Robbie Burns, Grand Falls, Mackenzie and Gaza

25 January 2009 marks 250 years to the day since Scotland’s national poet was born. PETER EWART* reflects on the legacy of Scotland’s celebrated bard whose polemics against the exploitation, injustice and oppression of his time enraged the establishment and won him enduring love from the peoples of all lands.

The statue of Robert Burns in Halifax’s Victoria Park Square is the centre of innumerable political rallies., as this one in October 2006 against the apartheid wall in Occupied Palestine | Photo Photo copyright 2006, Howard Harawitz, All rights reserved.

The statue of Robert Burns in Halifax’s Victoria Park Square is the centre of innumerable political rallies, as this one in October 2006 against the apartheid wall in Occupied Palestine | Photo copyright 2006, Howard Harawitz, All rights reserved.

MANY PEOPLE IN THE MARITIMES have Scottish blood in them, and the same holds true for people across Canada, especially in parts of Ontario and northern British Columbia where I reside. Indeed, at one point in Canada’s history, Scots were the third largest ethnic group, and they have certainly played an important role in the development of the country.

A good number of these men, women and children are descended from the hardy Scots who were scattered to the wind in the 18th and 19th Centuries, sometimes driven out of their homes and forced off their land, sometimes imprisoned or exiled, other times leaving poverty and hardship, in search of opportunity and a better life.

Today, the surnames of these pioneers dot the street names, business signs and phone books of northern BC communities like Mackenzie and Prince George, as well as the towns and regions of Eastern Canada and the Maritimes. Indeed, the town of Mackenzie is named after the Scottish explorer, who was the first European to travel through these parts to the Pacific Ocean. And, of course, Nova Scotia takes its name from the Latin words for “New Scotland.”

robert-burns-profileFor these people of Scottish descent, and, for that matter, people of all nationalities, a special day approaches every year. And that is, of course, the birthday of the great Scottish poet and patriot Robert Burns, who lived from January 25, 1759 until July 21, 1796.

Whenever, I think of Burns and his immortal work, I can’t help but think of what he would make of events that are going on in Canada and the world today. For example, what would he say about the dire situation facing people in forestry-based communities across Canada where mill operations have been shut down, throwing thousands out of work, such as is happening in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, and Mackenzie? Or what about the situation facing the Palestinian people of Gaza in the Middle East?

But before we get into these current troubles, let’s first talk a bit about this remarkable writer himself, Robbie Burns, the national poet of the Scots.

Burns was, above all, a poet of the common man, his father an impoverished tenant farmer, his mother illiterate. He did hard physical work for much of his life (which may have contributed to his early death) and was largely self-educated. Yet he somehow found the time to write some of humanity’s best-loved lyrics, including “Auld Lang Syne,” which is sung the world over on New Year‘s Eve, as well as the poems “To A Mouse,” and “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.”

One of the qualities that shines through Burns’ poetry is his natural good cheer and love of life, especially the traditions and habits of the people who worked the land, as in poems like “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” But he lived during turbulent and troubled times. Just before he was born, the battle of Culloden was fought between the Highland Scots and the British army.

A battle in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

A battle in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

The Highland Scots were renowned for their bravery and fighting spirit, despite the fact that they often were barefoot, carried primitive weapons, and felt lucky to have a couple of handfuls of oatmeal in their pockets for provisions. But they were up against a powerful, ruthless and well-armed British army (which included some Scottish forces) led by the Duke of Cumberland (later to be know as the “Butcher” Cumberland), and they lost badly.

What took place in the aftermath was what today we would term the worst kind of “war crimes,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “genocide.” Highland Scots, whether rebels or not, were hunted down and butchered like animals, some being tortured or burned alive. Women were raped and livestock slaughtered, and much of the countryside was left in ruin.

The aim of the British ruling class was to extinguish forever any form of nationalism in Scotland which did not conform to its rule, to the point that, for many years after, even wearing a kilt or playing bagpipes in Scotland was prohibited by law as an “Instrument of War” and could result in jail or exile. The Disarming Act of 1746 forbade Highlanders from owning a Claymore or other weapon and rendered the summary search for them legal. As well, prejudices were common among English and Scottish aristocrats who considered the Highland Scots, in their fierce desire for freedom and independence, to be “wild-eyed,” “barbaric,” and even “sub-human,” similar, as we shall discuss, to how the Palestinians are depicted by some news media and government officials today.

clearancesLater in the 18th Century, during Burns’ lifetime and after, Scotland was caught in the throes of the Highland Clearances, which is the name given to the forcible removal of Scottish farmers from their ancient lands. The main force behind these Clearances were the Scottish and English big landowners, in league with government officials, who wanted more land to raise sheep and engage in leisure pursuits like game hunting, as well as to rid the land of a rebellious population.

