The Immortal Memory
An abridged version of Archie McNicol's novel presentation at the Clan Ross - MB Burns Dinner, comparing Burns with The Beatles. Clan Ross - Canada thanks Archie for his permission to reprint it here.
Is it appropriate for a McNicol to speak at a Clan Ross Burns Supper? Well, our Clans have no serious long-standing disputes. We were both large Highland Clans and in fact we were neighbours. However, unlike the Great Clan Ross which has achieved that great 21st Century symbol of its own Webpage, the McNicols have not faired quite so well. In fact, and I quote, "of the ancient races . . . dignified with the title of Great Clans, only one, the MacNicols may be said to have fallen entirely to pieces in the course of time."
This particular McNicol, who when he looks in the mirror feels as though he is also falling to pieces over time, was in fact formally introduced to the works of Robert Burns by a Ross - at the age of 11 my teacher was Mrs Cameron or, prior to her marriage, Miss Helen Ross. Unlike my subsequent introduction to the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and even Scott, where great chunks of their writing were dissected and analysed for their deeper meaning leaving me cold to these classics even to this day, Mrs. Cameron read and, more importantly, explained Burns to us.
One of the challenges with delivering an Immortal Memory is to be novel, however when thinking about this problem it struck me that, in fact, everything is cyclical and this holds as true for the creative/artistic endeavours as any other sphere of life. Let me explain.
In the mid-late 18th Century a fresh faced young poet burst onto the scene and took the country by storm. He came out of an unfashionable provincial town, went to the cultural hub and indeed he went on tour across the country. He was proclaimed as Scotia's bard and there were offers to go further afield to further his career. His style of writing wasn't new. Ramsay had been there before, but there was something about this young poet that struck a chord and that everyone liked. Tragically his career was cut short by a premature death.
Two centuries later, in the mid-late 20th Century four fresh faced young singer/songwriters burst onto the scene and took the country by storm. They came out of an unfashionable provincial city, went to the cultural hub and indeed they went on tour across the country. They were proclaimed as the Fab Four and there were offers to go further afield to further their careers. Their style of music wasn't new. Berry and Dylan had been there before, but there was something about these young musicians that struck a chord and that everyone liked. Tragically their collaborative career was cut short for several reasons.
I'm a self-confessed admirer of both Robert Burns and The Beatles. While I'd never for a moment suggest that Lennon and McCartney could match the literary ability of Burns, the similarities both in the writings and in the sentiments portrayed are striking. I quote:
"Born a poor young country boy, Mother Nature's son,
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone
Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son,
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun"
I suspect that Lennon and McCartney did not have Robert Burns in mind when they wrote "Mother Nature's Son", but how more apt could these words be?
Lennon and McCartney were no country boys - I've seen their houses in Liverpool and they are as rural as River Heights. Burns was a country boy, a farmer firstly at Mossgiel with his brother and then at Ellisland on his own. Rural Ayrshire was undergoing significant changes at this time - particularly with regard to agricultural life. There were dramatic advances in drainage, diversification in, and improved management of, crops and in animal husbandry. Smout, in his History of the Scottish People, suggests that the Scots farmers improved so much during this period that " . . . the farming system in many parts of Scotland became the envy of Europe."
In contrast, as a farmer Burns was the envy of no-one - the reasons were numerous - the lack of ideal land, failing health, extended trips to Edinburgh, plus Jean Armour, Mary Campbell, Tibbie Stein, Ellison Begbie, Mary Morrison, Annie Rankin, Deborah Davies, Nannie Fleming and of course Clarinda McLehose (amongst others), and the resulting army of children, all negatively impacted on his ability as a farmer (Burns embodied the saying that there are two things a Scot likes naked - one of which is single malt and the other is . . . . .)
Burns' lack of success as a farmer was also due in part to his voracious literary output, and it included some memorable pieces related to life on the farm such as "To a Mouse", "My Father was a Farmer", "The Ploughman" and "The Shepherd's Wife". However if you were to read one then read "The Cotter's Saturday Night". Quite simply it is a wonderful description of the homelife of a hired farm hand in the mid-late 18th Century. This was life in a stone walled, earth floored, timber roofed, thatched cottage. Life was hard but Burns suggests that such hard toil has its own sense of satisfaction:
"The lowly train in life's sequester'd scene;
The native feelings strong, the guileless ways;
What Aiken in a cottage would have been;
Ah! Tho his worth unknown, far happier there I ween!"
He also describes the sense of family closeness and happiness, and their social interaction, even in these harsh circumstances:
"But now the supper crowns their simple board,
The healsome parritch, chief o' Scotia's food;
The soupe their only hawkie does afford,
That 'yont the hallan snugly chows her cood;
The dame brings forth, in complimental mood."
Thus describing the fare - the milk from their hawkie, or cow, from 'yont the hallan or quite literally through the wall and the porridge from the two pecks of oatmeal which, paid in kind, formed the major part of the weekly wage. Oatmeal was the staple diet. It reminds me of the Englishman who remarked that in Scotland men eat oats but in England they feed it to their horses. The rapid response was "That's why English horses and Scottish men are the finest in the world". I believe that that Burns was describing for posterity and, importantly, celebrating his fellow farmer - it is impossible not to feel a sense of empathy with and respect for the Cotter. As both a historical record and an artistic work "The Cotter's Saturday Night" has, as Peter Esselmont suggests, no rival in Scottish literature.
"What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song and I'll try not to sing out of key.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends."
