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Robert Burns Lives!
Aspects of the Humour of Robert Burns by Dr. J. Walter McGinty

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I met Dr. Walter McGinty last month at the annual conference hosted by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. I knew immediately I was talking to a man who loved and revered Burns as a scholar and Burnsian. Below is an article written by Dr. McGinty along with some biographical information regarding his life which you will find just as interesting as his article.  Enjoy! (FRS: 2.14.13)

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Born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland. Educated in local schools and on leaving secondary school, aged sixteen. My education was hugely disrupted by the second World War. The only certificate I had was the one from the Robert Burns Federation! I worked as an apprentice accountant and auditor.

Later, I felt drawn to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, and after struggling to get Highers at Night School, studied Arts and Divinity at the University of Glasgow and Trinity College. After an assistantship in Glasgow I spent thirty-five years as a Parish Minister. In three quite different Parishes: a coal-mining community near Falkirk, the small town of Alloa, then at Alloway, the birthplace of Robert Burns for the last twenty years before retiring. A life long interest in Scottish History and Literature was further stimulated by the lively Burns scene in Ayrshire. During my Alloa ministry, in 1975 I gained a B.A. in History with the Open University. Whilst in Alloway, I became interested in the amazingly varied and extensive reading of Burns, and as a hobby, started trying to read all the books he had read. The hobby became more, when I was asked to do a Ph.D at the University of Strathclyde. I was still working at Alloway, but managed to complete it in four and a half years, graduating in 1995 with the thesis: Literary, Philosophical and Theological Influences on Robert Burns'. It was based on the simple idea of reading the books that Burns had read, and trying to ascertain what influence they had upon his life and work. Although all the time I was in the ministry I was writing sermons and addresses on a regular basis, I did not make any attempt to write for publication. That all started after retirement. Since then I have published:

        Through a Glass Brightly, Alloway's Stained Glass, (Alloway,1999);    

        New and Revised Through a Glass Brightly Alloway's Stained Glass (Alloway, 2006)

        Robert Burns and Religion (Aldershot and Burlington, 2003)

       ‘“An Animated Son of Liberty' A Life of John Witherspoon, Arena Books (Bury St Edmunds,              2012)   

         Papers in Studies in Scottish Literature:

            John Goldie and Robert Burns Vol. XXIX 

            Milton's Satan and Burns's Auld Nick Vol XXXIII 

 My work as a minister led me to being involved in the wider world of education. I spent five years as a Lay-Governor of a Teacher Training College in Ayr, and twelve years as a Lay-Governor at the then University of Paisley which in time became the University of the West of Scotland. It was during my spell at Paisley, that I became aware of the connection between Paisley and Princeton through John Witherspoon. It was the proposal to erect a identical statues to him on both campuses that began my interest in him and that resulted in my latest book, research for which started in 2002. In 2005, I spent a month incarcerated in the Rare Books section of the Firestone library of Princeton University, examining the Witherspoon Archives and also was privileged to use the beautifully appointed  Witherspoon Room in the Princeton Public Library and to do some work in the Princeton Historical Society.

I have four sons by my first marriage, and my wife Lois and I have now been together for nearly fourteen years.

Aspects of the Humour of Robert Burns.
Dr. J. Walter McGinty

The humour displayed in the poems of Robert Burns, relates to an ancient tradition of Scottish writing that makes use of physicality and the grotesque. The roots of this humour can be traced through the work of William Dunbar in the 15th century writing ‘On his Heid-ake’, and Sir David Lindsay in the 16th century using a gallows scene as a source of fun, in ‘The Thrie Estatis’. Burns’s contemporary, Tobias Smollett, continued within this tradition. Burns recorded his admiration of the novelist for ‘his incomparable humour’ 1. Burns draws upon this tradition, and with his own input, based on a generous assessment of human nature, his humour ranges widely, through the physical, and the grotesque of poems such as ‘Halloween’ and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, and ‘Sic a wife as Willie’s wife’, to the gentle poking fun at the clergy in ‘The Holy Tulzie’, or the wry between-the-lines humour of ‘The Twa Dogs’, or the pauky irreverence of his ‘Address to the Deil’.

