The radical Robert Burns

Issue: 157

Charlie McKinnon

For many people the only association they have with the work of Robert Burns is singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year celebrations or at annual Burns Supper events. The real Burns, the radical, revolutionary Burns, is rarely even hinted at in these events. Instead what we have is a sentimentalised, romanticised portrayal of Burns as what Henry Mackenzie called “that heav’n taught ploughman”.1 MacKenzie was a lawyer, novelist and editor of The Lounger magazine in which he reviewed Burns’s work. Burns admired some of Mackenzie’s work; indeed one of his favourite novels was his Man of Feeling (1771). Mackenzie, however, was scornful of Burns’s use of vernacular Scots “which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader”.2 He was a loyal supporter of the Tory Pitt government and wrote anti-radical propaganda in the loyalist press against the French Revolution and in particular the movement for radical reform in Britain.3

Burns’s writings are hugely political. Indeed as Thomas Crawford so succinctly puts it: “Almost everything that Burns ever wrote was political in the broadest sense of that word”.4 Even a cursory look at his poems, songs and letters reveals a poet concerned about a wide range of political themes and issues including revolutionary change, war, radicalism, republicanism, religion, poverty and class inequalities, migrants, self-determination, Scottish cultural identity and the environment.

Nowadays it is difficult for any serious commentator who has studied Burns’s work to deny his radicalism. Nevertheless some critics still claim that his politics are confused and ambiguous. Moreover, the ruling class, monarchists and unionists still like to claim him as “their own”. For example, during Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 the issue of how Burns would have voted was debated in the press and wider media. Unionists, of course, claimed that Burns would have supported the British state by voting against independence. This short article will comment on this issue as well as briefly discussing two common criticisms of Burns in relation to his attitudes to slavery and to women. However, the main thrust of this article will be to look at the most important influences on Burns and how they shaped his radicalism.

Many of Burns’s earliest poems, songs and letters reveal his radical views and his empathy for the poor and vulnerable in society. He was without doubt a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of the ruling class and of aristocratic power and privilege. Burns’s magnificent poem Address of Beelzebub (1785)5 is a dramatic monologue aptly described by Gerard Carruthers as “one of Burns’ most savagely satirical poems”.6 The poem castigates the Highland landlords for their treatment of tenant farmers who were desperately trying to escape from the poverty of the Highland estates by emigrating to Canada. It clearly has a strong contemporary resonance given the worldwide refugee and migrant crisis exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In this poem Burns is writing in support of the right of migrants to emigrate for economic advancement and in search of liberty and freedom.

Similarly, The Twa Dogs (1785)7 is a brilliantly incisive social satire which contrasts the poverty of the rural poor with the luxurious lifestyle of the rural aristocracy. Love and Liberty (1787),8 more popularly known as The Jolly Beggars, is a rejection of organised society and the established social norms and conventions of the time. It is not difficult to see in one of the choruses which political and social institutions Burns is renouncing:

A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Life and influences

Burns was born in 1759 into a family of tenant farmers in Alloway, Ayrshire, the son of William Burns and Agnes Brown. This was a period of revolutionary upheaval and new ideas that would have a lasting effect on his work. As capitalist development began to transform feudal agriculture most tenant farmers were pushed into a life of brutal, grinding poverty. Burns captures this brilliantly in his poem The Vision (1785) where he describes himself as “half mad, half fed and half sarkit [clothed]”.9 Indeed, in a letter to Dr John Moore (2 August 1787) he described his early life as having “the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley slave”.10 From a very early age Burns worked long hours doing very heavy farm labouring. There is no doubt that this contributed to his many health problems and his early death in 1796. Burns’s humble origins meant that he never had the financial security that poets such as Byron and Shelley enjoyed, which would have enabled him to become a full-time writer. For most of his life he combined his writing with his job, first as a farmer and then as an excise officer. Burns used his connection with Robert Graham of Fintry, a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise and a patron of his, to secure employment with the excise board. Burns certainly knew how to flatter and he composed a somewhat sycophantic poem for Graham, Epistle to Robert Graham of Fintry (1788).11 Burns’s verse was not exactly subtle:

Prop of my dearest hopes for future times!
Why shrinks my soul, half blushing, half afraid,
Backward abashed to ask thy friendly aid?
I know my need, I know thy giving hand,
I tax thy friendship at thy kind command.