Hundreds of thousands of cotters (small tenant farmers) were driven from the land that their families had tilled from time immemorial. In some cases, Scots were sold by their own clan chiefs into indentured servitude or slavery in the New World. In other cases, homes were burned to the ground, land was confiscated, and whole families were sent packing down the road, facing starvation, death, or, at best, an uncertain future. By 1866, one half of Scotland belonged to ten people; today, 80 per cent of the land belongs to 0.08 per cent of the population.

Some say that Scotland never got over these calamities. Even today, a visitor to the Highlands of Scotland is struck by how depopulated and barren much of the region remains.

These historical events run through Burns’ poetry like the darker tones of a minor key on a piano. Indeed, part of Burns’ universal appeal is that he was not afraid to speak out against the exploitation, injustice and oppression of his time, even though the threat of persecution and even imprisonment was very real for someone like him, who, contrary to his government, sympathized with both the French Revolution and American War of Independence.

Burns was especially sharp in his criticism of the big landowners, both English and Scottish, who with their “tinsel show,” “ribbands,” and “silks,” held their aristocratic noses in the air, while treating the common people like dirt.

For me during these days, over two hundred years later, the Burns’ poem that often comes to mind is “To a Mouse.” In that poem, the narrator / poet is plowing his field in the Fall with a hand plow and accidentally breaks up a wee mouse’s nest. The mouse, of course, panics and scurries off, while the narrator, in good humour, apologizes to it for disrupting its “plans” and breaking “Nature’s social union.”

At first, the tone of the poem is playful and humorous. But it soon takes on a darker pall, when it becomes clear that “winter’s sleety dribble” is fast approaching and the mouse is without food or shelter. The narrator notes that the mouse is not alone “in proving foresight may be vain.” And then speaks the famous lines:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Gripped by these bleaker thoughts, the narrator realizes that he is even worse off than the mouse. The mouse’s outlook is limited to the present. While he, on the other hand, can see what terrible things have happened in the past, and what misfortune might come to him, his family, and his country in the future. Thus he speaks to the 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 canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

When I read these lines, I think of the forestry workers and other residents in towns like Mackenzie, BC, and Grand Falls, Newfoundland. They, too, like other “mice and men”, have their plans, their hopes, their dreams. But they, too, are seeing these threatened by the cruel blade of economic necessity.

Similar to the English and Scottish lords of the 18th Century, the big forest companies, whose head offices and shareholders are often based far away in other countries, do not want to have any commitment or responsibility to the people who live in these communities, and, indeed, care little whether they are, as one “expert” has put it, “marked for exit,” and scattered far and wide as a result of mill closures. Yet, like the English and Scottish absentee landlords, these modern day barons of industry insist that the rights to the timber, water and land, stay in their possession.

Protest of forest workers in Mackenzie, BC | Opion250 photo

Protest of forest workers in Mackenzie, BC | Opion250 photo

But in the spirit of the Highland Scots, the communities are fighting back. Just last Spring, the small town of Mackenzie, BC, had the largest rally in its history, with over 1000 people coming together to save their community. In December, the government of Newfoundland & Labrador announced that it would be expropriating most of the assets of the giant forest company Abitibi-Bowater. This was done in response to Abitibi-Bowater’s decision to shut down its mill operations in Grand Falls.

School in Gaza | Photo courtesy Jon Elmer

Al-Arqams School in Gaza City, destroyed by Israeli air strike. Pilots had trained in CFB Cold Lake, Alberta during summer 2005 | Photo courtesy Jon Elmer

And then there is the situation in Gaza. The Palestinians who live there are among the most impoverished and oppressed people in the world. They are refugees in the very land they have lived since ancient times, land which was ripped away from them by force and is now occupied by the state of Israel. Recently, the few square kilometres they are crowded into in Gaza, has been blockaded, attacked and bombarded by the Israeli army, one of the most powerful and sophisticated in the world, supplied with advanced weaponry and the latest American aircraft.

Criticizing the actions of the Israeli government against the population of Gaza, Sir Gerald Kaufmann, who is Jewish and an MP in the British parliament, has labeled its leadership as “war criminals,” while an Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal has described Gaza as resembling “a big concentration camp.” For his part, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has characterized the Israeli system of discrimination against Palestinians as being similar to the “apartheid” regime of South Africa.

