The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns – 2012
Mr Chairman, Guests, Cronies, the first thing I would like to do is thank the Chairman for his complimentary introductory remarks. Unfortunately, he’s not read out all the praiseworthy comments I sent him, neither has he read out the remarks sent to him by some of my former colleagues; I’m glad of that for what they’ll have written will vary little and tend to suggest I’m nothing but small, copulating and illegitimate.
Nowadays, it’s next to impossible to lay any large or just claim to originality when dealing with the life and works of Robert Burns, or to strike on some facet of the poet’s character that has not previously been the subject of intensive research and scholarly presentation. Tonight, my Immortal Memory may not have song or rhyme, or for that matter hold sway with the purist, but it is my humble attempt at originality.
The date was Saturday 22nd May 1915, the place the port of Leith. The occasion was a gathering of 500 soldiers of the 7th TA Battalion, Royal Scots, who were going to war. Throughout the day, the district thronged with troops, relatives and friends who joined in glorious celebration; legend tells us that when the hostelries of Leith ran dry, the crowds gathered at the bottom of Constitution Street under Burns’ statue where they sang the songs of the Bard.
In the evening, they mustered, and proudly marched to the Caledonian Station in Edinburgh where they boarded the old corridor-less gas lit coaches, while mothers, wives, sisters and fiancées sang “Auld Lang Syne” shedding tears for their loved ones.
In good heart, the troops were in fine fettle as the train trundled along the west bound line, which passes about one mile north of Peggy’s Mill, Balerno, where Burns rested on a journey to the Capital City.
At Carstairs Junction where I was born, the troop train took the sweeping bend to the south and, strangely enough, passed close to Covington Mains Farm where, in 1986, a cairn was erected to mark the fact the Bard had rested there overnight on a journey to Edinburgh.
Steaming south over Beattock Summit, through Dumfriesshire into Annandale, home of the Clan Johnstone, it reached Ecclefechan, a village Burns visited twice, the second time being in 1795 as part of his excise duties. In failing health, he described how he travelled through snow drifts up to ten feet deep to reach the village on that occasion and, in a letter, confided that on arrival, he didn’t know whether to hang himself or get drunk. By the end of the letter, he had decided on the latter. I wonder how many present, will return home in a similar condition tonight to your “sulky, sullen dame”, and in the morning think hanging might be less painful.
Near to Gretna, lay the hamlet of Quintinshill. There, in a primitive ‘but and ben,’ lived a husband, wife and their three children. No light, no inside sanitation and an outside tap. Despite it being the 20th century, were those conditions not more reminiscent of the Bard’s era? The father was a ’lengthman’ on the nearby railway line, whose duties involved walking up to 20 miles a day ensuring the old-style rails were firmly attached to the sleepers.
In the early hours of 23rd May 1915, the lengthman was awakened by a noise that sounded like a horrendous explosion. He quickly rose, and made his way to the railway line, and was thus one of the first men on the scene of what became known as the “Quintinshill Disaster”, a tragedy of terrible proportions that blighted the nation’s war effort. It was later ascertained that two operators in a nearby signal box, in neglect, made a catastrophic mistake which caused a collision between the troop carrier heading south and a goods train travelling north. Many of the sleeping soldiers jumped from the wreckage only to be decimated by the oncoming Glasgow to Carlisle express. In all, 220 troops were killed and a further 246 injured. Both signalmen received terms of imprisonment.
Some weeks after the line reopened, as the lengthman cleared debris from his stretch of the line, he found a battered book; The Poems of Robert Burns; there was nothing in the book to identify the owner. Although not a Burns scholar, he appreciated its value and took it home to the family.
Suffering from similar health problems to Robert Burns, the lengthman died early, and I never got to know him but he was James Johnstone, my grandfather. As a result of his death, his family were forced to move to Kirkpatrick Fleming, but still had space in their home to rescue my maternal great-grandmother from the poor house.
As a young girl, she had been given a Dumfries Centenary pewter medal dated 21st July 1896, which I have desecrated by boring a hole in it for my watch chain. Incidentally, it cost six pence while a silver one would have cost a guinea. She had little schooling but, like the Bard’s mother, kept the family enthralled with folklore tales and the poems of Robert Burns from the book her son-in-law had found. Without boasting, I’m proud to say this resulted in my own aunt Catherine winning the Dr Carruthers prize for ‘Burns Recitation’ at Kirkpatrick Fleming Public School.
