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A Highlander and his Books

Burns Chronicle and Club Directory
No. 1.             25th January 1892
Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

The vast majority of our 70,000+ subscribers are not members of a local Burns Club and may be unaware of an important publication aptly named the Burns Chronicle. Allow me to introduce you to it. I have enjoyed collecting these journals via eBay, from old Scottish bookshops, and have even received several volumes from Burnsian friends such as Thomas Keith of New York City and, most recently, Dr. Ross Roy of the University of South Carolina. It is fascinating to read and study these journals that now total 46 volumes in my wee Burns library.  Just today I ordered nine additional ones from an ad in the Burns Chronicle by the Derby Scottish Association and Burns Club, England. We all remember Derby as the “roundabout” who sent the Jacobite Army hurrying back to Scotland with a sulking Bonnie Prince Charlie being just a little over a hundred miles from his perceived life-long destiny - London - to recapture the throne of England for his father.

The Robert Burns World Federation Limited recently made available the first nine volumes (1892 - 1900) of the chronicle. No publication, in my opinion, defines a club’s history as well as this annual journal, published since 1892. I have seen it referenced many times in books, articles, pamphlets, speeches and dissertations. Yes, blue collars and scholars alike, once they discover the journal, find it hard to let go. 

In a break from reviewing a current published book, it is my pleasure to review the first chronicle dated 25 January 1892. For those of you unaware of that date, it is the day and month of Robert Burns’ birthday that is celebrated around the world with good food, good drink, good fun and, sometimes, good speeches called “The Immortal Memory.” Since it is a bit impossible to have a “chat” with the authors, that usual column of ours will be omitted from this issue of The Family Tree.

The 1892 Burns Chronicle begins, naturally enough, with a “Brief Summary of the Life of Burns,” written evidently by the editor, one John Muir, and is followed by a “Summary of the Posthumous History of Burns”. To me, the life of Burns was more exciting that the thousands of books written about him, and it is no less true of these first two articles. I feel that many great writers, like Hemingway for instance, led lives more interesting and complex than their books ever came close to capturing in print. The same is true for Burns. When you consider the one book he wrote, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, even though it can today bring $60,000 for the Kilmarnock edition, it does not capture the total life experiences of the man who left us all too soon. It is a wonderful book of poetry, particularly if you speak Scottish. And, even though it tells a lot about Burns, it certainly does not tell us all there is to know about this marvelous human being. His poetry has all the marks of exceptional greatness that has stood the test of critical scrutiny since his birth in 1759. His poetry is beautiful, smooth, comforting, humorous, sarcastic, manly, tender, caring, loving, and frankly at times, hard to understand unless you have a Scottish dictionary. Yet, his writings in poetry and song exhibit a genius beyond his years.

In this writer’s opinion, it is in his letters where one sees the total Burns. Here he takes us through the prose of his life, a life rocked continually with near poverty, very hard work, and the long-term sickness that finally caught up with him in Dumfries where he died as a 37-year-old man. In his letters we find all of Burns, warts and all. Again, his life, like that of Hemingway, can be said to be one of constant emotions in conflict. His life was extremely hard but full of love, if not money. Those who knew him best loved him most. Those who knew him least were very critical of him. That should tell you something. He loved his fellow man until they crossed a line. Then, with pen in hand, he could cut them to ribbons with wicked sarcasm. Burns’ love of books was second to none, yet he only wrote one volume. Robert Burns was a man’s man. Yet, like most of us, he would turn most quickly from a position he advocated if he thought it would cost him his job and crush his family financially. Like any dirt farmer, he lived by the sweat of his brow.

 Allow me to digress at this point. I like to use the phrase “dirt farmer” because my father, as a young married man, experienced some of the same hardships in his early years, as did Burns. I’ve heard that Dad lost what was called a “sixteen horse farm” back then when the Great Depression came along. Sounds very familiar to Burns and his own farming attempts in his part of Scotland. My dad never went back to farming and neither did Burns. My dad pulled up stakes and moved form North Carolina to South Carolina for a new beginning. Burns did the same. Yet, Charlie Shaw carried with him over the years a stooped back from his early farming days even though he lived nearly twice as long as Burns. It is difficult not to make comparisons when you reflect on the two men as to farming.

I had a “brief encounter of a close kind” with farming. During one summer, I worked on a farm in Horry County, SC that belonged to my beloved sister, Peggy, and her husband, Fred, a most honorable and loving man. I very vividly recall putting in tobacco. I learned what to do around the barn to help out, and I learned to drive the “drag” behind the mule to bring tobacco from the field to the barn. I would “hand’ tobacco, but I was never allowed to “string” tobacco, that took a special talent. The work was hard. Plowing cornfields with a mule and plow where the view is always the same is not all that exciting!

