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Scotland in the Time of Burns
Fora' that and a' that, It's coming yet for a'that. That man to man, the world o're Shall brithers be for a' that
When a new parliament opened in Scotland in 1999, the spirit of one ofits most famous sons was evoked. At the ceremony for the opening of thecountry's first governing body in almost 300 years, the folk singerSheena Wellington led the parliament in a rendition of Burns's "A Man'sa Man for A'that". This gesture brought Burns's song of brotherhood andequality to a new generation.
Reason and Revolt
The message of international fraternity in "A Man's A Man", with itsprophecy of "It's coming yet for a' that", echoes the song of theFrench Revolution, "Ca ira" ("It will come"). Indeed, Burns's song waswritten during in 1793, at the height of French Revolutionary fervour.It remains a political and democratic masterpiece, championing therights of the common man.
However, a rendition of such a revolutionary song in Burns's time wouldhave led to charges of dissent and quite possibly forced emigration tothe penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia. Such was the fate of ThomasMuir, the advocate, "radical martyr", and contemporary of Burns.
Burns lived through an age of revolution. The late 18th centurywitnessed two of the most important international events in modernhistory - the first "liberal" revolutions in America (1775) and France(1789). Burns would also have seen the beginnings of the IndustrialRevolution: a seismic happening which would completely alter the fateof western civilisation.
The new era of mechanised capitalism was being ushered in, consigningfeudal, agrarian Scotland to the dustbin of history. As society changeddrastically, Burns tuned his political and satirical pen into these newcurrents of thought.
Into the Modern Age
In 1750 Scotland remained a rural economy. However, the advances inintellectual thought ignited by the Scottish Enlightenment, twinnedwith revolutionary leaps in science and industry, led to the industrialtransformation of society over the period of a generation.
The myth of the well-educated Burns as the rustic "ploughman poet"indicates how much Burns was a product of his environment, and how hiswork and his image reacted to it. Hence many of Burns's poemscelebrated the small-town and the rural idyll: from "The Cotter'sSaturday Night," to the tinkers and itinerant fiddlers in "The JollyBeggars," to the "The Twa Dugs," where Burns exercised his vitriol onbehalf of the tenant farmer, whose ranks he considered himself amongst.
Mass migration to the city's factories to feed the sweeping tide ofindustry did not occur during Burns's lifetime, but it was imminent,and the Romantic notion of idealising rural communities can be seen asa reaction to this trend.
Fuelling the fire of social change were certain radical tracts, whichhad some considerable influence on Burns. For example, "A Man's a Man"can be seen as the poetic counterpart to ThomasPaine's "The Rights ofMan" (1791). Paine's passionate plea for human rights was writteninreaction to Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France"(1790), a rambling tract criticising the sweeping tide of populardemocracy.
An active radical, Thomas Paine was involved in the fighting in theAmerican Revolution, and his republican tendencies led to him beingcharged with treason in Britain. Paine's books spoke of liberty insimple English, and pointed out the absurdity of the ruling classes.
Freedom, Freemasonry and France
Burns's radicalism wasn't as fierce as that of many of hiscontemporaries. His compatriot, Thomas Muir of Huntershill, forexample, was a professional advocate and fervent champion of the commonman, and, in 1793, he was charged with sedition and was found guilty ofdistributing Paine's "The Rights of Man," which had been banned theprevious year. Muir was deported and sentenced to 14 years in BotanyBay, leaving Scotland, and most especially its more radically-mindedcitizens, in shock.
Burns chose the pen to exercise his misgivings about society, honinghis savage style of satire. To his advantage, during the years ofBritish paranoia and state repression that followed the FrenchRevolution, he was not involved in any secret organisation that theauthorities feared greatly at that time. However, he was a member ofthe Freemasons from 1781, who at that time were under close scrutiny bythe British government due to some sympathies with French revolutionarythinking. Masonic lodges had to declare their loyalties to church andstate to avoid charges of sedition.
To the men of the Enlightenment, the tenets of Freemasonry heralded aworld founded on brotherhood and equality. Scholars, philosophers,gentlemen, farmers and tradesmen comprised the Masons in Scotland, andBurns's Masonic connections enabled him to penetrate importantintellectual circles in Edinburgh.
Despite his celebration of the Radical cause, the violent shift in theFrench Revolution after 1793 led to Burns recanting aspects of hispolitics. As the optimistic revolutionary zeal deteriorated into thebloody Reign of Terror of the Jacobins in the France of the 1790s, thefall into anarchy was regarded by the ruling classes as a valid reasonfor banning popular democracy. In Scotland, a new air of politicalsecrecy followed the bloody turn of events in France.
Romancing the Jacobites
The Scots of Burns's time were acutely aware of the passing of anolder, simpler age; and this was visible for all to see in the tragedythat had passed in the Highlands. Burns and other writers tried to keepJacobite and Highland traditions alive in the national consciousnessvia poetry and song. All round Europe, people were fascinated with thetales of adventure and the characters involved in the 1745 JacobiteRebellion. But Jacobitism was effectively crushed before the wave oflate 18th century sentimentalism took hold, once the government hadensured there was no chance of the rebels returning. The myth ofJacobitism, with its themes of love, loyalty, exile and loss was seenas synonymous with the Highlands, and Burns was a powerful messenger ofthis legend, as can be seen in Jacobite-flavoured songs such as"Charlie, He's My Darling" (about the Young Pretender, Bonny PrinceCharlie) and "Strathallen's Lament".
The Kirk, as ever, was a strong moral force in Scottish society, whichinterfered in every aspect of people's lives. Burns's Ayrshire hadrecord rates of illegitimacy, and the Church's attempts to control andreprimand these earthly urges were largely unsuccessful. Burns's versewas often at its most humorous when engaging with the Kirk and itsministers, particularly those practised in the more extreme forms ofCalvinism. Burns himself was often the object of criticism from thesehell-fire preachers, and such criticisms inspired the poet to respondwith some of his most savagely satirical verses. "Holly Willie'sPrayer" is perhaps the most famous example, but Burns's allegiance tothe common man (warts and all) gave him a love for the bawdy and oftensexually explicit folklore of Scotland, and so even folk tales such as"Tam o' Shanter" can show how the poet's tempers and philosophiesdiffer so markedly from dour Calvinist asceticism.
An Enduring Tradition ofEgalitarianism
Burns's egalitarianism and glorification of the common man led to himbeing championed by radicals and thinkers from many countries from the18th century until to the present day. For many, this poet of thepeople will be forever linked to the socialist ethos. Keir Hardie, oneof the founders of the Independent labour Party, acknowledged Burns ashis spiritual forefather in 1893, and claimed they shared a commonbelief in the dignity of labour.
To this day, "Auld Lang Syne" is a hymn to brotherhood, bringing auniversal dimension to a 17th Century expression. The song is embracednot only at New Year, but at the hundreds of Burns Suppers which takeplace worldwide from Kirriemuir to Kiev. These internationalcelebrations of Burns aren't just held by Scotland's many ex-patcommunities, the states of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countrieshave long held the tradition of hosting Burns Nights.
Finally, legend has it that when the Sparticist revolutionary KarlLiebknecht faced a German firing squad in 1919, his last words werefrom "A Man's a Man". That the words of an over-romanticised farmerpoet and philanderer from Ayrshire should be embraced so far a field,leaving such a lasting legacy, demonstrates the potency and enduranceof his verse.
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