Immortal Memory

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a privilege for me to be here tonight to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. I think that this is the 16th Burns Supper of OSGUG and as far as I know, no-one has ever done this task for a second time before tonight. So, I will do my best to both entertain you and to do justice to the Bard.

You’ll note that I am not wearing a kilt, even though Burns himself used to wear a kilt from time to time. There are several good reasons for not wearing a kilt. One is that I do not have a kilt, and the other one is a bit more complicated.

My sister and brother-in-law, Robert, live in Houston, Texas. Robert comes from Ayr and has taken an interest in Robert Burns since he has been in the USA. For the last two years, he has been the chieftain of the Robert Burns North American Association and so he gets a lot of invitations to propose the Immortal Memory. He has a splendid kilt and all the trimmings, and he wears this on these occasions. He has noticed that invariably he has a headache the day following. He thinks that the headache has something to do with the kilt. So, to avoid a headache tomorrow, I am not wearing a kilt tonight. [1]

When I was preparing my talk for this evening, I used my old friend Google to help me with the details. Tomorrow, I shall put the text of this talk on the Society’s web site, with links to related information. If any of you would like to add some photographs of tonight to the web site, then send me an email.

It is traditional when proposing the Immortal Memory, to talk about Burns, his poetry, his music, his times, his loves, his humanity. However, I have chosen to talk tonight about Burns as we see him to-day. In short, I am going to discuss “Burns the Brand”.

In 1999, The Scottish Parliament met for the first time. It was a turning point in the history of Scotland. During the proceedings, the singer, Sheena Wellington sang “A man’s a man for a’ that”, one of the most popular of the songs of the Bard. If Scotland ever has a national anthem, a song by the Bard is the likely choice. [2-3]

The image of Burns is ubiquitous in Scotland. The portrait of Burns by Naismith was used on the old Clydesdale Bank £5, and it is on the new slippery £10 note. There are some five million of these notes in circulation at any time, so there is a picture of Burns is in the pockets of most adults in Scotland. This image is featured on the menus this evening, and it is on our web site pages. [4]

The homeland of Robert Burns was Ayrshire. Many of us come from Ayrshire. Things have changed a lot in Ayrshire since I was a boy. Many of the major employers have gone. For example: the steel works in Glengarnock – gone; the coal mines in the east of the county – gone; the shipyard in Troon – gone; the dynamite factory in Ardeer – gone. The people have had to adapt and change, and tourism, which is now the world’s biggest industry, is on the rise. So, what do we have: in Irvine, a Burns Centre; in Kilmarnock, a Burns Centre; in Alloway, a major new Burns Birthplace Museum built with funds from the National Lottery, the Scottish Government and others, and operated by the National Trust for Scotland. [5-9]

Looking further afield, the Scottish Government decided to have a project in 2009 to promote Scottish tourism among the Scottish diaspora, generally, but especially in North America. I remember that both my brother and sister who live in the USA, made visits to Scotland to support the old country. In designing the marketing materials for this project, they considered various ideas, such as featuring things which are iconic for Scotland, so things like grouse shooting, highland games, Nessie – the Loch Ness monster, the oil business, Bonnie Prince Charley, even Sean Connery and Billy Connelly. However, they chose Robert Burns.

How did all of this happen? It is not obvious that a modest man who died at the early age of 37 in Dumfries should have become the personification of Scotland 200 years later. Well, during the 19th century, as the wealth of the nations increased with the industrial revolution, for the first time, ordinary people could afford to buy consumer goods. The great pottery brands were created and they wanted to feature imagery which would enhance their goods. One of the images which found favour was the Naismith portrait of Burns. Today, if you go to the gift shop at the Burns Heritage Centre in Alloway, you can buy lots of goods featuring this image.

So, what do you think Burns would have made of all of this. Well, I think he would be very surprised, flattered and amused. He did not think much of people who had airs and graces. For example, this is what he has to say about the nobility, rendered in contemporary English:

You see yonder fellow called ‘a lord,’
He struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a fool for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribbon, star, and all that,
A man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

One of the remarkable by-products of this interest in Burns, must be the Burns Supper. My wife and I live near Lambourn on the Berkshire Downs about 15 miles from here. It is a very rural area, and the main business is breeding race horses. At this time of year, several of the village halls have Burns Suppers. I think that the theme of the rustic poet who worked with animals resonates. However, I doubt that there were Burns Suppers 40 years ago. Burns address to the haggis is an important part of the ritual of the Burns Supper. Here are some of the word rendered into contemporary English[10]:

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Kidneys, tripe, and giblets warm,
You’re well worth a grace
As long as my arm.


