Scotland;s Flags

Robert Burns
18th Century Oppression

This is a copy of an article by John L.Clark of The Scottish Burns Club, Edinburgh, that appeared in the 1999 Burns Chronicle.
I found the article so interesting that I thought it should have a wider audience.

That Robert Burns, one of Scotland's greatest sons, achieved fame from a volume of poems, the Kilmarnock edition, is something of an enigma. That he consolidated his fame with a larger second edition, the Edinburgh edition, makes it even more enigmatic. Though both editions contained captivating poetry, the enigma is that nowhere between the covers are to be found poems with the type of biting condemnation of the oppression of the people by church and state that abounds in those published after his death. Yet, by that time he had written several such poems: poems that were to endear him to the people of Scotland who could identify with the sentiment they contained. As indeed, later, would people the world over. No one reading through the Kilmarnock or Edinburgh editions could have realised that there were forces driving Burns to attempt to improve the lot of his fellow men and women.

The enigma of his fame is further compounded by the circumstances of his funeral. When the people of Scotland laid him to rest in Dumfries, an estimated 10,000 attended the funeral. He was buried with full military honours, attended by two regiments of the British Army and a Militia. His body lay in state for a few days as thousands filed past to pay their last respects: then the coffin was taken through the streets in the Grand Procession to St Michael's Churchyard.....for burial in an unmarked grave! If I might be forgiven for saying so, there are occasions when we Scots do things in odd ways.

Poems touching on oppression were ommitted from the Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions, also from the subsequent London and later Edinburgh editions. We learn the "reasons" for this in the more complete works published after his death: reasons, which have been repeated through the years. They contain the assertion that he was advised against the publication of certain poems, as they might give offence to influential people or might not be acceptable to genteel society. On some occasions it appears that a friend or acquaintance gave the advice. Burns admits in a letter to a friend, on 22nd March 1787, that the noble Earl of Glencairn gave him hints on impropriety and indelicacy. Custom and practice have accepted these reasons as definitive reasons. They have become stock quotes for authors and editors, but how much truth do they contain? Though I don't doubt that they contain a modicum of truth, I am satisfied that it is far from being the whole truth. The broader 18th century picture of harsh authoritarian government in Scotland suggests another reason.

21st century Scots tend to take for granted the freedoms they enjoy and might find it difficult to apreciate how oppressed 18th century Scots were. Though it was then technically possible to express a political opinion in print, it could result in a heavy penalty. Robert Burns was well aware of this when around 1784 he wrote

They banished him beyond the sea
But ere the bud was on the tree
Adown my cheeks the pearls run,
Embracing my John Highlandman.

The opening line refers to a penal colony, and it was to such a place that they sent John Highlandman. Penal colonies were for convicted criminals, the gravity depended on how they were perceived. For Burns, John Highlandman's crime was to wear highland dress and be loyal to his clan. For the establishment, it was to wear an illegal uniform signifying membership of a proscribed clan, carry a weapon and be disloyal to the crown.

Crushed into the hold of any sailing ship taking convicts beyond the sea could be found a mix of men and women comprising forgers, thieves, housebreakers, other undesirables and a few people who had dared to suggest that the government should give greater rights to men and women. For instance, the right to vote. When Burns visited Edinburgh he visited a city where only 33% had the right to vote for a Member of Parliament. The man they had elected was Henry Dundas who was known to them all as a friend or colleague. When some years later three respectable Edinburgh citizens published recommendations from The Third National Convention for Parliamentary Reform they were damned. Maurice Margarot, Joseph Gerrald and William Skirving were found guilty of sedition and sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony.

It was against this backdrop that Burns had to consider the wisdom of publishing poems that touched on human rights. When we brush aside the malicious myths generated by his critics we can see an astute individual who in today's terminology would be described as a highwire act. He was communicating his humanitarian views by word of mouth and the private circulation of poems. He was taking on the establishment and knew the dangers of this, but had no control over the forces that were driving him. His mission in life was to prepare the ground on which the rights of ordinary men and women would be built and he was well aware that it would not be accomplished in his lifetime. I think we have misinterpreted his dying words when he said to his wife, "I shall be more respected 100 years from now than I am today". Clearly, he could not have thought that such respect would come from his published poetry, he had already gained all the respect that that could produce. It therefore had to come from the humanitarian content of his then unpublished poetry and songs: some of which have fired the enthusiasm of human rights activists the world over. In those works, in my view, we see the true genius of Robert Burns, and it is gratifying to know that during their lifetime his wife and children were to see his prophecy come to pass.

