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Robert Burns: the people’s poet

As the world prepares to celebrate Burns Day, Christopher Whatley examines the effect the poet had on the working-class people of Scotland, and suggests three places where you can honour his memory

Published: January 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm
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This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine


On a grey, sleet-spattered Thursday in 1877, a vast crowd comprising an estimated 100,000 people crushed into Glasgow’s George Square. Others watched from windows and even rooftops, while in the surrounding streets thousands more strained to catch at least part of the proceedings. The occasion, which had been preceded by a colourful procession of the city’s trades, accompanied by the cacophonous sounds of 30 or so bands struggling to play the same tune at the same time, was the unveiling of a statue of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. The day chosen was 25 January, the date of Burns’s birthday, in 1759.

The scale and extent of public participation surrounding the Glasgow unveiling ceremony were neither unusual nor unprecedented. Much earlier, in 1796, Burns’s death had induced the kind of emotional reaction we associate nowadays with the deaths of celebrities – President JF Kennedy, Princess Diana or most recently Michael Jackson. “Great was the grief of the people for their poet’s death,” wrote one of Burns’s contemporaries. “They felt they had lost their greatest man.”

Dumfries, where Burns spent the last years of his life as an excise officer, and where he died, was “besieged” for his funeral. It was again for the funeral of his wife, Jean Armour, almost 40 years later. Collections of Burns’s works poured from the presses. There was a deepening hunger for biographical details of his life. Apparent too was a morbid but intense and widespread interest in Burns’s mortal but now immortalised remains, including from phrenologists who examined his skull.

Pilgrims flocked to places associated with Burns and his poems and songs. Relic hunters stripped bare the timbers of the ruins of Alloway Kirk, scene of one of Burns's best-known poems, Tam O' Shanter. Dumfries, where Burns's mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard was located, became Scotland's Jerusalem. Over time entire industries emerged to satisfy the demands of Burns-lovers for busts, statuettes, engravings, snuff boxes and a multitude of other Burns ephemera. Memorials and statues abounded, principally in Scotland, but several were erected in Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Just how massive the Burns phenomenon was became clear in August 1844 at the first ever Burns Festival – held in Ayr, within sight of his birthplace. Estimates of the numbers present ranged from 50,000 to 80,000. The unprecedented level of participation attracted nationwide interest, not least on the part of London journalists and others who sought to understand why a Scottish poet should have aroused such fervour on the part of those present.

Behind the festival, as with the memorials that had been built in Burns’s memory prior to 1844, were representatives of Scotland’s older ruling class. Along with the arch-Tory academic, Edinburgh University’s Professor John Wilson, Scotland’s emergent commercial and manufacturing elite also played a leading role, including Sir Archibald Alison, Glasgow’s sheriff and scourge of working-class radicalism.

The motives that lay behind such patrician promotion of Burns were mixed. Guilt was one; they had allowed the poet to die in poverty. As important however was Scottish patriotism. The festival organisers recognised that Burns, much of whose work was written in Scots, had been instrumental in preserving the Scottish language and dialect. This they saw as the essence of Scottish identity – under threat in the united British kingdom. In this respect Burns appealed across party lines as well as class boundaries, and he united lowland Scotland – even if there were clergymen who deplored the elevation to secular sainthood of a poet who had celebrated drink-fuelled excess and mocked the Kirk.

Central to the Ayr festival project however was the presentation of Burns as the epitome of pre-industrialised Scottish society in which pious peasants knew their place and stoically accepted their lot. The festival's organisers employed as their manifesto for this ideal world Burns's poem, The Cotter's Saturday Night, which could be read as a recipe for personal, familial and social contentment. Scottish conservatives were anxious not only to preserve such characteristics, but also to promote them as a bastion against the forces of industrialisation, urbanisation and revolution.

Yet what was also apparent to observers in 1844 was that the ordinary people present – tradesmen, ploughmen and shepherds predominated – had their own views about Burns. What inspired them were lyrics like “A man’s a man”, the tune to which they had chosen to march in the procession that preceded the festival. That Burns was more popular than Sir Walter Scott among Scottish artisans, concluded one group of interested spectators, was due to the fact that Burns had been a sinner but also that he was a democrat, something that the organisers were at pains to ignore or even deny.

Ironically, even within The Cotter's Saturday Night were lines and potentially corrosive sentiments they were unable to censure, including the following:

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,

'An honest man's the noble work of GOD:'

And certes, in fair Virtue's heavenly road,

The Cottage leaves the Palace far behind:

What is a lordling's pomp? A cumbrous load,

Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,

Studied in the arts of Hell, in wickedness refin'd!

