Burns: The Brand

Once only celebrated in the west of Scotland, Burns Suppers on the bard’s birthday of 25 January are now spreading all over the world, even to the Berkshire Downs. During the course of a Burns Supper, a speaker talks about Robert Burns, then proposes a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

Alistair Mills who, like Burns, hails from Ayrshire (but now lives in Lambourn) is experienced at proposing The Immortal Toast. He sheds some light here for us southerners on ‘Burns: The Brand’.

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a privilege for me to be here tonight to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. You’ll note that I am not wearing a kilt, even though Burns himself used to wear a kilt from time to time. There are several good reasons for not wearing a kilt. One is that I do not have a kilt, and the other one is a bit more complicated.

My sister and brother-in-law, Robert, live in Houston, Texas. Robert comes from Ayr and has taken an interest in Robert Burns since he has been in the USA. For the last two years, he has been the chieftain of the Robert Burns North American Association and so he gets a lot of invitations to propose the Immortal Memory. He has a splendid kilt and all the trimmings, and he wears this on these occasions. He has noticed that invariably he has a headache the day following. He thinks that the headache has something to do with the kilt. So, to avoid a headache tomorrow, I am not wearing a kilt tonight. [1]

It is traditional when proposing the Immortal Memory, to talk about Burns, his poetry, his music, his times, his loves, his humanity. However, I have chosen to talk tonight about Burns as we see him to-day. In short, I am going to discuss “Burns the Brand”.

In 1999, The Scottish Parliament met for the first time. It was a turning point in the history of Scotland. During the proceedings, the singer, Sheena Wellington sang “A man’s a man for a’ that”, one of the most popular of the songs of the Bard. If Scotland ever has a national anthem, a song by the Bard is the likely choice. [2-3]

The image of Burns is ubiquitous in Scotland. The portrait of Burns by Naismith was used on the old Clydesdale Bank £5, and it is on the new slippery £10 note. There are some five million of these notes in circulation at any time, so there is a picture of Burns in the pockets of most adults in Scotland.

The homeland of Robert Burns was Ayrshire. Many of us come from Ayrshire. Things have changed a lot in Ayrshire since I was a boy. Many of the major employers have gone. For example: the steel works in Glengarnock – gone; the coal mines in the east of the county – gone; the shipyard in Troon – gone; the dynamite factory in Ardeer – gone. The people have had to adapt and change, and tourism, which is now the world’s biggest industry, is on the rise. So, what do we have: in Irvine, a Burns Centre; in Kilmarnock, a Burns Centre; in Alloway, a major new Burns Birthplace Museum built with funds from the National Lottery, the Scottish Government and others, and operated by the National Trust for Scotland. [4-8]

Looking further afield, the Scottish Government decided to have a project in 2009 to promote Scottish tourism among the Scottish diaspora, generally, but especially in North America. I remember that both my brother and sister who live in the USA, made visits to Scotland to support the old country. In designing the marketing materials for this project, they considered various ideas, such as featuring things which are iconic for Scotland, so things like grouse shooting, highland games, Nessie – the Loch Ness monster, the oil business, Bonnie Prince Charley, even Sean Connery and Billy Connelly. However, they chose Robert Burns.

How did all of this happen? It is not obvious that a modest man who died at the early age of 37 in Dumfries should have become the personification of Scotland 200 years later. Well, during the 19th century, as the wealth of the nations increased with the industrial revolution, for the first time, ordinary people could afford to buy consumer goods. The great pottery brands were created and they wanted to feature imagery which would enhance their goods. One of the images which found favour was the Naismith portrait of Burns. Today, if you go to the gift shop at the Burns Heritage Centre in Alloway, you can buy lots of goods featuring this image.

So, what do you think Burns would have made of all of this. Well, I think he would be very surprised, flattered and amused. He did not think much of people who had airs and graces. For example, this is what he has to say about the nobility, rendered in contemporary English:

You see yonder fellow called ‘a lord,’
He struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a fool for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribbon, star, and all that,
A man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

One of the remarkable by-products of this interest in Burns, must be the Burns Supper. My wife and I live near Lambourn on the Berkshire Downs. It is a very rural area, and the main business is breeding race horses. In January and February, several of the village halls have Burns Suppers. I think that the theme of the rustic poet who worked with animals resonates. However, I doubt that there were Burns Suppers 40 years ago.

Burns address to the haggis is an important part of the ritual of the Burns Supper. Here are some of the word rendered into contemporary English [9]:

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Kidneys, tripe, and giblets warm,
You’re well worth a grace
As long as my arm.

You Powers who look after mankind,
And dish out his bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff
That splashes about in little wooden bowls!
But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!

Do you think it is possible that one day there will be a Burns Restaurant in every high street, a bit like the Indian Restaurants of today? I doubt it, but who would have thought in 1950, around the time of my birth, that before the age of 40, I would be going out for a curry, and ordering chapattis, pakora, tandoori, aloo gobi and the like.

So, what can we conclude from all of this?

Burns is very popular and his popularity is increasing;
Tourism is now the world’s largest industry and Burns is a key part of Scottish tourism;
If you are going to Scotland on holiday, you may wish to visit the new Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway;
If you want to avoid a headache following a Burns Supper, leave your kilt at home!
Finally, I would like to you be upstanding and join me in a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

[1] Robert Burns Association North America: http://www.rbana.org/
[2] Opening of the Scottish Parliament: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Parliament
[3] A man’s a man for a that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is_There_for_Honest_Poverty
[4] Steel works at Glengarnock: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glengarnock
[5] ICI Explosives Factory in Ardeer: http://www.secretscotland.org.uk/index.php/Secrets/ICIArdeer
[6] Ship building in Troon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ailsa_Shipbuilding_Company
[7] Coal mining in Ayrshire: http://www.scottishmining.co.uk/155.html
[8] Burns Birthplace museum: https://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/robert-burns-birthplace-museum-p252331
[9] Address to the haggis: http://www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Poems_Songs/toahaggis.htm


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