One of Burns’s best known poems demonstrates this willingness to make any occasion an opportunity for humorous observation.

‘To A Louse, On seeing one on a Lady's bonnet at Church’

HA! Whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gawze and lace;
On sic a place. 

Ye ugly, creepen, blastet wonner,
Detested, shun’d, by saunt an' sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a Lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

Then my own favourite verse:

O Jenny dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

And then from this unlikely subject comes the marvellous punch-line:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea'e us,
And ev’n Devotion! 2                          

It is this willingness to see the humour that can be found in any situation that led Burns into his comments on some of the Ministers that he came across, and sometimes on the religion they claimed to confess. He once said, ‘Of all nonsense, religious nonsense is the worst’. 3 So when Burns turns his humour upon Ministers, he has a field day.

During the controversy over the publication of William McGill’s book, A Practical Essay on the Death of Jesus Christ, 4 Burns wrote ‘The Kirk's Alarm’, or to use its final title, ‘The Kirk of Scotland's Garland - A New Song’, a poem that featured a number of the committee who were investigating McGill’s alleged heresy.

Burns told Mrs Dunlop what he hoped to achieve by the poem: ‘If I should fail of rendering some of the Doctor's foes ridiculous, I shall at least gratify my resentment in his behalf. 5 These words were written on 17th July 1789, just two days after the Presbytery appointed its committee. It is indicative of how closely Burns followed the case, that, in the first draft of the poem, he writes verses on nine out of the fifteen ministers who were on the Committee. His humorous comment is not gratuitous abuse, but accurate and informed comment made on the basis of a personal knowledge of each one of them.

He sets the scene in the opening two verses:

ORTHODOX, Orthodox, who believe in John Knox, 
Let me sound an alarm to your conscience;
A heretic blast has been blawn i’ the West -
That what is not Sense must be Nonsense, Orthodox,
That what is not sense must be Nonsense. -

Then referring to McGill, he mocks those who condemn him for preaching the faith in accordance with logic and common sense:

Doctor Mac, Doctor Mac, ye should streek on a rack,
To strike Evildoers with terror;
To join FAITH and SENSE upon any pretence
Was heretic, damnable error, &c

Then comes his lovely pen-portrait of the much respected Dr William Dalrymple, the minister who baptised Burns, and who, it was hinted at by some, was just as guilty of heresy as McGill. Mrs Dunlop said of this verse, that even Joshua Reynolds, couldn’t have drawn a more accurate portrait:

D’rymple mild, D’rymple mild, tho’ your heart's like a child,
And your life like the new-driven snaw;
Yet that winna save ye, auld Satan maun have ye,
For preaching that three’s ane and twa, &c.

Burns, then with biting satirical humour, turns on those who attacked McGill. First is the Rev. John Russel, of Kilmarnock, who had started the heresy hunt off with a sermon against McGill's book. On another occasion Burns had referred to Russel as ‘Hell-mouthing John Russel’ 7:

Rumble John, Rumble John, mount the steps with a groan,
Cry, the BOOK is with heresy cramm’d;
Then lug out your ladle, deal brimstone like aidle,
And roar ev’ry note o' the D-MN’D, &c.

‘Aidle’, by the way, is cow's urine, so Burns is saying that the threats of fire and brimstone ladled out by Russel, are as of little value as animal waste.

Russel was a minister who was weighted down with the seriousness of man’s condition. He had a big voice and a thunderous delivery, and had featured in an earlier poem, ‘The Holy Fair’, as, ‘Black Russel’ and as, ‘the Lord's ain trumpet’ 8

Burns is very deliberately choosing his words. He is not so much trying to be clever, as to be relevant to the subject. A good example of this is when he deals with the Rev. David Grant, the Convener of the Presbytery's committee investigating McGill. On another occasion he referred to Grant as the priest of Ochiltree – ‘a designing, rotten-hearted Puritan’. 9 ‘In the Kirk of Scotland's Garland – a new song’, he writes:

Davie Rant, Davie Rant, wi’ a face like a saunt,
And a heart that would poison a hog;
Raise an impudent roar, like a breaker lea-shore,
Or the Kirk will be tint in a bog, &c.

