In his 1796 Sketch of Democracy, Robert Burns’s Scottish contemporary Robert Bisset called democracy “the consummation of human misery”. Democracy in Burns’s Britain was a dirty word. Many Britons associated it with ‘terrorism’ – a noun then entering the English language. And the Terror of the recent French Revolution had seen the king and queen executed.
Like the overwhelming majority of Britons, Burns had no vote. He never uses the noun ‘democracy’ in his verse, though in one poem a contemptuous speaker mocks “democrat doings”. Yet in tone and tenor Burns emerges as a champion of modern democracy, a writer whose gift for vernacular engagement, sympathetic exchange, and often egalitarian disrespect makes him the bard not just of Scotland but of democratic ideals.
Those ideals shaped Burns from his youth. Born 250 years ago on 25 January (now celebrated as ‘Burns Night’), Robert grew up in the west of Scotland, close to the seaport of Ayr. A teenager during the American War of Independence, he followed its struggles closely. Ayr and other west of Scotland ports suffered in the conflict. If Scotland had been growing rich through transatlantic commerce in slave-harvested products like tobacco and sugar, then the American War seriously disrupted such trading.
In Burns’s Ayrshire there was real anxiety that John Paul Jones, the Scots-born hero of the American rebels, would mount a naval assault. Such was the climate of fear that local gentry living near the coast took the precaution of moving their furniture inland, and at Ayr, men were appointed to raise the alarm if Jones or other American privateers attacked. Jones did indeed chase a cutter into the lower Firth of Clyde as far as the island of Ailsa Craig off Ayrshire. Shipping activity at Scottish ports soon slumped.
Burns’s community was damaged economically by the American War. He wrote how one of his closest friends, the sailor Richard Brown, “had been set ashore by an American Privateer on the wild coast of Connaught, stript of every thing”. Given the hardship caused to those around him by American revolutionaries, one might expect Burns to have supported his own government against them. The evidence of his poetry, though, makes it clear that his sympathy lay with the democratic rebels, and shows how closely he followed events of the American War throughout his teens.
In a substantial song-fragment Burns writes about the Boston Tea Party. The American rebels “did nae less, in full Congress,/ Than quite refuse our law, man”. Yet, while detailing events of the Revolutionary War, Burns was no true Briton siding with “our law”, and opposing the aims of the American “Congress”. His song goes on to chronicle Britain’s disastrous handling of the conflict, and when it first appeared in print it was set to a tune celebrating a famous Jacobite rebel victory over pro-Hanoverian forces. Burns’s song might look loyalist at first glance, but it sounds markedly as if it supports the republican rebels.
The American War clearly excited Burns’s imagination. The first place-names to appear in his poetry are not Scottish but American – cities such as ‘Boston’, ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘New York’. In fact, he was the first of the great Romantic poets to write about America, and would go on to compose an ode celebrating George Washington’s birthday and “the royalty of man” – something which meant considerably more to Burns than the royalty of the royal family.
If Burns is most famous for sympathetically addressing his fellow creatures, not least that “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie” – a mouse – then he also enjoys addressing royalty with egalitarian disrespect. His poem A Dream mocks the Poet Laureate’s ode for the monarch’s birthday; at one point Burns calls George III’s sailor son, Prince William, “Young, royal TARRY-BREEKS”. Such cheeky disrespect is at one with the tone of some of his most famous lines hymning the brotherhood of man. At times Burns could behave sycophantically towards titled people, but in his best verse he sounds far more democratic:
Ye see yon birkie ca’d(1), a Lord,
Wha(2) struts & stares & a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof(3) for a’ that.
For a’ that, & a’ that,
His ribband, star, & a’ that;
The man of independant mind
He looks & laughs at a’ that.
1 smart fellow called. 2 who. 3 fool
Stressing the independent-mindedness encouraged in him by the Scottish song-culture he grew up with and his strict Presbyterian father, Burns champions “Sense & Worth”, not titles or inherited position. If he was shaped by ideals strong in the American Revolution, then in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, he stated that “a’ Men” were “brithers”. A few years later he was still looking forward to a time when “Man to Man, the warld o’er,/ Shall brothers be for a’ that”.
Such sentiments brought Burns very close to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that were associated with French Revolutionary democracy and terrorism – and many suspected him of being a traitor. At a time when alleged democrats and republicans such as Thomas Muir were being arrested in Scotland, he feared for his future, and made a show of protesting loyalty to the British crown. Yet it is hard to read his lines, “But while we sing, GOD SAVE THE KING,/ We’ll ne’er forget THE PEOPLE!” without suspecting Burns of recommending that we should pay lip service to the monarchy while preserving our true allegiance to the popular cause.
In the song, beginning “Scots, wha hae”, Burns hymns the ancient Scottish freedom fighters William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, then denounces “servile chains” and “Tyrants”. The song ends with the cry, “LIBERTY’s in every blow!/ Let us DO – or DIE!!!’ In a letter Burns makes it clear that this is a poem about the time-old Scottish struggle for “Liberty & Independence”, but he also hints that it should be heard in terms of the democratic struggles of revolutionary France, since it is “associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient”.
For me, one of the great joys of writing Burns’s biography was being able to look closely at the radical politics of this most charismatic of poets. I am the first Burns biographer to have access to the manuscript journal of James Macdonald, who was the last person to write a substantial account of Burns’s conversation during his lifetime. I remember catching my breath at the simple sentence where Macdonald, writing about Burns and a friend in Dumfries in 1796, states simply and, above all, dangerously: “They are both staunch republicans”.
Robert Burns is not just the bard of Scotland; he is also slyly, radically and riskily, the master poet of republican democracy.
Robert Burns: Scotland’s poet
Born in his parents’ Ayrshire cottage on 25 January 1759, Burns had relatively little formal education but read voraciously, relishing the recent philosophy of Adam Smith, the English poetry of Alexander Pope, and the Scots poetry of Robert Fergusson. By the time he published his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in Kilmarnock in 1786, this farmer was better read than many an undergraduate.
By turns witty, heartfelt, subtle and sly, Burns’s poems such as To a Mouse and To a Louse entranced readers. Putting on hold his plans to emigrate to Jamaica, he went instead to Edinburgh, where he was hailed as a “heaven-taught ploughman”. An expanded 1787 edition of the Poems increased his fame and was soon republished in London and America.
A mesmerising speaker and an ardent lover of several women, Burns eventually married Jean Armour and became an Exciseman in Dumfries. Some of his neighbours found his politics suspect. Increasingly he devoted himself to collecting and reshaping Scots songs, fusing his voice with that of the people. His mock-heroic poem Tam o’ Shanter shows his humour and artistry to the full. Ill and exhausted, Burns died in 1796, acclaimed as Scotland’s national poet.
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