Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Robert Burns Lives!
Alex Salmond Speaks at Burns Symposium in Washington, D.C

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

If my column today had a dateline, it would be February 24-25, 2009, Washington, D.C.  The occasion was a symposium entitled Robert Burns at 250: Poetry, Politics, and Performance. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, in collaboration with Library’s Center for the Book, the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, and the Scottish Government, found over 150 people from both sides of the Atlantic gathered in our nation’s Capitol to pay homage to Scotland’s National Bard. Burns himself would have been so proud, as well as full of himself, for the recognition and of knowing it was a free event! This conference was in addition to the 280 events listed in the Homecoming Scotland 2009 Events Guide which began on December 30 of last year and will end on November 29, a year in which many thousands from around the globe will travel back to the auld country to pay their respect to Burns.

Leading scholars, poets, and musicians from both countries participated. Familiar people like Margaret Bennett, Peggy Bulger, Valentina Bold, Ted Cowan, Robert Crawford, Nat Edwards, Billy Kay, Ed Miller, Cate Newton, Patricia Gray, First Minister Alex Salmond, and Poet Laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan, were among the speakers.

Susan and I made our way to the District of Columbia via Delta and enjoyed two days of speeches and songs regarding Burns. The symposium was one of the best ones we have attended over the years, both here in the States and Scotland. The folks responsible for putting on the program are to be congratulated on a job well done. It was a joy to finally put names with faces of those I have known via email or read about for years. And, of course, it was a special treat to have Sir Sean Connery in attendance and to hear First Minister Alex Salmond address the group. Connery may be a wee bit older, but you can still see 007, James Bond, written all over him.

At the concluding reception, one of the speakers said to me, “If you’ll buy me a ticket to Atlanta, I’ll speak at your Burns Club.” Believe me, this particular speaker would be worth every penny, but I do not speak for the club. However, I did come close to replying, “If you buy me an airline ticket to Scotland, I’ll speak to one of your classes!”

I come now to a great honor for Robert Burns Lives! and a tip of the hat to my wife for making it happen. The symposium’s keynote address was delivered by the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. She inquired if a copy of the speech could be sent to her and it showed up the following week at Waverley House, our wee home by the lake. With the permission of the First Minister, it is a pleasure to share his speech with our readers. Many of our self-professed Burns experts and speakers would do well to sit at the feet of Alex Salmond and learn from him about Robert Burns, the world’s Bard! It was as good a discourse on Burns as I have ever heard. One could tell that our speaker was familiar with Burns and “at home” while talking about him. Here is the Honourable Alex Salmond speaking about Robert Burns.

First Minister Alex Salmond
First Minister Alex Salmond

Library of Congress, Washington DC
Tuesday, February 24, 2009


It is an honour, as First Minister of Scotland, to be invited to speak to you today, to celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest Scots of all time.

It is a remarkable testimony to the power of Robert Burns, that in the 250th anniversary year of his birth, we gather in this prestigious location to honour him. To explore his work and find inspiration in his words.

From Ploughman Poet to Literary Legend, Burns' journey is indeed a remarkable one. And today he arrives at a destination which would have far exceeded even his ambitions. To be commemorated in this, the largest library in the world, and admired by some of the best minds in the world.

It is a fitting accolade for Scotland's National Poet. And one which finds Burns in very good company. Because he shares this library, and this year, with another great man celebrating a significant anniversary.

I'm referring, of course, to Abraham Lincoln, whose bicentennial year is also being honoured by the Library of Congress.

Lincoln, as we know, was a dedicated admirer of Burns. During his times as a lawyer - before he was elected to Congress - a copy of Burns never left his side. Indeed, colleagues from his law practice said he was capable of quoting "Burns by the hour". A feat which would have left lesser men, in the words of poet, "ramfeezl'd".

With such an expert knowledge of Burns, it is unsurprising that in 1865, Lincoln was invited to give a short talk in memory of the Bard.

Lincoln was a man known for his eloquence. But on this occasion the 16th President chose to decline the invitation, replying:

"I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying."

Today, as I share with you my reflections on "Burns, Politics and Politicians", I am conscious that I am about to boldly go where Lincoln has not gone before.

Surrounded by so many prestigious academics and Burns' experts, my remarks will not be made as a scholar, but as an admirer and reader of Burns. And of course, also as a fellow Scot.

I would like to consider not just the influences which shaped Burns and his views. But also the values he articulates in his work. The kind of political figure he was. And the impact he has had on others.

