The Immortal Memory

Should you have an interest in Robert Burns, there follows the script for my 'Immortal Memory' as delivered last evening in Gairloch on the occasion of our Wester-Ross Burns Club Supper. Ignore the block capitals. These are just sub heading to remind me where I was (not all that easy after the required (by me) volume of wine and not a little Uisce Beatha. The red lettered words are all quotations...

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening: The Immortal Memory  should be long-winded enough to remind the guests that this isn’t the office Christmas party, yet not so long as to induce cramping, dry-mouth, or ringing in the ears: about 25 minutes. So says the Robert Burns website. 25 minutes! That’s a long time, even for a lover of Burns. Perhaps for a lover of any kind, even one as accomplished as The Bard himself.

Here’s part of Rabbie’s letter to his younger brother William, who had gone off to work in London and in May 1789 had become ensnared in some difficulty of the heart: 'I am, you know,’  advised our Bard, ‘a veteran in these campaigns, so let me advise you always to try for intimacy as soon as you feel the first symptoms of passion; this is not only best, but is the best preservative for one's peace of mind. I need not caution you against guilty amours — they are bad everywhere, but in England they are the very devil.'

2. WHY ME?

Why am I, kilted here though born south of the border down London town way - why am I privileged to propose this toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns?

Perhaps because I have always amused myself composing poetry, perhaps because I have had a lifelong interest in the poetry of the greats, but perhaps because a couple of love-struck nineteen year olds as long ago as 1953 were wondering how to fill the time on that last morning of their week’s holiday in Ayr. I and my future wife Joan had barely enough cash left to get ourselves back to York, Joan to her home and her job, myself, the National Serviceman, back to that Yorkshire RAF camp. In the end we walked out to the village of Alloway, there to visit the birthplace of Scotland’s national poet.

I don’t know why we chose to take that particular holiday together in Ayr, nor, on that last day, why such an unlikely rush of culture set amidst the incandescent fires of youth. Each of us had left schools at age fourteen, mine at Abingdon in the south of England and the girl’s in the city of York. Neither of us were from families with a particular interest in the arts. Neither of us were of Scots ancestry and neither of us had visited Scotland previously.

Anyway as I mentioned, Joan became my wife and the mother of my four children before passing away after decades of suffering the ravages of MS. But for many years she kept in her handbag the words to one of Burns’ songs, first heard of that morning in Alloway … I read now the second and third verses from ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. It was meant for his friend, some will say his lover, the unhappily married lady he called ‘Clarinda’. Whether physical or no, the two of them were undoubtedly in love - and being in love is more wonderful even than the making of it.

Clarinda’s actual name was Nancy Macelhose. At the time of receiving Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss she was to join her errant husband in Jamaica. The lyrics must have told her - as they now tell us - so much about the searing heat of Robert Burns’s feelings and his talent … I’d really like to have sung it but not without benefit of a bottle of Lagavulin … as would you!

I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy: (pause between lines)
Naething could resist my Nancy
But to see her was to love her
Love but her and love forever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met - or never parted-
We had ne’er been broken hearted.  

Fare-thee-weel, though first and fairest
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure
Peace, Enjoyment, Love, and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-rung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee

Burns of course composed many love poems and many love songs, and addressed them to many of the female gender other than his Clarinda. My own favourite has to be the one with the wondrous lines, ‘til all the seas gang dry, my dear, and the rocks melt wi’ the sun. Yes, of course, ‘My Luve Is Like a Red Red Rose’

At any rate that first contact with Robert Burns was probably a contributing factor in the decision by my second wife Delia and I, ten years ago, to relocate from distant Hampshire to Wester- Ross. As many of you know, Dee cannot, for reasons of ill health be with us tonight. But it was she to whom I first read over what I wanted to say and she who suggested I cut it in half -  therefore being deserving of all our thanks!  


What is so universally compelling about this Rabbie Burns? His appearance was striking enough, although according to Maria Riddell as soon as he spoke, his features and dress were forgotten. Maria was the unwitting cause of some serious trouble for Robert in his later years, but she said of him after he was gone:

“His voice alone could improve upon the magic of his eye: it was so sonorous … and what he had to say was always worth listening to.”  Then she added, “By nature kind, brave, sincere and compassionate to a degree, yet he could be proud, irascible and even vindictive.”

