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How nervy elites seized Robert Burns before radicals got there first

Two hundred years ago in 1817, Robert Burns’s bones were dug up, along with the coffin in which he had been laid to rest in 1796, in Dumfries in south-west Scotland. Workmen were preparing for the re-interment of Scotland’s national poet beneath a mausoleum being built as a more fitting memorial.

The workmen present stood in the cramped graveyard of St Michael’s Church, “their frames thrilling with some indefinable emotion, as they gazed on the ashes of him whose fame is as wide as the world itself”, to use the words of a report at the time.

Barely two decades after his death, Burns had already become a secular saint.

Yet his legacy was still very much up for grabs at the time – unlike today. Now that it is time once again to toast Burns’ immortal memory on 25th January, both in Scotland and around the world, how does our perception of him now compare to then?

And how did Burns make the journey from Edinburgh drawing rooms at the turn of the 18th century to his global superstardom today?

The battle for Burns

The Dumfries mausoleum was the first of numerous Burns memorials that studded the towns of lowland Scotland by the end of the Victorian era. Most were statues, erected in an informal race between Scotland’s urban elites. Overseas, above all in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Scots settlers and their descendants soon followed suit.

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Robert Burns’ mausoleum resting in St Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries, in the south-west of Scotland, circa 1900 (London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The sentimental appeal of Burns’ writing and his preservation in verse of a rural Scotland fast disappearing was one of the reasons he was well-loved. But this alone can’t explain why from the time of his death onwards, his legacy has been fought over.

Much has to do with establishment fears about where the cult of Burns might lead. Terrified by the prospect of revolution and radical violence in Scotland inspired by songs such as “A Man’s a Man”, his first editors elided poems and sections of them that asserted human dignity regardless of rank, title or wealth.

bdtodays.com/rdhasan/ 29 January 2017

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