Every January 25, or a date nearby, Scots the world over gather together and raise their glasses to Robert Burns, or as he is known in Scotland, Rabbie Burns. It is a night of bagpipes, haggis, fine meals, fine Scotch, and speeches. And the highlight, hopefully, of the evening, is the Immortal Memory.
The Immortal Memory is a 10-15 minute tribute to Robert Burns. And the content of that “tribute” is up to the person who is selected to give the speech. Earlier this year, 2014, I had the honour and the privilege of giving the Immortal Memory to more than 200 of St. Louis’ finest, on January 25 at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
It was a speech that I spent a long-time on, as it is a high-honour to be given the chance to give the Immortal Memory. People the world over scour the internet for content to include in the Immortal Memory, and all of us look for that one unique combination of facts, humour, and tradition that will make it a speech enjoyed by everyone in attendance.
That was my goal with my Immortal Memory, which you can watch below. And since I started committing my speech to paper in October 2013, I have also included my entire speech, just in case you, in stopping by this page, are researching for your own Immortal Memory. If you wish to borrow anything from my speech, please do so.
And now, here’s to Robert Burns!
Good evening, and once again welcome to the 2014 Robert Burns Dinner.
And it’s been a good night thus far.
We’ve reconnected with old friends. We’ve made new ones. We’ve toasted the Presidents, Her Majesty the Queen, Scotland, and each other. We’ve sung our national anthems. We’ve addressed the haggis. We’ve indulged in the same. We’ve enjoyed a grand dinner. We’ve been enveloped by the sound of the pipes. And we’ve seen the bottom of many a glass already. And all in celebration of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. And it is Robert Burns, that I have the privilege of honoring in tonight’s Immortal Memory.
And for those of you who are joining us for the first time, you’ve seen all this pomp and circumstance, and you just have to be sitting there, thinking One. Single. Thought.
What the heck is wrong with these people?
I mean, for all you regulars, put your swords back in your sheaths and take a step back for a moment.
For those of us who are Scottish, or celebrate our connections to Scotland on a regular basis, this is all rather normal.
But for those who are new among us, the lads are wearing what in your mind, even if you don’t dare speak it, look a wee bit like skirts. We’ve spoken in prose to a lump of meat, and then attacked it with a sword. We’ve gone out of our way to insult the other sex, and raised our glasses in agreement. We’ve quoted some guy from Scotland who’s been dead for a long time and you’re not quite sure why we remember him. The bagpipes were either rapturous to you or some sort of medieval torture. And there’s a heck of a lot of drinking going on, and you’re not sure if the people at the next table will start hugging or start the next war between the clans.
Welcome to Scotland!
But, in all seriousness, those are some honest questions. Why do we celebrate Robert, or Rabbie, Burns?
Would it not be better to celebrate some other Scots that we can seemingly connect much better to our lives today?
- Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone.
- Kirkpatrick Macmillan and Thomas McCall, inventors of the pedal bicycle
- John Boyd Dunlop, inventor of the pneumatic tire
- David Dunbar Buick, inventor of the overhead valve engine
- James Watt, famous for his work on steam engines
- John Paul Jones, who created the US Navy
- John Logie Baird, with the first working television and the first color television, and our procrastination tendencies thank him.
- Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes
- JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan
- John Napier, creator of logarithms
- Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, surely he might be a more worthy Scot.
- Sir Alexander Fleming, inventor of penicillin
- William Cullen, inventor of the refrigerator
- William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England, much to the chagrin of many Englishmen.
- BC Forbes, founder of Forbes Magazine
Or one of the many, many, other Scots who changed the world.
So why not them? Why Robert Burns?
Why celebrate a poet who was born on January 25, 1759, in the village of Alloway, Scotland, just south of Ayr. His parents were tenant farmers, but ensured he received a good education, and helped him become an avid reader. And his fame across Scotland after the release of his first published works of poetry at just the age of 27, made him the Will Smith or Justin Timberlake of his time. Yes, for those of you who almost choked on your Scotch, Robert Burns did just get compared to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
And he died at the young age of 37, after a hard life, with many ups and downs, took its toll on his health.
But why celebrate this man? Why are we here, 255 years later, honoring a poet, a writer, a farmer?
It’s a deep question. True, his song, Auld Lang Syne, is the second most sung song in the world, surpassed only by that fun little ditty that Buddy the Elf sang to Santa Claus on his last birthday.
And he was born just 15 miles from where I was born, so, for me personally, I’m celebrating the hometown hero.
But I think the answer, to why we celebrate Robert Burns, lies in all of us. The answer, I think, is found in a mirror.
Because Robert Burns is all of us. And we see the evidence of that when we examine who he was, through the words he penned, which this Scot, with his Americanized English accent, will attempt to do justice to.
He was a staunch defender of the right to bear Arms, a strong national defense and the stand against tyranny, as seen in Scots Wha Hae.
Scots, wha hae with Wallace bled.
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed
Or tae victory
Now’s the day an now’s the hour
See the front o battle lour
See approach proud Edwards power
Chains and slavery
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha will fill a coward’s grave?
Who sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee.
Wha, for Scotland’s King and Law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw
Freeman stand or freeman fa’,
Let him on wi me.
By oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free
Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do or die!
He was a critic of the ruling class. He was a herald of equality, as seen in ‘A Man’s A Man.”
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d – a Lord,
Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that;
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His riband star, and a’ that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.
A king can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and a’ that,
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their dignities, and a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, and pride o’ worth,
Are higher ranks than a ‘that.
He was a farmer, an environmentalist and an animal lover, as we see in his poem, To A Mouse.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rouse beastie,
O, what panic’s in thy breaste!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I was be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring prattle!
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.
Robert Burns was both a failure in relationships and a hopeless romantic. His romantic side was captured in his poem, “A Red, Red Rose.”
On my luve is like a red, red, rose
That’s newly sprung in June:
Oh my love is like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
He wrote of the weather, and seemed to have an unnatural affinity to freezing, tempestuous weather, similar to what we have been experiencing lately, as seen in “Winter: A Dirge.”
The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blow;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw;
While tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars fraw bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.
The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast.
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, the me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seem to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
He enjoyed his food, as we have seen in his Address to the Haggis we enjoyed earlier containing such affection filled prose as:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Robert Burns was aware of his mortality as seen in his “In The Prospect of Death.”
O Thou unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear?
In whose dread presence, ere an hour
Perhaps I must appear!
He didn’t believe everything he read or was told, as any good internet user today hopefully mimics, as he writes in the first lines of “Death and Dr. Holbrook: A True Story.”
Some books are lies frae end to end,
And some great lies were never penn’d.
And he loved a good story, as he wrote many. Including the famous, “Tam O’ Shanter.”
The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;
The rattling show’rs rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d;
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow’d;
That night, a child might understand,
The de’il had business on his hand.
And I could go on and on, but because your glasses are getting dangerously low and you’re all armed with at least your sgian-dubh, I will bring this little poetic journey to an end.
So why do we celebrate Robert Burns, a poor Scot from the late 1700s.
It’s because Burns, or at least some aspect of Burns, is us. And I’d go a wee bit further also and say that Burns is a reflection of our own desires to do something that matters, that makes a difference in the lives of others and in history.
We can all look at Robert Burns, and find something we identify with. He is us. We can also look at Robert Burns, and see a poor farmer, from Ayr, Scotland. And see how he changed the world with his words and with his example. And we can all be inspired by that.
So ladies and gentlemen, lads and lassies. Please charge your glasses, and be upstanding, as we toast Robert Burns.
To Robert Burns.