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Burns is our man, for a’ that as anti-Catholic myth debunked

National bard’s supposed anti-Catholicism is not just ill-founded, it flies in the face of his friendship with a leading Catholic, writes Michael Diamond

Scotland’s greatest poet was born 261 years ago, and few Scots need reminding of the life story of Robert Burns. However, I would like to debunk a myth or two about him.

His insights, into everything he saw around him in a Scotland on the edge of the Industrial Revolution, were remarkable. His was a time when the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and the defeat at Culloden in 1746, were still fresh in people’s minds. In his letter to Dr John Moore of Mauchline of August 2, 1787, Burns admitted: “The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.”

Political presence

Ayrshire today retains a strong political presence with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hailing from the seaside town of Irvine, where Burns once worked. Politics are important to Burns’ artistic achievements as one of the greatest political poets of his, or any, age.

The language he uses, Scottish dialect, is in itself political; the words he chooses are innately political, precisely formed to get right inside humanity.

Burns couldn’t even see a shivering cold mouse in a field where his plough had disturbed its nest without seeing it as an opportunity for kinship, empathy, and political camaraderie; knowing that he too might be unhoused by landlords at any moment.

In 1785, he wrote Tae A Mouse:

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,

O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!

Thou need na start awa sae hasty,

Wi’ bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,

Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

 I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,

Has broken nature’s social union,

An’ justifies that ill opinion,

Which makes thee startle

At me, thy poor, earth-born

companion,

An’ fellow-mortal!

  Independent mind

There can be no doubt that Burns was a man of truly independent mind. He was certainly outspoken, but the observations he made needed to be heard.

Burns was, as the Kilwinning-born and St Michael’s Academy educated writer, Andrew O’Hagan put it, ‘a man who was the pupil of nature, the poet of inspiration, and who possessed in an extraordinary degree, the powers and failings of genius.’

Burns could see around him what others could not, and he could convey the story of what he saw in a poem at one level simple, but yet which cut to the heart of social and political dialogue.

While in Edinburgh in 1786, Burns was so well received by the aristocracy and intellectuals of the capital that he acquired true celebrity status. Only a year later, following his publicised affairs, including his association with Agnes McElhose, his Clarinda, the welcome would not be so warm, and the generosity of potential subscribers not so forthcoming.

Subscribers

Although he could always rely on his Canongate Kilwinning, and St Andrew’s Masonic Lodges for subscriptions, even with the patronage of the Earl of Glencairn, he would never be adopted by Edinburgh in the longer term, and at one point he would struggle to attract sufficient subscribers. If no subscribers, then no printer would touch him. Just think if Robert Burns had never published!

Paradoxically, given his relationship with the Church, another influential subscriber turned out to be a Catholic clergyman, namely John Geddes. Burns wrote to Mary Dunlop, that, ‘The greatest clergyman I ever met was Bishop John Geddes.’

Burns first met Geddes in Edinburgh during the winter of 1786-7. BishopGeddes was Vicar Apostolic to the

Lowland District of Scotland and was sufficiently impressed by the abilities of ‘an excellent poet started up in Ayrshire.’

The bishop took an interest in the poet’s work. Geddes was responsible for taking a subscription out for five Edinburgh editions of Burns in 1787. Geddes placed them in the five Scottish Catholic seminaries, including that of the Royal Scots College in Valladolid, Spain, where he had once held the position of rector. I have to confess that I studied there for five years in the very same Spanish college that Geddes founded. No mention was ever made that we had an Edinburgh edition in the vault. No student ever saw it or read it. How sad is that?

Myths 

As a Catholic, I can say that this information should have been sung from the rafters of Catholic parishes, to blow away the myth that Burns was anti-Catholic. Alas this connection with the Catholic Church was never made public, and there still remains some negativity from those uneducated in these facts.

Burns took Bishop Geddes’s own personal copy, bound with blank sheets at both ends, with him on his Highland tour, and delayed returning it for almost two years. Writing to Geddes from his Dumfries estate, Ellisland, on February 3, 1789, the poet apologised for having kept the book so long: “You will see in your book, which I beg your pardon for detaining so long, that I have been turning my lyre on the banks of the Nith. Some larger poetic plans that are floating in my imagination, or partly put in

execution, I shall impart to you when I have the pleasure of meeting with you…”

Thirteen additional handwritten works were transcribed on the flyleaves in Burns’ own hand, making this book, Bishop Geddes’s own copy, absolutely priceless today.

Cause for pride

On this 261st anniversary of his birth, Robert Burns continues to be widely celebrated in Scotland and across the Scottish diaspora. My Burns, whom I associate with humanitarian, democratic, and non-sectarian values, is a cause for pride, as is the fact that a humbly born poet, rather than a politician, conqueror, or martyr, should be so cherished by people of all social classes, all creeds, as a symbol of our national identity.

During a visit to my brother-in-law, Fr Martin Chambers, more than a decade ago when he was working in a shanty town in Ecuador, we both experienced unfathomed depths of poverty. Even after spending 28 years in social work in places where deprivation was common, there is nothing to compare with the smell of Third World poverty. In the shanty town I met lots of poor people living in squalor, who didn’t experience any protection of their human rights. No safety net, nothing. Apart from God, and these poor people’s amazing Faith, who did I experience there? Robert Burns, of course.

Never mind a man’s parentage, inherited wealth or contacts in life.

Forget nepotism and institutional connectedness… he was screaming his uncompromising lyric:

The rank is but the guinea stamp,

The man’s the gowd for 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 brithers be for a’ that.

Dignity

 I think Burns captured in the heart of this song a very Scottish conviction, that honesty and simple dignity are priceless virtues, not imparted by rank or birth or privilege, but by part of his/her genetic soul.

The truth of the matter is this: Burns’ idealism wanted things to be better and, if you are like me, you’ll feel that idealism, too, and that sense and worth will ultimately prevail.


 

The above is an adaptation of an Immortal Memory Toast written and presented by the author at a Burns Supper in St Peter’s Church Hall, Ardrossan, Ayrshire, in January 2014.

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