Freedom and whisky gang thegither (Robert Burns)

Freedom and whisky gang thegither (Robert Burns)

With Burns Night fast approaching Martin Betts examines the short, but eventful, life of Robert Burns and the role whisky played within it.

People | 16 Dec 2000 | Issue 13 | By Martin Betts

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An cut you up wi’ ready slight,” recites the chairman as his knife slices through the haggis with all the precision of a surgical scalpel. There is much applause before the guests toast the Burns Night meal with a fine malt that glides over their taste buds, leaving them all with a satisfying sensation of warmth that courses through their bodies.In the midst of winter a meal of hot soup followed by haggis, neeps and tatties, and Typsy Laird (sherry trifle) washed down with a good Scotch is as welcome as finding out that you have won the lottery. Celebrating the birth of Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, is cracking fun, therefore it’s tempting to think of Burns during the festivities as a jolly Scot who wrote excellent songs and poetry that often celebrated whisky. However, before you enjoy your Scotch this Burns Night, consider this: whisky played an important role in the story of his life, a life that saw Burns fight poverty, depression and adversity in an attempt to create a better environment for his family and himself.He was born against a backdrop of uprising and revolution in Alloway, Ayrshire on the 25th January 1759. Some thirteen years before Robert’s birth the Jacobites had marched into England only to be later slaughtered by an army led by King George III’s brother - Butcher Cumberland. Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stewart), who had led the Jacobite uprising, was forced to flee to France. Others were executed, murdered or jailed – where they were left to rot. Highland dress and Bagpipes were banned as the Scottish way of life began to change in the face of industrialisation.The first lungful of air Robert took upon his birth must have had a whiff of egalitarianism because the bairn was to grow into a man who firmly did not appreciate the fact that Scotland and her people were dictated to by the English royal family. It would be his opinion that all men should be equal whatever their nationality or circumstance – the fact that this wasn’t an accepted form of thinking in society during his lifetime infuriated and depressed him.He was the eldest of William Burnes and Agnes Broun’s seven children, spending his youth engaged in hard labour upon his father’s farm at Mount Oliphant. However, his father obviously didn’t envisage Robert, or his brother Gilbert, spending their lives as agricultural workers because, together with other local parents, he employed a tutor. This excited Robert for he had already become interested in both writing and song thanks to his mother who sang to her children in what is described as ‘auld’ Scots.Under John Murdoch’s tutelage Robert and his brother learnt the fundamentals of reading, writng and grammar. An oft-quoted progress report written by Murdoch informs William Burnes that Robert had an exceptional skill for reading but was “just tolerable at writing.” Rabbie’s love of the written word led him to finding and devouring a book about William Wallace. The story of the Scottish freedom fighter must have stoked the fires of anti-establishment feeling that were smouldering in his belly – flames that were fanned further by his intellectual support of the American cause during the War of Independence in 1776.By the time Robert had turned 15 he was responsible for overseeing much of the work upon the farm. It is
difficult to comprehend how hard the work must have been for a teenage boy, but he must have believed the prospect of having a life any different to that of his father, who had been a landscape gardener before finally ending up as a tenant farmer fighting crippling debt, was unrealistic. The only form of escape was through the written word. Robert’s writing sharpened his appreciation of beauty, in stark contrast to the less than salubrious surroundings in which he spent his formative years.As he grew older he found another form of escape from his mundane existence – liaisons with the opposite sex. Burns is said to have been a very handsome man: he had a dark complexion, black curly hair and was strongly built thanks to the physically demanding agricultural labour that he had undertaken for many years. His good looks and silver-tongued charm allowed him to develop his skill of seduction. Scotland On-Line’s dedicated Burns website,, reports that the young Burns gained a reputation in the local area for his skill with women. Men who encountered difficulty engaging the female of the species in conversation pleaded for his help, Cyrano de Bergerac style.This activity graphically illustrates Burns’ double-edged personality: willing to work hard both manually and academically, he found opportunities to escape from the depressing world in which he existed to another reality where he assumed the personality of a devil-may-care rogue who romanced women and found camaraderie through drinking. He wrote that “freedom and whisky gang thegither,” underlining the fact that he felt in control of his own destiny when he had a dram with his friends.Robert