The Story of Robert Burns

Murray Pittock’s Scotland is an engaging and authoritative history of Scotland’s influence in the world and the world’s on Scotland, from the Thirty Years War to the present day. He explores Scotland and Empire, the rise of nationalism, and the pressures on the country from an increasingly monolithic understanding of “Britishness.” 

This influence is illustrated through the enduring appeal of Robert Burns, often referred to as Scotland’s national poet and celebrated each year on Burns Night. Pittock discusses his story in this extract.


Burns first recited his poetry in Edinburgh in the drawing-room of Jane Gordon (1748/9–1812) Duchess of Gordon, who acted as one of his patrons, and was central to the rehabilitation of tartan. Burns’ poetry and song expressed a deep and universal humanity, born out of Enlightenment values of scepticism and sympathy, radical in tone and allusion but frequently indeterminate politically, comprehensive in expression and aspiration while rooted in the language and life of provincial Ayrshire farms and smallholdings. Burns was hugely more sophisticated as a major Romantic poet than his most ardent supporters often give him credit for, and while he had his own anxieties over farming and rents, he gave these universal voice at a time when in different parts of Scotland people were leaving the land for cities or else struggling to gain economic benefit from small landholdings. In large parts of the country land had been subdivided for wartime labour and returning soldiers in lieu of their bounty, which landlords often spent and did not reinvest.

Clan Gordon tartan, Micheletb, CC BY-SA 4.0

Burns’ poetry not only used Scots as a national marker, but even – and this is still poorly understood – used different dialects of it within the same poem in order to convey different connotations or readings in tension with one another.

Both a poet and a collector and editor of Scottish song, Burns’ work was first of all translated into German from 1795, where he appealed both as an Enlightenment radical and humanitarian and as a kind of one-stop shop for access to the authentic folk traditions of the peasantry which Herderian followers like the Grimm brothers were collecting in the German states. Here, Burns’ anthem of universal brotherhood, ‘A Man’s A Man’, first published in 1795 and itself probably influenced by the abolitionist William Dickson’s popularization of the Wedgwood medallion during his 1792 tour of Scotland, may have influenced the revised text of Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’. Now the tune of the Anthem of Europe, the ‘Ode’ was set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony in 1824 and, translated as Trotz Alledem, became a song of Austrian and German radicalism from 1848 to the present.

In the United States, Burns appealed as an advocate of liberal anti-monarchical America in opposition to the tyrannies of old Europe: Mark Twain (1835–1910) memorably described the American Civil War as a conflict between Scott (whose mediaevalism he satirized in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)) and Burns, with Burns standing for the Union and Scott for the Confederacy. Burns was certainly used as a political symbol of reform in the United States from the early nineteenth century: ‘A Man’s A Man’ became not only a song of Romantic brotherhood and German nationalism, but also, in the hands of Frederick Douglass (1817–95) and others, by building on its apparent reference to the Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion, became an anthem of the abolitionist movement in the United States. (Douglass, born Bailey, chose his own name in honour of Scott’s Lady of the Lake).

The appropriation of the poet as standing for the best in American values was a persistent tradition: in 1925, the US Consul in Edinburgh, W.R. Bonney, described Burns’ outlook as ‘woven into the warp and woof of the Bill of Rights’. Burns made his appearance in regular US politics too, being (successfully) used as a basis for satire against John Quincy Adams by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in the 1828 presidential election; the poem ‘John Anderson, my jo’ was also used by Lincoln’s supporters in 1860, and was mocked in a Confederate version. In 1867, Lincoln’s widow made a pilgrimage to the poet’s birthplace: her husband, a great advocate of the poet, was caricatured in a kilt in Vanity Fair in 1861. Edinburgh erected the first statue to Lincoln outside the United States, and the first statue to Burns outside Scotland was erected in New York.

“New York Central Park Literary Row – Scottish Poet Robert Burns”, David Paul Ohmer, CC BY 2.0.

