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Robert Burns Lives!
How the Victorians Monumentalized Robert Burns: Christopher Whatley’s Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People reviewed by Patrick Scott

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

It is a joy to welcome retired Professor Patrick Scott back to the pages of Robert Burns Lives! He has and will continue to be a great supporter of RBL, and I attribute much of the success of this website over the years to him and several writers like him. A hearty thanks to Patrick who has proven to be not only a great contributor to our site but a wonderful friend of mine. He is one of the finest scholars around and a man who is a friend to my entire family. Thanks again, Patrick! (FRS: 4.13.17)

Patrick explained that this is an expanded and revised version of his briefer notice of the book in the last Studies in Scottish Literature. He writes: “I felt that I had not brought out sufficiently the interest and importance of Christopher Whatley’s book, and that it deserved fuller discussion.” Christopher Whatley is Professor of History at the University of Dundee, and his new book was published this past November by John Donald, an imprint of the Edinburgh publisher Birlinn. He contributed an earlier article titled “Robert Burns: Patrician Protégé, People’s Poet” was included on Robert Burns Lives!, as no. 139 (May 2012), which gives fuller biographical information. (P. Scott: 4.13.17)

How the Victorians Monumentalized Robert Burns:
Christopher Whatley’s Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People reviewed by Patrick Scott

Christopher Whatley’s new book on how the Victorians quite literally made a monument out of Robert Burns may seem secondary to the study of Burns himself, and its major focus, on public statuary, might seem a mere side-issue to his achievement as a poet. But Professor Whatley’s book has a fresh and distinctive perspective to offer. The main historical phenomenon is surely known to most Burnsians: Burns was famous, and admirers around the world used public statues to demonstrate how important he was. Professor Whatley’s book brings to the table a large number of new case studies of the Victorian memorialization of Burns, but accounts of Burns’s 19th century popularity are certainly not lacking. One thinks of Donald Low on the Critical Heritage, James Mackay on Burnsiana, Robert Crawford and others on the American reception, more recently Carol McGuirk and Corey Andrews on the construction of Burns as literary icon, Thomas Keith on American Burnsian statuary and Mauchline ware, Whatley’s own major project with Murray Pittock and Pauline Mackay on the Burnsian material heritage (on which this book draws), and much else besides. Bill Dawson’s index to the Burns Chronicle has over five pages of entries for articles on statuary and monuments. Some readers may perhaps feel it unlikely that the picture will be significantly altered by accumulating further detail, and the book’s opening pages, an awestruck account of the huge crowds at the 1877 unveiling of the Glasgow Burns statue, illustrate the risks of this kind of study—as the evidence piles up, statue by statue, the impact of further crowds, however huge, diminishes.

Professor Whatley’s special contribution, however, is to write as an historian, alert to the wider currents of social change within which Burns became a very malleable national icon. He has got a lot of new information, and his adroit summaries of major celebrations and speeches draw both on manuscript materials and on newly-accessible accounts from contemporary newspapers. But most of what has been published by earlier researchers has left us with a patchwork of individual examples, rather than an overarching story, and Professor Whatley’s book puts the separate cases in context, providing a useful sense of how much changed from decade to decade. The perspective that he provides on Victorian attitudes often comes from shrewd quiet irony rather than from direct discussion, but the narrative is based in detailed understanding of the differences in each city or town and of each historical moment where and when a new statue was to be erected. The endnotes reveal how much Whatley’s account is underpinned by recent historical scholarship. It is worth noting that Whatley’s study focuses solely on the memorialization of Burns in Scotland itself, rather than globally, but the level of historical context he gives would be dissipated if he had widened the focus to the Scots outside Scotland and the Burns monuments that they erected.

The story Whatley tells centers on the continuing tension between Burns as the icon of the common man and Burns as icon of a relatively class-less Scottish identity. On the one side there are the immense crowds of voteless working men who flocked and marched in procession to each unveiling, and who had often contributed money to the projects in multiple small donations through their unions or lodges. These were the crowds who celebrated Burns and stood patiently looking on during lengthy orations delivered without the aid of sound systems. On the other side are the earnest committeemen, and local boosters, the provosts and baillies, who might initiate a project, and the wealthy or aristocratic patrons who encouraged it and maybe seemed to take it over. It was this second group, itself quite mixed and not always harmonious, who after each unveiling attended lengthy formal dinners to toast each other in mutual self-congratulation. Making a statue actually happen involved uneasy interaction or jostling among all these groups. What Whatley focuses on is what motivated each group in backing the public celebration of Robert Burns.