This was perhaps understandable given that his health was already suffering due to heavy farm labouring. He started work as an excise officer on a salary of around £50 per annum in July 1788. Burns’s personal experience of poverty and financial hardship clearly influenced his writing.

Burns was also acutely conscious of the environment and the delicate ­ecological balance between human activity and nature. Now Westlin Winds (1775),12 surely one of Burns’s most beautiful songs, captures this extremely well. It is also both a love song and a condemnation of blood sports. In the song Burns refers to “slaught’ring guns” and “Tyrannic man’s dominion!” His love of nature and animals is also revealed in poems such as The Wounded Hare (1789).13 In a letter to Alexander Cunningham (4 May 1789) he writes of his views on blood sports, saying: “Indeed there is something in all that multiform business of destroying for our sport individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, that I could never reconcile to my ideas of native virtue and eternal right”.14 The natural world and the environment feature strongly in Burns’s work. If he were alive today he would surely be concerned about current threats to the environment.

The development of capitalism was accompanied by a flourishing of new ideas which became known as the Scottish Enlightenment. In Burns’s day Scotland was at the forefront of scientific and intellectual development. Burns was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of reason, historical progress and human beings being entitled to universal human rights. He was in contact with and read the works of philosophers such as Glasgow University’s radical Professor John Millar as well as David Hume and Adam Smith. Burns’s poem Remorse (1784)15 is clearly influenced by Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. This is also evident in one of his best known poems, To a Louse (1785).16

Burns was also influenced by his Presbyterian upbringing. Scottish Presbyterianism at this time witnessed a struggle between the New Lichts (New Lights) and the dominant Auld Lichts (Old Lights). Burns supported the New Lichts who were influenced by the egalitarian ideas of the Enlightenment and in many respects he became their spokesperson through his poetry. His brilliant satirical monologue Holy Willie’s Prayer (1785)17 is a scathing attack on the religious hypocrisy of the Auld Lichts.

There is no doubt that Burns was also influenced by “populist resistance theory”. This has several different strands and includes Catholic resistance theory and Calvinist resistance theory. The latter stems from the work of George Buchanan (1506-82) the most radical of the resistance theorists. The basis of this doctrine was that government was a contract between the ruled (the people) and rulers (parliament and the monarch). Crucially, sovereignty lay not with the rulers but with the people. It followed therefore that the people had a right to resist tyranny or “bad government” which was against their interests.18 This right to revolt also influenced the Real Whigs and Scottish radicals in the late 18th century. Burns supported this doctrine which helps explain why he supported the American Revolution (1765-83), the French Revolution (1789), the United Irish Rebellion (1798) and the movement for radical reform in Britain.

The late 18th century was a time of radical political ferment in America, France and across the UK, particularly in Scotland. Burns was not an idle bystander during this tumultuous period. He wrote poems, songs and letters to radical newspapers such as The Edinburgh Gazetteer and the London Morning Chronicle articulating his radical views and support for the American and French Revolutions and the reform movement in Britain. He was a member of a number of radical clubs and associations including the Edinburgh Crochallan Fencibles and the Dumfries Friends of the People and subscribed to radical magazines such as The Bee edited by James Anderson. He was also in correspondence with some of the leading radicals of the time including the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, anti-slavery campaigners William Roscoe and Helen Maria Williams as well as Scottish republicans like Maria Riddell.

Burns’s support for Irish freedom was an inspiration to the Ulster Weaver poets who supported the United Irish Rebellion19 and its newspaper, The Belfast Northern Star.20 The most important of these poets was James Orr, who was a member of the Society of the United Irishmen (or Libertymen as they were more commonly known) and took part in the 1798 rebellion. Two other weaver poets, Samuel Thomson and Luke Mullan, travelled to Scotland to meet Burns and his work regularly appeared in the Northern Star.