My great grandmother was born Mary Currie, but she was by no means the most famous Currie in Kirkpatrick Fleming; that dubious honour must go to a son of the Parish minister. I remember the Church as a cauld and inhospitable place, which reminded me of Burns’ words on his visit to Inveraray “If providence has sent me here t’was surely in an anger.”
I apologise for that somewhat lengthy and personal introduction, but when recently visiting the memorial to the fallen soldiers in Rosebank Cemetery down in Pilrig Street, where most of those killed at Quintinshill were interred, it was thinking of Mary Currie and the disaster that brought me my principal theme tonight.
As said above, Mary shared her surname with that son of the manse, Dr James Currie, the first biographer of Robert Burns, and a man who in one publication, perhaps unwittingly, did more to tarnish the reputation of Robert Burns than any other individual before or after. As you will hear, his effort has since been aptly dubbed as James Currie – the entire stranger, and Robert Burns. But first a little of his background. Currie was born in the Dumfriesshire red sandstone manse which overlooks the River Kirtle, a burn where my grandfather on a Saturday night could apparently catch enough trout to keep the Quintinshill families fed for two or three days. But there again, like my friend Bill Stitt, he was a worm fisher.
Currie’s father was one of a family of nine, and he himself later fathered nine children, so you’ll immediately recognise that those were the years before contraception. Educated in the family home and at Dumfries, like Burns, he was not the healthiest of children. However, at the age of fifteen years, after a two-day horseback journey to Glasgow, he boarded HMS Cochrane and, on 15th July 1771, sailed for the American colonies. A five year stay there was marred by an endemic illness, and his efforts failed to bring the fortune he foresaw. His attempts to return to Scotland were tortuous in the extreme involving capture by Revolutionaries and two sea voyages, one of which was 150 miles long in an open boat.
He eventually made it back and attended Edinburgh University where he studied medicine. He was very fond of drink, and sometimes so forthright in his voiced opinion that he gave offence. Despite this, and further deteriorating health, much of it relating to rheumatic issues (another similarity with the Bard), he graduated and settled in Liverpool, where he worked assiduously at his practice.
With his savings, he returned to Annandale in 1792 where he purchased the estate of Dumcrieff, near Moffat, the principal farm Hunterbeck being occupied by one James Johnstone; no relation. His factor (for he was an absentee landlord) was John Syme, a former university colleague who was acquainted with Robert Burns, and who was responsible for the only meeting between Currie and the Bard in Dumfries in May 1792.
Strangely enough, having been sent a book of his poems, Currie was an admirer of Burns and, in one of his letters, described him as “an original poet with the admirable simplicity of true genius,” further adding “the more I read of Burns, the better I like him.” Sadly, that was to change for the worse although, to be fair, on the death of the poet, Currie raised £73.10s from his friends in Liverpool for the Burns family.
On the last day of August 1796, five weeks after the Poet’s death, John Syme as spokesman for the executors, asked Dr Currie to be Burns’ official biographer. In truth, he was ill-equipped to accept such position but other, perhaps more knowledgeable persons had declined the offer, and Currie only agreed when he heard that a lady, Maria Riddell, the Bard’s long-time literary friend from Friars Carse, had also been approached.
Currie’s stated aim was to prepare an edition that would appeal to the broad general public. In sales he succeeded, but in content he failed. Any defence he may have had, was a desire to raise more money for Burns’ family, but he was hamstrung by the number of Burns’ friends who wouldn’t share their correspondence with the Bard with him. Yet, in criticism, he managed to give the wrong birth date for Robbie in his treatise of four volumes which appeared in 1800, costing £1.11s.6d per copy. Initially, 2000 copies were printed, with seven further editions being later issued. Sadly, the net result of his work was to portray a perpetual image of rural debauchery, with Burns being exhibited as a horrible example and warning to others. He also hinted at venereal disease being secondary to alcohol dependency, as the causes of the Poet’s death.
Before the 8th reprint, Gilbert Burns was given the opportunity by the publishers to supply, (quote) “Some additional further particulars of the author’s life”, but was warned not to say anything which would criticise the work of Dr Currie, so the chance to vindicate his dead brother’s reputation went abegging. Much worse than that, vehement allegations, assumptions, assertions of the quality of the Bard’s work and his personal conduct raged furiously for the next 100 years, and still do ‘til this very day thanks to Dr Currie’s biography.