In the existing manuscripts of the poem, there are a further couple of variant verses, both of which display a similar low opinion of this man. David Grant in 1778 had been Clerk to a committee that was responsible for circulating a petition to alert people against the Government's intention to pass a bill for Roman Catholic Emancipation. On that same committee was Lord George Gordon, later known as ‘Mad Lord George Gordon’. Gordon incited riots in Edinburgh in 1778, and two years later in London, where he led a mob in protest at the proposed passing of the Bill. Here's one of the variations:

Pauky Clark to George Gordon—gi’e the Doctor a Cord-on,
And to grape for witch marks—gi’e it o'er;
If ye pass for a Saint, it’s a sign, we maun grant,
That there's few gentlemen i’ the cor’. 10       

Burns, however, reserves his most virulent comments for the Reverend William Peebles, Minister of Newton-on-Ayr, and Presbytery Clerk of Ayr. He had been extremely active in the whole process against McGill, and five years later, when in 1791 the General Assembly finally threw the matter out of court, he remained a bitter enemy, but this time, not just against McGill, but against Robert Burns. He nursed his anger for the next 20 years and in 1811 published the most violently anti Burns book I’ve ever read. 11

Burns wrote of Peebles:

Poet Willie, Poet Willie, gi’e the Doctor a volley
Wi’ your ‘liberty’s chain’ and your wit:
O'er Pegasus' side ye ne'er laid a stride,
Ye only stood by where he sh—, &c.

Burns’s words are understood when you know what he knew about William Peebles. On 5th November 1788, the one hundredth anniversary of the Glorious Revolution, Peebles preached, and later, published a sermon accusing McGill of writing things that were incompatible with his calling as a Minister of the Church of Scotland. In that same publication, he included a poem that celebrated the Anniversary. Here are the first and last verses:

Hail, liberty, celestial maid!
To ev’ry free-born Briton dear,
In beauteous robes of light array’d,
With all thy radiant train appear:
To thee, on this auspicious day
We raise the votive, solemn lay;
Smit with thy charms—thy energy divine,
The wond’ring nations ’round in one vast chorus join.


Britain thy winding shores along
Let the glad voice of praise arise;
Thy verdant vales repeat the sound
Thy cities waft it to the skies.
May sons unborn prolong the lay,
And oft proclaim this glorious day
And, bound in LIBERTY’s endearing chain,
May latest ages hail RELIGION’s blissful reign!

Burns might have taken Peebles to task for his dull clichéd lines, but instead he chose to highlight three things: He refers to Pegasus, which is the horse of the poetic muse. and implies that Peebles has never mounted that horse, but has only stood at its rear, ‘the place where he shit’. He is no poet. In quoting Peebles’s ‘LIBERTY’s endearing chain’, Burns mocks this incongruous metaphor. In passing, Burns makes reference to Peebles’s ‘wit’. There could hardly have been a man who had less wit. In a sermon, Peebles once said, ‘True joy is a serious thing’. 14

Several years before all this, Burns had judged Peebles to be a shallow man. In a poem, the ‘Holy Tulzie’ which is about a dispute between two ministers in the Presbytery over parish boundaries, Burns makes reference to the preaching qualities of several ministers:

O ye wha tent the Gospel-fauld
Thee, Duncan deep, and Peebles shaul.

