Lord and Lady Provost, members of the City of Edinburgh Council, distinguished guests, my Lords and Ladies, good evening.
I was very flattered when the honourable Frank Ross, Lord Provost of our great city rang me and asked me if during these turbulent political times if I still believed in free speech. When I said, absolutely, freedom of speech is enshrined in the US constitution, Frank said “Then how about giving a free speech for me at the Burns Supper on 24 January?” I immediately accepted!
As you may note from my thick Scottish accent. I am not from around here. I am from Glasgow.
Actually, I am from around here because in 2014, a momentous year in which our country hosted the Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup, The Second Scottish Homecoming Celebration, a referendum on Scottish independence and my wife and I officially became Scottish citizens. As we stood in the Lothian Chambers that morning prepared to swear allegiance to our adopted country, tears streamed down my cheeks as I began to think deeply about the great man we have come to celebrate tonight.
As most of us know, Robert Burns, or Burness as was the original family name, was born in Alloway in a thatched cottage in Ayr. The first time I visited this cottage I was escorting an American friend and unfortunately we were a few minutes late and the guard had just locked the gate. I pleaded with the guard to allow my friend, who had travelled a great distance, to have a wee peak at the famous cottage and to my surprise he reached in his mighty pocket and extracted a giant key ring with dozens of keys. He thrust the key ring at me and said “Enjoy yourself!” And off we went for ten minutes to explore this historic gem in our country. When I later thanked the guard for his exceptional Scottish hospitality I thought, “A man’s a man, for all that!”
Sometime later I visited the new and amazing Burns Museum and was immediately captivated by the first exhibit which has Burn’s original desk and dozens of papers flying through the air to signify the many ideas he contributed to Scotland and to the world. I was struck by the fact that a poor ploughman could influence billions of people worldwide with his values, his character and his boundless talent. I was reminded of Burn’s Ode to George Washington, the father of the land of my birth, when in 1794 he wrote:
But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van,
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man!
Only two years before his death he was writing about the Royalty of Man as exemplified by men such as George Washington. These radical ideas as depicted through his museum made me rise a few inches taller upon leaving than when I had first entered.
I then made my way to the famed and spooky graveyard at Alloway auld kirk. This of course was the setting for one of Burns most famous poems Tam O’Shanter. As I respectfully walked among the tombstones, including that of Burns own father, I could imagine the spirits rising from the earth assisted by the strong spirits earlier consumed by Tam and his friends and carrying them across the street to the Brig a Doon to witness Meg escaping into the night. And so tonight as you enjoy our delicious water of life, uisga beatha, let us remember Tam’s closing lines:
Now, who this tale of
truth shall read,
Each man, and mother’s son, take heed:
Whenever to drink you are inclined,
Or short skirts run in your mind,
Think! you may buy joys over dear:
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
One of the most remarkable chapter’s in Robert Burns short life was his first visit to Edinburgh when in the Sciennes Place home of Professor Adam Ferguson in 1787 he met for the first time another great literary icon of our country, the boy of only fifteen years who later became the inventor of the historical novel, Sir Walter Scott. Scott later remembered observing Burns that night and wrote:
“The only thing I remember which was remarkable in Burns’ manner, was the effect produced upon him by a print of Bunbury’s, representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on the one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. These lines were written beneath, – ‘Cold on Canadian hills, or Mindens’ plain, Perhaps that parent wept her soldiers slain: Bent o’er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew, The big drops, mingling with the milk he drew, Gave the sad presage of his future years, The child of misery baptized in tears.’ Scott noted that Burns seemed much affected by the print, or rather the ideas which it suggested to his mind that he actually shed tears.
Over my many years of walking in the footsteps of the great men and women of the Scottish enlightenment, I too have shed tears of appreciation for their efforts in helping us to create one of the greatest cities in the history of human kind. One of my favourite Burns verses is his Address to Edinburgh that he wrote in honour of our capital city.
Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and tow’rs,
Where once beneath a Monarch’s feet,
Sat Legislation’s sov’reign pow’rs!
When I first visited the grave of Burns great literary hero, Robert Ferguson, who is buried in the Canongate Kirk, I began to realise the tremendous sense of responsibility he assumed for his fellow human beings. As you may know, when Ferguson died in bedlam there was no money in his estate for a funeral or gravestone. Burns, upon receiving his royalties from the Edinburgh edition of his first book of poems, used these personal funds to provide a proper tombstone for his friend. Some years later when the tomb fell into disrepair, another Scotsman, recognizing his sacred responsibility to his fellow man, paid for the repairs and this of course was the author of Treasure Island, Jekyl and Hyde and other literary masterpieces Robert Louis Stevenson.
Although Stevenson never met Robert Burns he understood that Edinburgh is one of those rare and unique cities that could help shape the ideas and values of such a man. Stevenson described Edinburgh as a “profusion of eccentricities” and men such as Burns, Scott, Ferguson and Stevenson were living breathing examples of how eccentric individuals often push the bounds of our social norms to create masterpieces of living.
Burns was so well loved in his time that in his final days as a tax excisor he travelled from farm to farm collecting revenue. When seeing Robert Burns upon their door step the farmers often invited the convivial guest into their lounge and a ceildh would soon take place. I do not believe there are many tax collectors who could have this effect upon their debtors. Yes, he was well loved and as we also know he was not a brilliant role model for today’s #metoo generation. However, I often confess to smiling when I visit the Canongate Kirk and walk near his great love Clarinda and think about how each of us may be fortunate to find love throughout our lives in strange and surprising places and different circumstances. A great lady that I believe Robert Burns would have admired for her grace, beauty and courage is the current Lady Provost of our City, Hanna Ross and I have selected this book of Burn’s poetry including poems to Clarinda as a gift for her to receive on behalf of our city tonight. (Present book)
grave is a furrow syne.
Ye’ll no keep my seed frae fa’in in.
Quo life, the warld is mine. One final example of this boundless enthusiasm for the family of man is the man whose centennial we celebrate this year and who was greatly influenced by the man we celebrate tonight. Hamish Henderson, the author and folklorist and author of Freedom Come All Ye and the constant champion of a peaceful and fairer world for all, wrote one of my favourite Scottish folk songs. Here are the lines that I believe encapsulates the long continuing line from Robert Burns to the hour we meet this evening. It begins…
the warld is mine.
The floo’ers and trees, they’re a’ my ain.
I am the day, and the sunshine.
Quo life, the warld is mine.
And it concludes with these lines…
the warld is mine.
And so my Lords and Ladies, tonight we celebrate a Scotsman whose epitaph may be similar to the way his fellow enlightenment visionary, the father of geology, Dr James Hutton used to describe the age of the Salisbury Crags. Hutton told the Church at that time when they asked how old the Crags were that according to his scientific investigations we could be certain that…
There is no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end.
And I believe with all my heart the same is true regarding the immortal memory of the ploughman from Ayr who came to Edinburgh and helped, as so many others have done, to magnificently transform our city. In fact, that is his eternal legacy.
I also remind to each of us that within our hearts and minds we also have the potential to listen, to learn, to collaborate and together to positively transform our city for future generations to cherish as we do now.
After all, this is Burns great gift to us and therefore I ask that you be upstanding as we raise our glasses to the immortal memory of the man who wrote about our city.
In the closing line of his Address to Edinburgh he humbly states…
I shelter in thy honor’d shade.
And tonight, together as one
Edinburgh family we all shelter in the honor’d shade of Scotland’s greatest
bard, let us toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns, slainte mhath!