For over two centuries now, Burns has been claimed by almost everyone on - and off - the political map as one of their own.

His work has been interpreted - and indeed misinterpreted - by those who wish to mould it to fit their own ideological design.

That's a point that was made by another Scottish poet, Hugh McDiarmid: "Mair nonsense has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than ony's, barrin liberty and Christ".

Burns has been celebrated as a democrat, a nationalist, an individualist, a radical, a patriot, an internationalist - the list goes on.

He is many and all things. Part of his enduring appeal is that he simply defies definition. If we can define him as anything it is as a poet, not a politician. A consummate artist of verse and song. Not a sloganeer.

In his work we see the reflection of his life. It is a life which, in Burns' own words, was driven by "keen sensibility and riotous passions" and which often lead him on what he admitted was a "zig zag" path.

It is unsurprising then that his work does the same. What we discover upon reading Burns is not consistency, but complexity.

Walt Whitman, another member of the Robert Burns fan club, wrote: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

And so it is with Burns. He is a man who is singular in his ability to contain multitudes and encompass contradiction.

Values and Influences of Burns

When we consider the totality of Burns' life, the contradictions are self evident: A man who graduated from the soil of an Ayrshire farm to the salons of literary Edinburgh.

A man of only elementary education whose imagination fired the Scottish Enlightenment. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, the self-taught Burns 'walked on his own feet instead of on academical stilts'.

However, closer examination says something different. In fact, the "heaven-taught ploughman" had an excellent education - because his Aberdeenshire father ensured it.

Therefore, one of the real points of importance for us is that Burns was an educated man. And one of the important points for Scots is to recall that in the eighteenth century, Scotland was one of the few societies on earth where a man of Burns' station would be educated.

Burns was an artist who found poetry in the prosaic.

Who rose to the station of national bard, whilst still retaining his status as a common man.

For all his paradoxes, Burns lived by a consistent set of values which he gives voice to from the earliest satires through to his late political songs.

His values were shaped by many influences - among them his love of literature, and of his native land; and an upbringing of industry and hardship.

As a boy, his imagination was captivated by the great Scottish hero William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. A man who fought for Scotland's freedom, and who represented the very spirit of independence.

As Burns put it in his autobiographical letter to Dr Moore, reading of his heroes' exploits sent a wave of patriotism through his veins "which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest".

From his youngest years, Burns had a strong sense of national identity. A pride in the land he came from. And an affinity with those who would stand up for Scotland.

As a labourer on his father's farm, from the age of 9, Burns was no stranger to the harsh realities of life. His imagination may have offered escapism, but his upbringing was an education in poverty.

In the 1770s, the Scottish economy was, according to David Hume, in a "very melancholy situation", with "continual bankruptcies, universal loss of credit and endless suspicions".

The downturn was felt right on Burns' doorstep. The Ayrshire bank, Douglas Heron and Company had collapsed, leaving many - including the Burns family - insolvent. It was an experience which no doubt sharpened Burns' appetite for social justice.

Burns was, of course, a product of his time. As a nation, Scotland was never submissive to established authority. Nor was Burns.

As a young man he formed the lifelong ideal that the greatest good was to be "the man o' independent mind". [A Man's a Man for a' That]

He was always a man to chart his own course. We see that from his earliest years. Even as the Burns family faced ruin and hardship, young Robert chose to exert his own free will in matters of the highest consequence - defying the authority of his father to go and enjoy himself at a country dance class!

Is Burns a political figure?

If we were to express Burns' values in simple political terms, it is difficult to know where to start.

Perhaps we can do no better than borrow some words struck in the Pennsylvania State House when Burns was a restless young man of seventeen: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Burns was always a man with a strong social conscience, and acute sensibility. He empathised with others and believed wholeheartedly in egalitarianism.

Whether it is the rallying cry of liberty to "Lay the proud usurpers low" [Scots Wa Hae]. Or the recognition that "The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The Man's the gowd for a'that". [A Man's a Man]

These are the values which feature time and time again in his work. Values which transcend culture, class, and continent.

As a political figure - and perhaps not only as a political figure - Burns is potent. His work speaks to us and for us all. It is at once universal and personal. Growing up, Dr Maya Angelou held a deep conviction that "Burns belonged to me". It is, for most of us, a familiar sentiment.

Because regardless of our individual circumstances, Burns poetry goes straight to the heart. For Tom Sutherland, who endured six long years as a hostage in Beirut, Burns was a source of strength and a symbol of hope - a light in the darkness.