Crowds at the Burns Monument, Alloway, for the Celebration in 1844
Engraving from the Illustrated London News,
Courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection, University of South Carolina

Separate chapters of Whatley’s book explore the way Burns was claimed or fought over in successive generations, and the chapter titles usually pick out one specific theme (Toryism, Chartism, Religion, socialism). In practice the chapters range more widely. It seems worth providing a chapter by chapter summary, as some of the most original and interesting sections are on topics not reflected in the relevant chapter title.

After a broad-ranging introduction, chapter 1 examines the role played in some of the earliest celebrations by Scottish landowners, often Tory in politics. Burns was the poet of a hardworking Scottish “peasantry,” and Scottishness was identified with the agriculturally-based and a-political lifestyle he depicted in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” Whatley highlights this attitude in a detailed discussion of the Burns festival at Alloway in August 1844, organized in part as an answer to growing local political unrest by the fiercely-Tory essayist John Wilson and a local Ayrshire aristocrat the Earl of Eglinton (who had previously organized the notorious mock medieval Eglinton Tournament). However, Wilson and Eglinton’s formal celebration with invited orators at the Burns Monument was confronted by the banners and processions of more radical urban Burnsians who arrived in Ayr on special trains or by steamer down the coast, marching from Ayr to Alloway to reclaim Burns for their own class.

Ch. 2 follows up this contrast by exploring how political reformers in the 1830s had stressed Burns’s radicalism, not only in well-known songs such as “Is there for honest poverty,” but also in items newly recovered or attributed to Burns, but of less certain authorship, such as “Why should we idly waste our time,” first published by Cunningham in 1834, and “The Tree of Liberty,” first published by Robert Chambers in 1838. The economic hardships of the late 1830s, and the “hungry forties,” encouraged this focus, which became associated with the Chartist movement, backers of universal suffrage, or one man one vote. In a period of social flux and unrest, even in rural Scotland, not only Burns’s politics, but his celebration of working-class sociability, and his astringent anticlericalism, also struck a chord. And his poems also provided a model to countless aspirant poets for whom vernacular Scots was the language of the people. While neither of these first two chapters is dealing with material that is completely new, both have a depth and nuance that is welcome on topics that are sometimes oversimplified.

In chapter 3, Whatley looks at the Burns centenary celebration in January 1859, and at the many different celebrations held throughout Scotland and elsewhere. On January 25 that year there were fifteen celebratory events in Edinburgh alone, including a formal banquet with the Lord Provost attended by 700 people, a total abstinence Burns dinner that attracted 1500 attendees, and a Working Man’s Festival that drew 2000). Whateley’s initial focus is on the continuing social tensions in the Burns movement, expressed in rival radical and Tory celebrations in many towns, and on the differing extent of male exclusivity at events. But in the brief final section of the chapter (pp. 87-92), he takes up a topic that has not, as far as I know, been treated seriously in the earlier Burnsian literature: this is the resistance, even hostility, to Burns of many Scottish religious believers. For most books about Burns, it is axiomatic that Burns’s kirk satires were justifiable attacks on clerical pretension and religious hypocrisy. But Burnsian celebrations provoked criticism not only from ministers, but from the total abstainers in their congregations. Whatley looks at both sides in the debate, showing that in the mid-19th century such vocal pro-Burnsian clerics as George Gilfillan and Peter Hateley Waddell were still in the minority.

Chapter 4 moves from looking at the wider social picture to a more granular examination of the men (nearly always men) who promoted Burns and Burns monuments at a local level. It looks first at the emergence of local Burns Clubs, and annual dinners rather than grand banquets for special events, and then it turns to the motivation of the civic fathers who promoted a Burns statue as a necessary marker of their community’s importance. As Professor Whatley points out, civic pride was an important factor in the near-universal decision by the committees to commission original statues newly sculpted for their town alone, rather than a copy or duplicate casting of a statue elsewhere. At some level, of course, almost all Victorian Burns statues recognizably derive from the full-length Nasmyth portrait (how else would they seem life-like?), but those who commissioned them also wanted their town to have a statue that was unique.

