Alistair Carmichael: An Immortal Memory for Lockdown

Today is the birthday of Scotland’s National bard, Robert Burns. The traditional suppers to honour his memory have had to go online for obvious reasons. The Edinburgh South Lib Dems’ Burns Supper has been an essential part of my social calendar for years where I’ve been on the Naughty Table. It was a little different this year, eating my haggis in a Zoom breakout room with my fellow naughty friends.

Alistair Carmichael gave the Immortal Memory and had a pitch perfect look at how Burns might have coped with lockdown. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce it:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your invitation to be here with you for this slightly unusual Burns Supper in these exceptionally unusual times.

I hope that you enjoyed your haggis neeps and tatties as much as I enjoyed my artisan-crafted sourdough Haggis Pizza here in Orkney. I figure that if you are going to do things differently then you might as well go the whole hog.

Normally when called upon to propose an immortal memory at a Burns Supper I pose the question, what is it that is so special about Robert Burns and his works that people feel compelled some two and a quarter centuries after his death to gather together to honour his memory.

I suppose that the question remains a good one, given the extraordinary lengths that we are going to this evening to do exactly that but tonight I want to take a slightly different approach. I do so for a variety of reasons but principally because I have been doing that immortal memory for over twenty years now and I suspect most of you will have heard it once at least.

So,this evening instead I want to take a few minutes to consider what Burns might have made of life under lockdown.

I suppose fundamentally Burns was a practical man – a farmer from a farming family – so would have been used to getting on with things and making the best of them.

It should also be remembered that he also spent time working as an excise man so despite his romantic nature – as seen through both his life and his works – he had a side to his character that would have wanted to respect the rules.

I cannot imagine that Burns would have had much sympathy with the anti-mask brigade. Yes, he was a man who would rail against authority and was believed to have some sympathy with the revolutionaries in France but, even so, I suspect that he would have somehow managed to live with a measure that was for he common good.

Burns, I think, like the rest of us would have embraced Zoom in the early days but I fear he would also have tired of it pretty quickly.

Consider his works and you see two themes emerge – Burns as a man who loved nature and a man who was, above all else, a social animal.

As a farmer he would, of course, have been allowed to carry on his work outdoors so for his great works describing nature – his poems To a Mouse or To a Mountain Daisy the inspiration would still have been available.

In both cases Burns draws lessons for mankind from our relationship with nature. As he puts it in To a Mouse – and, for the benefit of our younger colleagues, let me make clear that when he wrote To a Mouse, Burns was not address a piece of computer hardware.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!”

Both poems take a melancholy turn in their final stanzas

To the Mountain Daisy

Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine—no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight

Shall be thy doom.

And in

To a Mouse

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!

I doubt that with uplifting lines like that he would have got the gig to do COVID briefings alongside either Boris or Nicola.

Although he was writing two centuries before Brexit I defy anyone to find a better summary of how that is turning out than the lines in To a Mouse when he wrote

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

If you want to know how that feels then ask anyone who has tried exporting fish since the turn of the year.

But where I think Burns may have struggled more than most would be the loss of social interaction. His love of life – his enthusiasm for a good party and for dalliance with the fairer sex inspired and characterises some of his finest works.

Picture the scene in Tam O’Shanter

But to our tale:– Ae market-night,
Tam had got planted unco right;
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi’ reaming swats, that drank divinely
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither–
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
The night drave on wi’ sangs and clatter
And ay the ale was growing better:
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
wi’ favours secret,sweet and precious
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bow to no one in my admiration for those whose ingenuity creates social interaction over Zoom – such as we enjoy this evening – but I defy anyone to recreate that scene from behind a computer monitor.

Burns, I suspect, may have been a little more sympathetic to those who gather for illegal social occasions. As he later explained :

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!–

Of course what he came upon when he got to Kirk Allowa’ was a breach of regulations for which there could be no excuses. Granted, the regulations governing outdoor gatherings do say “two people from two households” and make no specific reference to

“wither’d beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,”

But I think we can all recognise a breach of the spirit of the rules when we see one.

On the other hand, Burns, I suspect, might have been less bothered by the closure of the churches.

His relationship with the church was often a strained one. His somewhat reckless and libertine lifestyle brought him on more than one occasion into conflict with the Kirk Session who demanded of him public apology which he felt to be humiliating – arguably with some justification, not least because Burns felt that those who judged him were not above doing much the same sort of thing themselves.

His savage satire of William Fisher – an elder in the session of Mauchline – endures. Burns builds Fisher up in the first six stanzas culminating in

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ Thy flock.

O Lord, Thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, an’ swearers swear,
An’ singing here, an’ dancin there,
Wi’ great and sma’;
For I am keepit by Thy fear
Free frae them a’.

