Thursday, 24 January 2019

To Robert Burns' Immortal Memory

Friday 25th January is Burns Night, dedicated to the life of Robert Burns. Two years ago I was asked to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns Supper - the only problem being, I had never been to a Burns Supper before! So I did it my way - my perspective as an Ulster Scot on Robert Burns, having taken the scenic route to getting to know about the lad. I thought you might like to read what I said - and you'll be glad to know, there's some genealogy involved! :)

If you're celebrating Burns Night, have a great one. Here's to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns - enjoy!

Hello everyone,

For those of you who don't know me, my name is Chris Paton, and as you can probably hear, I am not originally from this parish. I come from a wee island just off Scotland – it's called Ireland, which at its closest is about 12 miles off the coast. In fact, I'm delighted to say that I come from the same town that God comes from in Northern Ireland, a wee place called Carrickfergus, although I might have to have a word with him about the rugby result earlier today!

Just for good measure, this is the first time I have ever attended a formal Burns Supper, so I'm honoured to be asked to speak to the immortal memory of Robert Burns – this is definitely one to tick off my bucket list later.

So, after Googling “immortal memory” and after watching a few speeches on YouTube, what can I tell you about Robert Burns the man? As an Ulsterman, what possible interest could I have in Robert Burns? Well I have to tell you that until a few years ago, I had none whatsoever. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was deeply suspicious about the man, but for all the wrong reasons. So let me tell you where I once was on that, how I have now come to admire and respect the world's greatest poet, and why I, as a Johnny Foreigner, think he should be remembered and celebrated.

As I mentioned, I was born in, and for most of my childhood was raised in, Northern Ireland. Now the province of Ulster, as you may be aware, was colonised by thousands of Presbyterian Scots some four hundred years ago, in an event known as the Plantations. As a child though, I didn't know any of this. In a period when we lived through the Troubles, you were either a Catholic or a Protestant, or Irish or British, with people often defining themselves not by who they were, but by who they weren't. As a consequence, I had no idea that I had a deep Scottish ancestry, despite the fact that when growing up many of the words I used were good auld fashioned Ulster Scots words

When I misbehaved as a wean and a bad word came from my bake I was scolded for being a cheeky wee hallion, when the pokey van came to our estate I'd buy a 99 poke, it was a place where my wee brother used to be a clipe for squealing on me, where I could go for a walk up the Red Brae, and where I could point to this table, that wall and thon hill. But I didn't know that these were Scots words, I just thought that was how we spoke English.

We also had some Scottish traditions - but again, I didn't know that they were Scottish. One New Year's Eve, my dad asked me to take a lump of coal up to my Granny Graham's house in our estate and to wish her a happy new year. Terrified that my granny was somehow freezing to death on her own, I ended up filling a carrier bag with coal and took that up instead! I got a clout around the ear for that one! I had no idea about my Scottishness – my Ulster Scottishness – because we were never allowed to define ourselves in that way.

Even today I get wound up by what has happened to Ulster's Scottish culture. I gave a talk in Largs a few years ago about how to research Irish ancestry, and a wee man approached me and told me he was setting up a local non-sectarian Ulster Scots heritage group – would I be interested in going along? He handed me a leaflet, at which point I had to ask him – if this is a non-sectarian group, why have you printed your leaflet on orange paper? I wanted nothing to do with them. My notions of Ulster Scottishness tie into my Presbyterian ancestors from Islandmagee and Antrim, who fought with the radical United Irishmen in 1798. Now I'm not saying all my lot were successful. Never mind the fact that the rebellion failed – as a fifteen year old, lad my four times great grandfather John Montgomery accidentally shot his hand off with one of the rebels' rifles in the midst of it.

My family's been regularly winning the Darwin Award on occasion ever since.

So then there's Robert Burns himself. As a child in Northern Ireland, all I knew about Robert Burns was he was Scottish, and had written that Hogmanay song. Even as an adult, I still had no idea about what half of Auld Lang Syne meant - “we'll tak a right guid willie waught”, for example.

I used to work in television, and as a one time researcher on a BBC2 series of short films on men's health, I could never quite understand what a right good willy wart was – that certainly wasn't what my research was telling me, I filmed many a grown man with tears in his eyes complaining about how sore they were – until the time when I twigged that it wasn't quite what it sounded like! It's actually a hearty swig of ale or some other alcoholic drink, and I'll happily tak one of those. Especially if it is Laphroaig, which is God's official whisky.

And everywhere I came across Burns as a child, it was the same image of the man on a tea towel, or a shortbread tin, the portrait that became an icon, a bit like Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now I was raised as a Presbyterian, and the one thing we were taught in Ulster's Presbyterian churches was that idolatry was a bad thing.

In fact, on another TV series I once made about the history of the Church in Scotland, I had to visit the Free Church College on The Mound in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament first met after it was reconvened. When I got there, it amused me no end, because when you go through the arch into its main courtyard, the first thing you come across is a statue of John Knox on a plinth – the very man who tore down the statues at the Reformation. I still don't get why the Kirk doesn't see the irony of this! But the point is I was raised not to believe in the idea of celebrity – I can make my own mind up about whether someone should be celebrated.

So how did I first begin to develop an understanding of Burns? Well, when I left the BBC in 2006, I started to work professionally as a family historian. Now as a genealogical researcher, I get a lot of folk contacting me who tell me that they are descended from William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the Stewarts – you name it, I've heard it, they're usually always wrong, and they've usually bought the wrong tartan! However, about four years ago, I had a client who claimed she thought there was a family story of some possible connection to Burns - could I take a look?