Burns’s support for Irish freedom was consistent with his support for the American and French Revolutions and populist resistance theory. One of his first openly political songs was Ballad on the American War (1784)21 which expresses support for the American Revolution and the disarray it caused in the government of William Pitt the younger. The Rev Dr Hugh Blair, who helped promote Burns’s work in literary circles in Edinburgh, remarked after reading this song “Burns’ politics always smell of the smithy” and also advised against the publication of The Jolly Beggars.22 It was not unusual for some of Burns’s supporters and confidants to do this, particularly if they were dismissive of or hostile to his radical views.

Burns and the French Revolution

By far the biggest influence on Burns was the French Revolution. He uses Ça ira, the French revolutionary song, in poems such as The Rights of Woman (1792).23 This poem shows that although Burns could be influenced by the restrictive prevailing ideas about women of his day, he did, however, support much greater freedom for women. There are several versions of Ça ira. Part of one version translates:

It shall be so,
Liberty will be established
Despite the tyrants everyone will rise up.24

The more radical Sans-culottes version includes the lines: “aristocrats to the lamp-post. The aristocrats we’ll hang them”.25

Burns had sent the poem to Dumfries Theatre with instructions for it to be read out. This was at a time when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were on trial in France and as Patrick Scott Hogg says “to end the poem Ah! Ça ira! The Majesty of Women was deliberately provocative and likely to prompt reformers in the audience to chant down the traditional loyalist song”.26 This was exactly what happened. It was not long before Burns was accused of disloyalty and disrespecting the king by keeping his hat on during the national anthem and singing Ça ira in Dumfries Theatre.

Furthermore, one of Burns’s most famous poems, Scots Wha Hae (1793),27 sometimes wrongly characterised as nationalistic, concludes by invoking the Tennis Court Oath of the French revolutionaries: “Let us do—or die”. The last verse reads:

Lay the proud usurper low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do or die!

These were clearly radical, revolutionary sentiments that Burns was associating himself with. Furthermore, in his job as an excise man Burns bought four cannons from the Rosamond (a ship impounded for smuggling) and sent them with a “dedicatory letter of support for the Legislative Assembly in France”.28

In Ode for General Washington’s Birthday (1794)29 Burns attacks the Pitt government for waging war against France and for suppressing the reform movement in Britain. Moreover, in a letter to Frances Dunlop in late 1794, he said of the execution of King Louis XVI of France that we should shed no tears for a “perjured blockhead” and in the same letter he looks forward to the day “when a man may freely blame Billy Pitt, without being called an enemy to his country”.30

Burns was clearly optimistic that the movement for parliamentary reform in Britain would succeed. His song Here’s a Health to them that’s Awa (1792)31 celebrates leading figures in the radical reform movement such as Thomas Erskine who defended Thomas Paine in absentia. It also defends the idea of free speech which was coming under attack from the Pitt government:

Here’s freedom to him that wad read,
Here’s freedom to him that wad write,
There’s nane ever fear’d that the truth should be heard,
But they whom the truth wad indite.

Indeed this mood of optimism was best summed up by the Edinburgh Gazetteer which said early in 1792: “Despotism has now been shook to the centre of the continent and before the conclusion of next summer the Tree of Liberty will occupy the soil that has long been usurped by merciless tyranny”.32

They were wrong.

Repression of the reform movement

By 1790 the Pitt government, panicked by events in France, unleashed a savage repression. The intellectual figurehead of the reactionary backlash was Edmund Burke. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790) he argued that civilisation would be “trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude”.33 The radical Paine’s brilliant pamphlet The Rights of Man (1792) was a stinging response to Burke. It sold an incredible 200,000 copies, a remarkable number at a time when literacy rates were low. By comparison Burke’s Reflections sold only 30,000. It is little wonder that the ruling class were in a panic. Burns enthusiastically embraced Paine and loathed Burke, referring to the latter in his Dumfries Epigrams as the “poisonous reptile”.34

Anti-radical groups such as The Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers spread across Britain. In Scotland the Dumfries Loyal Natives distributed anti-radical propaganda and attacked Burns and other radicals. Monarchist loyalists disrupted radical meetings, burned effigies of Paine at demonstrations and attacked printers who published The Rights of Man and other radical works.

