Today is Robert Burns Birthday, the poet from Scotland. It’s also Virginia Woolf’s birthday, but for some reason Burns draws more interest. It’s probably the whisky. After all, Woolf is English and who’d want to drink gin when you can have the water of life. In honor of Burns, I’m pulling this post from my old blog, which is a talk I gave back in 2018.
I gave this Burns Night talk to the St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Savannah on January 26, 2018
Wow! In our program tonight I am identified as a Rector. I’m not sure how to take this. Should I be honored? After all, the word comes from an old English meaning “to rule.” Or perhaps, because I’m in a crowd of Scots, I should be afraid. As you know, Scots are independently minded. I can assure you that you will not find a minister within the Church of Scotland, the mother church of all Presbyterians, referred to as Rector. You may find the headmaster of a school referred to in that way, but as for the Kirk, that’s way too English, way too Anglican.
Let me take this moment to share with you a bit of history. In the 17thCentury, following the Scottish Reformation, the people of Scotland signed the National Covenant, which adopted a Calvinist theology and a Presbyterian form of government. This placed Scotland not only in opposition to the Roman Church, but also to the Episcopal form of government as advanced by the Anglicans.
There were a number of battles over these issues. The Scots don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t like being told that had to pray in a particular manner so they resisted the Anglican prayer book. The clergy didn’t like being told they had to dress all fancy when leading worship which led to the adoption of the Geneva robe. And the Scots had a problem Bishops and clergy vested with lots of power, so they adopted a system of government that shares between the clergy and lay elders.
As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with the crown. They liked the idea of having loyal bishops who could help it control the Kirk. The church fought back and eventually a compromise was achieved. The Crown would be Anglican when they were in England, and when in Scotland, they’d be Presbyterian. In Scotland, the Queen has no Bishops to do her bidding and there are no rectors within the Kirk.
Now on to matters at hand—our remembrance of Mr. Burns. Sadly, I never studied him while in school. In college, the only poets of interest to me were musicians. Steely Dan was a favorite. They had some immortal lines back in the seventies and eighties, one of which comes to mind this evening. It’s from their hit song, “Deacon Blue,” and you may know it. “Drink Scotch Whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” A great line, but please, don’t try to live it out. We could say the same for he same for many of Burn’s ideas and examples.
I was in Scotland this summer. As you’ve heard, I scheduled a couple days around Edinburgh with a friend of mine, Ewan. He’d taken time off to be with me, but as it happens in our calling, people are not always considerate as to when they die. On our second day together, I could go to a funeral for a woman I didn’t know or spend the day tramping around Edinburgh on my own. After that hospital visit, I chose the latter.
I started out my morning by the castle which dominates Edinburgh’s skyline. Having toured it before, I wanted something without long lines. In the shadow of the castle, I’d learned of a Writer’s Museum and, fancying myself as a wannabe writer, decided to visit. Besides, the admission is free which warmed my Scottish blood.
But the museum is hard to find. I had to humble myself and ask for directions. Not only did I have to do this once, but several times as it appears not many people know of the museum. Finally, someone pointed me to a small alley and said I’d find it up there. There were no signs, but the alley opened up into a square and there was the museum. It’s housed in a very old but unique home with wonderful wooden spiral stairways. There are large exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the man of the night, Robbie Burns. As a kid, I’d read Treasure Island, so I spent most of the time in the Stevenson’s section, while quickly running through the other parts. Had I known that I was going to be expected to talk about Burns, I would have lingered a little longer…
Leaving the museum, I worked my way across the city. One stop you’ll have to make is the Scott Monument, named for the author not the people. If you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, I recommend you climb it. From the top is the most incredible views of Edinburgh. I think it’s even more striking than the views from Arthur’s Throne. So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, if you are in reasonably good shape, have five pounds to spare and a few more to lose to exertion, and enjoy the snugness that comes from being confined in a straightjacket (as the stairwells are smug), check it out.
Don’t worry, I’m getting closer to Burns… By mid-afternoon I’d made my way to Canonsgate Church. It’s the burial site for Adam Smith and I wanted to pay my respect and do a Facebook selfie to dispel any rumors that I have socialist leanings. While there, chatting with a guide, I asked if there were others buried in the church yard that I might be interested in. “Oh yes,” she said, “On the other side of the church is the grave of Robert Burn’s lover, Clarinda.”
I’ve told you that I’m not a Burn’s scholar, right? But I knew enough about the man to know that he had more than a few lovers across Scotland. “I’m sure you’re not the only church in Scotland claiming a grave of a Burn’s lover,” I said. She took offense at my sarcasm and reminded me that Clarinda was special. What does that make his other lovers?
In Garrison Keillor’s novel, Wobegon Boy, the protagonist writes a poem for his wife as a wedding gift. Reading it she embraces him and it suddenly dawns on him why men have been writing poems all these centuries: “to impress a woman with the hopes she will sleep with you.”
Our friend Robbie wrote many such poems for Clarinda. The two of them lured each other with their poetry and correspondence even though they likely never consummated, in a physical manner, their relationship. But their letters and poems are to be cherish. Clarinda is the reason we have “Ae Fond Kiss” and “Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul.”