For all his genius Burns was a realist. He wanted his unpublished poems to be known to people that he could trust, to ensure that after he had gone they could vouch for the poems being authentic-Burns. He did this because instinctively he knew that one day they would be published. One of those people was Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop. In a letter to her on 15th Jan 1787, ostensibly to comment on a word to which she had objected when he had used it to describe Wallace, he told her gently but authoritatively that he was not about to change the word. He went on to quote when proud misfortune's ebbing tide recedes and used the expression you will bear me witness....He used a different ploy with Dr Moore when on 17th Jan 1787 he wrote after criticisms, a peccant passage or two that I would certainly have altered, were gone to the press. Mrs Dunlop, who was privy to some of his unpublished poems, was one of several notable people who would later bear witness to what they had been shown or given. After all, in theory, what better way was there to safeguard important papers against possible seizure by the authorities than to spread them around trusted friends. The vast majority of those fortunate people became notable because Burns entered their lives. Without wishing to be ungracious, I have to say here that were it not for Burns; to write the lifetime achievements of kindly Mrs Dunlop and most of the others would not require as much ink as is needed to make a dot on the pages of history.

It is my belief that Burns used his trustees; he lined them up, to bear witness in the years following his death. In the letter replying to Mrs Dunlop's complaint, he also told her, "I have the advice of some very judicious friends among the literati here (Edinburgh), but with them I sometimes find it necessary to claim the privilege of thinking for myself". It is not difficult to see the reason behind the motive for Burns showing or giving copies of his poems to friends and acquaintances. Apart from clearly stamping his identity on his work, there was the security aspect. He was encountering attempts during his last few years in Dumfries to attribute certain poems as being of his authorship. Sadly, in the 19th century one man wilfully destroyed a quantity of Burns papers in a bonfire, an act of extreme vandalism. We have no record of what those papers contained.

Burns had to be constantly on guard against the threat to his liberty from the authorities. Consequently, his references to the oppressors mentioned in his poems are sometimes very effectively veiled. In the satirical poem A Dream (c.1786) he dropped his guard when he criticised the crown and the political establishment. He did so on the following mistaken assumption:

Thoughts, words and deeds, the statute blames with reason:
But surely Dreams were ne'er indicted Treason!

There is no shortage of people without creative ability who nevertheless feel qualified to advise those with it on how to dot the i and cross the t. Burns obviously believed that he could trust those to whom he had given copies of his poems, but with some his trust was misplaced. Some of his trustees either tampered with his work or allowed others to do so. For instance, Mr Tytler of Woodhouselee was responsible for four lines being removed from Tam o' Shanter, because they criticised the church and the legal profession. The MS of Love and Liberty in Burns handwriting in Edinburgh University Library is substantially different from the renamed version, The Jolly Beggars, renamed and published in 1802. I don't doubt that prime research into original documents would reveal that more of this took place.

So, at first it might seem that because Burns didn't publish and wasn't damned, the establishment won the day. I don't think this was the case. In fact, I think that Burns outwitted the establishment and helped to move the hitherto deeply embedded wheels of democracy into an, albeit sluggish, but unstoppable motion. It is true that he never became a martyr and suffered the hell of a penal colony. Though, the blunt truth on this point is that we have lost sight of the names of most of the martyrs. If ever we knew, we have forgotten them. However, we have not lost sight of Burns. His views were known in Scotland during his lifetime, and after his death the world began to learn how deeply he had been committed to human rights. The people of the world have honoured his memory with statues and plaques; they have read his poetry and demanded the rights that he advocated: they have sung his songs and kept his humanitarian values alive. Indeed, of all the exponents of world peace who down through the centuries have walked the face of this earth, there is not one whose name has had a more enduring international presence than Robert Burns.

Along with the great mass of humankind that pass into the halls of fame, his memory is revered and preserved in the highest echelons of those who loved their fellow beings. For what more could he have asked?

The philosopher and writer, Sir Laurens Van der Post, said that the sign of a great person, a man of history, a man who is able to change the course of history for a community or a nation was the ability to sense the mythic flow of time. To see the surface of history running one way and sense the undercurrent flowing in a different direction. then to harness the undercurrent until it changes the surface.
We can all look back at the present from a time in the future and see what was really going on then. Historians do that with the benefit of hindsight, those who change history do it now.
There are only a few in each age who master this on a grand scale.

Burns was one of these

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