Farm life really makes you appreciate sundown but dread sunrise. The hours were long, but the home cooked meals were wonderful and the sweet bread we enjoyed in the afternoons instead of store bought cookies was a treat. But I learned that there were too many things farmers could not control - crop failure, low prices, and all to often, too little rain, and every now and then, too much rain. No wonder farmers go to church and pray at mealtime and before going to bed at night. I did not learn all there is to know about farming or plowing, or crops or cows, or killing hogs for fresh pork, but I’ll never forget the smile of joy on my mother’s face after I was paid $63 for my work at the end of that summer and when I handed it all to her to help with the bills at home. It was the most money I had ever seen in my short lifetime. Like in the Burns home, money was scarce in those days. But I did learn as a lad of 13 and 14 enough to know that I would find another way to make a living! Later, when my parents passed away three months apart in Mullins, SC, Fred and Peggy took me in to live in their home in North Charleston and, greater still, took me into their bosom. Yes, Fred had given up on farming, too!

Now, back to the Burns Chronicle. The first journal continues with an article on his influence on American literature, a brief memoir of “Bonnie Jean”, the topography of Kilmarnock, interesting chapters on the portraits of Burns, his music, and a brief note on the Burns Federation, which proclaims the journal as “the only publication wholly devoted to the interest of Burns students”, which no one can dispute.

As a side bar, I get a kick out of some of the 1893 advertisements that helped offset the journal costs. Oddly, there were none in the first edition, but in the second one there is an advertisement for H. Lauder & Co., “The Emporium” which proudly states, “Marriage and Mourning Orders Punctually Attended To”. Then there is “The Best Edition of ‘Burns Works’ Offered Cheap” - not inexpensive or a good bargain or a good buy but “cheap”. Scots will be Scots! Even then the reputation of Burns was worldwide as “Poesie Di Robert Burns” is advertised with this explanation: “First attempted Translation of Burns into Italian” by Signor Ulisse Ortensi. Note the word “attempted” - hey, either it’s in Italian or not. There is Dr. Thompson, a dispensing chemist which is similar to our pharmacist, whose ad states, “Nervetonine is a positive cure for all Nervous Affections, Nervous Exhaustion, Nervous Debilitry, Loss of Nerve and Brain Power, Hysteria, Loss of Memory, Sleeplessness, Paralysis,” and the beat goes on, but ends by claiming all of the above and the other dozen maladies that I did not mention are “…permanently cured with Nervetonine.” Send me a truckload! Yet my favorite one is from Shaw, Walker & Co. that unapologetically states that they were “Established to supply the public with Goods, at the smallest possible profit.” (Italics mine.) Yeah, right! And to think a Shaw said that!

I am very grateful to Peter Westwood, Editor of the Burns Chronicle, and the Burns Federation for making these nine volumes available. Mr. Westwood is editor of The Deltiology of Robert Burns, a most unusual book about the life and work of Robert Burns as told through the media of illustrated postcards. He also edited Jean Armour, My Life and Times with Robert Burns. He is soon to publish the Definitive Illustrated Companion to Robert Burns, six volumes and over 4,000 pages, which many Burnsians look forward to buying. I have only been a member of the Federation since February 2002 and attended my first local Burns Club meeting just three years ago for their Christmas outing. Yet, I have quickly come to really enjoy the benefits of membership in both. I wish I had known about the Burns Club and the Burns Federation much earlier, but one plays the hand life has deals you. The journal, which now comes out three times a year, is a welcomed arrival at my home.

If you are fortunate enough to have a local Burns Club, let me encourage you to join. Your life will take on an added dimension as you learn about Burns and enjoy the fellowship of some wonderful people. The warmth of friendship is ever present and never surpassed. No one enjoys his Burns Club membership more than I do. Susan and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The programs are not just on Burns but are varied since my Burns Club bills itself as a literary club, not a Scottish or exclusive Burns Club.  Nevertheless, it is the membership that makes a club worthwhile. Our local club members are exceptionally friendly and, trust me, they know their Burns.

Internationally, check out the Federation. Shirley Bell is a very talented Chief Executive, and Margaret Craig, Office Administrator, ably assists her. Ten minutes after you meet these two, you feel like you have known them forever. You do not have to be a member of a local Burns Club to join the Robert Burns World Federation. If you have any interest in joining, contact them at Robert Burns World Federation Limited, Dean Castle Country Park, Dower House, Kilmarnock KA3 1XB, Scotland. You may phone or fax the office at 011-44-1563- 572469. Email:  (11-12-03)

L-R:  Susan Shaw and Shirley Bell at Dean Castle in Kilmarnock by the Memorial Cairn honoring victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. 

Dean Castle, home of the Robert Burns World Federation office.  The roses in the background are named after Robert Burns and the ones in front after Jean Armour.

Jack and Shirley Bell of Dumfries

Statue of Robert Burns in the Kilmarnock monument

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