Member John Kynoch was the speaker at the January lunch meeting at Test Valley Golf club with his personal view on the life and times of Robbie Burns.
Many people have attended a Burns’ Supper around 25th January, the birthdate of Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, Scotland’s Favourite Son, and will have witnessed the piping in of the haggis and someone giving the Address to a Haggis in “Lalland Scots” being virtually unintelligible to all the sassenachs present. But at the best of such occasions, irrespective of wherever in the world there is a Caledonian connection, the guest of honour has the responsibility of telling those present their view on Robbie Burns, the Ploughman’s Bard.
Such was the situation outlined by the latest speaker at the Probus Club of Basingstoke, member John Kynoch. Although born in New Zealand, the son of an ex-pat Scot, as a teenager he came to join the family woollen manufacturing business in Scotland and lived for over thirty years in Keith, a small town to the east of Inverness.
This talk, The Immortal Memory, was John’s personal insights and long past connections with Robert Burns who was born in 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire and died at the early age of thirty-seven. The sister of John’s great grandfather married a man who was a friend of Burns whose own father started an educational establishment for apprentices that today is the Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
Around the time of Burns’ birth, the British Empire was developing with Wolfe capturing Quebec making Canada British rather than French. George111 was soon to reign as was Catherine the Great in Russia, Hayden got a job making music in the court of Prince Esterhazy in Hungary and Captain Cook discovered New Zealand. Less than a decade before Burns was born the Duke of Cumberland, the King’s brother, carried out the last battle on British soil at Culloden near Inverness defeating the final Jacobean rebels.
During his short life, the bard had been a tenant farmer, a flax dresser, a continual rebel against orthodox religion and eventually a Revenue & Customs Officer and a member of the militia in Dumfries, despite being a nationalist at heart. He also penned 559 writings of which 368 were songs often putting new lyrics to existing Scottish traditional and folk melodies.
At the age of 28, and only 14 months after his first book was published, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns undertook a coach trip on poor roads around that part of north-eastern Scotland where the speaker had lived. In such a short time, and without the ease of communications we have today, his fame had spread to the extent that he was feted by the great and good. He was described as the equivalent of a Rock Star, a working-class hero, gifted beyond measure, attracted by and attracted to, the opposite sex (he had nine children with his wife, his last son born an hour after his death, and at least four more with other women) and finding further distraction in misuse of substances, in his case “the drink.”
At one such meeting at Duff House, in Banff, Burns met a young boy who had his book at home and knew some of the poetry by heart which gives some idea of the popularity of the Bard’s work. That a schoolboy in Banff, so far north from Ayrshire, where much was written, should be familiar with his work so soon after it was published, is quite remarkable.
One can only marvel at the genius of this man who could produce such words that we still admire and can quote at times, almost off the cuff. Robert Burns was obviously a man of huge intelligence with a great understanding of the human condition. Words and ideas that have been translated into more than 60 languages around the world and used as reference points by many great people in history such as US President Abraham Lincoln who wrote of Burns “From Shakespeare I learnt the sonnets. From the Bible, the scriptures. But it was from this man that I learnt humility.”
After the guest of honour has concluded their reminiscence about Robert Burns, they then request the audience, “Raise your glasses… the toast is…. to The Immortal Memory.”
The final act at a Burns’ supper and at Hogmanay, on New Year’s Eve, throughout much of the world, is of course singing the famous farewell “Auld Lang Syne.” This is one of Burns’ songs that even sassenachs know.