WHY WE REMEMBER RABBIE BURNS – HERALD COLUMN 3RD FEBRUARY 2018
Last Saturday – Burns night – trews, kilts, tartan sashes, a haggis, an ode, two pipers struggling to drink their quaichs. 300 heads nodded wisely as someone sung – “Robin Shure in hairst” – and perhaps 10 heads knew what those words meant. Why were we ritually remembering Rabbie Burns?
After all, the poet would have seemed to his contemporaries not so much ahead of his time, as centuries behind it. He had never seen a city when he first stepped foot in Edinburgh, aged 27 in 1786. The world around him was in motion – Scotland was changing from the poorest country in Europe to almost the richest; everyone was on the move – fifty per cent of the people of Central Scotland would soon be living in places where they had not been born; an ‘epidemic’ of emigration was already driving Scots to America. But Burns had remained resolutely fixed in rural Ayrshire, ploughing his father’s seven acre farm. (He left school at 12). Small farming was, for all his reputation with the ladies, his most enduring and dangerous love. He dressed like a farmer, in rough clothes, and boots, with an unruly mop of dark hair. And he spoke and wrote in an Ayrshire dialect, sprinkled with words which had barely been written down since the sixteenth century, if at all.
He was entering a city which was the Silicon Valley of its day. Edinburgh had the best university on the planet. It was where you went if you wanted to study at the greatest medical school, or work with the men who were reinventing religion, and inventing economics. The celebrities of Edinburgh had left the dark, dangerous, narrow streets of the old town on the castle hill, and had built a utopia out of open fields – square upon square of the very latest, and most opulent architecture, filled with light and air – and called it simply ‘the New Town’. The land for the shops, selling the latest French fashion, went at 120,000 pounds an acre (tens of millions today).
The ‘New Town’ seemed to reject every aspect of Burns: from his old-fashioned provincial dialect, to his rough clothes, medieval verse forms and bawdy humour. Edinburgh’s intellectuals saw themselves as citizens of the modern world. And it was their ideas from their universities, which they expected to define the century ahead. Burns – who cared little for much of this – and retained an embarrassing romantic loyalty to the drunken exiled pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie – reminded them of a past that they liked to forget.
Little wonder that Burns did not stay in Edinburgh, nor take the offer of going to London. And although, his poetry hums with the rhythms that defined the French revolution – ‘a man’s a man’s for a that’– he never visited Paris. Instead, he took his book royalties, and invested them in a few more acres of sour upland soil, which he ploughed with his brother. The Edinburgh professors could have explained in their economic textbooks, and treatises on the agricultural revolution why Burns’ small farm was doomed to failure, and why he was eventually forced to sell and take a job as a minor civil servant in Dumfries. Their medical textbooks might also have predicted that he would die young (with too many children, by too many women) sick and deeply in debt.
And yet, it was Burns’ style – from his simple clothes, the open-necked shirt, and natural hair, to his plain assertion of love – romantic love – which defined the next two centuries. It was his ‘radical’ views on slavery and women’s rights that became the basic assumptions of our age. And it was his simple background, his arrival in town, his informality, his sex, his rough language, his celebrity, and his early death, which made him the earliest image of a Rock Star.
How quickly the tortuous hundred-word sentences of the Edinburgh elite became unreadable. How rapidly, their plum coloured knee-britches, their white silk stockings, and vast buckled shoes, their peacock blue morning coats, and Chinese brocade waistcoats, became out-dated. Within a decade their entire culture seemed the relic of a surreal dream: a dream in which a white powdered whig on a shaven pate, could seem the most attractive way of treating a young man’s head. (When Burns put on a hat he looked like a cowboy).
Burns is not so much a fading echo of Auld Lang Syne, but a warning to every ancient Athens and contemporary Silicon Valley. A warning that just as you have convinced yourself that your concerns – Platonic forms or robotics, rhetoric or AI, your diet, your dress, your companies – will take over the world, you are on the precipice of history. While, the very people you imagine have failed to break free from the past, have in fact defined the future.