Robert Burns is perhaps the most famous of all Scotsmen. He was indeed a remarkable man, born in poverty and obscurity in 1759 near Ayr. By the time he died, only 37 years later, in 1796, he had not only sired 12 children by one wife and three other women, but he left a substantial quantity of poems, songs and letters.
He had many admirers in his own lifetime and despite very little notice of his funeral, and of course no public transport, 10,000 people were in Dumfries to attend his funeral. At the time the population of Dumfries was only around 4,500.
But however great Burns’ legacy, we mustn’t forget his contemporaries who also made their mark in history.
The first is Lachlan Macquarie. Those of you who have been to Australia will recognise his name perhaps from the name Macquarie University in Sydney. Macquarie was born three years after Burns in 1762 and lived until 1825.
Although he was born in poverty on the island of Ulva near Mull, he had a distinguished military career and was appointed Governor of the colony of New South Wales and spent ten years in Australia.
The National Trust of Australia maintains the Macquarie mausoleum on Mull. There is a plaque inscribed to “The father of Australia”.
My next hero is Sir Thomas Brisbane. Brisbane was born in Largs 14 years after Burns in 1773 and lived until 1860 when he died at the age of 87.
Brisbane was certainly not born in poverty. He had a distinguished military career and was appointed Governor of New South Wales following Macquarie. His name was given to the city of Brisbane in Queensland.
While he was Governor, Brisbane sent some of his people, mainly Scotsmen, on an expedition to the north of Sydney looking for a site for a new colony. They found a river flowing into the sea, a rarity in Australia, and then a suitable site about 10 miles inland. Today the river is called the Brisbane River and the city Brisbane. Before settling on the name of Brisbane, the people of the expedition considered calling the place Edinglassie, rather like Duneden in New Zealand which is named for Dundee and Edinburgh.
Burns is not remembered as an explorer nor as a soldier nor as a Governor. He is remembered for his literary work. The Nobel Prize for literature was not awarded until 1901. However, had it been invented in the time of Burns could he have been a Laureate? (The ten British laureates are: Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, Bertrand Russell, TS Eliot, Winston Churchill, William Golding, VS Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Kazou Ishiguro – none of them from Scotland.)
I think not for several reasons: Burns died young, he wrote in a minority language, he wrote mainly poetry and song lyrics, and finally that he was a Scotsman who scarcely left Scotland.
Scots have been most celebrated for their role in the creation and maintenance of the British Empire, and also the national and international infrastructure such as the railways on all of the continents.
But which Scottish people have been very distinguished for their literary work? Well, we have two local heroes.
Sir James Murray came from a modest background in Hawick and did not go to university. Nevertheless, he was entrusted with the task of making the Oxford English Dictionary.
This was a huge undertaking and he spent over 35 years on the work and completed about 18,000 of the 22,000 pages. It was completed within a few years of his death in 1915 at the age of 78.
His work has been well documented by his granddaughter Elisabeth Murray in the book “Caught in the web of words”, and by the writer Simon Winchester in the book “The surgeon of Crowthorne” released as a movie starring Mel Gibson as Murray. The movie was called “The Professor and the Madman” and is available on Amazon Prime and other media streaming services.
In the 20th century, the author John Buchan was born in 1875 into a modest background in Perth and won successive scholarships to Hutcheson’s Grammar in Glasgow, Glasgow University and Brasenose College Oxford where he was awarded first-class honours and many prizes. He then had a distinguished career in the civil service, then a Member of Parliament and finally the Governor General of Canada. His home in England was near Oxford in the village of Elsfield between Oxford and the M40.
He was ennobled with the title Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. He died while he was the Governor General of Canada and was given a state funeral, at the time an honour without precedent for a Governor General. Today he is remembered for the “The 39 Steps” but he was a very prolific author and wrote some 50 books.
(who, like Burns, hails from Ayrshire but now lives in Lambourn)