Robert Burns was a libertarian. Everywhere in his verse you find the subtext of a broad egalitarianism and the burning question asking – by what right do our rulers tell us what to do?
Perhaps copying Shakespeare, he was able to insult the ruling classes while at the same time flattering them.
Here are three things I learned from Robert Burns:
- Scotland’s Enemy’s Within
- The Rank Is But The Guinea’s Stamp
- The Language Of The People Is Inherently Dangerous
The Enemy Within
The song Parcel of Rogues in a Nation is a song condemning the merchant and aristocratic elite for taking bribes from their counterparts to agree unfair terms in the Act of Union of 1707.
The great crime of the union was never its existence. The idea dates as far back as the Scots historian John Mair, and was a favoured idea among even the most radical and patriotic Scottish scholars like George Buchanan.
You could even say the Scots invented the union!
No, Burns’s Parcel of Rogues serves a reminder that the enemy of the Scots is the Scots, the presbyterian Bourgeoisie, the mercantile class and bankrupt Lairds who readily sold not just the land of their nation but the spiritual spine of it too, for the sake of a corporate fiction: Great Britain.
Burns was not anti-union, he was simply ashamed of way philistines within Scotland bargained away the identity of a people to line their own pockets.
The wounds of this tawdry deal go deeper than simply the Act of Union. They exist because of a loss of culture, the stripping of a people’s identity overnight.
Dismantling a state is just as artificial and traumatic as trying build one. If there is to be Union it should be fair, organic, and forged over time, not bought at the cheapest price.
The Rank Is But The Guinea’s Stamp
The line comes from A Man’s A Man For A That. It is easy to overlook the power of a line like this in Burns’s time. The sentiment was by no means taken for granted, and it gets its bite from the political backdrop of the times.
The aristocracy was becoming increasingly reliant on industrial investments and empire to prop up its political power.
Nevertheless the elites still considered themselves born to rule, and in an English centric monarchy, divine right of kings was still a resonant concept.
The idea is also essentially Scottish. There are class distinctions in Scotland but you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone with any illusions of birth and entitlement.
So much of Burns’s poetry is invested in the idea that all human beings are fundamentally the same, that no one set is born to rule over another, and that one group’s claim to power is grounded in nothing but the might of the sword.
A line like this puts him firmly in the Republican, pro-French Revolution camp, and it was a dangerous camp to be in.
One of the sad things about the bourgeoisie is that they don’t do away with aristocratic entitlements. They just claim them for themselves. That is Thatcherism in a nutshell.
You too can have a piece of the pie.
Still more ironic is the tendency to protest too much about one’s working class roots.
This marred Burns’s literary contribution in his own time, and it taints his legacy today. All the haggis bashing and twee, tartan flummery around Burns Night is testament to that.
The Language Of The People
That Burns’s writing in the Scots tongue is broadly considered just a sentimental curiosity is tragic, but it’s exactly what happens to any writer who attempts to distil the language of real folk.
It happened to Kerouac and the Beats, when they wrote in the authentic hepcat hip-talk of street hustlers and isolated artists.
In both cases the language was real, in no way an affectation. But a bourgeois audience integrates it and it ends up having the opposite of the intended effect, which is to present reality, rather than the pasteurised symbolism of middle class culture.
Despite this, the fact that higher classes feel the need to sanitise any folk aesthetic demonstrates how dangerous it always is, particularly when it comes to language.
We talk a lot about the tragic loss of gaelic culture, but what is equally tragic is the loss of Scots culture, and the heritage of its linguistic development.
Language determines the psychic possibilities of a man and his culture. Burns knew this, and his achievement was bold and cannot be undone.
The secret buried in the Scots tongue is this: that Scottish culture is an amalgam of Anglo-saxon/Norman and celtic aesthetics and heritage.
Those that overemphasise the celtic roots of Scotland are not being inaccurate, they are just lacking in thoroughness.
What makes Scotland unique compared to any of the other nations of the British Isles is this convergence of saxon/Norman and celtic cultures, and the ease with which these they are blended in the language.
Burns’s hero Robert Ferguson was the braver of the two poets; he died in Bedlam for his Scots verse.
But Burns made sure that however drowned in anachronisms and petty nostalgia Scots language culture continues to be, the truth of its gravity and power is there for any of us if we want it.