Over 1000 books have been written on the Life and Works of Burns, but none have ever met the disgust and controversy as that penned by Dr Currie. Two neared it, firstly the biography of Catherine Carswell in the 1930’s. It resulted in a sermon against her in Glasgow Cathedral; hellfire damnation in the Burns Chronicle; two columns of letters for two months in the Daily Record and, long before the days of the Celtic manager, she received a bullet through the post with a note telling her to use it and make the world a cleaner place. The note was signed Holy Willie.
The other book, written by one Alan Bold and published in 1992 entitled “ A Burns Companion – Burns and the Booze” was widely regarded as outrageous. an apparently foreign member of the Burns Cult took extreme exception to the book and served a religious ”Fatwa” on Bold. The letter was postmarked Shotts!
Unfortunately, Currie didn’t live long enough to see the uproarious opprobrium he had caused, for he died with self-diagnosed consumption in Sidmouth in1805.
Let me briefly examine Currie’s hypothesis of the Bard for which he took fantastic liberties to achieve his aim. Firstly, that Burns fathered countless children with many women; untrue, he fathered twelve children of which nine were to Jean Armour. It should be borne in mind that in Burns time, illegitimacy rates were high because contraception was unheard of and illegitimacy in the south and west of Scotland was only equalled by that in the north and east. It was also seen as a rite of passage for the young men of rural Scotland to prove their manhood by seducing girls; I’m told it still is.
Secondly, he contended that Burns was frequently drunk and died through alcoholism; untrue, it has been proven he died of endocarditis and rheumatic fever. Yes, Burns liked a drink, and was occasionally drunk, but show me a member of the CID who doesn’t, and I will show surprise. Remember, this was an age in which teetotalism was virtually unknown. Currie himself only became an abstainer to achieve middle age respectability. Beer was drunk almost everywhere, with every meal, as it was thought purer than water; some say it still is. But the fact is that Burns could not have produced the amount of physical and literary work which he did if besotted by drink.
Thirdly, Currie alleged that Burns was an uneducated, untrained farmer, a mere untamed ploughman poet. Uneducated ! I think not. Burns was far better educated than most as evidenced by his speech, knowledge and writing. Untrained farmer! I think not, perhaps unfortunate with his farms, he an able countryman, having been awarded £3 from the government in 1783 for growing 3 acres of flax in Ayrshire, and was once offered the post of Professor of Agriculture at Edinburgh University. Untamed ? Can anyone one tell me a genius that isn’t so regarded. Ploughman poet perhaps, but a Scot whose work remains unparalleled to this day. When he told Jean Armour that his work would be far better appreciated a hundred years after his death, little did he realise that this prophecy would be so true.
Writing to Mrs Dunlop in Edinburgh on 22nd March 1787, Burns told her “The appellation of a Scots bard, is by far my highest pride. To continue to deserve it, is my exalted ambition.” Burns has easily achieved this ambition, for his works have been carried round the world, literally and physically and I mean that, for in 2009 Nick Patrick, the astronaut, took a book of his works into space travelling 5.7 million miles around the Earth.
Few nations have not heard of the works of Robert Burns; I often wonder how many more of the unfortunate casualties from the Quintinshill Disaster carried with them to war not only their Bible, but also a book of Burns poems.
I would put it to you that the description of a ‘Ploughman Poet’ was a poor epitaph for a genius who became not only our National Bard, but an International celebrity of world-wide fame whose universal renown will readily continue.
The “Edinburgh Evening Courant” of 1816, reported that at a literary Burns Supper attended by Sir Walter Scott and others, it was agreed that “Scotland has long gloried in the fame of her divinest son, Robert Burns.” Without a shadow of doubt, we will continue to do so.
However, I leave you with a sobering thought; are we and the thousands of others who annually celebrate the memory of the Bard wrong, or are the critics, Currie, Carswell, Bold and others who I have not had time to mention, correct? The answer is in your own hands.
And so, Chairman, Guests and Cronies, I would bring my effort at originality to a close, and invite you to stand with glasses charged and drink with me, the time-honoured toast:
“THE IMMORTAL MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS”
James Johnstone MBE
28th January 2012