Of course, Clarinda wasn’t her real name. That was Agnes, but everybody called her Nancy. That is everyone but Burns, who gave her this beautiful nickname that is much softer sounding than Agnes and less common than Nancy. And, with this secret name, it was a safer way for Burns to correspond with a married woman.
We can speculate as to why Clarinda maintained her purity while Burn’s promised to conquer her “by storm and not siege.” Their relationship got off to a slow start because after first meeting, Burns had to cancel their next due to an accident that put him on crutches and in bed. But there were other reasons.
Clarinda was pious and religious and even though her husband had run out on her, she wasn’t going to do the same. She would later travel to Jamaica in an attempt to win him back. And then there were a few other details. At the time they were flirting with each other, Robbie had already planted his seed with Jean Armour. When Clarinda resisted Burn’s advances, the poet set his eyes on her servant, Jenny Clow. Ms. Clow would also give birth to the poet’s child. Only a fool would be lured into his bed with the thought she’d have a long-lasting relationship with the man whose seed was germinating all over Scotland. Clarinda was no fool.
Clarinda and Burns were attracted to the others use of language. Both were gifted, and Clarinda was nearly Burn’s equal with the pen as these few lines illustrate:
Go on, sweet bird, and soothe my care,
Thy cheerful notes will hush despair;
Thy tuneful warbling, void of art,
Thrill sweetly through my aching heart.
Now choose thy mate, and fondly love.
Although Clarinda probably never allowed Robert to take her to bed, the words the two of them exchanged were certainly intimate and salacious. As an old woman, she looked back fondly on their relationship and said she hoped to meet him in heaven. Of course, that’s assuming Burns made it… The Rev. John Kemp, Clarinda’s pastor, certainly had his doubt as to Burns eternal destination. Maybe he and Burns share eternity together. Later, the Good Reverend was discovered to have three wives at the same time! Had Burns’ lived, he would have enjoyed the satirical wit that situation offered.
Clarinda, Jenny, Jean (not to mention Mary and a few others)… What would be Burns’ fate if he lived in today’s “Me Too” climate? I mentioned Garrison Keillor and we know what happened to him, along with a long line of other popular folk whose sexual indiscretions have come back to haunt them. I don’t know how this would affect Burns. It may not have had any impact. In his day, more than one minister chided Burns for his behavior. He didn’t seem to let their scolding’s worry him.
Poets are often great lovers. Their command of language is such that they can take words and draw our minds into new places and possibilities. Think of King David, a poet from the Bible. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him and, we’re told, he was a man after the heart of God. And like Burns, he wasn’t always honorable. This is speculation, but can you image the love note he sent down to Bathsheba? Of course, we know the pain that little affair caused. Poor Uriah. But we remember David, with his frailties, because we all have had our own shortcomings. David gives us hope and shows us the wideness of God’s mercy.
Burns may not have had the same desires for God as David, but we still appreciate him. In his day, he brought humor to a serious society and pointed out social inequalities and hypocrisy. And today, he us still reminding us to look for beauty. Furthermore, Burn’s collection of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect provide identity to those of us whose ancestors left those rocky shores. Our hearts are still warmed by the beauty of heather blooming in the crags. And, even better, we can easily plagiarizer his poems when we court our sweethearts.
I did visit Clarinda’s grave that afternoon. It was covered with flowers—fresh flowers. She’s buried next to her cousin, Lord Craig. His grave looks like it was last attended to during the Boer War. It’s been nearly two centuries years since her death and there are people who not only remember her, yet think highly enough of her to regularly place flowers on her grave. That’s quite an honor. Here’s to you, Clarinda.
Feb. 1, 2021: I recently came across this article on Burns: The Scotsman
_________, Robert Burns in Your Pocket (Glasgow: Waverley Books, 2009).
Brauer, Jerald C., editor, The Westminster Dictionary of Church History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971).
Dawson, Jane, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015).
Douglas, Hugh, Robert Burns: The Tinder Heart (Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1996).
Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Random House, 2001).
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: VikingPenguin, 2005).
 I had this story used in my introduction (The story came from the Chic Murray Facebook site and was “adapted” for this occasion:
This past summer, our speaker was visiting the Rev. Ewan Aitken, a friend of his in Scotland. Ewan asked if it was okay for him to run in and see someone at Edinburgh General Hospital.
“No problem,” Jeff said, and asked if it was okay if he went in, too.”
“Come on.” Ewan said. While Ewan was making his pastoral visit, Jeff decided to see what he could do to cheer up some of the patients. He stepped into a ward and went up to a bed and said hello.
The man looked up and said, “Far far yer honest sonsie face great chieftens o the puddin race a boon them aw you tak..
Oh for goodness sake, Jeff said and moved on to the next bed
“WEE courin timid beastie wad caused this panic in tha breastie…..” the patient mumbled.
Shaking his head, Jeff moved to the next bed.
“Some hae meat and canna eat and some hae nane and want it…”
At this time, Ewan was ready to leave and came over to Jeff who asked if this was the insane ward.
“Oh no,” Ewan, said, “this is the SERIOUS BURNS UNIT.”