Lennon and McCartney wrote this in 1967 for their Sgt. Pepper's Album, which remains probably the finest pop album ever recorded. This, in my opinion, is their celebration of friendship. This is a theme which mirrors one of Burns'. His descriptions of convivial gatherings are legendary - they are vivid and lifelike. The classic of course is in "Tam 0' Shanter"
"Fast by an ingle, bleezing, finely,
Wi' reaming swats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony:
Tam lo'ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither."
This last line "They had been fou for weeks thegither" and Lennon and McCartney's "Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends." are particularly noteworthy. In Burns' case we are talking about whisky. He wrote:
"Let other poets raise a fracas 'bout vines, an' wines, an' drucken Bacchus,
An' crabbit names an' stories wrack us, An' grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us, In glass or jug."
I love the quote that "Burns has been held up as a worshipper of Bacchus, the god of drinking, and has been glorified as the patron Saint of Public Houses". However Burns friendships went far beyond drinking buddies, he wrote some fine, and I think heartfelt, pieces about his friendships, for example in his "Epistle to Davie" he wrote
"Fate still had blessed me with a friend, In every care and ill,"
Or in his "Epitaph for Gavin Hamilton"
"with such as he - where 'er he be, May I be saved or damned"
Or in "To William Simpson"
"Count on a friend in faith an' practice in Robert Burns"
Burns and The Beatles shared that great joy in life of friendship and both were legendary for their excesses where drink was concerned. The similarity, however, ceases with Lennon and McCartney's experiments which led to:
"Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes"
from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or abbreviated to LSD.
Now let's move on,
"Let me tell you how it will be. There's one for you nineteen for me.
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman.
Should five per cent appear too small, be thankful I don't take it all
'Cause I'm the taxman, yeah I'm the taxman."
This song was written by Harrison and Lennon, and was a scathing indictment of the British taxation system. This however was not new. Some two centuries earlier Robert Burns wrote a couple of pieces of sheer genius which not only decried taxation but, somewhat humorously, suggested a fate for tax collectors.
Firstly, in "To Collector Mitchell" he wrote:
"Friend of the poet tried and leal,
Who wanting thee might beg or steal;
Alake, alake, the meikle Deil wi' a' his witches
Are at it, skelpin jig an' reel in my poor pouches!"
Then, of course we have
"We'll mak our mout, and we'll brew our drink,
We'll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man,
And mony braw thanks to the meikie black deil,
That danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman."
Of course, the exquisite irony in all of this is in the Beatles famous last line "Cause I'm the taxman" - Burns, following failure in farming, undertook the role as an Exciseman - poacher turned keeper.
The mid-late 18th and 20th Centuries were both periods of terrific social upheaval and political unrest. In their day Lennon and McCartney captured this with a couple of pieces:
"You say you want a revolution.. Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution. Well, you know
We all want to change the world."
And its sister piece:
"I'm back in the U.S.S.R.
You don't know how lucky you are boy
Back in the U.S.S.R.."
Burns too was interested in what was happening in the wider world. This was a time of great upheaval across the globe and I think that it is fair to say that Burns had his finger on the pulse to a degree much more than would be expected of an Ayrshire farmer. He was aware of international events, such as the American War of Independence, about which he wrote the prophetic words that he felt that the "fourth of July will be sacred to their posterity"; Burns also wrote the "Ode for General Washington's Birthday" which is one of his most under-rated pieces:
"See gathering thousands, while I sing. A broken chain exulting bring,
And dash it in a tyrant's face, And dare him to his very beard,
And tell him he no more is fear'd, No more the despot of Columbia's race!
A tyrant's proudest insults brav'd, They shout a People freed!
They hail an Empire sav'd!"
Burns was also a known supporter of the French Revolution. Indeed his support is known to have cost him at least temporarily his friendship with Mrs. Dunlop who lost relatives in that bloody event. Burns mentioned the French Revolution briefly in his "The Tree of Liberty":
"Heard ye o' the Tree o' France, And wat ye what's the name o't?
Around it a' the patriots dance – Weel Europe kens the fame o't!
It stands where once the Bastile stood - A prison built by kings, man,
When Superstition's hellish brood kept France in leading-strings, man"
Burns is also known to have read Tom Paine's 1791 book "The Rights of Man" which argued for equal political suffrage for all men over twenty-one in Britain, progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, maternity grants and the abolition of the House of Lords.
In late 1794 Burns produced a work which, with unbelievable indifference, he described as being "two or three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme ... not really poetry" . . .
"Is there for honest Poverty, That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by - We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an a' that, Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The Man's the gowd for a' that."
This, for me is the essence of Burns, he was a humanitarian, a libertarian and an equalitarian. The important concepts for Burns were the basic rights of freedom, liberty and equality, not only for God's chosen people of Scotland, but for everyone.
Burns goes on to conclude that great work with:
"Then let us pray that came it may (As come It will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth shall bear the gree, an' a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that, It's comin yet for a' that,
That man to man the world o'er shall brithers be for a' that."
I was reading to my daughter last week and realized that her favourite poet, and probably the outstanding American poet of the last couple of centuries, Dr. Seuss, summed up the same sentiments in "Horton Hears a Who" with
"I'll just have to save him. Because after all,
A person's a person, no matter how small"
Unfortunately The Beatles never expressed precisely these sentiments, or did they? Perhaps in their more simplistic manner, Lennon and McCartney are in fact more to the point when they write "All you need is love". Robert Burns was a one-of, his poetry and songs are unique, he is a true Scottish Icon. For me, however, it is the deeper sentiments of Universal Brotherhood expressed in his works which are timeless and which in our hectic 21st century life deserve us to pause and consider.
Ladies and Gentlemen please join me in the Toast to The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.