Chapter 5 (“Keeping the lid on the Burns genie”) and Chapter 6 (“Burns, Scotland and socialism”) look at the different perspectives late Victorian orators drew from the same poet. Very often those in charge of commemorative events quoted Burns on brotherhood as expressing the disappearance or irrelevance of class conflict (ch. 5), while Scots involved in, for instance, the campaign for crofters’ rights or the emergent socialist movement in urban Scotland quoted the same lines as showing his identification with working-class Scots and condemned much middle-class commentary on Burns as mere sentimentalism. One might note that among politicians speechifying about Burns one can find not only the Scottish socialist leader Keir Hardie and the first British Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, also a Scot, but also a Scottish Liberal prime minister, landowner, and book collector, Lord Rosebery. In Whatley’s trenchant phrase, “in turn the parties hijacked Burns for their own purposes” (p. 162).

Ch. 6 also includes two of the interesting subtopics that don’t show up in chapter titles. Both concern the quest for the “real Burns,” if not necessarily the most realistic Burns. One is the story of Scottish reaction against some of the late Victorian Burns statues commissioned from London-based sculptors, most notably F. W. Pomeroy’s statue for Paisley. In 1895, an anonymous article in the Burns Chronicle by “An Art Student” asserts “in most of the statues of Burns, the art has not equaled the enthusiasm” (quoted p. 150). The spotlight in this section is on the splendidly-named Edinburgh sculptor, painter, poet, and nationalist James Pittendrigh McGillivray (1856-1938), one of the “Glasgow Boys” who upended Scottish art in the 1890s. As an apprentice in the 1870s McGillivray had worked on statues of Thomas Campbell and David Livingstone, but his Robert Burns for Irvine was his first major independent commission. “Burns by an Englishman is impossible,” he wrote (p. 153), but even among his Scottish predecessors, he approved only of two early nineteenth-century stonemasons, John Greenshields and William Thom. Breaking free from the expectation that Burns must look like Nasmyth’s portrait, McGillivray set out to portray a Burns “who personified the ‘soul’ of Scotland, the ‘world spirit’ of which ‘was not really born till Burns touched his eyes’” (quoted p, 155). This kind of nationalist idealism was a slippery slope. By the 1920s, Whatley tells us, McGillivray was hailing Burns as “social revolution incarnate,” a “potential Mussolini with, in the browbeaten Scotland of his day, little stuff out of which to make black shirts” (ibid.)

More mainstream Burnsians also wanted to find the “real Burns,” and sometimes this involved being selective about the facts of Burns’s life or the range of his oeuvre. The Burns Federation, and the Burns Chronicle itself, certainly played an important (if not always wholehearted) role in promoting a more realistic Burns, without in any way espousing a radical Burns. Nonetheless it was a conservative critique of Burns, William Ernest Henley’s essay on Burns in the Henley-Henderson Centenary edition (1896), that drew the Federation’s particular ire (see Whatley’s comments on p. 159). As we all know, the research in the Henley-Henderson edition remains immensely valuable, if not infallible, and Henley, like his collaborator T. F. Henderson, fully recognized the genius of Burns as vernacular poet, but the Federation could not forgive any criticism of Burns the man.

Whatley’s brief and elegiac concluding chapter 7, on Burns in the 20th and 21st centuries, starts, as one might expect, with the disparagement of the Burns cult in the modern Scottish Renaissance, and with the Burns Federation response to MacDiarmid’s scathing satire in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. He proceeds to discuss the development of the Burns brand for tourism and other commercial purposes, and the continuing and unquestioned use of Burns as an almost-nonpartisan national icon (in, for instance, the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999). He contrasts that omnipresent commercial image of Burns with the relative neglect of the surviving Burns statues. There is indeed a very striking contrast to be made between the huge and ebullient crowds in the Victorian photos with the much smaller groups of generally elderly Burnsians in photos from annual wreath-layings in the 21st century. Whatley takes this contrast as emblematic that Burns no longer actually holds the Scottish public imagination. This chapter seems the most likely to attract debate or dissent from Burnsians, but it merits thoughtful consideration.