His poetry is a touchstone to so many of us not because it speaks of ideology. But because it speaks of humanity.

Burns does not talk in the abstract of the principles of egalitarianism. He is the man who lives by these very principles. Who values every "poor, earth-born companion, An' fellow-mortal" [To a Mouse]

His empathy for his fellow man is discernible in every line of his verse. In his notebook he confesses he has "Good will to every creature" and identifies with "all the species".

It is an empathy which is not partisan. Whether it is for a monarch or a mouse, Burns is someone who is always on our side. As he concludes in the "Second Epistle to J. Lapraik", we can always "Count on a friend, in faith an' practice, In Robert Burns".

The last time I was in the United States, just over one year ago, I heard the then Presidential candidate Barack Obama on breakfast television. He was asked what he had been taught by his grandmother. He said her lesson was a single word, "empathy".

And if President Obama is guided by that quality through the coming years then not just America, but indeed the whole world will be better for it.

A Nationalist, A Democrat, A Radical

Burns has an affinity for his fellow man, and he expresses that affinity in the language of the common man. Indeed, in the case of his songs, it is also in the medium of the common man.

His decision to write in Scots - more accurately, in Lowland vernacular Scots - is surely evidence of his egalitarianism in action. He believed that popular speech had poetry in it - that the words of "The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor" could enrich us. [A Man's A Man]

To some, Burns explained his use of the Scots language as mere pragmatism, saying: "I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. In fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish."

Burns was modest about his ability to write in the English language. But there is evidence he need have been so.

More likely, his use of Scots was a declaration of his patriotism and pride in his own Scottish culture.

Advertising himself as "The Bard", Burns' ambitions went far beyond the horizons of Ayrshire or the drawing rooms of Edinburgh.

He aspired to be the voice of Scotland. And poems such as "The Cotter's Saturday Night" established him as just that - a poet capable of speaking for the entire nation.

By 1785 Burns had confidently assumed the role as national poet. It is his voice which defines Scotland as: "bold, independent, unconquered and free". [Caledonia]

Of course it is not merely his choice to write in Scots which earns him the title of 'nationalist'. It is also his commitment to safeguarding the literature, culture and spirit of the nation he loved.

In 1787, on a nationwide tour, Burns collected and refashioned the old songs of ancient Scotland. Preserving the oral tradition and honouring Scotland as a literary nation.

Burns was no ordinary curator. He was also a creator. He did not just collect and conserve the songs, he reworked them. Songs that would inspire others and give voice to the values of the Scottish people. It was a cultural project with profound and long lasting political impact.

Burns' nationalism was built on an internationalist perspective. Indeed it is America, and not Scotland, which is the first nation named in his poetry.

Burns was the first great Romantic poet to ever write about America. His interest in America goes hand in hand with his democratic instincts.

We see in poems like "When Guilford Good" a man informed of world events, and motivated to publicly write about them. Burns was unafraid to be a democrat - I should make clear that has a small 'd' - when democracy was considered a dangerous, suspicious practice.

It is easy to forget that Burns wrote at a time when democratic sympathies were considered 'radical'. When those supporting electoral reform were arrested for 'seditious and disorderly behaviour'. And in the case of advocate Thomas Muir, when giving such opinions a fair hearing before the law secured you a one way ticket to the penal colony, Botany Bay in Australia.

The political climate did not deter Robert Burns from expressing his views. After all, he considered himself "bred and educated in revolution principles".

Certainly, when he worked as an Exciseman, he remained loyal to his own nation and his own views.

As Robert Crawford mentions in his tremendous new book, "The Bard" - Robert Burns continued to collect and write the songs of Scotland, thanks to his pay cheque from the British Government. There would have been others content to merely take the money and run. Burns, however, took the money and sang.

Employment with the British Government did not stop Burns from voicing his dissent wherever he saw injustice. Always "the man o' independent mind", he would write to the Edinburgh Evening Courant, under a pen name, John Barleycorn, to argue the case for the Scottish distillers, being unfairly taxed by the London Parliament. 'Twas ever thus.

This course of action characterises Burns as a man of some cunning, but also quite some principle. And of course as a man who knows that: "Freedom and Whisky they gang thegither".

Whether we choose to label Burns as nationalist, democrat or radical, he is always a man of inner integrity. A man who values true not titular worth.

It is these ideals which define his life and give substance to his work.

Or to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau: Burns was a man who could sit down to write, because he had stood up to live.