was also fascinated with the effects of whisky and how it enabled a person to change persona – effectively making it known that he attained a differing state of mind, possibly his most creative, when he drank. In one of his later works, Tam O’ Shanter, Burns wrote: “Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou carist make us scorn! Wi’ tippery, we fear nae evil, wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!”Robert’s father died on the 13th February 1784, a landmark emotionally and creatively for Robert. From that day onward he signed his surname as ‘Burns’ upon his correspondence and his work, and he also began to plan his escape to the warmer climes of the Caribbean.However, he abandoned this idea when his first collection of poems was published on the 14th of April 1786 under the title ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – Kilmarnock Edition’. The book was well received by the literary critics of the day, appealing to his academic persona. Coupled with the fact that he was now a proud father (to what number and to which women remains a moot point) he decided to stay in Scotland and tour the country. This enabled him to take his poetry to the masses and he eventually arrived in Edinburgh where he was welcomed with open arms by members of the most influential social circles.His celebrity enabled him to marry Jean Armour, whose parents had, until then, no desire for their daughter to marry a man they regarded as a penniless writer and drunkard. What she made of his constant infidelity is up for discussion, but she stood by him and he cared for her and their children. In fact, he realised his poetry would not sustain them financially and so he took to working long
arduous, health threatening hours again – this time as an exciseman. This move may be seen as a case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, with Burns regulating the very substance that lent him his creative edge.Robert continued to write even though his new career led him to earn more money and gain numerous promotions that earned him new found respect in the community. However, he never let any of this go to his head and he enjoyed mocking his profession’s lack of popularity, writing in 1792: “The deil cam fiddlin’ throu’ the toun, And danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman.” The anti-establishment fire still roared in his belly: at an exciseman’s dinner he toasted George Washington as a better man than the British Prime Minister in front of his superiors.Many Burns enthusiasts play down Robert’s prowess as a hardened drinker because he had been accepted by members of Edinburgh’s social elite, had a successful career as an exciseman and because the Armour’s let him marry their precious daughter Jean. However, there is evidence that Burns frequently over indulged when it came to drink. In a letter to Robert Ainslie in November 1791 Burns writes: “Amid the horrors of penitence, regret, remorse, headache, nausea and all the rest of the hounds of hell that beset a poor wretch who has been guilty of the sin of drunkenness – can you speak to a troubled soul? My wife scolds me!” A detailed investigation of his life will also reveal how he even fell out with the family of a female friend, Maria Riddell, because of his behaviour while under the influence of alcohol.However, it is safe to suggest that Burns didn’t spend his entire life in a drunken stupor. It would be foolish to say that he didn’t become intoxicated (possibly on a regular basis) but he was far more interested in the physical feeling a couple of drams gave him – he believed it to be a bracing and invigorating experience.The ravages of a life filled with toil eventually caught up with Robert Burns whilst still at a young age. He died, aged 37, on the 21st of July 1796 – the same day his wife (who survived him by 38 years) added to his brood by giving birth to his last child, Maxwell. His funeral took place at St Michael’s Kirkyard, Dumfries, four days later and it’s reported that over 10,000 people attended to pay their last respects.In the years that followed his death, his popularity grew as more and more people discovered his legacy of over 500 songs and poems that literary luminaries such as Wordsworth, Keats and Sir Walter Scott acknowledged as skilfully crafted pieces of literature. Close friends then decided to honour his memory by staging an annual supper upon his birthday, the format of which still forms the backbone of Burns Night celebrations today.Your attendance at this year’s event should mean more than celebrating Scotland’s culture and favourite son, it means
celebrating the man and what he stood for. Burns was far from being a saint: he often drank to excess, he was unfaithful to his wife and he fathered children outside wedlock. Yet he is a real, human icon for the common man. He is an inspiration – despite being from an underprivileged, agricultural background he worked and studied hard, remained his own man throughout his life and rose from obscurity to become a national hero. What makes it even better is that he achieved this with a wee dram never too far from his lips. Before you toast the man think carefully about his life: I guarantee you will find your Scotch all the more invigorating.
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