days as a farm hand....

I mind it weel, in early date,

When I was beardless, young, and blate,

An' first could thresh the barn,

Or haud a yokin at the pleugh,

An', tho' forfoughten sair eneuh,

Yet unco proud to learn

Many of these words and much of the accent of Burns poetry survives and thrives in the north of Scotland. In farming communities, people still speak Broad Scots because they have little need to travel.


On a side note Robert Burns passed through northern Scotland in 1787 while on an extensive traveling vacation which he took after having his Edinburgh Edition of poems published. And, while on this topic of Burn’s Tour of Scotland, a Nova Scotian[1] even started a rumour Burns visited Halifax, Nova Scotia at the end of that year. The story goes that, quite recently, contractors were renovating the attic of the Carleton Hotel, and they came across a note below the floorboards of what had once been a chamber-maid’s closet. According to the story, this is what the note said:

An Address to the Lobster


Here’s to your ruddy, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o' the seafood race!

Above them a' ye tak’ your place,

Squid, cod or clam.

Weel are ye worthy of a grace

As long as my ar-m.


The groaning platter there ye fill,

Your tail rolls like a distant hill,

Your claw would help to cut through twill

In time o' need,

And both yer eyes stare at me still

Like twa black bead.


Is there that pre-fer French ragout?

Or vegan beans boiled in a stew?

Or barbied chicken? …Just a few

Would call me sinner,

And take a sneering, scornful view

At this fine dinner.


Poor dev’ls! See them owre their trash,

As feckless as a wither'd rash,

With fork and spoon and linen sash:

Oh how unfit!

But mark the lobster lover lash,

With hands and wit!


Ye Pow'rs, who make mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o' fare,

New Scotland needs no spiced-up ware

Or fast food jobster.

But, if ye grant her grateful prayer,

Give Her a Lobster!

So, what influenced Robert Burns’ language?

Contemporary Language

Well, Burns lived at a time when the Scots language was in transition. There was a traditional Scots dialect based on English, but with many French words from the Grand Alliance, and some Dutch and Scandinavian and Gaelic. Meantime, the English language had evolved separately, and the then contemporary English was being adopted by those with power and influence in Scotland. A “Scottish Standard English” was forming.


As two modern scholars, Jane Stuart Smith and Adam Aitken, describe things nowadays:

-           “Scottish Standard English is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with Focused Broad Scots at the other (end)”, and:

-           “Generally there is a shift to Scottish English in formal situations or with individuals of a higher social status”.


To some extent the language of the court and the cottage have always been different, but this was exaggerated in Burns’ time by the new neo-colonialism of English rule.


Burns’ early works were in the Broad Scots of his parents’ native tongue. His later works, however, move along this “linguistic continuum” between Broad Scots and the Scottish Standard English of the day, to suit his audience and his subject. Incidentally, this type of transition also happened in Shakespeare’s time, and in Chaucer’s, and it fueled their great works in a similar way.


People in Burn’s Life

Robert Burns was, without doubt, unusually gifted. But it took certain stars to align for his gifts to be shaped. A recent biography[2], identifies a few people who had great influence in developing Robert Burns’ knowledge and language.


Agnes Broun, his mother, had the first and arguably the deepest influence. Agnes and her family lived in the south-west Scotland, the home land of the historic Sir William Wallace. They spoke Scots, and they filled Wee Robert with stories of devils and ghosts and witches and warlocks - just to scare the poor lad into staying close to home. But most importantly, Agnes sang traditional songs out of habit to pass the time, which Robert listened to from Day One. As he wrote later, this taught him to memorize and to compose by starting with a tune in his head.


William Burnes, his father, was from the north-east of Scotland, from rented farmland near Stonehaven. The Burnes family’s landlord was ruined financially by being on the losing side of the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745, and William survived by moving south to Edinburgh and then on to Ayrshire, where he met Agnes. William Burnes taught Robert how to farm and to improve the land, and the importance of education. He helped guide his son through difficult times in Robert’s early twenties. He also provided Robert a Jacobite perspective of Scotland’s recent history.


