Wakefield Socialist History Group

 

ROBERT BURNS, the republican.

 

Below is an edited version of a speech given by Alan Stewart to a Wakefield Socialist History Group event, “A SORT OF BURNS NIGHT: Robert Burns and other radical poets” at the Red Shed, Wakefield, West Yorkshire on Saturday 28 January 2017.

 

Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a cottage built by his father, William Burness, a gardener turned farmer in the village of Alloway. Alloway is a couple miles from Ayr.

 

Robert’s first school was at Alloway Mill. Later his father combined with a few neighbours to hire a tutor, Mr Murdoch. Bear in mind that compulsory education was not introduced until 1876. Schooling wasn’t free until 1891. So it could be said that he had a much better education than most lads at this time. And certainly Burns did appreciate this –early on he developed a keen interest in reading.

 

In 1776 the family moved from Alloway to a farm at Mount Oliphant, a few miles south east. There they faced years of unending toil and enduring poverty. This got worse when the landlord died and, as Geddes (2000) puts it in his book, the family found themselves “under the tyranny of a scoundrel factor.”

 

Eventually in 1777 they broke free of his clutches and moved on to a larger farm. It was at Tarbolton. It had 130 acres and it appeared more promising. Though Geddes says the farm itself was bleak and bare.

 

Robert Burns was at least able to enjoy himself at the Batchelor’s Club which he and his brother Gilbert helped found in Tarboltan. In 1780. There members met, Geddes (2000) says to forget their cares in “myth and diversion.” The chief diversion appears to have been debate, something Burns particularly enjoyed.

 

Now Burns did move to Irvine for a while in 1781. He intended to be a “flax-dresser”. However the premises he was going to be based in caught fire.

 

Burns returned to Lochlea to find his father on his death bed (his father was subsequently buried back in Alloway Kirkyard).

 

Robert, Gilbert and their widowed mother moved to a farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. The rent was 90 a year, less than Lochlea. The first year however Burns bought bad seed. The second year there was a late harvest. Geddes (2000) says he lost half his crops.

 

Burns was not at a low ebb. He even contemplated emigrating to the West Indies. Why did he change his mind?

 

What changed his mind was the publication of his first collection of his poems – POEMS CHIEFLY IN THE SCOTTISH DIALECT. It appeared in 1786. It was known as the Kilmarnock Edition.

 

It included poems such as “To a Mouse” and “The Cottar’s Saturday Night.” It was an immediate success and Burns spent some time in Edinburgh enjoying the acclaim.

 

On his return from the capital he married Jean Armour and took on the tenancy of Ellisland farm, 6 miles north of Dumfires.

 

He hoped to use the latest agricultural methods to make a better living. And to provide for his growing family.

 

During the stay at Ellisland he wrote over a hundred songs and poems including “Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon” and “Auld Lang Syne.” He also trained as an exciseman as a back up if the farm failed.

 

As it was when he secured an exciseman’s post he decided to dispose of the farm altogether and move to Dumfries.

 

His first home there until 1793 was in Wee Vennell. They then relocated to a house in Mill Vennell, now known as Burns Street, at the south end of the High Street.

 

His literary output remained prodigious: Tam O’ Shanter, M Yannies’ Awa, Ae Fond Kiss. But there were troubles also.

 

 Rumours abounded about his drinking in places like the Globe Tavern and the delightfully named Hole in the Wall.

 

And he was in trouble for his political views. It led to an official enquiry by the Board of Excise and for a time it looked as if he might lose his job (more of that in a minute).

 

And then there was his declining health. Years of toil had taken their toll. He even tried sea bathing as a cure.

 

But he died in 1796 from endocartis, the effects on rheumatism on the heart. He is buried in Dumfries where there is a mausoleum.

 

These are the essentials of Burns’ life.

 

But I want to talk about the economic context, the social context. And I want to talk about the political Burns, the radical Burns, the republican Burns about which we hear so little.

 

First there is the economic context. The point here is that Burns and his family tried unsuccessfully to make a living out of a series of unprofitable holdings.

 

Burton (2009) in his article –in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty paper “Solidarity”- notes that this was an age of rural change. Peasants were finding themselves unable to maintain their debt bondage to landowners. May farms were failing and peasants were being squeezed out.

 

So there was an Agricultural Revolution. But Burton notes that the poetry of Burns was the product of the Scottish Enlightenment in an age of political revolutions.

 

Those two main political revolutions were first the American Revolution and then the French Revolution.

 

The American Revolution of 1776-83 had been closely followed by the Scottish public. It read coverage in a booming popular press. And when Britain was eventually defeated in 1783 the Scots came to see the newly emerging United States of America as an example, for all its’ faults, of how a more socially progressive society could be built.

 

And Burns’ “A Man’s A Man for a’ that” would encapsulate in verse the ideas that one English born American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, had articulated in his “Rights of Man.”

 

Then of course there was the French Revolution of 1789. It demonstrated that the status quo could be challenged and changed. More people could share power. And Constitutions –in France as in America- could be drawn up by men rather than, as was previously claimed, handed down by God.

 

Radicals in Scotland were again inspired by all this. Liberty Trees, a French revolutionary symbol, were planted across Scotland on market crosses. The Friends of the People –radical reformers- called a Convention in Edinburgh. Burns sympathised with their aims and he published, “Scots Wha Hae”, anonymously to coincide with the subsequent trial of the Friends of the People leader Thomas Muir.

 

“Scot’s Wha Hae” was also full of references to the French Revolution. The last line, “let us do or die” comes for instance from the famous Tennis Court Oath made during the Revolution itself.

 

So there can be little doubt that Burns was a radical republican.

 

He was accused of having joined in a rendition of the French Revolutionary song “Ca Ira” in a Dumfries theatre. He wrote approvingly of the “deserved fate” of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

 

He tried to send four carronades to the French Assembly. He’d bought them at a sale of the smugglers ship, the Rosamond, that he’d help seize in his role as an exciseman.

 

He nearly got the sack for all of this. But he was let off and told to be “silent and obedient” in future. What he did instead was link up with underground networks and get his poems and articles published anonymously in Edinburgh and London.

 

Poems like:

 

 *Scots Wha Hae: full of radical code words

 

 *A Scotian Muse: a poem about the injustices of the sentences handed down to Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer.

 

 * A Man’s A Ma for A’ That: with sentiments the state could see as seditious, even traitorous.

 

After Burns died the ruling class, the state, the establishment and the church continued to demonise him. When that failed they tried to sanitise his work.

 

They then tried to distort his ideas and put him to the service of the Empire.

 

Today let’s reclaim and remember the true Burns –Burns the radical, Burns the republican!

 

Thank you comrades for coming here today.

 

Alan Stewart

(Convenor, Wakefield Socialist History Group)

alanharperstewart@hotmail.co.uk

(Feb 2017)

 

 

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