If the United States tended to portray Burns as a revolutionary on the US model, in Canada he tended to be a representative of ‘local and imperial’ identity and a model for Canadian writing. The poet spread throughout the British Empire and its current and former colonies as a symbol of Scottishness and universal humanitarian values. St Andrew’s Day dinners – for example at Pittsburgh in 1791 – began to celebrate him, and five years after his death the first Burns Supper, as we now understand the event, was held in his home town of Alloway. St Andrew’s Day dinners were one of the roots of Burns Suppers; another were the Fox Dinners of 24 January for the Whig political hero Charles James Fox (1749–1806), whose birthday was very close to Burns’. There were other related events in the patriotic and radical calendars in particular, such as the use of Burns toasts at a meeting in support of the Peterloo radical Henry Hunt in Paisley in 1822.

By the time of Burns’ centenary in 1859 (which itself saw over 1,000 Burns Suppers globally, many addressed by the good and the great), there had already been thousands of recorded Burns dinners and events. Burns Clubs formed across the British Empire and were – unlike many St Andrew and Caledonian Societies of the time – ‘generally open in their membership criteria to all ethnicities, which facilitated the dissemination of aspects of Scottishness throughout the Empire’. Today an estimated 9.5 million attend a Burns Supper every year in over 100 countries, with many more local and familial celebrations, and the Scottish haggis industry survives largely on this one event alone.

Burns was intensely a poet both of locality and universality, a writer whose supreme mastery of evoked sentiment – Lincoln perceptively noted that ‘Burns never touched sentiment without carrying it to its ultimate expression and leaving nothing further to be said’ – allowed him to be claimed by radicals and conservatives, communists and freemasons alike. His nature poetry (including the extraordinary transformation of folklore concerning birch and hawthorn into an analysis of erotic longing) and align¬ment of human and animal experience in ‘To a Mouse’ and elsewhere strongly influenced John Clare (1793–1864) and many of the later English Romantics. Burns presents Enlightenment ideas while interrogating them: the lines ‘O wad some Pow’re the giftie gie us/To see ourselves as others see us!’ for example, are a paraphrase of Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, 6th edition 1790) placed in a comic context of greed and sexual desire; both these appetites are directed at a pretentious lady, whose appear¬ance in the latest fashions bears witness to her invocation of both, rendered ridiculous by the louse who feeds off her, as the watching man would like to do. Burns puts his trust – following the affective morality championed by Hutcheson and Hume – in mutual affection which shows a forbearance for mutual self-interest:

It’s no in titles nor in rank;

It’s no in wealth like Lon’on Bank,

    To purchase peace and rest.

It’s no in makin muckle, mair;

It’s no in books; it’s no in Lear [learning],

    To make us truly blest:

If happiness hae not her seat

    And centre in the breast,

We may be wise, or rich, or great,

    But never can be blest:

Nae treasures nor pleasures

    Could make us happy lang;

The heart ay’s the part ay

    That makes us right or wrang. (‘Epistle to Davie’)

The importance of the ‘heart’, in so many ways the central organ of Scottish Enlightenment morality, is the foundation for Burns’ global humanitarian appeal, acknowledged in the nineteenth century by nationalist language movements from Norway to the Czech Republic and in the twentieth and twenty-first by a vast range of figures from Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), leader of the Kuomintang and president of the Chinese Republic, who joined the Burns Club of London, to Maya Angelou (1928–2014) and Kofi Annan (1938–2018), who invoked the poet as a symbol of universal humanity in his 2004 Robert Burns Memorial Lecture to the United Nations.


About the book:

Scotland is one of the oldest nations in the world, yet by some it is hardly counted as a nation at all. Neither a colony of England nor a fully equal partner in the British union, Scotland’s history has often been seen as simply a component part of British history. But the story of Scotland is one of innovation, exploration, resistance—and global consequence.

In Scotland, a wide-ranging and deeply researched account, Murray Pittock examines the place of Scotland in the world.

‘Impressive…The strength of this book lies in the way events such as the Act of Union and the Clearances are revealed to have had global consequences.’
Gerard DeGroot, The Times

‘Engaging, lively and full of insight, a vivid account of Scottish endeavours in politics, science, literature, art and economics…Pittock records the ebb and flow of Scotland’s international experience with panache and pace.’
Anna Keay, The Guardian


About the author:

Murray Pittock MAE FRSE is Scotland’s leading cultural historian. His books include Culloden, Enlightenment in a Smart City, The Myth of the Jacobite Clans and Robert Burns in Global Culture.


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