Radical attacks on the festival began almost as soon as it was over. Do not feast upon your poet's grave, "Having first starved him into it", thundered Feargus O'Connor in the Chartist Northern Star. The charge echoed the comments of a Chartist lecturer who had visited the Burns monument in Alloway the previous year. He acknowledged that it was a fine structure, a fitting "shrine to genius". Yet it did not reflect well on the class that had erected it: whoever recalls Burns's death-bed appeal for five pounds, he wrote, will regard "this cold stone pile as a monument to the meanness as well as pride, of the Scottish aristocracy".

Burns’s appeal to the respectable working classes in Scotland was multifaceted. His poetry captured what for many was a familiar if rapidly disappearing rural way of life; he ignited the smouldering embers of Scottish national consciousness. As someone who had self-consciously portrayed himself as a “heaven taught” ploughman, Burns offered hope for ordinary people that they could rise above the circumstances of their birth.

Indeed Burns inspired a small army of British worker-bards. Resonating even more strongly was his egalitarianism. Many thousands of working people contributed their single shilling to the Glasgow Burns statue fund. In Dundee too, workers subscribed to the cost of the Burns statue unveiled in October 1880. Resounding cheers from what had been the largest crowd in this jute manufacturing town’s history were heard when the main speaker on the occasion, Frank Henderson MP, pronounced that by showing “the nobility of the soul was confined to no rank”, and that the “honest man was the noblest work of God”, Burns had transformed the lives of Scottish workers. But Burns’s capacity to inspire was not confined to Scotland. His influence was felt among weaver communities in Ulster from the 1790s, and Burns was adopted as the poet of the early American republic. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was among his most ardent readers and admirers, frequently quoting lines from his poetry.

Burns suppers, the first of which was held in 1801, are now ubiquitous, with perhaps nine million attending them worldwide as recently as January 2009. The Burns being celebrated will differ widely from place to place. What will unite those present will be the consumption of "mountains of haggis", (too) much whisky, and spirited renditions of his poems and songs – ending with Auld Lang Syne.

The best of them will acknowledge Robert Burns’s importance in promoting – in simple but unforgettable language – ideas and aspirations that lifted the spirits of countless thousands of ordinary people in the long march towards democracy.

Places to see


Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway (National Trust for Scotland)

The starting point for anyone interested in trying to understand Burns and the Burns phenomenon is the National Trust for Scotland’s new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, at Alloway, Ayr. The museum holds over 5,000 artefacts relating to Burns, including manuscripts and memorabilia.

The museum is within walking distance of Old Alloway Kirk and the Brig, locations associated with Burns's famous poem Tam O' Shanter.

On top of the rise near the bridge is the Alloway Burns Monument. Promoted by a group of aristocratic and landowner admirers of Burns, the monument was designed by Thomas Hamilton in a classical style and marries Enlightenment rationality with Romantic sensibility. Completed in 1820, the monument was savaged in 1843 by a visiting Chartist lecturer, who described it as “a cold stone pile”, a “monument to the meanness as well as the pride of the Scottish aristocracy”.


Burns Monument Centre, Kilmarnock

Kilmarnock has many associations with Robert Burns, most notably as the place where his first book of poems, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786 by John Wilson. The Burns Monument Centre was initially opened in 1879, with a statue of Burns as the centrepiece of the building. As at many similar events elsewhere, the inauguration of the memorial and statue attracted Kilmarnock's biggest ever crowd. Damaged by fire, it was re-opened in its current form in 2009. It is now an archive and genealogy hub.


Statue of Robert Burns, Dundee

There are some 16 life-sized or bigger statues of Burns in Scotland (over 50 worldwide), in towns stretching from Aberdeen in the north-east to Dumfries in the south-west. Most of the Scottish statues were designed and unveiled between 1877 and 1896, the golden age of Burns statuary in Scotland, although there were a few more after this date.

The Dundee statue was designed by Sir John Steell, Scotland’s leading sculptor at the time of this commission. It is a copy of the statue Steell had previously been commissioned to design for New York’s Central Park. It portrays Burns in a romantic guise, gazing heavenwards for inspiration. This was somewhat at odds with how Burns was portrayed in the main speech given at the unveiling ceremony. The statue failed to impress the Scots-born American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who expressed his outrage at Steell for depicting Burns “in the form of a hump-backed simpleton”.


Christopher Whatley is professor of Scottish history at the University of Dundee. With Murray Pittock (Glasgow) and Murdo MacDonald (Dundee), he is working on an AHRC-funded project, Inventing Tradition and Securing Memory: Robert Burns 1796-1909.


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