When Peebles’s sermons are looked at in detail, that shallowness of thought emerges. His exegetical methods are simplistic. He pays no attention to context, and sometimes makes the text fit to a theological theory. Such a theology is not derived from a mind that seeks openly to discover what the Old and New Testaments are trying to say to us about God, but comes from a mind that is already made up as to what they are saying. Burns, on the other hand had been exploring theologians like

John Taylor of Norwich and John Goldie of Kilmarnock, who urged that in examining any text, due attention should be paid to its context, allowance should be made for the time in which it was written, and above all, that we should be willing to acknowledge that scripture need not be taken literally, but can be interpreted figuratively. 16 The words that Burns uses to describe various preachers mark him out as a ‘sermon taster’. He had listened with a discerning ear and his judgements were based on experience.

As I come to the end of this discourse on the humour of Burns, I want to go back to the theme with which I started, when I asserted that Burns’s humour ranged from the gentle to the coarse.

One of Burns’s favourite novelists was Laurence Sterne whose famous character, Tristram Shandy, Burns called his bosom companion. Sterne’s humour is markedly gentle and slow burning. The opening sentence of Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, begins with a dissertation on Tristram’s conception that lasts to the end of the chapter:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, for they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me. 17

He then goes on to meditate on the consequences that must have inevitably followed, when after his father had gone to bed and begun the proceedings of begetting, his mother had interrupted him by asking, ‘Have you not forgot to wind up the clock?’

Robert Burns was drawn to Sterne because they both were happy to exercise their humour in their work. Sterne once wrote:

Great Apollo if thou art in a giving humour. Give me. I ask no more, one stroke of native humour, with a single spark of my own fire along with it. 18

Burns made the same prayer when he wrote, ‘A random shot of countra wit is a’ I ask’, 19 and he asked that, in the very same spirit of Laurence Sterne’s, ‘I ask no more’.

In Robert Burns we see the wit of the country of his birth, a country whose traditional humour was of the earth, full of physicality and every aspect of our human nature, and now and again with just a touch of the grotesque. Burns was sometimes harsh, sometimes coarse, but more often, gentle, as befits the man who urged:

Then gently scan your brother Man,
Still gentler sister Woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human.

References and Notes

Quotations from Robert Burns are taken from:

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns edited by James Kinsley, 3vols. (Oxford, 1968), and

J. De Lancey Ferguson’s The Letters of Robert Burns, 2 vols. second edition edited by G. Ross Roy (Oxford, 1985).

1.         Letters I, 296, to Mr Peter Hill, 18th July 1788.
2.         Poems I, 193, 194.
3.         Letters II, 146, to Mr Alexander Cunningham, 10th September 1792.
4.         William McGill, A Practical Essay on the Death of Jesus Christ, (Edinburgh, 1786).
5.         Letters I, 422, to Mrs Dunlop, 17th July 1789.
6.         Poems I, 470-474, ‘The Kirk of Scotland’s Garland – a new song’.
7.         Letters I, 94, to James Dalrymple, Esq. of Orangefield, February 1787.
8.         Poems I, 135, ‘The Holy Fair’.
9.         Letters I, 465, to Lady Elizabeth Cunningham, 23rd December 1789.
10.       Poems I, 473, in a footnote.
11.       William Peebles, Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns considered in a Discourse addressed to all real Christians of every denomination to which are added Epistles in Verse, reflecting Peter Pindar, Burns &c. (Edinburgh, 1811). [Note: originally published anonymously].
12.       Poems I, 474, ‘The Kirk of Scotland’s Garland – a new song’.
13.       Included in the volume: A Sermon by the Rev. William Peebles preached to the Magistrates and Council of the Burgh of Newton upon Ayr, 5th November          1788 (Kilmarnock, 1788).
14.       William Peebles, Sermons on Various Subjects (Edinburgh, 1794).
15.       Poems I, 72, ‘The Holy Tulzie’.
16.       John Taylor, The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin (1741); John Goldie, Essays on Various Important Subjects Moral and Divine (1779).
17.       Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, p.1 (In the Penguin Classics edition p.35). First published 1759-1767.
18.       Tristram Shandy, p. 193.
19.       Poems I, 179, 182.
20.       Poems I, 53, ‘Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous’.

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