Despite their poverty, William Burnes hired a teacher for his sons and their neighbours’: John Murdoch. Murdoch taught Robert, from the age of six, English - as opposed to Scottish - pronunciation and grammar, and how to deconstruct poetry and write prose. This opened the door to a wealth of literature. Burns read at every opportunity, borrowing books from Murdoch and keeping in touch with him often later in life.


Another great influence was the Reverend William Dalrymple, the local minister, who knew Burns from birth. Dalrymple was unusually well educated for a local minister, and was highly regarded. He was later elected to be Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Dalrymple christened Burns, lent him books, and instilled a sense of social justice and religious tolerance at a time when religious zeal was extreme.


Burns was greatly impressed by an English poet and social commentator Alexander Pope, who died a decade before Burns was born. He was also inspired by a Scots poet, Robert Fergusson. Though they never met, Fergusson’s work showed Burns how the Scots language and “Scottish Standard English” could be used for effect. Also, Fergusson used a form of verse called “Standard Habbie” for his Scottish satire, which Burns copied in many of his traditional themes.


Lastly, Robert’s wife Jean Armour had a renowned singing voice, a brilliant memory, and an aptitude for Scots verse. As a contemporary of Robert and Jean’s wrote “…the bard ….read to her almost every piece he composed, and was not ashamed to own that he profited by her judgement.” 


The Result

1.       Almost all of Burns poetry has a strong rhythm

2.       He described traditional culture in Broad Scots

3.       His works with political or social themes move freely between “Scottish Standard English” and Broad Scots

Most importantly, through this variety in style, Burns preserved the identity and the dignity of an oppressed country through language as well as content.


As an example: near the end of his days Burns was hanging on to a government job with a good pension in Dumfries. At the time, Dumfries was heavily militarized because of a supposed threat of French invasion. Convict ships destined for Australia waited at the wharf in London to transport anyone who expressed dissent.


Robert duly played his part. He joined the local militia, the Dumfries Volunteers. He swore his Oath of Allegiance in March 1795. And he composed a song, possibly for a Loyal Dinner in April, which was printed in the ‘Dumfries Weekly Journal’ in early May. It had all the English Jingo of the day…

Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?

Then let the louns beware, Sir;

There's wooden walls upon our seas,

And volunteers on shore, Sir:


The Nith shall run to Corsincon,

And Criffel sink in Solway,

Ere we permit a Foreign Foe

On British ground to rall-y!

We'll ne'er permit a Foreign Foe

On British ground to rall-y!

-  though he couldn’t resist a twist at the end…

Who will not sing "God save the King,"

Shall hang as high's the steeple;

But while we sing "God save the King,"

We'll ne'er forget The People!


His career was in jeopardy, however, because that same winter or spring he also composed alternative words, to the same rhythm and verse:

Ye see yon birkie (that smart guy), ca'd a lord,

Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;

Tho' hundreds worship at his word,

He's but a coof (a fool) 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.

He circulated this version privately to friends. One way or another, it found its way – anonymously - into ‘The Glasgow’ magazine in August. By the time it was published under his name the following June, and in London, Burns was at death’s door and his family’s pension was secure.



Robert Burns is, of course, remembered for his songs and poetry.


His songs: there were Hundreds. His favourite work was to search out traditional tunes and lyrics, and to add or change verses to preserve the songs. As it happens, there was an anthology of traditional songs being developed in Edinburgh during his lifetime, and he contributed about a third of the six hundred songs which were published.


He is remembered more for his poetry, of course. He had an amazing skill of depicting a scene, then transcending to greater meaning. An example is a pair of poems: the first - a song - starts in the voice of ….

“A lassie all alone …. making her moan,

Lamenting our lads beyond the sea: ……”


As I stood by yon roofless tower,

Where the wa'flow'r scents the dewy air,

Where the houlet (an owl) mourns in her ivy bower,

And tells the midnight moon her care.


The winds were laid, the air was still,

The stars they shot along the sky,

The tod was howling on the hill,

And the distant-echoing glens reply.