The political impact of Burns

It is difficult to define Burns. I have struggled for years, and will continue to do so. And even this most expert and most eloquent gathering may still falter to find words that do him justice.

But the impact he has had, and continues to have, is unequivocal. For Dr Maya Angelou, it is Robert Burns' who best articulates and dignifies the struggle for freedom.

She says: "The African American struggle for Freedom reminds me all the time of the struggle for freedom all over the world. It is because of my identification with Robert Burns, with Wallace, with the people of Scotland for their dignity, for their independence, for their humanity, that I can see how we sing 'We Shall Overcome'."

Without doubt, Burns has left an indelible thumbprint on the world. His influence on the hearts and minds of millions is beyond question and beyond quantification.

For many Scots - myself included - Burns is still the voice which dignifies Scotland's quest for freedom.

When the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, after a gap of almost 300 years, it was Burns' words which rang out to the nation - through the wonderful rendition by Sheena Wellington of "A Man's a Man for a' That".

Those were the words chosen to signify the re-opening of the Parliament, and a new chapter in Scotland's story.

Burns' disdain for the Act of Union, which sealed Scotland's fate in 1707, is of course well documented in the poem "Parcel of Rogues".

Three centuries later, the people of Scotland elected a pro-independence government - the government I am proud to lead - to revisit that decision. And this time the decision will be made democratically, by a referendum of the people of Scotland.

Robert Burns' influence goes far beyond the shores of his homeland. He has been admired by those who hold the very highest political office.

His poems were Abraham Lincoln's moral compass. Burns' words the inspiration for Lincoln's own.

For Frederick Douglass, Burns' was esteemed as a "true soul". The first book Douglass bought after he escaped slavery was a copy of Burns poetry - which he later passed on to his oldest son.

And speaking at a Burns Supper in New York in 1849, Mr. Douglass said 'Though I am not a Scotchman, and I have coloured skin, I am proud to be among you this evening.' He then pointed to a portrait of Burns and continued, 'And if any think me out of my place at this occasion (pointing at the picture of Burns) I beg that the blame be laid at the door of him who taught me that 'a mans a man for a' that'.'

Burns' cultural impact is equally impressive. It can be seen in the work of a long line of literary admirers. Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost. Some of the great American voices who learnt from the greatest Scots voice.

His influence is seemingly everywhere. Without Burns both John Steinbeck and J. D. Salinger would be without titles for their most celebrated works. Frank Capra would have searched in vain for the right ending to his movie, "It's A Wonderful Life".

And for some 40 million diaspora across the world, it is the poetry of Burns which provides a strong and lasting link to their ancestral heritage.

To this day Robert Burns touches our lives. "Auld Lang Syne" is the most recited song in the world. A global anthem that celebrates the value of enduring friendship. Which urges us to embrace unity, and overcome division.

It is a powerful message. Amid a profound body of work.


The next two days offer a tremendous opportunity to explore Burns' further. To reach a closer understanding of the poet and a richer appreciation of his work.

Of course, to understand Burns deeply, one has to first understand the country he came from. The place where he lived, loved and endlessly sang in celebration of.

In this, his 250th year, there really is no better time to make that voyage and visit Scotland. In this landmark year, now is the time to truly discover Robert Burns. To walk in his footsteps. To enter the house where he wrote his finest verse. To experience the land that he loved. To be part of his story.

Because this year, our Homecoming year, the country is alive with celebration. With over 300 events underway right now, right across Scotland, to commemorate Burns and the country of which he was proud to call himself "Bard".

Burns is perhaps the world's greatest friend. His poems a "cup o' kindness" which sustain us, even when times are hard. And as a man who always enjoyed being one of the "hairum-scairum, ram-stam boys", it is right that we celebrate his worth.

This moment, this year in Scotland, is like no other. Which is why we are inviting everyone, everywhere - at home and abroad - with an affinity for Scotland, a pride in your Scottish heritage, a love of Robert Burns, to come and join us.


Ladies and gentlemen, we continue to celebrate, study, read and recite Burns because his are the values which endure.

Values of empathy, egalitarianism and humanity.

It is a legacy that transcends partisanship, or political persuasion.

It is the abiding message of how to live in fellowship with others and how to love one's fellow man.

It is a message that, in difficult times, reminds us that what is in our hearts, not what is in our wallets, is what enriches us.

And that is why two and a half centuries after his birth he remains, not just Scotland's Bard but everyone's.

A man for today, tomorrow and all time.

(FRS: Robert Burns Lives! 3.16.09)

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus