The Toast to “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”
Written by Jim Tait
Originally proposed by Jim at the ‘Let it Blaw’ Centenary Supper on Saturday 24th January 1981 then,
following a unanimous demand from the Club Membership,
repeated at the 100th ‘Let it Blaw’ on Saturday 25th January 2003
The flame of youth, has long since gone,
But there’s still a glowing ember,
So let me make it crystal clear,
I am not a founder member!
My age, Well let me tell you this,
The brackets are definitely upper,
So I can only hope and pray,
The picture’s not named the Last Supper!
But let me first apologise,
To some of you I fear,
For my verse may sound familiar,
To the older members here.
For the Supper of 1981,
Was our centenary year,
When I made my first discourse in verse,
And now repeat it here!
Yes our Club has stood the test of time,
The cald win’ and the snaw,
An’ we’ll face another hundred years,
So friends just “Let it Blaw”!
Now I hope my rather ragged rhyme,
Will not cause the purists pain,
For Rab would take my tribute,
I am sure without disdain!
So friends and cronies hear me out,
That’s all I humbly ask,
And I will do the best I can,
With my allotted task.
I want to tell the simple tale,
Of the life of Robert Burns,
Without either fear or favour,
Throughout it’s many turns.
For it is my firm conviction,
That I will now acquaint,
No unrepentant sinner,
Nor was he ever saint!
But always ready to forgive,
Both fellow man and woman,
“Though they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human.”
Now time can only offer,
A brief and fleeting glance,
At the sadness and the pathos,
And the joy of his romance.
But if each glimpse be vivid,
And the right note I can find,
I will leave both man and poet,
Like a song within your mind.
So let Robin tell his own tale,
In sadness or in mirth,
And getting down to basics,
Let’s start off with his birth.
“Our Monarch’s hindmost year but ane,
Was five and twenty days begun,
Twas then a blast o’ Janwar win’,
Blew hansel in on Robin”.
William Burness the father,
The mother Agnes Brown,
A very low and humble birth,
Not far from Alloway town.
Now William Burns the farmer,
As he afterwards was known,
Prepared young Robin’s fertile mind,
And had the seed of learning sown.
For although in poverty extreme,
This mind was not neglected;
Private schooling was arranged,
And John Murdoch was selected.
And Rab and brother Gilbert,
Were both gey quick to learn,
Though even still as children,
They had their corn to earn.
The family then were forced to move,
Mount Oliphant was the farm,
But through this their formal schooling,
Suffered untold harm.
But William was far too strong a man,
To let the matter rest,
So in the evening after toil,
He did his level best.
To teach them mathematics,
Aye! And what was wrong from right,
As Robert aptly demonstrates,
In his “Cotter’s Saturday Night”.
“Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme,
How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed
How He, who bore in heaven the second name
Had not on earth whereon to lay his head. “
But learning was never easy,
And toil the incessant chore,
But to his literary understanding,
He daily added more.
And while still a lad of 15 years
Reaping the harvest fields
To the tempting form of “Handsome Nell”
His poetic pen he wields.
“O once I lov’d a bonie lass,
Ay; and I love her still !,
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.”
Yes! His very first love song,
Inspired by a bonnie lass,
But only just a token,
That he would soon surpass.
With the warm passionate beauty,
That would mature ere long,
To be quoted down the centuries,
“Ae Fond Kiss” – A song.
“Had we never lov’d so kindly,
Had we never lov’d so blindly,
Never met – or never parted –
We had ne’er been broken-hearted. “
Robert now is seventeen,
A braw upstanding lad,
Full of native wit and charm,
Though in his homespun clad.
He is now Kirkoswald based,
Trying out his hand,
At the intracacies of arithmetic,
And the mensuration of land.
But less than two years later,
With who knows what remorse,
His only mensuration is,
The stride behind his horse.
For he has followed father’s footsteps,
To the new farm at Lochlea,
With seven pounds of income,
His total annual fee!
Three further years of sweat and toil,
Slip past as part of life,
Then Robert wants to settle down,
And take himself a wife.
With Ellison Begbie his chosen spouse,
He is deeply now in love;
His flax crop too had prospered,
And all seemed fair above.
Then fate dealt two swift cruel blows;
He was jilted out of hand,
And the shift of her affections,
Was as quick as desert sand!
Then his store of flax at Irvine,
Was gutted out by fire,
So with hope and flax in ruin,
T’was a symbolic funeral pyre!
He returned home in penury,
With plans now cast aside,
And reduced to abject misery,
He thought of suicide.
But his own good sense at last prevails,
And he emerges from the gloom,
Not to seek another partner,
For he needs some elbow room.
To test the taste of pastures new,
And exercise his charms,
To find solace and satisfaction,
In many different arms.
But all was not carousal,
And that I must refute,
For his interest had awakened,
For fiddle and for flute.
And even more important,
Great pleasure he had wrung,
From reading Fergusson’s poems,
Couched in his native tongue.
So his two new passions are combined,
In Scottish verse and song,
And the first of his many masterpieces,
Would be heard ere long.
Songs like the “Rigs o’ Barley”,
And “Mary Morison” forbye,
Truly a classic of its kind
That no one could decry.
“Yestreen, when to the trembling string,
The dance gaed thro the lighted Ha’,
To thee my fancy took its wing,
I sat, but neither heard or saw,
Tho this was fair, and that was braw,
And yon the toast of a’ the town,
I sigh’d and said amang them a’,
‘Ye are na Mary Morison!”
Burns’ twentyfourth year was saddened,
By his father’s financial plight,
Whose fear of a debtor’s prison,
Had engulfed him like a blight.
And to Robert and brother Gilbert,
Fell the melancholy fate,
Of appearing both as creditors,
To his father’s sequestered estate.
So William Burns haunted fears,
Which had seeped to his very core,
Were ended by untimely death,
In February ’84.
But even before the old man died,
Seeking the common weal,
Robert and Gilbert had rented a farm,
Known by the name of Mossgiel.
Here for a moment let me digress,
To mention the Church of the time,
Whose hypocritical bigotry,
Had been satirised in rhyme.
Classics like the “Unco Guid”
And “Holy Willie’s Prayer”
“Death and Dr Hornbook”,
“Twa Dogs” and “Holy Fair”.
Were cited by Kirk and Clergy,
As yet another sign,
That Burns’ moral delinquency,
Exuded line by line!
Yes when Robert used his poetic lash,
He did with consummate flair,
And what better illustration,
Than the end of “The Holy Fair”.
“How moniehearts this day converts,
O sinners and o’ lasses!
Their hearts o stane gin night, are gane,
As saft as onie flesh is;
There’s some are fu’ o love divine;
There’s some are fou o brandy;
An monie jobs that day begin,
May end in houghmagandie-
Some ither day.”
Truly a fruitful period,
At least as far as verse,
But sadly still in farming,
It was the very reverse.
Now some biographers reckon,
Burns was burdened out of hand,
By over fertile women,
And truly barren land!
Mossgiel was no exception,
For ‘though they toiled all day,
They sim-ply got no recompense;
The land would not repay.
But true to the Burns’ tradition,
When all was far from well,
He contracted a Scottish marriage,
With Jean Armour, the Mauchline belle.
But James Armour, her father,
Was a cut above mortal men,
And rumour of Rab’s reputation,
Raised a tide that Jean couldn’t stem.
James would not sanction the marriage,
Even when Jean had said,
In tears, there was tangible evidence,
In her womb that they were wed.
Robert now depressed and disgusted,
Decided to go abroad,
To take a job in Jamaica,
And quit his native sod.
But money again was the drawback,
He couldn’t raise the fare,
And so to Gavin Hamilton,
He turned in despair.
From him came the boost to his ego,
Providing the spur he was lacking,
To publish a book of his poems,
Assured by financial backing.
The result was the Kilmarnock edition,
Now famous from land to land,
But then the total profit,
Was just £20 in his hand!
A miserable return for his efforts,
But sufficient to turn the tide,
And persuade him to stay in Scotland,
And regain his native pride.
Jean Armour was now back from Paisley,
Where her twin children were born,
So Robert again sought James Armour,
But was turned from the door in scorn!
So he hardened his heart to the Armours,
And declared himself a free man,
And it was then his renewed acquaintance,
With Mary Campbell began.
Their friendship quickly blossomed,
Till one Sunday, they say,
They plighted their troth with Bibles,
On a bank with the flowers of May.
Mary then set off for Greenock,
Where she thought she could better prepare,
The plans for her forthcoming marriage,
Which she started to study with care.
But there she contracted an illness;
A fever sudden and severe,
And she died all alone in Greenock,
Before even Burns could hear!
Burns was bereft and despondent,
And wanted away from it all,
And had purchased his fare for Jamaica,
When he got a most flattering call.
From Dr Blacklock the blind poet,
Urging him not to delay,
But to come to the capital city,
And meet all the men of the day.