In 1793-4 the notorious treason trials took place in Edinburgh presided over by the vicious Lord Braxfield. The radical Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir was charged with sedition, distributing seditious works (including The Rights of Man) and reading out an address at the Friends of the People Convention in support of the United Irishmen. Braxfield was absolutely clear that he was defending the interests of the ruling class and in his address to the jury stated:

A government in every country should be just like a corporation; and, in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented. As for the rabble, who has nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation on them?35

Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to a penal colony in Australia and William Fysse Palmer, a Unitarian minister from Dundee, was sentenced to seven years. These were followed in 1794 by the trial and convictions of William Skirving and one of the founders of the London Corresponding Society, Maurice Margarot. In less than a year over 100 radicals were convicted of sedition and given brutal sentences.

The repression intensified in 1795 with the passing of the so-called “gagging acts” (the Seditious Meetings Act and Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act) which made free speech virtually impossible. These were introduced in response to a huge rally on 26 October 1795 organised by the London Corresponding Society demanding parliamentary reform and the resignation of government ministers. Three days later the King’s carriage, on its way to the opening of parliament, had been pelted by a mob shouting “Bread, Peace, No Pitt”.36 The repression “drove the reform movement back from the streets and parks into silent and sullen resentment”37 although in Ireland it would continue until the defeat of the United Irish Rebellion in 1798.

By late 1792 Burns was being investigated by the Excise Board “as a person disaffected to government”38 and was being observed by the elaborate spy network set up by the Lord Advocate Robert Dundas. As such he was often forced to write anonymously or use a pseudonym, particularly at the height of the repression. He often used the technique of ironic assent in his poems, seemingly giving support to what he was in fact attacking. Burns fully expected to be arrested. There is no doubt that it was only his fame as a poet and personal contacts that stopped him from being tried for sedition.

Indeed in an epistle to Maria Riddell, Epistle From Esopus To Maria (1795),39 Burns suggests that:

The shrinking Bard down an alley skulks,
And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks [prison ships]:
Tho there, his heresies in Church and State,
Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate.

Despite this some of Burns’s most radical work was written during and after the repression of the reform movement. The Dagger (1793),40 one of the lost poems discovered by Hogg,41 is a superb satire advocating support for the French Revolution and parliamentary reform and also a scathing attack on Burke. Similarly, The Tree of Liberty (1793)42 supports both the French and American Revolutions and laments the repression of the reform movement in England:

That sic a tree can not be found,
Twixt London and the Tweed, man.

It became a potent symbol of the Scottish Reform movement. Trees of Liberty were erected in towns across Scotland during the 1790s. During Margarot’s trial in Edinburgh he was escorted by supporters to the court bearing a Tree of Liberty “shaped like the letter M”, with a scroll inscribed “Liberty, Virtue, Reason, Justice and Truth”.43

Burns’s iconic song A Man’s a Man For A’ That (1795)44 denigrates aristocratic power and privilege—“the rank is but the guinea’s stamp”—and champions equality, and the worth of the common man: “The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that”. It ends with perhaps one of the best known Burns lines, the fraternal: “That Man to Man the warld o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that”. Auguste Angellier referred to it as the “Marseillaise of Equality”, an apt title for a song that advocates international, fraternal brotherhood and revolutionary change.45

Burns and slavery

Burns has been criticised over his attitude to slavery, primarily because in 1786 he had booked passage on a ship to go to Jamaica and work on a slave plantation as a bookkeeper. Jamaica was, of course, a pivotal part of the evil and inhuman “triangular slave trade” that generated the wealth that cities such as Glasgow were built on. Critics also point out that Burns’s signature has not been found on any anti-slavery petition of the time. Scotland has, as historian Tom Devine says, “collective slavery amnesia in both history and literature”, in terms of not facing up to the prominent role the country played in the Atlantic slave trade.46 This amnesia extends to those Burnsians who either ignore or gloss over his decision to go to Jamaica. It is difficult to believe that a poet who wrote so powerfully and movingly about liberty, freedom, injustice and the rights of the common people could ever have contemplated such a move.