Only then to pull him down again, describing Fisher’s own dalliances.

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust:
An’ sometimes, too, in worldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d wi’ sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi’ Meg
Thy pardon I sincerely beg;
O may’t ne’er be a livin’ plague
To my dishonour,
An’ I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times I trow –
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.

Burns, it is known, with the backing of his patron Gavin Hamilton exercised his right of appeal on one occasion to the Presbytery of Ayr. He describes the scene thus :

Lord, hear my earnest cry and pray’r,
Against that Presbyt’ry o’ Ayr;
Thy strong right hand, Lord mak it bare
Upo’ their heads;
Lord visit them, an’ dinna spare,
For their misdeeds.

O Lord my God! that glib-tongu’d Aitken,
My vera heart an’ flesh are quakin,
To think how we stood sweatin, shakin,
An’ pish’d wi’ dread,
While he, wi’ hingin lip an’ snakin,
Held up his head.

Lord, in Thy day o’ vengeance try him,
Lord, visit them wha did employ him,
And pass not in Thy mercy by them,
Nor hear their pray’r,
But for Thy people’s sake destroy them,
An’ dinna spare.

Now, this is where things would really have been different under lockdown. The Presbytery of Ayr, I suspect would have met by Teams – it is, after all, cheaper than zoom. Would even the “glib-tongued AItken” have managed to inspire the same awe and fear on a video conference platform? It is not always easy to tell if someone is “sweatin’ shakin’ pished wi’ dread” or just has an unstable broadband connection.

The one area of lockdown life where I am fairly confident that Burns would have taken little interest would have been in the area of home schooling. I think there is little doubt that this would have been left to his long suffering wife, Jean Armour. She, I fear, would have been left with their nine children juggling lessons in different subjects and different stages around the kitchen table while he would somewhere else moping about the departure of his love, Mrs McElhose (Clarinda), composing Ae Fond Kiss as she departed for the New World.

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Although, thinking about it, Clarinda may have been subject to a travel ban and may never have got to leave at all, changing the course of Burns’ life completely.

So, if these are the areas where Burns would have found life under lockdown to be very different, are there any others where he might have found resonances with which he was more familiar?

I suspect there would be a few.

I think that Burns – a proud patriot – would have identified the need for a concerted national effort to meet a national challenge.

I also think that Burns would have found lessons from a global pandemic.

He would have understood better than most that here is something that would be no respecter of colour, creed or national boundaries.

Here is something that does not care about where we draw the lines on a map.

Here is a challenge that has to be met for everyone for anyone to be safe from it.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne*?

The man who wrote these words would understand the pain of separation from those that we love – especially when they suffer an illness and we feel that separation more keenly than ever.

Finally, I think Burns would have understood that this too will pass and that mankind can move on to write a new chapter in our history – a better chapter if we choose to make it.

One where we move on from past divisions and inequalities. One where we have a better understanding of the things that truly matter – our families and friends, the beauty of the nature around us, love and companionship

Then let us pray that come it may

And come it will for a’ that

That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth

Shall bear the gree and a’ that

For a’ that and a’ that

It’s coming yet for a’ that

That man tae man the world o’er

Shall brithers be for a’ that.

That day will come, of that I have no doubt.

In the meantime – take care, stay safe and be kind to each other.

It is what Robert Burns would want of you.

And now, can I ask you all to charge you glasses and, in view of those who thought they could get off with dressing only from the waist up for a Zoom call, do NOT be up standing but drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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3 Comments

  • Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
    Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    He’s but a coof for a’ that:
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
    The man o’ independent mind
    He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

    A prince can mak a belted knight,
    A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
    But an honest man’s abon his might,
    Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their dignities an’ a’ that;
    The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
    Are higher rank than a’ that.

    Then let us pray that come it may,
    (As come it will for a’ that,)
    That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
    Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    It’s coming yet for a’ that,
    That Man to Man, the world o’er,
    Shall brothers be for a’ that.

  • John Marriott 26th Jan '21 - 7:29am

    “ O wad some Pow’r / the giftie gie us / To see oursels as / ithers see us! “

    I hope that some Lib Dems will take Rabbie’s advice.

    PS I bet the haggis are harder to catch when it’s cold!

  • He wasn’t so sympathetic to the Westminster Union as today’s Lib Dem’s, but a genuine radical for sure.

    The English steel we could disdain,
    Secure in valour’s station;
    But English gold has been our bane –
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
    O would, ere I had seen the day
    That Treason thus could sell us,
    My auld grey head had lien in clay,
    Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
    But pith and power, till my last hour,
    I’ll mak this declaration;
    We’re bought and sold for English gold-
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

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