So, evidently a complex character, just like the rest of us. And he knew it. In his mini-poem ‘Remorse’, addressing the Almighty he wrote: Thou knowest that thou hast formed me / With passions wild and strong / And list’ning to their witching voice / Has often led me wrong. Š Oh yes! And then again, unashamed, even revelling in his
reputation as a lady’s man, in his ditty ‘The Belles of Mauch(ccccccchhhhhhh)line’ he wrote: Miss Miller is fine / Miss Murchland’s divine / Miss Smith, she has wit, and Miss Morton is braw. / There’s beauty and fortune to get wi’ Miss Morton; / But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’ . Jean Armour, of course; his lover, the mother of his many children, eventually to be his wife. Š
Robert Burns was brought up to be a farmer, from a very early age helping his impecunious father to cultivate the difficult, undernourished soils of south Ayrshire. By the age of 15 he was labourer in chief and it was in this engagement that he fell in love, perhaps for the first time, with his co-harvester, little Nelly Kilpatrick. And this is the first little verse of his very first poetical outburst …
Oh once I loved a bonnie lass
Ay, and I love her still!
An’ while that virtue warms my breast
I’ll love my handsome Nell.
Not bad for a 15 year old. This ‘Handsome Nell’  was the first creation of Burns’ astonishing portfolio of 557 poems and songs.

I have often thought about what extra immensity of riches he would have left us had he been blessed with sufficient of the family wherewithal to be a full time poetical dreamer the likes of Byron, Shelley, Keats etc. Or had made his fortune by becoming a full time professional in the arts as was Shakespeare. So had no need to till the hard, hard land through his early life or to collect taxes for the Revenue through the years leading up to his death, aged but thirty seven years.

Reading of his life, and leaving out for a moment his poesy, some may conclude that, if Burns was not a hundred percent committed to life as a farmer he was a long way above average in the love stakes. This is the final verse of a poem written in reference to his affair with Elizabeth Paton, the outcome of which was yet another miniature Burns - this time a baby girl. In it he points out that it’s unfair of the church to censure him, for he is certainly in the very best of good company …

Your warlike Kings and Heroes bold
Great Captains and Commanders
Your mighty Caesars famed of old,
And conquering Alexanders;
In fields they fought and laurels bought.
And bulwarks strong did batter,
But still they grac’d our noble list
And ranked as Fornicator!!!

He chose that last word as his title, unafraid as always to call a garden implement a spade. It was the truth, as always with him, and it still is today. Witness so many celebrated individuals from royals to political leaders to those of stars of stage and screen.

Yes, Rabbie Burns was indeed unashamedly a man for a’ that and for a’ that.
All that love-verse,
all that lyricism,
all that tenderness,
all that comedy,
all thaqt fantasy,
all that well barbed incisiveness,
all that nationalism,
all that internationalism,
all that honesty,
all that self-awareness,
all that kindness both to man and beast
Above all, all that poetic perfection.

There’s a fair example in the final stanza of Burns’ epic saga, The Vision’, 46 verses each of 6 lines - 276 lines of exquisite poetry in which a lovely young woman is extolling the beauty of the Scottish countryside and the virtue of Scotland’s writers and heroes along with - in typical Burnsian fashion - the nobility of Scotland’s less celebrated mortals. Most of his works were composed quickly, many for a purpose here and now, but he composed The Vision, mainly in standard English, over some three years. In the final verses I feel that Burns is actually addressing himself through this Visionary lady of his …
‘To give my counsels all in one
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan;
Preserve the dignity of Man,
With soul erect:
And trust the Universal Plan
Will all protect.

And wear thou this’ - She solemn said,
And bound the holly round my head,
The polished leaves and berries red
Did rustling play;
And, like a passing thought, she fled,
In light away.

And, like a passing thought, she fled,
In light away.


I have spoken mainly about the man but of course it is not so much the man as the Works of the man, ladies and gentlemen, that we are gathered here this evening to remember and to celebrate.

