The Immortal Memory
We thank Ian Mackay Ross for sending us his presentation at the Clan Ross - MB Burns Dinner on January 20, 2007.
To truly appreciate Robert Burns, you must first understand the character of the Scots.
Roger Ross phones the dentist and asks the cost of an extraction. 85 dollars, replies the dentist.
Oh . . . that's way too expensive . . . Haven't you got anything cheaper? But that's the normal charge for an extraction, says the dentist. What if you don't use any anaesthetic?, says Roger. Well, that is most unusual, and would be very painful . . . but if you insist I could do that for 70 dollars.
Hmmmm, says Roger. What if you used one of your dentist trainees and still without anaesthetic? The dentist explained that he couldn't guarantee the trainee's level of expertise . . . and that would likely be even more painful. But it could be done for only 40 dollars.
That's still too much, I think, says Roger. What if the student did it without anaesthetic, but with another student watching? Then you could write it off as a training session .. and just charge me for the paperwork. I suppose it would be a good thing for my other student, says the dentist. All right . . . I can do that for only 5 dollars.
Now you're talking, says Roger. It's a deal. Can you confirm an appointment for my wife, Mary, on Tuesday?
So, the Scots are inventive . . . as well as being very frugal. They know very well the value of a dollar. For example:
Have you heard about the old lecher, Eldon Ross? He lured a buxom young lass up to his flat to see his etchings. Before she could escape, he had sold her four.
Scots are practical. They value hard work, education, and useful skills.
Doctor Lowther attended a Thanksgiving Dinner where he watched the host expertly carve up the turkey, placing each perfect slice symmetrically upon the serving platter. "Well, Doctor," said the host. "Wouldn't I make a good surgeon?" "Maybe," said the doctor, "Let's see you put it back together again!"
Of course you have heard hundreds of jokes like these. How strange . . . in these times of political correctness . . . when it is unacceptable to stereotype any ethnic group! Why are there still such jokes about the Scots? Who dares to keep making them up?
Why, we do! . . . And this tells us a lot about the Scots character. It tells us that we Scots have a great sense of humour. But, more importantly, it proclaims a natural pride and self-confidence that no mere joke can ever threaten. This is rooted in our belief in equality, and in the inherent nobility of the common man, a belief perhaps best demonstrated by Scotland's most famous poet and champion of the common man . . . Robert Burns . . . when he wrote:
"What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin grey, an a' that? Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine - A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that."
And Burns did not just write these stirring lines . . . he lived his life accordingly. He became a successful poet . . . perhaps the most famous in the world . . . first, because he had done the hard work of educating himself, reading his books as he guided his plow on his farm in Ayrshire . . . and second, because he believed that he could be as good as any man, despite the class structure which prevailed at that time.
These Scottish characteristics of education, hard work and self-confidence have also made countless other Scots successful around the world . . . to the great benefit of their adopted homelands. The very presence of the Scottish pioneers in British North America resulted in the creation of our great country, Canada. It was the Scots running the fur trade . . . whether through Hudson Bay or out of Montreal . . . who explored and opened up the wilderness. Then John A. MacDonald had the vision to see one nation spanning the continent from sea to sea, bound together by a railroad the English thought impossible to build. But the Scots . . . men like planner Sandford Fleming, financiers Donald Smith and George Stephen, and engineer James Ross (in charge of the most difficult part . . . mountain construction) . . . DID build the CPR, creating the Canada we know today.
In the 20th century, the longest serving Prime Minister in the history of the British Commonwealth was of Scots descent, William Lyon Mackenzie King. He led Canada through its transition from former colony to being a significant power in World War II, and pioneered many social reforms. The man who took social reforms to a much higher level was Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care in Canada . . . and the creator of a distinctive political voice for the Canadian worker.
Now . . . have I been fair in naming a Progressive Conservative, a Liberal and a founder of the NDP?
However, I don't want to dwell this evening on all the noble characteristics of the Scot . . . as so eloquently depicted in the writings of Burns. Rather, I want to pursue some of Burns' flaws . . . flaws which made him so red-blooded and real. I want to pursue the love, the romance and the unapologetic passion in Burns life.
Burns was a romantic man and a romantic poet. By this I don't mean that he was some limp-wristed, lace-collared English dandy, mooning over daffodils like Wordsworth, or groaning about unrequited love like Shelley. He was a son of the soil: a romantic lover who was also a poet. He didn't just write about loving the lassies, he did love them ----- often ----- and in great quantity. He fathered 15 children, 6 out of wedlock, with a goodly number of partners. But he also loved the lassies well …. for although there were complaints from outraged fathers and husbands, I find no record of complaint from the ladies themselves. His poetry constantly proclaimed his admiration for the lassies, and their priority in his life. Here's just one example:
There's nought but care on ev'ry han' in every hour that passes, What signifies the life o' man, an't were nae for the lasses.
Now you can't live the life of a fornicator without consequences ----- and in 1785 Burns had an illegitimate daughter by his mother's servant-girl Betty Paton. Did he hide this fact for fear of disgrace? Not Burns! He proceeded to love them both . . . . . . enough to write and publish this poem:
Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter! Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for, An' tho' your coming I hae fought for baith kirk and queir; Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for -- that I shall swear!
At the same time, Burns met Jean Armour, who became his choice. The feelings were obviously mutual, for Miss Armour presented Burns with a fine set of twins. As no wedding had occurred, her father and the local church were outraged. This explains Burns' sudden plans for emigration to Jamaica . . . to be accompanied by yet another lady with whom he was dallying . . . one Mary Campbell, his "sweet Highland Mary".
But a very strange thing happened to preclude this emigration . . . certainly strange for a small farmer. He had published an edition of his poems to raise money for the voyage and it became an overnight success. This . . . plus the fact that the unfortunate Mary had expired before the ship could sail . . . persuaded him to stay in Scotland. He journeyed to Edinburgh to bask in the adulation of the literary crowd. There he commenced a relationship with one Nancy MacLehose . . . but soon had to break it off, as she was Mrs. MacLehose. This breakup produced these lines from Burns' finest sad romantic poem:
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever! Ae farewell, and then forever!
He returned to Ayrshire in 1778 to marry his beloved Jean, who was again expecting twins by Burns, and this time her father was threatening to throw her out of the house!
Despite his new state of matrimony, many an affair followed with many a local lass, as Burns was often out riding through the countryside in his new position as an exciseman. In 1789 he had an illegitimate daughter with Anne Park . . . and I suspect there were many others. When members of the Burns Society proudly declare that we are all descendants of Burns . . . they may be closer to the truth than they think!
Despite his roving, Burns was true to Jean Armour, in his way . . . and with her he stayed until his untimely death in 1796 at the age of 37. He died of rheumatic fever, aggravated by a life of hard outdoor work. But he had kept his ardent spirit and powers almost to the end, for, on the day of his funeral, Jean gave birth to Burns' last son, Maxwell!
We should remember this charming rogue, this educated ploughman, this patriot, this celebrator of the common man, this best of romantic poets, this lover of the lassies . . . . . . with his most joyful romantic poem, written for his beloved Jean:
O, my luve is like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June. O, my luve is like the melodie, that's sweetly play'd in tune.
Ladies and Gentlemen, fill your glasses . . . . . . please rise . . . and join me in a toast:
To the immortal memory of Robert Burns!