In the end, Burns did not actually go to Jamaica and it is likely that a financially bankrupt Burns contemplated the move because he was running away, fearing arrest and imprisonment. James Armour, his future wife Jean’s father, had issued a warrant for his arrest. Indeed in a letter to John Richmond (30 July 1786) an anxious Burns says: “Would you believe it? Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail till I find security for an enormous sum”.47

In the Scotland of 1786 the anti-slavery movement was only beginning to gather momentum, with support not peaking until 1792. In Scotland slavery was also far less visible than in England: “evidence was remote and disguised”.48 It is estimated that there were in total about 70 slaves in Scotland and most of these worked as servants in the homes of rich merchants behind closed doors.49 It was Burns’s contact with radical abolitionists such as Roscoe and Williams that helped develop his awareness and understanding of the slave trade. Burns was also friends with Elizabeth and Stephen Kemble, two of the most prominent actors of the time who held both radical and abolitionist views. He attended a performance of the anti-slavery play, Inkle and Yarico, at the Globe theatre in Dumfries on 21 October 1794.50 Indeed, he wrote an epigram, On Seeing Mrs Kemble in Inkle and Yarico51 to the actress in praise of her performance as the slave girl Yarico in the play.

Burns’s correspondence with Williams is of some significance and quite revealing about his views on slavery. He had written to her in December 1787 to offer advice on her anti-slavery Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade. It is clear from the letter that Burns is not just offering advice on the technical and aesthetic merits of the poem but that he supports its anti-slavery sentiments. He commends Williams for her “excellent poem on the slave trade”. “I do not remember to have seen a stronger expression of misery than is contained in these verses” writes Burns. He goes on to say that “from verse 85th to 108th is an animated contrast between the unfeeling selfishness of the oppressor on the one hand, and the misery of the captive on the other”.52

Burns’s poem The Slave’s Lament (1792)53 has been criticised as “fairly pallid stuff”54 that “serves only to highlight how little interest he took in the pro-abolitionist cause”.55 When compared to the creative genius of many of his other poems and songs it may not be Burns’s finest work. But what is surely more important is that it is an abolitionist poem. What is more, the black American poet and writer Maya Angelou was a huge admirer of Burns and visited his birthplace on the bicentenary of his birth in 1996. For her The Slave’s Lament is “a perfect example of the ways in which a poet transcends race, time and place”. She said of Burns: “He was the first white man I read who seemed to understand that a human being was a human being and that we are more alike than unalike”.56

Burns’s work inspired and influenced abolitionists in the United States, none more so than former slave and author Frederick Douglass. He visited Burns’s birthplace in Alloway in April 1846 while on his two-year tour of Britain to build support for the abolitionist movement. Douglass wrote an account of his visit to Alloway which was published in the New York Weekly Tribune. He revealed he was “an enthusiastic admirer of Robert Burns” as someone who “broke loose from the moorings of society” and was “filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy”.57

It could be argued that Burns should have been more proactively involved in the anti-slavery movement in Scotland particularly as it gathered momentum after 1788. However, by the end of 1792 Burns’s “political conduct” was being investigated by the authorities and it may be the case that he did not wish to invite further scrutiny. It is likely that David Daiches is correct when he says: “It is difficult to believe that Burns was ever wholly serious in his intention to go to Jamaica”.58 Burns postponed the trip on several occasions before abandoning it completely; not just because of the publication and success of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect but arguably because his awareness and understanding of “this infernal traffic”, as he called it, had increased.59

Burns and women

Burns’s detractors sometimes characterise him as a drunken, sexist womaniser. It was Catherine Carswell who first questioned Burns’s relationships with women, controversially suggesting that: “The love of women was necessary to him, but equally necessary his domination as the male”, adding that “to no woman would he subjugate himself”.60 There is no doubt that he had several affairs and fathered 13 children, nine with his wife Jean Armour and four with other women. It is also true that there are contradictory elements to Burns’s attitude to and relationships with women. For example, in a letter to Robert Ainslie (3 March 1788) Burns boasted, in a dreadful sexist manner, of his sexual prowess with Armour who was heavily pregnant at the time.61 On the other hand he wrote a number of poems and songs expressing tenderness, affection and love for Jean. Of these the lyrically beautiful O, Were I on Parnassus Hill (1788)62 stands out in particular.

