Ladies and gentlemen
It is an immense pleasure for me to propose a toast to their mortal memory of memory of Robert Burns.
However, before we get to that point, I have some things to say, and this will be about 10 minutes long.
Robert Burns was a remarkable man, born in poverty and obscurity in 1759 near Ayr. By the time he died only 37 years later in 1796, he had not only sired 12 children by one wife and three other women, but he left a substantial quantity of poems, songs and letters. His contemporaries were great admirers of both the man and his work and despite very little notice of his funeral, and of course no public transport, 10,000 people were in Dumfries to attend his funeral. At the time the population of Dumfries was around 4500 so this was quite remarkable.
Today I would like to talk about some of his contemporaries who although less well known also made their mark in history.
The first is Lachlan Macquarie. Those of you who have been to Australia will recognise his name perhaps from the name Macquarie University in Sydney. Macquarie was born three years after Burns in 1762 and lived until 1825. Although he was born in poverty on the island of Ulva near Mull, he had a distinguished military career and was appointed Governor of the colony of New South Wales and spent ten years in Australia. The National Trust of Australia maintains the Macquarie mausoleum on Mull. There is a plaque inscribed to “The father of Australia”.
My next hero is Sir Thomas Brisbane. Brisbane was born in Largs 14 years after Burns in 1773 and lived until 1860 when he died at the age of 87. Brisbane was not born in poverty. He also had a distinguished military career and was appointed Governor of New South Wales following Macquarie. His name was given to the city of Brisbane in Queensland. When he was Governor, he sent some of his people, mainly Scotsmen, on an expedition to the north of Sydney looking for a site for a new colony. They found a river flowing into the sea, a rarity in Australia, and then a suitable site about 10 miles inland. Today the river is called the Brisbane River and the city Brisbane. Before settling on the name of Brisbane, the people of the expedition considered calling the place Edinglassie, rather like Duneden in New Zealand which is named for Dundee and Edinburgh.
Burns is not remembered as an explorer nor as a soldier nor as a Governor. He is remembered for his literary work. The Nobel Prize for literature was not awarded until 1901. However, had it been invented in the time of Burns could he have been a Laureate? Before attempting to answer the question, here is some information about the prize.
There are 118 laureates representing 44 countries writing in 25 languages. The dominant language is English, followed by French, German, Spanish and Russian. No laureate has worked in a Gaelic language, although prizes have been awarded for work in Yiddish and Provençal. The laureates have been nationals of France followed by the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Ireland has a commendable four laureates. Some 16 of the laureates have been women mostly since 1990. The ten British laureates are Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, Bertrand Russell, TS Eliot, Winston Churchill, William Golding, VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Kazou Ishiguro – none of them from Scotland. Most laureates wrote prose, but TS Eliot is remembered as poet. A Nobel Prize was awarded to Bob Dylan for song lyrics in the year 2016.
So, could Burns have been a Nobel laureate? I think not for several reasons: one was that he died young, another that he was writing in a minority language, another that he wrote mainly poetry and song lyrics, and finally that he was a Scotsman who scarcely left Scotland.
Although many Scottish people have been well known authors, the Scots have been celebrated more for their role in the creation and maintenance of the British Empire, and also the national and international infrastructure such as the railways on all of the continents. The examples of Macquarie and Brisbane are typical of distinguished Scots at the time of Burns.
So which Scottish people have been very distinguished for their literary work? Well, we have two local heroes.
Sir James Murray was a remarkable man. He came from a modest background in Hawick and did not go to university. Nevertheless, he was entrusted with the task of making the Oxford English Dictionary. This was a huge undertaking and he spent over 35 years on the work and completed about 18,000 of the 22,000 pages. It was completed within a few years of his death in 1915 at the age of 78. His work has been well documented by his granddaughter Elisabeth Murray in the book “Caught in the web of words”, and by the writer Simon Winchester in the book “The surgeon of Crowthorne” released as a movie starring Mel Gibson as Murray. The movie was called “The professor and the madman” and is available on Amazon Prime and other media streaming services.
In the 20th century, the author John Buchan was an equally remarkable man. He was born in 1875 into a modest background in Perth and won successive scholarships to Hutcheson’s Grammar in Glasgow, Glasgow University and Brasenose College Oxford where he was awarded first-class honours and many prizes. He then had a distinguished career in the civil service, then a Member of Parliament and finally the Governor General of Canada. His home in England was near Oxford in the village of Elsfield between Oxford and the M40. He was ennobled with the title Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. He died while he was the Governor General of Canada and was given a state funeral, at the time an honour without precedent for a Governor General. Today he is remembered for the “The 39 steps” but he was a very prolific author and wrote some 50 books.
We are here today to remember Robert Burns the Immortal Bard of Scotland.
After I have finished, we will have examples of the works of Robert Burns. Karen Dunbar will recite “Tam o’Shanter”; Dawn Steele will recite “To a mouse”; Sheila Wellington will lead us in singing “A man’s a man”; and Susan Boyle will lead us in “Auld Lang Syne”.
Today I have talked about two of Burns contemporaries, Lachlan Macquarie and Thomas Brisbane both Governors of New South Wales. I then discussed the possibility that Robert Burns may have won a Nobel Prize. Finally, I have talked about other Scots whose work was literary. James Murray created the Oxford English Dictionary and John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir who created “Richard Hanney” and “The 39 steps” and was Governor General of Canada. Like the bard, these people came from a modest background and achieved great things.
Now I would like you to join me in a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.