You Powers who look after mankind,
And dish out his bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff
That splashes about in little wooden bowls!
But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!

Do you think it is possible that one day there will be a Burns Restaurant in every high street, a bit like the Indian Restaurants of today? I doubt it, but who would have thought in 1945, around the time of the birth of most of us, that before we were 40, we would be going out for a curry, and ordering chapattis, pakora, tandoori, aloo gobi and the like.

So, what can we conclude from all of this?

  • Burns is very popular and his popularity is increasing;
  • Tourism is now the world’s largest industry and Burns is a key part of Scottish tourism;
  • If you are going to Scotland on holiday, you may wish to visit the new Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway;
  • If you want to avoid a headache following a Burns Supper, leave your kilt at home!

Finally, I would like to you be upstanding and join me in a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

[1] Robert Burns Association of North America

[2] Opening of the Scottish Parliament

[3] A man’s a man for a that

[4] Clydesdale bank notes

[5] Steel works at Glengarnock

[6] ICI Explosives Factory in Ardeer

[7] Ship building in Troon

[8] Coalmining in Ayrshire

[9] Burns Birthplace museum

[10] Address to the haggis

Alistair Mills

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Immortal Memory

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!

It is really a privilege to talk to you this evening on the subject of Robert Burns. About 15 years ago, I gave a Toast to the Lassies at our Burns Supper, and last year I gave a very short, but very sincere Toast to the Lassies. Afterwards, at least two people congratulated me on my brevity. I assure you that I am going to be less brief this evening, but I hope you will find what I have to say interesting. I am getting to the time in life, when I can reflect on things – things experienced, things learned. So tonight, I am going to take you through a chronology of my experience with Burns over the last fifty or so years.

Robert Burns died at the age of 37 in 1796. He was born in 1759. I was born in 1951, so I can just remember the celebrations of the bi-centenary of his birth, and more recently the celebrations of the bi-centenary of his death in 1996.  It makes you think on the brevity of life in Burns’ time, but also what he achieved in such a short time. In this Society, we had a dinner and talk given by Susan Manning. Susan had written a chapter for an academic book on Burns to mark the bi-centenary. Her topic was “Burns and God”. I especially remember her saying that she had not chosen the topic; it had been set by the editor of the monograph; it would have been much simpler had the topic been “Burns and the Church”. Burns had much more to say about the latter topic. About five years after Burns died, some of his friends had the idea of holding a supper to celebrate his life and to ensure that the memory of Burns would be “immortal”. Within 10 years of his death there was a network of Burns Clubs from Ayr to Greenock, and the tradition of the Burns Supper on his birthday had been established.

By the way, when I was preparing this talk for tonight I discovered that Susan died last year at the age of 60. When she came to talk to us, she was a professor at Chapel Hill in North Carolina. Later she was a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Her colleagues are creating a scholarship fund in my memory.

As a boy growing up in Ayrshire I was very aware of the legacy of Robert Burns – the schools for example have special Burns poetry prizes and the like. I was not sure if Burns was just a local lad or if he merited the accolades such as “the greatest poet in history”. However I learned some of his poetry by heart in primary school, such as “To a mouse”, then read some of the more serious poems such as “The Twa Dogs” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” in secondary school at Ardrossan Academy. Around the same time, we read Oliver Goldsmith’s, “The Deserted Village”. Now I am quite sure that there are many in the audience, who know much more about the works of these two writers than I do, after all I am a product of the Engineering Faculty on Gilmore Hill rather than the Arts Faculty. However, it appeared to me that the ideas expressed in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” and in “The Deserted Village” were similar, and since the works of Goldsmith and the English Augustan poets such as Alexander Pope are remembered, but not revered, perhaps the reputation of Burns outside Ayrshire, was not so great. However, in order to pass my Higher English, I kept such thoughts to myself, avoided questions on Burns in the examination, and I succeeded in getting the necessary pass to enter Glasgow University.