Moreover, Burns did not abrogate responsibility for children that he fathered, which was unusual for men in the late 18th century. He made legal provision for example, for his first child, Elizabeth Paton, providing financial support to her mother (Betsy Paton) although the child was being brought up by Burns’s mother. His poem A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-Begotten Daughter (1784)63 is a beautiful poem expressing his love for his first born daughter. Moreover, he was by all accounts a very attentive and loving father to his children. James Gray, rector of Dumfries Academy in Burns’s day, said: “He superintended the education of his children with a degree of care that I have never seen surpassed by any parent in any rank of life whatever”.64

Burns had a progressive attitude to sex for the times, in that he viewed it as something to be enjoyed not just by men but also by women. Conversely, Scottish Presbyterianism in the 18th century criminalised sex outside marriage and the church strongly influenced social norms and behaviour, particularly in rural areas. “Sinners” had to pay a fine of one guinea and sit on the “cutty stool” in front of the church congregation and be lambasted as a sinner by the minister. Burns was subjected to this humiliating ritual.

It is important that we set Burns’s attitude to women in its historical context and if we do judge him we do so not by today’s standards but by the standards of the time. Women in the 18th century were treated as second class citizens whose primary function was to have and raise children. It is worth recalling that, on the subject of the education of women, Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

The education of the women should always be relative to men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.65

Rousseau’s thinking on the rights of women was in direct contrast to the enlightened ideas he developed in The Social Contract and the Discourse on Inequality. The radical 18th century thinker and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was a “Rousseauist” who admired much of his writings, but she explicitly wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to challenge Rousseau’s discriminatory attitudes towards women.66 The point is that Rousseau and Burns were clearly influenced by the prevailing ideas about the role of women in society and their views must be considered in their historical context.

Burns and the referendum on Scottish independence

The issue of how Burns would have voted in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 was widely debated in the media and will no doubt resurface if Scottish independence is put to a referendum again in the future. Burns scholar Robert Crawford supposes that he would have supported independence. But for other academics, this is far less certain; Kirsteen McCue, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, points out that: “A number of his songs were against the French and for the British. I think it is very difficult to pin him down politically”.67

Anything said here about this is, of course, speculative. But there is evidence in Burns’s writings to suggest that he was deeply dissatisfied with the Act of Union (1707). In a letter to Frances Dunlop (10 April 1790) he writes, “Alas! I have often said to myself what are all the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union, that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence, and even her very name”.68 Some of Burns’s poems also articulate his frustration with the post-1707 settlement. His song Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation (1791)69 damns the Scottish signatories to the act with the well-known lines “We’re bought and sold for English gold, Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”

In his poem The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer (1786),70 Burns lambasts Scotland’s 45 MPs for putting personal interest and ambition before the interests of the country and for failing to defend its whisky industry. He urges its representatives to forget about ministerial rewards and honours and to put Scotland’s interests first: “Speak out, an’ never fash your thumb [trouble yourself]”, “Let posts an’ pensions sink or soom [swim]”.

For some Unionists evidence of Burns’s Britishness is that he joined a militia group, the Dumfries Volunteers, in 1795 at the height of concerns over a possible French invasion of Britain. However, Liam McIlvanney points out that this was not unusual for radicals of the day. Indeed, militias were were run by committee, not controlled by the government, and elected their own officers, and therefore they were viewed with suspicion by the government.71 Unionists also suggest that further proof of Burns’s Britishness can be found in his song Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat? (1795), more popularly known as The Dumfries Volunteers.72 In the song Burns says:

Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Must British wrongs be righted.

Again it could be argued, however, that this was entirely consistent with Burns’s radical views. In other words “liberty” should not be imposed by invading armies but rather by the people themselves in a movement for radical reform.

Burns regarded himself as the “patriot-bard” and there is no doubting his Scottish patriotism. However, what defined him more specifically in the 1790s was not “nationalism” but radicalism. Like many of the Scots radicals of the time he sought inspiration from William Wallace and Robert the Bruce but, as discussed above, it was the American Revolution and in particular the French Revolution that gave impetus to his passionate desire for radical change. It is difficult to imagine Burns, who was on the side of the poor and vulnerable in society, voting in a referendum to defend the Union. However, his support for independence would be predicated on the basis that it would improve the lives of the poor and vulnerable and, given his anti-war views, that Scotland would not involve itself in the military adventurism that characterised the Pitt government in his day and successive Labour and Conservative governments in recent times.


