The Radical Rabbie Burns

Quite possibly the most famous man from Ayrshire is Robert Burns. Born in 1759, the Bards presence can still be seen all over Ayrshire. Guaranteed if Robert Burns sat down somewhere somebody has put a plaque there to commemorate it. As well as being a cultural torch for the area, Burns has also been a great tourism tool for Ayrshire and Scotland as a whole. Interest in the poet brings millions of tourists to Scotland every year and the Scottish Government even funded a study at the University of Glasgow into the exact economic value of Robert Burns to Scotland and the potential for this global icon to further support regional growth.

As with most things that are examined and displayed with a capitalist mind set, the general representation of Robert Burns over the years has been heavily sterilised and romanticised. It would be interesting to ask the man what he thought about todays world.

It may come as a surprise to some- or not at all to others- but Robert Burns was far from a supporter of the established system and in fact was politically radical for his time, to such an extent that he even earned attention from the police.

Robert Burns was born into a family of tenant farmers. This meant that his family rented the land from a landlord who would take a share of either their crop or money. Most tenant farmers at the time were all but owned by their landlords and lived a life of poverty and hard labour. In his early life Burns would work long hours on his family’s farm and this no doubt contributed to his poor health later in life, eventually leading to his death in 1796 aged only 37. His hard drinking is often blamed for his poor health, but this vice simply added to already existing health issues, most likely gained from the horrid agricultural work he had to endure in early life.

Burns never quite climbed out of poverty which meant that he was never a full-time poet. He always had another job in addition to his writing and his financial hardships were a clear influence on his works. In his writing Burns addresses the environment, enlightenment, government tyranny and a person’s right to freedom.

In regards to his love of nature and his thoughts on blood sports such as fox hunting, Burns would write in a letter in 1789: “Indeed there is something in all that multiform business of destroying for our sport individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, that I could never reconcile to my ideas of native virtue and eternal right.”

Burns involvement in what was known as the Scottish Enlightenment regularly brought him trouble from the state. His outspoken support of both the French and American revolutions drew the attention of the authorities and anti-radical groups such as the Dumfries Local Natives (who would attack Burns and other radicals) and he was regularly accused of disloyalty to the king. The French revolution in particular seemed to inspire Burns, who would include the Tennis Court Oath of the French Revolutionaries in one of his most famous poems ‘Scots Wha Hae’ (1793): “Let us do or die!”. His support didn’t stop on the page either; Burns purchased four cannons from an impounded smuggling ship named the ‘Rosamond’ and sent them with a letter of support to the Legislative Assembly in France.

The Tory Pitt government would embark on a crusade of repression wherein popular radical voices were silenced, usually with sentences of transportation to penal colonies such as Australia. They also passed the Seditious Meetings Act and Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act, meaning that it became treasonable to bring the king into contempt, and any gathering of more than 50 people had to be authorised by a magistrate, ensuring that free speech was entirely suppressed. By the end of 1792, 3 years before the so-called “gagging acts” mentioned above were passed, Burns was already being investigated and observed by the elaborate spy network set up by the government. Fear of being arrested forced him to write under a pseudonym, and he started to employ a writing technique of ironic assent in his poems, on the surface appearing to support things he was in fact criticising. One of his most iconic songs ‘A Man’s a Man For A’ That’, written in 1795,  attacks the aristocracy and champions the worth of the common, working man.

Burns didn’t solely concern himself with the freedom of his fellow workers in Britain. Although he was criticised for perhaps being slow to acknowledge the issue of slavery, as the years went on and he became more aware of the atrocities of the slave trade, Burns became a staunch abolitionist. In 1792 he would write ‘The Slave’s Lament’, proving his pro abolitionist stance, for which Burns was recognised on the international level by some of the greats of the abolition movement, including former slave and author Frederick Douglass. Douglass visited Burn’s birthplace in April 1846 and in writing of his travels to Alloway confessed to being a great admirer of Burns as someone who “broke loose from the moorings of society” and was “filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy.” 150 years later, African American poet and writer Maya Angelou also visited his birthplace and is quoted as saying “He was the first white man I read who seemed to understand that a human being was a human being and that we are more alike than unalike.”

Burns was not perfect, he never did escape his vices and he was definitely influenced by the wider societal status quo in how he regarded women- by all accounts he was a loving man but certainly held traditional and patriarchal views when it came to relationships. In the modern interpretation of Burns a lot of facets of his life and character are disregarded and this is a real shame. Especially in todays political climate it should be remembered that Ayrshire’s favourite son was a great advocate for freedom, enlightenment and a fair and just society.