A very formative part of my education at Ardrossan Academy was playing the trombone in the school orchestra. I did not so much play the trombone, as tried to avoid making rude noises with a trombone while others who were much more skilled with a violin than was I with my trombone, played the melodies to such master pieces as Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. It was a real ear-opener to me to participate in such music; we did not have a record player at home, and my experience of music was limited to trying to play a piano, and what I heard in church. However, Ardrossan Academy initiated a life-long interest in serious music, and I shall return to this later, as Burns is often remembered not just for the songs which he wrote, but for the songs which others wrote, based on his poetry.

So moving on from Glasgow University, I got a job in the James Cook University of North Queensland and went off to six sun/fun filled years in Australia. I was rather surprised to find that the Australians admired Burns, and that there was a statue to Burns in Canberra, close to where my brother lives. Incidently, there are four statues of Burns in Victoria, two in New South Wales, and one in each of Queensland and South Australia. By contrast, there is only one in England and that is in the Embankment Gardens between the Savoy Hotel and the Thames in London. It could be added that these statues were often sponsored and installed by Scots, men and women who had emigrated to these places. For example, In Houston, Texas there is a statue to Burns in Hermann park. I must admit that my brother in law Robert Boyd had a lot to do with raising the money for the statue. A couple of years ago, I went to Georgia to spend a weekend with an American friend whom I first met working in France, and we went to see the Burns Cottage in Atlanta.

Now, I would like to consider how the memory of Burns compares with the musicians of his time. An obvious comparison in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was born almost three years to the day before Burns’ birthday, and died four years before him. There is no record of Mozart and Burns meeting, however the themes explored by Mozart in several of his operas, “Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tuti” resonate with the themes found in the writings of Burns.

Other composers who merit comparison include Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. Robert Schumann was a great musician, and composed a lot of music, including four symphonies and many smaller scale works. He is especially remembered for his songs, and he took inspiration from the poets of his time, including Robert Burns. At the University of Glasgow, there is now the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. In 2013, the Chancellor’s Fund supported a project where the Chapel Choir worked with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies to record many of the derivative choral works which have been written over the years, including Schumann’s “Funf Lieder”, based on the poems of Robert Burns. This Society and several of our members are major contributors to the Chancellor’s fund, so we are all playing a part in keeping the memory of the works of both Burns and Schumann alive.

The two striking things that Mozart, Burns, Schubert and Schumann have in common is that they all left a substantial body of work and that they all died in their thirties. Life was short then. Anyone who has been to see the stage play or the movie of Les Miserables will know what I mean. People were deported to the penal colonies in French Guyana or Australia for stealing bread.

In more recent time, many artistic people have paid homage to the work of Burns. Ken McClements talked eloquently here about 15 years ago, on “The Scots as ithers see us”, and mentioned that the title of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is derived from “To a mouse”. Which reminds me of tonight’s quiz. Question one; I am sure you all got the correct answer, was “To a mouse” and there was even a photograph of the book “Of mice and men” in the clue!

There is no doubt that today, the memory of Robert Burns is strong. OSGUG has no difficulty in getting 40 of us to turn out on a cold winter’s evening for a Burns Supper. However, was it always so? It may seem surprising to us today, that Shakespeare was largely forgotten in 1800, and his reputation was restored due to the scholarship of academics such as Professor Andrew Bradley of Glasgow University during the nineteenth century. Well, time moves on and the technology changes. John and I are proud to have played a part in the evolution of the technology which has brought us the Internet. We worked together at CERN in building 31, where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. In assessing the evolution of people’s reputation we can now monitor it over time, using our powerful friend called Google. Google has been working with some of the world’s largest libraries, including the Bodlean in Oxford to digitise a large number of books and has generated a data base of the citings of authors over time. I am not going to go into the details of this research; however, if some of you want more detail, you can find links to this on Google has created a tool called the Ngram and you can enter names of people and it will search its database and display a chart of the citation index over time. This is an indicator of reputation over time. I have a chart comparing Burns to Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and Oliver Goldsmith, and it shows that the reputation of Burns was greater than that of Shakespeare for most of the 19th Century; although he is not top of the pops in the twentieth century, his reputation remains high. I have done a comparison of Burns to Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, and his reputation has always exceed that of any of them.

Paper about this:

Ngram of Burns, Shakespeare, Bronte and Goldsmith:
Ngram of Burns, Shakespeare, Bronte and Goldsmith

Ngram of Burns, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert:
Ngram of Burns, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert

Make your own ngrams:

Finally, I am delighted to propose a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.


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