Burns is not just important to Scotland, where it is estimated that he is worth £157 million per annum to the Scottish tourist industry.73 He is also a world-wide iconic figure.74 As such it is hardly surprising that there are debates ­surrounding his legacy. The last thing that the establishment want is Burns to be closely identified with radicalism.

Burns was not perfect. As we noted in relation to women, for example, he could be influenced by the dominant discriminatory ideas of the time. However, as with the issue of slavery, it is important that Burns’s politics should not be seen as a fixed body of thought but as evolving and changing in response to the complex interaction of his personal, social and political life experiences. However, there may be merit and wisdom in Frederick Douglass’s observation of Burns that “we may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own” and that Burns was “far more faultless than many who have come down to us on the pages of history as saints”.75

By 1795 Burns was seriously ill but did not, as some critics have suggested, recant his radical views. Daiches, for example, suggests that when Burns was being investigated by the Excise Board he was forced to make a “humiliating recantation”.76 By contrast Liam McIlvaney convincingly argues that Burns, like other radicals of the time, defended himself on the basis of a radical contractarian interpretation of the Constitution of 1688. Burns’s “contractarian view of the British constitution allowed him to envisage circumstances which would justify popular resistance to government and even, perhaps, Scottish rejection of the union”.77 In fact he was in many respects unapologetic about his conduct. In a letter to Robert Graham of Fintry (5 January 1793) he states “that we have a good deal deviated from the original principles of that Constitution; particularly, that an alarming System of Corruption has pervaded the connection between the Executive Power and the House of Commons”.78

Burns’s last few years were blighted by poor health but just a few weeks before his death on 21 July 1796, an ailing Burns defiantly writes: “If I must write let it be Sedition, or Blasphemy, or something else that begins with a B, so that I may grin with the grin of iniquity and rejoice with the rejoicing of an apostate angel”.79

One of the last people to meet Burns before his death was the reverend James MacDonald. In a manuscript, cited by Burns scholar Robert Crawford, MacDonald reveals that Burns talked to him about his staunch republicanism and radical politics. Crawford remarks “this is Burns the spirited rebel, Bard of Sedition, even Blasphemy”.80 We too should celebrate Burns as a radical poet of the Enlightenment era and a champion of the poor and the oppressed who stands clearly in the tradition of revolutionary change.

Charlie McKinnon is a member of the SWP in Glasgow. He is also an activist, retired teacher and a member of the EIS trade union.


1 Mackenzie’s review in The Lounger, 1786, quoted in Goring, 2014, pp162-163.

2 Goring, 2014, pp162-163.

3 Noble and Hogg, 2003, pxlviii.

4 Crawford, 2009, p238.

5 Mackay, 1990, p225.

6 Carruthers, 2006, p56.

7 Mackay, 1990, p140.

8 Mackay, 1990, p182.

9 Mackay, 1990, p114.

10 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, number 125.

11 Mackay, 1990, p330.

12 Mackay, 1990, p44.

13 Mackay, 1990, p354.

14 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, n336.

15 Mackay, 1990, p66.

16 Mackay, 1990, p181.

17 Mackay, 1990, p93.

18 McIlvanney, 2002, chapter 1.

19 The United Irish Rebellion (1798) was an attempt to end British rule in Ireland and set up an Irish republic. The revolt was organised and led by the Society of United Irishmen and their charismatic leader Wolfe Tone. It was inspired by the ideas of the French and American Revolutions and by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which was widely circulated in Ireland after its publication in 1791. The rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British state with estimates of fatalities ranging from 10,000 to 50,000. The Pitt government then abolished the Irish Parliament, which had existed since the end of the 13th century, by passing the Irish Act of Union in 1801. Ireland remained part of the Union until the 1921 Treaty between the British government and Sinn Féin that ended the Irish War of Independence. This resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State.

20 Burns was also an inspiration to the Paisley Weaver poets, most notably the radical Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) and Robert Tannahill (1744-1810). Wilson fled to America in 1794 where he found fame as the “father of American ornithology”. Burns’s work also inspired radical feminist poet Marion Bernstein, interest in whose work was revived by Tom Leonard’s superb book Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to World War I—Leonard, 1990. He was also an influence on Robert Nicoll, the poet and editor of the radical Leeds Times, whose work appeared in the chartist newspaper The Northern Star—See Whatley, 2016, chapter 2: “Burns, Chartism and the Working Classes”.

