Robert Burns: A Man with an Immortal Memory?

When I was in Primary 7, at the tender age of 11, I was tasked with the Immortal Memory for the school Burns Supper. For the unfamiliar, the Immortal Memory is a speech considering the memory and legacy of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, culminating in a toast to the man himself. Now, having grown up in Ayrshire, where Burns himself was born, I had even at that age a passing knowledge of the bard and his impact, which served as a good starting point for what I went on to say. I remember talking about his internationalism, his imagination, his passion, and the paramount importance of solidarity and brotherhood among his ideals. All laudable certainly, and easy enough to demonstrate by referencing Burns’ own work, but with the benefit of hindsight, not terribly original. 

Historical figures are generally more complex than the people who most want you to remember them tend to suggest, and Burns was very much a complex figure. He had a long list of flaws and contradictions – even in the eyes of his own time – that merit more attention than they get. For a start, he was on the verge, before his career kicked off, of going to Jamaica to become, in his own words, “a poor negro-driver” on a plantation, a fact that sits poorly with his exhortations on solidarity and universalism. 

But it also sits poorly with Burns’ own apparent views on slavery, which he later expressed quite clearly. There are records of his letters to friends and contemporaries in which he takes a strikingly hard line against the slave trade, including a refusal to excuse those who, through however indirect a role, facilitated the trade – a condemnation that would presumably in other circumstances have included himself. 

He even later wrote a song, “The Slave’s Lament”, which takes the perspective of an African who has been abducted from their home into slavery and is mourning their fate and longing for their home. While it is very far from the most politically explicit of Burns’ works, the location of his sympathies appears to be quite plain. Whether this represents an evolution in Burns’ thinking or an example of his hypocrisy remains debatable. 

He was also a notorious womaniser, apparently content to put the women he desired in what was at the time a deeply difficult position, including working class women for whom the scandal of unmarried pregnancy would have been all the more difficult to handle (not to mention the serial infidelity on his own part that this involved). Records suggest that he fathered at least a dozen children from several different women, albeit that records also suggest he took a significant degree of care and interest in all his children, which was notably unusual for men at the time. 

But even aside from the carefree nature of his many dalliances, Burns appeared quite happy to objectify women in his works when it suited him. Certainly, he was no stranger to the male gaze, as it is through this prism that many women in his work are viewed.  On the other hand, though it does not diminish his other more objectifying works, Burns did write a poem to his wife, Jean Armour, proclaiming that it was her mind that he loved more than her body. We have similar evidence of such sentiments from Burns elsewhere too, as he corresponded with several female writers of the time, praising their work and their talent. 

Furthermore, although he did write a poem on the Rights of Women, the rights he proposes are protection, decorum, and admiration – a set of rights that seems to quite clearly reinforce existing patriarchal gender roles. Whatever benefit one might argue Burns’ writing of such poems might bring in a broad sense, their content was not remotely progressive in the modern sense, nor even particularly among the vanguard of feminist thought at the time. 

All too often, these flaws and complexities and nuances are laughed off in contemporary Immortal Memories as boyish mischief on Burns’ part, or as charming, if reprehensible, roguishness. But they are not: indeed, this perspective comes perilously close to a “boys will be boys” line of thought that would not otherwise be broadly accepted. Similarly, just as a blind eye is often turned to Burns’ Caribbean plans, so Scotland’s participation in colonialism is often quietly overlooked. These flaws in his character should not be overlooked in pursuit of a neat and positive memory by which to remember Robert Burns every January. 

Robert Burns was a complex man, honoured today not just for his poetry but also his humanity, and it does that humanity a disservice to pretend that he was anything like straightforward. Yes, his imagination was brilliant, his passion deeply humanising, his solidarity admirable, and his work accessible, but it does not follow that we must gloss over or explain away his faults in order to honour his qualities. He did not always treat women well and appears to have been ready to play a direct and personal role in slavery against what would seem later to have been even his own moral judgement. These are facts, whatever his broader attitudes, and we should recognise them in his remembrance. 

But remembrance only takes us so far – an Immortal Memory should also concern itself with legacy. And the issue with legacy is that it is less about Burns than it is about us – after all, Burns’ legacy is in large part what we make of it. Clearly, there is plenty to draw on: solidarity, egalitarianism, passion, humour, Scots culture, anti-establishment sentiment, and much else besides. To be honest, I don’t remember which of these I thought most salient when I was 11, but legacies change with the times, as we do ourselves, so I would hope that the legacy I selected for him then would be different enough from now to reflect 18 years of personal growth that have taken place since. 

Perhaps, then, in pursuit of a truly immortal legacy, one of the best ways to honour Burns is not to filter and distil his life into some well-honed point that fits snugly into a given speaker’s interpretation or agenda. If Robert Burns was a complex man, can’t we just let him be complex? Those in society today spreading fear of “cancel culture” (nebulous a concept as it is) would generally have us believe that young leftists want to erase all memory of anyone who has historically done anything wrong, but surely the reverse is true. The fact that Burns did things that were wrong in his life does not mean that he should be erased from all public discussion, but rather that his wrongs should be acknowledged and his memory expanded so we can remember his life and work in all its flawed completeness. Is it really his memory, otherwise? 

There are veritable legions of historical and contemporary figures that are still misremembered today because of the determination of some to recall only the fitting and worthy parts of their lives and to – ironically enough – erase the rest. It is herein that the potential for us to learn and grow from this legacy lies. Because if we can take the life and work and humanity of an Ayrshire bard, with the entirety of his faults and brilliance and contradictions and vices, and remember it all, then few of these figures will bear as full or immortal a memory as that of Robert Burns.

Silas McGilvray

Silas McGilvray is from Ayr originally, but after a few years living in the USA returned to Scotland in 2018 and settled in Edinburgh. He joined the SNP in 2014 after being active in the independence referendum, is fascinated by most political topics, notably the EU and human rights, and is a passionate Eurovision evangelist. He can be found on twitter as @SilasMcGilvray.