January 24 2021

Robert Burns

Our homily today touches on the anniversary tomorrow of the birth of Robert Burns, not, unfortunately because our service will be followed by our Burns’ Lunch in the Garden Room, prepared as it has been for more than a decade by Morag and her helpers, but because I did not want us to forget what wonderful and delicious occasions that annual event has been for us. A hot sustaining sit-down meal in the heart of winter, sharing a warmth of hospitality and fellowship, was guaranteed to be an over-subscribed occasion rivalling even Harvest in popularity.

Was it the poetry of Burns which attracted so many of us? In the Scottish dialect he helped preserve, it is often a difficult read. And yet that very eminent American Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns.”

Was it the fact that we get to eat haggis on his birthday? It is a beautiful dish in my opinion, and yet who thinks, “Let’s go out to dinner at a nice restaurant this evening, and we can order haggis”? And ask yourself which other poet or artist has an outstanding hot meal inextricably associated with him or her?

Is it possibly because one of the traditional Scottish songs which he originally anthologised has literally been sung all over the world as people welcome the New Year in? I have read that Auld Lang Syne is an international anthem now, that people around the globe link hands and arms and sing it as midnight strikes for the last time as the old year ends and the new begins. Internationally known and loved, and yet what do the words actually mean? Do many know? And yet, is there another anthem which brings us so physically close and friendly as that?

There are all these strong associations and more which extend beyond the borders of Scotland to include an international audience.

Since it was first published, the poetry of Robert Burns has never been out of print. And although many of the poems are read as sentimental, they are never hypocritically so, all being genuine expressions of deep affection and love. Furthermore, a great deal of what he had to say stemmed from a very unorthodox background.

His father, William, wrote his own liberal catechism for his children as an alternative to that of the church, and Robert read extensively on his own, including the work of John Locke and Adam Smith, and a proto-Unitarian John Taylor.   Burns admired two Ayrshire clergymen he came into contact with, Willian McGill and William Dalrymple, both of whom held Arian views and had connections with Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley.

So the idea that Burns was some kind of prodigy, an  uneducated ploughman who could somehow write wonderful verse, is nonsense.

In the opinion of Robert Louis Stevenson, a leading trait in Burns’ character was the desire to be in love. He had many affairs, even after he was married, and fathered quite a few illegitimate offspring. The first, his “Barstart Wean”, was a girl, to whom he wrote: “Welcome! My bonnie sweet wee Daughter! Though you come here, a wee unsought-for…” The unorthodox life-style went hand in hand with the unorthodox thinking..

His first book which came out in 1786 and made his name, contains lines which have been absorbed into our common vocabulary, such as “The best laid schemes of mice and men, oft ‘gan awry”, and “O would some Power the giftie gie us, To see ourselves as others see us.”

It is very interesting to compare Robert Burns’ religious opinions of the eighteenth century with more contemporary free-thinkers. For example, I recently read that one of the pre-eminent twentieth-century poets, Ezra Pound, described Jesus as an heroic figure, who “was not wholly to blame for the religion that’s been foisted upon him.” And Burns’ view was that Jesus himself was the “aimiablest of characters”. And whereas the majority of Christians place their hope of salvation upon Christ’s atoning sacrifice, Burns placed his faith on a good life, in other words “salvation by character”, as Unitarians express it. “It becomes a man of sense to think for himself,” he said. He denied Original Sin, and asserted that “We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good.”

Burns died prematurely at the age of 37 in the July of 1786 of heart failure, a legacy of a bout of rheumatic fever in his youth.  He was a vocal despiser of hypocrisy and pretention, and his large and generous spirit` was firmly rooted in the realities of this life.

His egalitarian belief in human dignity is well exemplified in the following familiar lines:

What though on homely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey and all that?
Give folks their silks and knaves their wine –
A man’s a man for all that:
For a’ that and a’ that,
Their tinsel show and a’ that;
The honest man though e’er so poor
Is king of men for all that…

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for all that)
That sense and worth o’er all the earth
Shall bear the prize and all that;
For a’ that and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for all that;
That man to man the world o’er
Shall brothers be for all that.

We have our Scottish members, and Morag first among them, and their enthusiasm for Robert Burns and the traditions associated with him, to thank for about a dozen wonderful Burns Lunches, (and incidentally, in the way our services have always paved the way for the lunch), a good deal of enjoyment and information about this remarkable man.  Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period