This is an important book. Whatley has much to say to non-Burnsians and those interested in post-Burns Scottish culture. His book should be required reading for anyone interested in the back-story to how Scottish cultural identity developed in the Victorian period. For Burnsians, this book fills out what was already known about 19th century Scottish attitudes to Burns, and every Burnsian reader who perseveres will find material that is new. It brings together in a very modestly-priced volume a huge amount of scattered information on individual statues and events that is quite difficult to obtain from other sources; earlier locally-produced books are often not even in major libraries, modern scholarly articles are often limited to expensive subscription-based sites, and most modern scholarly books are absurdly expensive. Spread through Whatley’s pages is a distinctive argument about the period, a story of the recurrent strength of the people’s voice in 19th century Scotland, even when excluded from formal political power, and the role not just of Burns himself as symbol, but of his poems and songs in articulating the hopes and aspirations of subsequent generations. Immortal Memories is readably written, and based on wide research, and can be warmly recommended.

Details about the book:
Author: Christopher A. Whatley
Title: Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People.
Publisher: Edinburgh: John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn, 2016.
Pp. xii + 244. Paperback, £14.99. ISBN 97819110900086.

“An Art Student,” “Statues of Burns,” Burns Chronicle, 1st series 5 (1895), 121-129.
Corey Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: the Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1834 (Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi, 2015).
Robert Crawford, in Sharon Alker, Leith Davis, and Holly Faith Nelson, eds., Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 169-186.
Edward Goodwillie, The World’s Memorials of Robert Burns (Detroit, 1911).
Thomas Keith, “Burns statues in North America, a survey,” in G. Ross Roy, ed., Robert Burns in America (Kirkcaldy: Akros, 2001), 22-33.
____________, and David Trachtenberg, Mauchline Ware: A Collector’s Guide (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002).
Sofiane Kennouche, “The History of Robert Burns Statues around the World,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 231 (January 26, 2016):
Donald A. Low, ed., Robert Burns: the Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1974)..
Carol McGuirk, Reading Robert Burns: Texts, Contexts, Transformations (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014).
James Mackay, Burnsiana (Ayr: Alloway Publications, 1988).
Pauline Mackay, “Robert Burns Beyond Text: Introducing a New Resource for Robert Burns Research,” Burns Chronicle (Spring 2011): 42-43.
______________, “Objects of Desire: Robert Burns the “Man’s man” and material culture,” Anglistik, 23 (2012): 27-39.
Murray Pittock, “Burns: Monument and Memory,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 225 (October 21, 2015):
_____________ and Pauline Mackay, “Beyond Text: Burns, Byron and their material cultural afterlife,” Byron Journal, 39 (2011): 149-162.
______________ and Christopher Whatley, “Poems and festivals, art and artefact, and the commemoration of Robert Burns, c. 1844-c. 1896,” Scottish Historical Review, 93 (2014): 56-79.
Christopher Whatley, “Burns, the People’s Poet, and Dundee?,” in Kirsty Gunn and Anna Day, eds., For a’ That: A Celebration of Burns (Dundee: Dundee University Press, 2009), 68-76.
_________________, “Robert Burns, Patrician Protégé, People’s Poet,” BBC History Magazine (January 2011); repr. Robert Burns Lives!, no. 139 (May 9 2012):
_________________, “Robert Burns, Memorialization, and the ‘Heart Beatings’ of Victorian Scotland,” in Murray Pittock, ed., Robert Burns in Global Culture (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 224-260.
_________________, “’It is said that Burns was a Radical’: Contest, Concession and the Political Legacy of Robert Burns, ca. 1796-1859,” Journal of British Studies, 50 (2011): 639-666.
_________________, “Serendipity and a stature: Dundee, Robert Burns, and ‘a monument worthy of Scotland,” in P.R. Rossner, ed., Cities: Coins: Commerce (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2012), 175-186.
_________________, “Transatlantic Reception and Commemoration of the ‘Poet of the Scotch,’” in P. Westover and A. W. Rowland, eds., Transatlantic Literature and Author Love in the Nineteenth Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 237-265.
_________________, “Local History and the Nation: Commemorating Robert Burns, 1859-1914,” Scottish Local History, 96 (2017): 3-9.
Robin L. Woodward, “MacGillivray, (James) Pittendrigh (1856–1938),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004).

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