Senior Common Room Burns Night Supper, 25th January 2008.
Joachim Room, College of St. Hild & St. Bede, Durham University, Durham.
Mr. President, members of the Senior Common Room, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am deeply honoured to be asked to give this address tonight and nothing gives me greater pleasure that to look back over the life of Robert Burns, but I also suspect it was our esteemed President’s way of taking his revenge on me for asking him to be best man at my wedding.
Now you will have to bear with me, for this is the first time that I’ve attempted to toast the memory of Scotland’s National Poet and the person whose life and accomplishments we’re here to celebrate tonight.
Being slightly overawed at the prospect of talking about Burns I looked for some advice. This terrified me even more when I noticed phrases such as ‘formal tribute’ and ‘keynote’.
Fortunately I stumbled on this little gem:
This speech 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.
…so I shall attempt to be both long winded, (something my students will be more that familiar with), brief (something I’m renowned for NOT being), and (I hope) mildly humorous.
If this isn’t the case then at least you can comfort yourselves in the knowledge that it ends with whiskey.
By now it should be obvious that I’m not from around these parts so I’ll apologise for my pronunciation in advance. In fact it’s so bad that our illustrious President has agreed to read some of the poems for me rather than having to subject you to my mangled Scot’s accent.
In this I’m following in some illustrious footsteps.
In 1916, Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill, serving with the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers asked his wife to send him a volume of Burns’ poetry.
“I will soothe and cheer their spirits by quotations from it” (my Churchill impersonation is probably worse than my Scot’s accent)
But he went on to say “I shall have to be careful not to drop into a mimicry of their accent!”.
He was obviously a skilled diplomat even then because anyone who has heard a recording of Churchill’s French accent would instantly realise what a grievous insult this would have been to the Scots troops under his command (or possibly he’s have been laughed out of the barracks never to be seen again with dire consequences for the country in later years).
But no one could blame him for his sentiment and his shrewd choice of material for rousing his troops. Perhaps Burn’s most famous example is:
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour:
See the front o’ battle lour,
See approach proud Edward’s power –
Chains and slavery!
WAY will be a traitor knave?
WHY can fill a coward’s grave?
WAY SAY base as a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
We can see this as a rallying that Churchill would clearly have enjoyed (although unless he was careful it may have had his troops charging on the English!).
I was around the age of twelve when I was officially introduced to the Scottish bard. We were reading the Steinbeck novel “Of Mice and Men” and a discussion on the title inevitably followed.
It is of course named for one of Burns’ most famous poems, “To a Mouse” (and again apologies for my appalling accent).
Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie,
Oh, what a panic’s in thy breastie,
Thou needna start away sa hasty,
Wi bick’ring brattle,
I wad be laith to rin and chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!
Unfortunately, going to a school somewhere in the depths of East Anglia, we we’re taught the ‘English’ translation first so it’s a wonder I took any notice of Burns’ at all:
Little, Sleek, cowering, timorous creature,
Oh, what a panic’s in thy little breast!
Thou need’st not start away so hastily,
With hurried rush!
I should be loath to run and chase thee,
With murdering plough-staff!
Now I’m sure that you’ll agree that the original has a much better impact and a ring to it.
You can also appreciate how this changed a young boy from the Fens of East Anglia’s perception of Scotland, who’s knowledge of Scotland came mostly from Sean Connery and Kenny Dalglish.
I think Burns’ would probably dismiss it with a quote of his own:
the best laid schemes o’ mice and men GAN aft a-GLAY.
The moral of this story, I think, is that we should think very carefully before tampering with greatness.
Although ‘To a Mouse’ was probably my first academic introduction to Burns I was already well aware of Burns night because tonight (and it still hasn’t quiet sunk in yet even with the grey bits in my beard) is also my fortieth birthday. This has caused my wife hours of amusement today gently reminding me.
Now when I was young I hadn’t much idea of what Burns’ Night was other than it probably involved a haggis and my literary aspirations didn’t extend much beyond reading the weekly football magazine ‘Shoot!’
Burns, on the other hand, was far more literary then myself and at only 15 he wrote “Handsome Nell” and described it in later years as when he “First committed the sin of rhyme.”
A bonnie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e’e;
But without some better qualities
She’s no the lass for me.
It’s hard to appreciate today but by the time Burns wrote this he had received little regular schooling and was the principle labourer on his father’s farm.
Although Burns was born into poverty and regular schooling was beyond his parents means they were dedicated to learning as the means for themselves and their children to improve themselves.
According to a Burns biographer, his father, “in times of storm, … would seek out and stay with his daughter, where she was herding in the fields, because he knew that she was afraid of lightning; or in fair weather, to teach her the names of the plants and flowers. He wrote a little theological treatise for his children’s guidance too, and was … an exemplary father … and husband.”
Four neighbours shared William Burness’s enthusiasm for the education of their own children as well, so Robert’s mother read to the children daily and his parents, and the four neighbours pooled their money to hire a tutor for their children for a few years. A Burns biographer wrote that it “was parish gossip that, if you called on William Burness at meal-time, you found the whole family with a book in one hand and a horn spoon in the other.”
Burns inherited his parents love of learning, a yearning that helped him to keep an open mind about himself, his Maker, acquaintances, and his surroundings.
And this love of learning and open mindedness propelled Robert Burns into Edinburgh society…
…and his firm sense of self and his lack of pretension lead him, by choice, back to his beginnings as a farmer.
This is a particularly appropriate piece:
What’s a’ your jargon o’ your schools –
Your Latin names for horns and stools?
If honest nature made you fools,
What sairs your grammars?
Ye’d better ta’en up spades an’ shools,
Or knappen hammers.
A set o’ dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college classes!
They gang in stirks, an’ come out asses,
Plain truth to speak;
An’ syne they think to climb Parnassus
By din’t o’ Greek!
It contains a lot of entertainment and wisdom and I think has particular relevance to our life here in college.
As an Alumni of Durham
, or indeed anyone from any other university, its easy to head off into the world (or even worse pursue an academic career) and think the world is out there waiting for you with baited breath. I think this poem has a lot to say about that and gives us pause to consider a more humble opinion of our importance.
Burns was a man who relished life, who laughed heartily and who valued friends highly but as he himself would say “nae man can tether time or tide.”
Robert Burns passed away at the age of only 37 and we can only wonder what he might have achieved if he had lived a longer life. The 21st of July 1796, the day of his death, must surely rank as one of the darkest days in the history of Scotland.
The funeral procession wound its way silently through the crowded streets of his town and just as it got to the gates of the church someone was hear to say “Who will be our poet now?”.
When William Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest of England’s poets, learnt of the death of Robert Burns, he wrote:
I mourned with thousands, but as one
More deeply grieved, for he was gone.
Whose light I hailed when first it shone
And showed my youth
How verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.
Robert Burns and his memory will be immortal, not just to Scots everywhere; but to people of every nation, race and colour whose lives are touched by his works.
Burns himself would probably toast his own memory in the same light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek way that he wrote a thanksgiving for a fine meal. The following verse is a fitting conclusion to the immortal memory if we think of it, not as a grace after meals, but as thanking our Maker for having blessed Scotland and the world with such a great poet:
O Lord, we do humbly thank
For that we little merit:
Now Jean may tak the flesh away,
And Will bring in the spirit.
So now I ask you all to charge your glasses and be upstanding to drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.