‘Immortal Memory: Robert Burns and The Scottish People’ by Christopher A. Whatley

'Immortal Memory: Robert Burns and The Scottish People' by Christopher A. Whatley

The man who first taught the Scottish people to stand erect
—Hugh Miller, 1856

Writing in 1856, Hugh Miller might well have been referring to the numerous Burns statues constructed in the nineteenth century — resulting in the poet quite literally standing erect across Scottish towns and villages. Perhaps unusually (for a man who regularly lambasted Burns’s irreligious behaviour) Miller was in fact reflecting on the poet’s importance to Scottish identity. Fittingly, Christopher Whatley’s recent book expands on all of the above themes as he explores the complexities of nineteenth-century statuary culture and its relation to Burns’s contested posthumous legacy in Scotland.

In 2011, Whatley published an article in the Journal of British Studies (50:3, 2011) that described how Burns was claimed and appropriated by both Radicals and Scottish conservatives between 1796 and 1859. It comes as little surprise that such nuanced research should now form the basis of a more extensive, book-length study. In Chapter One, Whatley picks up on his previous subject by outlining how Burns, lauded so frequently as the ‘people’s poet’, was used to bolster the identity of Scottish landowners who were usually Tory in politics. After describing a formal ceremony held at the Burns monument, organised by essayist John Wilson and the aristocratic Earl of Eglinton, Whatley teases the reader with a suggestion of tensions to come:

Forcing their way into the driving seat of Burns commemoration was a set of men whose backgrounds and interest in Burns and ideas of how his legacy was to be assured were substantially different.

This sets the scene for Chapter Two, which explores, by contrast, Burns’s popularity among political reformers, radicals and Chartists. With a shrewd eye for historical detail, Whatley adds a wealth of new information when rooting out the oppositional context of reformist appropriations. As he outlines, influential figures such as the Chartist minister Reverend Patrick Brewster and lecturer Julian Harney openly criticised aristocratic commemorations of Burns, using the 1844 Ayr Festival as a focal point:

The event’s organisers — aristocrats and their allies — were denounced as hypocrites, honouring Burns in 1844, but spurning him during his final years in Dumfries. Do not ‘feast upon your poet’s grave’, thundered the Northern Star, ‘having first starved him into it’. The charge was a potent one, and echoed the comments of Chartist lecturer Julian Harney who had visited the Burns monument in Alloway the previous year […] Whoever recalls Burns’ deathbed appeal for five pounds, he wrote, will regard ‘this cold stone pile as a monument to the meanness as well as pride, of the Scottish aristocracy.’

The idea that Scotland’s aristocracy had failed Burns, leading to his early demise, gained traction in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly among liberal English circles including Edward Rushton, William Roscoe and other Liverpool-based intellectuals. Whatley’s retrieval of Chartist sources reveals how this idea played into specifically Scottish debates about identity and idealised values.

Chapter Three expands on social tensions within the Burns movement by exploring the commemorative events held on the centenary of the poet’s birth. Ann Rigney and Leith Davis have previously outlined how diverse communities (‘real and imagined’) appropriated the poet to their own ends at the 1859 centenary. Here, Whatley further reveals the extent to which Burns was tied up in, as he puts it, ‘the struggle for the soul of Scotland’. His detailed analysis of clerical attitudes towards Burns is particularly enlightening. While the centenary had ‘rattled hard the cages of Scotland’s Presbyterian die-hards’, there were also a ‘number of ministers from the main churches who were prepared to brave the verbal assaults of their fellow clergymen’ by supporting the celebrations. Among these were the Episcopalian Dean Edward Ramsay, the Roman Catholic Bishop James Gillies, the Reverend A. Wallace of the United Presbyterians and the Reverend Robert Lee of the Church of Scotland. Burns’s ‘Kirk Satires’ and fervent attacks on religious hypocrisy have, perhaps justifiably, led to the common idea that clerical fury towards Burns was commonplace. Yet Whatley, exposing denominational conflict through archival research, outlines the complexity of relations between the church and Burns.

Returning to the broad topic of statuary culture, Chapters Four to Six explore the various motivations behind Burns monuments. Whatley artfully intertwines details about different sculptures into his broader commentary on how Burns’s legacy has, whilst commonly tied to Scottish national identity, been divisive. Highlighting the divergent groups, benefactors and individuals that raised statuary funds, he springboards into a discussion of how socialists, crofters, and landowners all co-opted the symbolic power of Burns. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, political parties in Scotland were in the habit of ‘hijacking’ the poet and ‘identifying him with policies on which, necessarily, he had nothing to say’.

This last point, of course, is extremely pertinent given the manner in which politicians and media outlets squabbled over which way the poet might have voted during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. That said, in the final and most contrarian chapter of the book, Whatley invites the question:

Even if Burns would have voted in the affirmative of to the question of ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ did anybody much care?

While acknowledging renewed academic and commercial interest in Burns, Whatley subtly suggests the poet might be less significant to the wider Scottish populace than in previous centuries. In the truest tradition of Burns commemoration, his suggestion is surely one that will be contested.


References & Further Information

Immortal Memory: Robert Burns and The Scottish People by Christopher A. Whatley is published by Birlinn, 2016.

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Arun Sood

Arun Sood is an academic researcher and journalist with an interest in transnational literary histories.

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