Now, looking over firth and fauld,

Her horn the pale-faced Cynthia rear'd,

When lo! in form of minstrel auld

A stern and stalwart ghaist (a ghost) appear'd.


And from his harp sic strains did flow,

Might rous'd the slumbering Dead to hear,

But O, it was a tale of woe

As ever met a Briton's ear!


The second, a poem, speaks the ghost’s picture of Scotland:


Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,

Fam'd for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song,

To thee I turn with swimming eyes!

Where is that soul of Freedom fled?

Immingled with the mighty dead

Beneath that hallow'd turf where Wallace lies!

Hear it not, Wallace, in thy bed of death!

Ye babbling winds, in silence sweep!

Disturb not ye the hero's sleep,

Nor give the coward secret breath!

Is this the ancient Caledonian form,

Firm as her rock, resistless as her storm?

Show me that eye which shot immortal hate,

Blasting the Despot's proudest bearing!

Show me that arm which, nerv'd with thundering fate,

Braved Usurpation's boldest daring!

Dark-quench'd as yonder sinking star,

No more that glance lightens afar,

That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.


Needless to say, this was not published in his lifetime.

Robert Burns is remembered for being:


-          a social democrat

In his lifetime he witnessed America’s independence and France’s revolution from monarchy.  While Liberty Trees were being planted in the 13 United States and in France, Scotland suffered under English Rule.


As noted in “The Tree of Liberty”, which is generally attributed to Burns, though it was ‘discovered’ only long after his death:

Without this tree, alake this life

Is but a vale o' woe, man;

A scene o' sorrow mixed wi' strife,

Nae real joys we know, man,

We labour soon, we labour late,

To feed the titled knave, man;

And all the comfort we're to get

Is that beyond the grave, man.


Wi' plenty o' sic trees, I trow,

The warld would live in peace, man;

The sword would help to mak a plough,

The din o' war wad cease man.

Like brethren wi' a common cause,

We'd on each other smile, man;

And equal rights and equal laws

Wad gladden every isle, man.

-          a lover

He had his UP days:

The gust o' joy, the balm of woe,

The saul o' life, the heav'n below

Is rapture-giving Woman.

And his DOWN days:

And must I still on Menie dote, (though probably written about Jean)

And bear the scorn that's in her eye?

For it's jet, jet black, an' it's like a hawk,

And it would nae let a body be.

And his WISTFUL days:

My love is like a Red Red rose…….

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi' the sun;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o' life shall run. 

-          a voice of life and humanity

Most of all, Burns is remembered as a man deeply connected to the everyday world of people, society and nature.His work can challenge readers to see themselves and their worlds more clearly, and to strengthen their connection to the earth beneath their feet.


This was laid open in his conversation with a mouse, titled: “To A Mouse. On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785”, written during a difficult time in his life.


On a lighter note about humanity, he paints a happy picture of his flawed hero, Tam O’Shanter, in the pub:

Care, mad to see a man sae happy,

E'en drown'd himsel amang the nappy. (in his cups)

As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,

The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:

Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,

O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!

Robert Burns is remembered around the world....

In the United States, his message was celebrated from shortly after Independence. Burns showed great respect to George Washington in his verse, and Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer.

In Australia, deported Scots took Burns’ works with them, and identified with his voice at many levels.

And in Russia, his works were translated in the 1800s. He became known as ‘The People’s Poet’ in Imperial times. Then, under Communism, he became widely celebrated and added to school readers.

There are at least 49 statues of Robert Burns around the world, which is more than any other literary figure in history – only religion, Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus have inspired more bronze-work.


And Burns will be remembered by the Halifax Burns Club.

Gents, let’s stand and drink deeply – to the Memory of Robert Burns!  


[1] Anon; unreliable!

[2] The Bard – Robert Burns, A Biography; Robert Crawford; 2009






This speech was written and delivered by Jim Fletcher, a former president of the Halifax Burns Club, at our 2016 Burns Supper on January 30



Jim Fletcher