In fact, it transpired that she was spot on. I discovered that her five times great grandfather was a merchant from Kilmarnock called John AIRD, who, with his wife Anna CAMPBELL, had a granddaughter called Jean BRECKENRIDGE, who in 1791 married a young man by the name of Gilbert BURNS – the poet's brother. It was through this connection that I first looked into the story of the Burns lads, and I learned that Robert and Gilbert had together taken on the lease of Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline, in 1784. Three years later, Robert withdrew from the farm, and from the sale of his second edition of poems he granted Gilbert a loan of £180 to pay off his debts and to invest in his business. So this was the first time I had ever come across Robert Burns in a guise other than as this foreign icon, not as a poet, but as a big brother looking out for his wee brother. Fair play to you Rabbie, I thought, and all due respect – as the eldest in my family I've helped my own siblings out from time to time in the past, this was something I could relate to.

And then we had the (Independence) Referendum. At this point there was an argument in the sainted Scottish press about whether Burns was a unionist or a nationalist. By now I knew that Burns was a bit of a complex man, and that in rebellious times such as the 1790s he had to be careful how he expressed his loyalties. But it was obvious that he had been disgusted by the Treaty of Union in 1707, for which he condemned the Scottish nobility:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station:
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

His contempt for the upper class, and his belief that all people are in fact equal very much reflected the thinkers of the Enlightenment at that time, as expressed through works such as The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. Burns expressed his belief in, and solidarity with, the common man when he penned A Man's a Man 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 riband, 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 abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna 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 coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Now you're talking! This is definitely a man I can respect. And he wasn't just drawing inspiration from the nonsense he was encountering in Scotland, or in Britain, he knew that education and the revolution of the mind could unlock a strength that no imperial power could ever thwart. In his Ode to General Washington's Birthday he stated:

Here's freedom to them that would read.
Here's freedom to them that would write!
There's nane ever fear'd that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!

A short and sweet quote there. Robert Burns would have been great on Twitter!

So I began to pick up on a lot of this throughout the Referendum, and in its aftermath. Now I struggle with poetry, and am not a great one for songs and lyrics. When I sing, it sounds like a chicken farting, and I don't do romance awfully well – I proposed to my wife by waking up one morning and saying “should we get married then?!” Romantic songs, and love poems – was Burns really someone I should be trying to come to grips with?

But last year, having by now grasped that there really was something to engage with when it came to Robert Burns, I decided to challenge my final prejudices about him. I visited the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, thinking I was a going to be accosted by people dressed in 18th century outfits looking for wee sleekit mousies and hunting haggis. In fact, I was – but I don't think I've ever been to better museum in my life. It wasn't about Burns the industry, it was about Burns the man. The excise man, the farmer, the poet. The interpretative panels were all written in Scots, written as a real living language.

So it turned out from this exhibition that Burns was a great poet, but rather endearingly, he wasn't a perfect man – who amongst us is? He loved his words, and he also loved his women. My God, did Burns love his women. My wee brother, who was actually born in Scotland and who lives in Dubai, is now with his third wife - but I haven't the heart to tell him about Burns' tally with women, in case he gets competitive. 

As a genealogist, one of the things I regularly come across in old kirk session records are cases of what was referred to as 'antenuptial fornication', basically doing the dirty deed before a wedding ring was put on – well I think in the 18th century the Kirk must have had an entire department working on Robert Burns. I can imagine all these ministers of the cloth having minor heart palpitations every time he walked into a room which had a woman someone near within a five mile radius! One article I read noted that Burns was a 'philanderer, fornicator and a father of bastart bairns'. Actually, it could be argued that if he wasn't, he might not have written so many of his great love songs. But Burns also believed in the equality of women, and in 1792 wrote:

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.

Even with the things he didn't agree with, he did try to see the opposing view and to understand why others held their views, for example, with religion. Now again, being Irish, and being raised on an island that makes religion still seem like a growth industry, the one thing I can tell you for a fact that is that I am not in anyway religious - because whilst Northern Ireland tried to knock religion into me, it also knocked it right back out of me. But I will absolutely to my dying breath defend the right of folk to have religious beliefs. Well Burns held very similar views. In a letter to a Mrs Dunlop in December 1794, just eighteen months before he died, he commented on the delight that he gained from seeing people gain comfort from something he himself could not be reconciled to. This is what he wrote:

What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of Old Age coming fast o'er my frame. With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave.

Unlike most of you in this room, Robert Burns to me has become an acquired taste worth acquiring. I was not raised to revere the man, I did not take to him because I was taught about him at school, I wasn't raised to eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns nights, I instead took the scenic route to come to terms with the Bard.

When I read Burns now – and believe me, I am reading Burns now – I see a reflection in many of the things that he writes that I believe in, and that I have believed in my whole life. His words on equality, on national identity, on internationalism, on all the things he has celebrated and railed against, these are words that are easily understood - whether written in Scots or in English - because at their heart lies a truth about who we are and what we aspire to be. They are the same things that Burns believed over two hundred years ago, they are the wisdom of ages immortalised in verse.

When we gather and quote his thoughts and share his stories, we celebrate the fact that we remain wedded to those words and that ideology. On a personal level, whilst I have spent years trying to uncover and reclaim my Ulster Scottishness, through the words of one man here in Scotland I have been able to find the words that help to define my values as a civic Scot. They are the values I share with each and every one of you here tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be delighted to know that I have come to the end - but that also, when it comes to appreciating Robert Burns, I finally got there in the end! So I'd like you all, if you would be so good, to stand now as I raise a glass - a right guid willie waught - to the immortal memory of the one and only Robert Burns.


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

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