21 Mackay, 1990, p72.

22 Quoted in McIntyre, 2009, p128.

23 Mackay, 1990, p471.

24 Crawford, 2010, p358.

25 McIntyre, 2009, p324.

26 Hogg, 2009, p245.

27 Mackay, 1990, p500.

28 Hogg, 2009, p237.

29 Mackay, 1990, p515.

30 Ferguson, 1985, volume 2, number 649.

31 Mackay, 1990, p473.

32 Quoted in McIlvanney, 2002, p202.

33 Quoted in Crawford, 2010, p393.

34 Mackay, 1990, p534.

35 Meikle, 1912, p134.

36 Meikle, 1912, p158.

37 Foot, 2012, p56.

38 Ferguson, 1985, volume 2, n528.

39 Mackay, 1990, p539.

40 Hogg, 1997, p91.

41 The publication in 1997 of Patrick Scott Hogg’s book Robert Burns: The Lost Poems provoked a vigorous and at times acrimonious debate among some Burns scholars regarding the provenance of the newly discovered poems. Research by Gerard Carruthers of Glasgow University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies subsequently proved that some of these poems were written not by Burns but by Alexander Geddes, a radical Catholic priest from north east Scotland (see Carruthers, 1999). The Dagger, however, is accepted by a number of academics as being the work of Burns.

42 Mackay, 1990, p478.

43 Meikle, 1912, p145.

44 Mackay, 1990, p535.

45 Quoted in Meikle, 1912, p122.

46 Devine, 2015a, p3. See also Devine, 2015b, and Morris, 2015.

47 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, number 36.

48 McGinn, 2010.

49 Scottish Government, 2007.

50 Wright, 2013, ppxi-xvi.

51 Mackay, 1990, p526.

52 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, number 353.

53 Mackay, 1990, p463.

54 Carruthers, 2008.

55 Carruthers, 2006, p60.

57 Douglass, 1846.

58 Daiches, 2009, p93.

59 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, n353.

60 Carswell, 1930, p136.

61 Ferguson, 1985, volume 1, n215.

62 Mackay, 1990, p329.

63 Mackay, 1990, p112.

64 McIntyre, 2009, p333.

65 Gordon, 2015, p172.

66 Taylor, 2004, p73.

67 Aitken, 2014.

68 Ferguson, 1985, volume 2, n649.

69 Mackay, 1990, p460.

70 Mackay, 1990, p174.

71 See “The Dumfries Volunteers Controversy” in McIlvanney, 2002, pp235-238.

72 Mackay, 1990, p537.

74 Burns is extremely popular in Russia where the class basis of much of his poetry appealed to successive governments. Samuil Marshak (1887-1964), a friend of Maxim Gorky, translated over 200 of Burns’s poems and his translations are still widely used in Russia today. Marshak admired Burns’s work and continued to translate his poetry until his death. Indeed he wrote a poem, To Robert Burns, to mark the poet’s bicentenary in 1959—Marshak, 1959. Marshak described Burns as “the poet of common origins” whose poems “speak of liberty, of the brotherhood of nations, of peace and of the true nobility of those who provide for themselves with honest labour”—Marshak, 1955.

Burns’s poems were translated within the strictures of Stalin’s version of “social realism”. This resulted in many of his poems being significantly amended or not being translated at all. Poems with reference to religion were omitted as the Soviet regime did not officially recognise any religion. Similarly, poems addressed to friends of Burns who were part of the aristocracy were omitted; Burns could not be seen to have connections with the upper class. Hence the poem Extempore Verses on Dining with Lord Daer was not translated despite the fact that Lord Daer was a prominent radical and a leading member of the Friends of the People who supported the ideas of the French Revolution. Marshak also translated poems that were about specific political events in particular countries in a way that gave them a more international and universal appeal as with, for example, his translation of The Tree of Liberty—Vid, 2016.

75 Douglas, 1846.

76 Daiches, 2009, p267.

77 McIlvanney, 2002, p209.

78 Ferguson, 1985, volume 2, n530.

79 Ferguson, 1985, volume 2, n697.

80 Crawford, 2010, p396.


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