Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022

© Dr Andrew Farquhar

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Robbie Burns’ way

Scotland's bard immortalized the landscapes he loved and gave voice to a national identity along the way

Robert Burns could be all things to all men (and women!) — a crude boor or brilliant raconteur, a male chauvinist pig or a champion of women’s rights, an Ayrshire farmer or an Edinburgh sophisticate. He was, in his words, “a man o’ independent mind,” a revolutionary with a burning passion for human rights. He had no time for the arrogance and privilege of wealth, and repeatedly showed his support for the disadvantaged.

His radicalism did not go unnoticed and he narrowly escaped a charge of sedition. When England and France were at war, he published Scots wha hae (Scots, Who Have), with its lines “Liberty’s in every blow / Let us do — or dee” linking him with the French revolutionaries, one of whose slogans was “let us do or die.” He published this anonymously in 1794. To have done otherwise would have earned him a one-way ticket to the prison colony in Australia!

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland on 25 January 1759. He was the oldest of seven children, all of whom had to help with work on their father’s farm. He suffered chronic ill health and died at 37, probably as a result of rheumatic fever. Burns inherited from his father a lifelong passion for learning. He read not only Scottish poetry, but also the works of English masters such as Pope, Locke, Milton and Shakespeare. He studied Latin and gained fluency in French. No less important than his formal studies was his daily exposure to traditional songs and spooky tales provided by his mother and her cousin. From such a colourful background would emerge his creative brilliance.

Despite his humble origins he was destined to achieve the status of international superstar. Burns, whose legacy far exceeds that of a brilliant poet, has more monuments dedicated to him around the planet than any other artist. It was his down-to-earth humanitarianism that has endeared him to the world.

The Ploughman Poet

Eighteenth-century Edinburgh was Europe’s epicenter for arts, literature and intellectual freedom. As the Age of Enlightenment dawned, Burns’ genius blossomed. In 1786, he published his first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in Kilmarnock and soon brought out a second edition in Edinburgh. Hailed as Scotland’s national bard, the “ploughman poet” rapidly progressed from an item of curiosity to a celebrity.

His polished style, wit, debating skills and depth of knowledge of classical literature, along with his good looks, put him in great demand with the high society ladies of Edinburgh. Following the breakup of an intense but unconsummated affair with one of these ladies, he wrote “Ae Fond Kiss” — a song resonating with the pain of separation and which Sir Walter Scott described as the “the essence of a thousand romances.” “Had we never lov’d sae kindly, Had we never lov’d sae blindly, / Never met — or never parted — We had ne’er been broken hearted.”

Rebuffed, Burns left Edinburgh to take up a lease on Ellisland Farm near Dumfries. There he built a home for his long-time love Jean Armour and their four children. Jean was the only woman he kept coming back to and eventually married. At 29, Burns finally seemed ready to settle down. He wrote “I have dallied long enough with life, Follies past give them to air, Make their consequence your care / To make a happy fireside clime, to weans and wife, that’s the true pathos and sublime, of human life.”

He was now part-time farmer, part-time poet and had also secured a post as part-time excise officer. While at Ellisland he wrote his great masterpiece the poem “Tam O’ Shanter.” After three unproductive years on the farm, he left to work as a full-time excise officer in Dumfries. Despite deteriorating health, he continued to pursue his passion for collecting and rewriting/composing old Scottish songs. This he did so skillfully that, two hundred years later, the songs are still going strong.

He charged little or no fees for any of his songwriting work and had sold the copyright of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, thus giving up on any future profit. A genius with words, he was no genius with money. He ultimately died in debt. On the day of his death, Jean bore him their ninth child, a son. One of Burns’ final comments to her was “I’ll be more thought of a hundred years after this.” How prophetic!

Scottish Casanova

Love was a pervasive theme in Burns’ life. He had countless love affairs and fathered 15 children by five different women. The most prolific period in his “creative” life coincided with one of the most tangled periods in his love life. In a two-year span, Burns had three lovers, fathered four children, attempted to emigrate to Jamaica with one partner while unofficially married to another … and published two volumes of poems … phew! Some have suggested that, like many great artists, he may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Burns called poetry the language of love and in this he was certainly very articulate. His first poem, “O once I lov’d a bonnie lass” was inspired by his first love at the age of 14. Twenty years later, in 1794, he wrote what Bob Dylan has called his “greatest creative inspiration,” “A Red, Red Rose”:
“As fair art thou, my bonny lass, So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my Dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear, And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!
O I will luve thee still, my Dear, While the sands o’ life shall run.”

Nationalist hero

In a poll recently commissioned by Scottish Television, he was voted the Greatest Scot of All Time. Scottish nationalists have taken ownership and portray him as an icon of Scottish independence. “A man’s a man for a’ that,” arguably one of the greatest freedom songs of all time, was sung at the opening of the new Scottish parliament in 2009.

The importance of his work as a saviour/composer of traditional Scottish songs cannot be overstated. “Auld Lang Syne,” sang at midnight the world over, is just one of many such jewels he rescued from oblivion.

On January 25, fans gather around the world to celebrate the Bard’s birthday with a “Burns Supper.” To the accompaniment of wailing bagpipes, a steaming plate of haggis is marched in and, with a recitation of the immortal poem “Address to a Haggis,” ceremoniously eviscerated. Can any other artist claim an international day of celebration established in their honour?

Burns wrote at length about the challenges, joys and despair of his fellow Scots. Their issues were universal human issues, addressed by Burns with such compassion and insight that he has been embraced by humanity like no other poet. He has been celebrated by the Chinese, who practically have adopted him, and by the Russians, who put his face on a stamp. He had a speech given in his honour by a UN Secretary General and had a great fan in Abraham Lincoln. Bob Dylan, along with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley, are a few of the many who have named Burns as having a major influence on their work.

His ability to speak volumes in a few words is legend. Famous phrases include: “Man’s inhumanity to man Makes countless thousands mourn” and “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.”

It may be that no literary artist has had a greater impact on mankind than Robert Burns.

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