From this he plucked up courage,
To abandon his grief and remorse,
And he set off for Edinburgh City,
On the back of a borrowed horse!
Inside two short and crowded weeks,
Sprung from his poetic corm,
There flowered this man of letters;
He took all Edinburgh by storm!
He was hailed as a man of great genius,
By writers and poets of the day,
But he captured the social strata,
In quite a different way!
His new book appeared in April,
And was as you might guess,
From end to end of Scotland,
A complete and immediate success!
He then took his way off to the Borders,
For a wide and leisurely tour,
And returned to Mossgiel in triumph,
With hopes of a future secure.
No longer the penniless ploughman,
The Armour battle was won!
For the Mauchline mason was now anxious,
To have Burns, in law, as his son.
Burns was not impressed by the change,
That was now quite plain to be seen,
So he set off for a tour of the Highlands,
Instead of marrying his Jean.
But when he returned, however,
In March 1788
He married his bonnie Jean Armour,
And legally sealed his fate.
Now here in fairness let me affirm,
That neither regretted that day,
For their mutual love and affection,
Was never ever driven away.
Burns then moved to Ellisland,
And while there building his house,
He wrote a beautiful love song
In honour of Jean his spouse.
“Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west
For there the bonie lassie lives
The lassie I lo’e best.”
But Ellisland too was barren,
The riddlings of creation he said,
And he needed some other income,
For the family had to be fed.
So he took on a job as Exciseman,
But he hadn’t his troubles to seek,
For, on horse, in all kinds of weather,
He rode 200 miles every week!
But he made up his songs as he cantered,
In rain or in hail or in shine,
Songs that are still sung daily
Like “Afton Water” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
One night in melancholy mood,
Gazing at the evening skies,
He recalled the death of his Mary,
And blinked the tears from his eyes.
And when at length he came inside,
He requested paper and ink,
And composed “To Mary in Heaven”
With the morning star as the link.
“Thou ling’ring star, with less’ning ray,
That lov’st to greet the early morn,
Again thou usher’st in the day,
My Mary from my soul was torn.”
By contrast complete the very next year,
In the course of one short day,
He composed his Tam o’ Shanter,
And this is what Jean had to say.
Oh! I wish ye could have seen him
Arms waving as he went
Rhyming aff the couplets
As if already kent!
“Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans
A’ plump and strapping in their teens! “
And doon would come the waving arms,
Striking stour frae his breeks,
An’ sic was his ecstacy,
Tears were happin’ doon his cheeks!”
No wonder he was ecstatic!
He had written an epic unique,
That will never cease to entertain,
When droothy neighbours meet!
Next year in 1791,
Burns moved to Dumfries,
Where as a full-time Exciseman,
His work was on the increase.
But the long hard toil, it took its toll,-
And in 1795,
He suffered a severe setback,
And although he did survive.
His weakness brought on an obsession,
Of being imprisoned for debt,
So he wrote two pathetic letters,
Seeking what help he could get.
It really is heartrending,
To think how sore he was tried,
Yet the £10 cheque from his cousin,
Was still uncashed when he died!
On July 18th he returned to Dumfries,
A man now seriously ill,
Whose footsteps were so faltering,
He had to be helped up the hill.
To his home where lay Jean Armour,
Now confined to bed,
In an advanced state of pregnancy,
Her seventh since they were wed.
So it was faithful Jessie Lewars,
Who nursed him to the last,
So it is indeed ironic,
That she sheltered him from the blast!
On the 21st of July he died,
And all Scotland mourned his passing,
And thousands of his fellow men,
Were quietly amassing.
To pay their respects to Robert,
Now free from toil and strife,
So in death he was not neglected,
The way he was often in life.
Two regiments of horse and foot,
Quietly guarded the flank,
And the soft sad sound of muffled drums,
Fell upon rank after rank.
But sadder still it is to tell,
That as ashes and dust became one,
His griefstricken wife Jean Armour,
Gave birth to his posthumous son.
It is now 244 years,
Since Robert Burns was born,
And still we seem no nearer,
To the dawn of his new morn.
But may I in conclusion,
Sincerely echo his prayer,
In hope if not in knowledge,
That someday it will be there.
” Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that),
That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree and a’ that,
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world, o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
Gentlemen, I give you “THE IMMORTAL MEMORY of ROBERT BURNS“
James W. Tait
25 January 2003
Our thanks to Phyllis Tait, Jim’s wife, for her permission to include the Text of Jim’s Toast on our website.
Thanks also to Val Drysdale for transcribing Jim’s notes to a format ready for the website, and the final proofreading.