Even in this, our age of shallow and fleeting celebrity we should remember him not so much for what he was but for what he did; For the phrases, lines, verses and songs that were the product of a great heart, a noble mind and all that their creator came to experience here on earth: the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly.

Whether or not the peoples of the this land, these islands and the entire world always realise it, Burns’s   honesty, truth, humanitarianism and egalitarianism reach out to touch us; to colour our lives, politics and experience to this very day.

Immortality indeed!


So what is this thing we call immortality? I have long since developed a conviction that we are, each of us, born into this world pre-wired with four lights. The first-light is that sense of a power so immense as to be beyond all human knowledge or understanding. Some choose these days to ignore that one, even to switch it off in favour of secularism, materialism, consumerism, call it what you will. Not Burns. He may often have poked fun at - even ridiculed - his ecclesiastical oppressers, but never did he switch off his sense of The Almighty.  

The second is that of nation, whether born to or adopted by, and race. It is a light much dimmed these days. Although Burns spent the final years of his life serving His Majesty the King of The United Kingdom as Customs Officer, the man could never be thought of as a conformist and would most certainly have detested this so-called political correctness of ours. However intensely, however genuinely he respected all races and all people of both genders and allowed their own nationalism, his own nation and his own race were always a source of pride; for him a guiding light that always shone strong, true and clear.

Our third light, according to my belief, is the light of love for family and today it is as strong as ever it has been. It certainly was for Burns, who loved and often tried to help his siblings. And he loved Agnes, his quietly musical mother who outlived him by some 24 years, and his father William, the farmer man - perhaps thwarted intellectual who pre-deceased him, worn out by an unequal struggle with the land. There was a great and obvious love between them, and mutual respect, even though William Burns was by no means always appreciative of his first born’s casual waywardness.

But then there is this all-powerful fourth light - that of our selves. It cannot be switched off in life. It is the private bundle of talents, proclivities, characteristics and behaviour that lightens each our way, and is a piece of DNA so far undiscovered. It is as unique and as exclusive as our now so well known physical DNA. This fourth light cannot be prematurely switched off, and it is not only for me - or yours for you - but it can and does illuminate the way for others, now or in future who come to learn of that which we do or have done.

After we leave this place the dying of our fourth light takes time. It can glow for a matter of weeks or months or for a few years. But sometimes, if very rarely, this fourth light shines with such a truth and such a strength that it cannot be extinguished for so long as the foot of Man treads the face of mother Earth. It is immortal.

Such a unique, brilliantly everlasting fourth-light was most surely possessed by Robert Burns of Ayrshire in Scotland.


People of all nations are remembering him and at least some of his words tonight - especially the words with which we commonly see in a New Year, the ones that will conclude Burns Suppers over all the world as well as our own, here in Gairloch, Wester-Ross. Of course I’m referring to the most widely sung first line in the history of poesy and music; ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’. It hardly matters that the rest of it is so often a beautiful jumble of dialect, the true words and their exact meaning known by relatively few. We know what we mean because we know what it means - yes, the whole world knows what Robert Burns meant by it.

For last year’s Burns Supper I wrote my own small tribute to the Bard; its last lines … He is never lost to memory: - this man of rock, this poet shall / within my time abide with me; / tell in ways and words ethereal that / to live is more than just to be. And finally, in my imagination I see this, carved on the hard rock of The Bard’s native Scotland: Here is a man who lived, For a’ that and for a’ that, For his nation and all nations: And still he lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a rare honour to be allowed the privilege of this address. It is another one to ask you, please, to be upstanding for the toast …   The immortal memory of Robert Burns.

If you've got this far you won't mind me adding a personal footnote - on two fronts. First, this was my first adoption of Highland regalia and, as Dee remarked, the first time my knees had appeared in public other than on a beach. I found it very comfortable but will be returning it to the hirers in Inverness on Monday. 

Second, leaving Dee behind, tucked up in bed proved very hard. As you might know and as mentioned in the speech she is unfit to travel right now. I realised as did she that this was the first time I had been 'out' on a social without my lady alongside me. 

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