” Willie “
Born 7th December 1905 at Muiravonside, near Linlithgow
Died 14th August 1995 in Livingston, aged 89
Honorary Member of ‘Let it Blaw’
British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 1991 New Year Honours for services to the Balerno Burns Club
Certificate of Long Service within the Burns Federation in 1974
Proposer of the Toast “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns 1963, 1973
Proposer of the Toast “The Lasses” 1971
Proposer of the Toast “Let it Blaw – the Balerno Burns Club” 1980
Reply to the Toast “The Lasses” 1984
Recited the Address “To a Haggis” 1993
William Rennie Shanks was born on 7th December 1905 at Gillandersland Farm, Muiravonside near Linlithgow, son of George Shanks and Alison Rennie. At least three generations of the family before Willie farmed land in the Muiravonside Parish, so its perhaps not surprising that he followed them into working the land. However, at a very young age his family moved north across the Forth to a farm close to Burleigh Castle near Milnathort. At the age of six Willie was thrown from a horse and suffered a dislocated hip which went undiagnosed. He stoically endured the effects of this injury throughout his childhood and long hard working life, and those of us who knew him in later life in Balerno, will always remember the disablement which he never allowed to beat him; indeed it’s provided some humour over the years. When Willie stayed at Currievale, Jack McCaig Snr. was born in the house next door. Many years later Willie told Jack he had bounced him on his knee when he was only hours old to be hit with the response that it “probably explained why he had been limping about Jack’s whole life.”
Not long after moving to Fife, the family were on the move again, this time to a farm near Doonfoot, Ayrshire, where Willie attended Alloway Primary School. This was where he first heard the axioms of Robert Burns.
In 1920 his large family were retained by Balleny Farm in Balerno Parish where Willie was employed as a ploughman, dairyman, shepherd or carter; whatever was required on any given day. He readily identified himself with the Bard’s own rural hardships, became fluent in reciting many of Burns’ works, and was inspired to compose his own poems.
By 1932 Willie was still staying in the family home which, by that time, had moved to Currievale. The record of the Annual General Meeting of ‘Let it Blaw’ on 19th December 1932 reported that “William Shanks – Currievale” had been proposed for membership, and subsequent reports show he attended the Suppers immediately thereafter, reciting “To a Mouse” at the 1933 Supper.
By March 1935, Willie had moved to The Bower, Balerno, when he married Jess, daughter of the then Secretary of ‘Let it Blaw’, James (Dairgie) Orr. The wedding service was conducted by the Rev. David Stewart, Minister of Currie Parish Church, long time Chaplain and active member of ‘Let it Blaw.’ They had five children during their time in Balerno; George, Davy, Billy, Alison and Jenny.
The record of ‘Let it Blaw’ activities between 1939 and 1960 is very sparse, but Willie’s reports in later years pointed to him having knowledge of the Club ticking over during that period; a remark in a 1980 report pointing to Club stalwarts supporting a Burns Competition at the village school in the mid 1940s for example, even though it’s been the belief until recently that the Club ceased to operate during the war years and immediately thereafter.
In 1963, Willie proposed the “Immortal Memory of Robert Burns” at the Club’s annual Supper and, in 1965 he was appointed Club Bard, a position he held for 31 years until his death in 1995. In late 1972 the Club Membership had dwindled to the point of extinction with little or no effort being made by what was left of the Committee to reverse the decline. It came to a head when the then Secretary was ejected from a meeting never to be seen again following which Willie, single handedly, took on the Secretarial duties and began the job of resurrecting ‘Let it Blaw’ to the healthy Club we know today. That was the occasion the departing Secretary made the Burnsian howler by saying “Willie Shanks, what does he know about being a secretary; he’s just a bloody ploughman.” In addition to continuing the duties of Club Bard, Willie held the position of Secretary for 16 years and Treasurer for 12 years.
As a reward for his dedication, Willie was recognised by Her Majesty the Queen for his services to ‘Let it Blaw’, and awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 1991 New Year’s Honours List. Willie was presented with his medal at a ceremony at Edinburgh City Chambers on 2nd April 1991.
It would be remiss not to mention Willie’s enthusiastic support of all village events in Balerno. He was instrumental in founding the Balerno Children’s Gala which he helped to organise every year, and was a keen supporter of everything relating to Balerno Parish Church. His service to the Community led to him receiving the Lothian Award in 1979, and the Forth Bridge Meritorious Award in 1990, Such was the esteem in which he was held, a Memorial Stone was laid at the side of Hanover Court in the Village; a location those of us who knew Willie, can well remember him hirpling past most days in life.
Willie continued the work of Fred Belford with his passionate interest in the annual Burns Competitions not only at Dean Park School in the village, but throughout the Edinburgh area and also nationally. In retirement, he assisted the teachers at Dean Park by tutoring prime pupils in preparation for the Burns Recitation competitions with gratifying results. His dedication to promoting Burns within schools was awarded when, on 7th December 1994, he was presented with a Certificate of Long Service by the Burns Federation at a moving gathering in Haig Memorial House.
Willie died the following year on 14th August 1995. A huge turnout from ‘Let it Blaw’, the Marchbank Burns Club, the Balerno Children’s Gala and Balerno Parish Church came together to say their farewells at his funeral.
Details of Willie’s family and early life are extracted from the Obituary written by ‘Let it Blaw’ member Gordon Grant, and published in ‘Burns Chronicle’ in 1995.
Our sincere thanks to Willie’s son George, daughters Alison and Jenny, and Grand-daughter Kim Johnson (nee Shanks) for supplying additional family information, and the photographs shown above relating to Willie’s presentation of the British Empire Medal.
Club Members are invited to submit additional text or photos for this tribute.