Jon Elmer.boy in Gaza

Photo courtesy Jon Elmer

When all is said and done, the main “crime” of the Palestinians today is that they have refused to accept their second class status and fiercely resisted the illegal occupation of their lands, just as the Highland Scots of Burns’ day refused to accept the rule of the British Crown. But, of course, truth gets turned on its head. Somehow it gets spun that Israel is the “victim,” just as, in the 18th Century, the British aristocracy, with its gloved hands, crystal wine glasses, and fenced estates, claimed it was the “victim” of the “barbaric” Scots.

If Burns were alive today, I believe that he would still be standing with his beloved Scots. But my bet is that he would also be standing with the people of Mackenzie and Grand Falls, and other beleaguered communities throughout Canada. And he’d be there with the people of Gaza. May his memory live forever.

*Peter Ewart is a writer, instructor and community activist based in Prince George, BC. He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca. This article has been adapted and revised especially for Shunpiking Magazine and Mac-talla, its annual Gaelic supplement, by the author from an earlier version published in Opinion250 and Counterpunch. For a pdf of the essay, click here Shunpiking.Robbie Burns Spread.

Burns – the poet of humanity

Edited and compiled by Tony Seed

Robert Burns’ birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland – a simple two-roomed clay and thatch cottage.

Robert Burns’ birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland – a simple two-roomed clay and thatch cottage. It was built by his father, William Burness, in 1757.

Burn’s facts

•  Burns was born in his mother’s kitchen on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire. His mother had an encyclopedic knowledge of Gaelic folklore. His father was a cottar, an impoverished tenant farmer.

•  He grew up to become Scotland’s national Bard in an age when his culture, his heritage, his very people, were despised to the point of prohibition. It was illegal to teach the written Gaelic language. But he was also of an age of republicanism (he lived during the French revolutionary period) and radicalism.

•  Known as the ‘Ploughman poet’, Burn’s found early success in 1786 with Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, a set of poems based on a broken love affair. This book (now known as The Kilmarnock Edition) was considered to be one of the greatest poetical collections ever written. It appealed not only to the educated, but also to the common man and propelled Burns into the limelight.

•  Wordsworth and Keats paid homage in words and actions to Burns. Both poets visited his final resting place.

•  Sir Walter Scott said of Burns’ famous love song, Ae Fond Kiss, that, ‘it was the essence of a thousand love tales.’

•  Auld Lang Syne was originally set to a different tune but the publisher rejected it so Burns set it to the one commonly sung today, an internationally famous song of friendship.

•  On the day Burns was buried, 25th of July 1796 – following the three months of famine culminating in the Dumfries Food Riots of March 1796 – his wife Jean was giving birth to the last of his children, Maxwell Burns. Thousands attended his funeral.

•  By 1801, a group of Ayrshire men were already honouring their friend at an annual dinner. Burns night became an important tradition for millions of people throughout the world who regularly celebrate their love of all things Scottish.

•  Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck took the title of his acclaimed 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, a story of two displaced migrant workers during the Depression, from Robert Burn’s poem – a line contained in the famous penultimate stanza, The best laid schemes o‘ mice an’ men – often paraphrased in English as The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”. 

The Slave’s Lament

An intense love of his fellow human beings shines through Burn’s poetry. The Slave’s Lament, also written as a song, reveals Burn’s sentiments for people taken from their native land.

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes

did me enthrall

For the lands of Virginia-ginia O;

Torn from that lovely shore, and

must see it never more.

And alas! I am weary, weary O!

The burden I must bear, while the

cruel scourge I fear,

In the lands of Virginia-ginia O;

And I think on friends most dear

 with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas! I am weary, weary O!

Here’s freedom to him who would speak.

Here’s freedom to him who would write.

For there’s none ever feared

that the truth should be heard.

Save he who the truth would indict.

Scots, wha hae

Robert Burns penned that greatest anthem to patriot hearts:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victorie.

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;

See the front of battle lour;

See approach proud Edward’s power –

Chains and slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor’s knave?

Wha can fill a coward’s grave?

Wha’s sae base as be a slave?

Let him turn and flee!

Wha for Scotland’s King and Law,

Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,

Free-man stand, or free-man fa’?

Let him follow 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!

Burns.storytellers

These statues of storytellers are behind the famous cottage in which
Robert Burns lived in Alloway, Scotland.

Commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition, this is Robert Burns’ First Edition “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock in 1786.

Commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition, this is Robert Burns’ First Edition “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock in 1786.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Robbie Burns, Grand Falls, Mackenzie and Gaza

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  2. Pingback: Today is Robbie Burns Day | Tony Seed's Weblog

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