As we quickly approach Burns night, a great constitutional debate has sparked across social media which has both sides of the independence debate claim Robert Burns as their own; thus, I decided I would release a chapter from an academic work of mine in which touches upon this subject.
Robert Burns by Iain McIntosh © Scottish Poetry Library
Ramsay and Burns are very well known for their politically based poetry. Allan Ramsay was known to be an incredible influence on Robert Burns. Both poets were intimately involved in a literary movement known now as the Romantic Movement, which saw works in Scottish, Irish and English Literature flourish, and the literary world was gifted with wordsmiths like Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and of course, Burns and Ramsay.
Murray Pittock made the argument that Ramsay was in fact the avatar of Romanticism in Britain:
Ramsay is an avatar of subsequent literary development in several areas: in his promotion of a Scottish public sphere, in his alter mentality and inflection of genre, designed to protect and promote a distinctive national voice by transforming predominantly English uses of literary kinds, not surrendering to them; and in his development of a taxonomy of glory to justify a continuity of kinds and forms in a distinctively Scottish Literature, for which he is largely personally responsible.These developments can be interpreted (as indeed they used to be) as connected to what have come to be seen as conventional values of Romantic Literature.
This passage reflects on Ramsay’s giant footstep he left for others to follow, and his part in the inception of Romantic Literature. Pittock goes on:
Ramsay’s Scottish literature is one driven from ‘premises of feeling and sentiment’, where the ‘Bard’s’ make their first significant appearance in Scottish writing as guarantors of native distinctiveness and quality, a role which does not emerge for them in England until the 1760s.’
Pittock established the key aspects and differences between Scottish and English Romanticism; but he also established the foreshadowing of Scottish Romanticism onto English Romanticism.
The critical study of Romanticism is often considered to be fairly Anglo-Centric; Ian Duncan wrote that ‘the term Romanticism has come under intense scrutiny and debate in literary studies in Great Britain and North America in the last couple of decades. Only very recently has that debate begun to address the term’s anglocentric underpinnings.’
This could indeed be a highly relevant point for discussion, as Scottish Romanticism did often reflect on National status; however it displayed the feeling, the sentiment, and the political discontent that much of the later English works demonstrated.
A key influence on the Romanticism of Allan Ramsay could indeed be influenced by the Act of Union itself. Ramsay was in vehement opposition to the ceding of Scottish Sovereignty to the English Parliament in 1707. If one concedes the incredible influence of Allan Ramsay on Romantic Literature, one could consider the concept of the Act of Union having a considerable impact on the development of Romanticism as a whole. The energy and regeneration of Scottish Literature was so strong as was felt by Allan Ramsay’s fury, the tremors were felt in literature across the British Isles.
Allan Ramsay performed this regeneration of Scottish Literature by reflecting on historical characters of Scotland’s past, and alluding them to the great Classical characters seen in Latin Literature, such as Virgil’s Aeneid. This could not be any more apparent than in Ramsay’s poem, A Poem. This poem was incredibly radical for its time, and within a few lines, Ramsay makes a bitter comment regarding the Act of Union:
The good of our ———— and Scotland sought.
For like a Noble Scot of Antient Race,
He spurned at our Slavery and Disgrace.
Poor Slaves to England, Wretched, O ye Gods!
The speaker of this poem is travelling through the Classical Greek underworld, as Virgil’s Aeneas was tasked to do, as a means of finding the pathway to found the great city that was Rome – a tale that would have been very well known across communities at the time of Ramsay. The speaker on his travels through the Stygian River and descension through the Underworld, encounters a hero of Scotland’s struggle for Independence, Robert the Bruce:
Of Valiant BRUCE approach’d to him and said,
Tell me, how fares it with my Albions now,
Can they with Ease to the Proud Saxons bow?
O Gods! Is the Great Soul of SCOTLAND FLED;
Or does She Dream on some drowzy Bed.
Will she not rise to gain Her Old Renown,
And Show She wears an Independent Crown.
Ramsay puts words in the mouth of one of Scotland’s former King’s, and mourns the loss of Scotland’s Independence. In setting the poem in such a well known place among Ramsay’s contemporaries, and contemporary society, this places Scotland’s cause in context to make people reflect, and strengthen the message of the injustice of Scotland’s political situation. Scotland’s literature is placed in the context of the world’s historical literature, and this would have surely had his readers sit up and take notice of what was going on around them, and the travesty that was the Act of Union. By using famous characters of the Scotland’s past, Ramsay triggers a Renaissance in Scottish Literature, by forcing others to consider what the heroes of the past would think of the present circumstances – this was evident in the poetry of men after Ramsay, such as Robert Ferguson’s Poem, The Ghaists: A Kirk-yard Eclogue. Ramsay subsequently incorporated to his poem another hero from the time of the Wars of Independence; this time, William Wallace:
WALLACE came next with Aspect Stern, yet kind;
And ask’d, If there was none of Martial Mind,
Who durst like him, through Blood and Ruin go,
To save Old SCOTLAND from her Hated Foe.
No, no, the Doctor said, there’s none at all:
Our Peers are False, our Gentry’s Courage Small,
Then did the HERO groan and wish tho late,
It wight be granted by Eternal Fate,
For him once more to head the Valiant Clans,
SCOTS should have freedom large as their demands.
Raw passion is seen in these lines by Ramsay, evoking Scotland’s historic and literary past while referencing his contemporary politicians and landowners in order to make a critical comment on Scotland’s predicament within the Great Britain. Another literary device deployed by Ramsay in order to make this critical point on the Act of Union, and the loss of Scotland’s Sovereignty was his use of language. This poem, despite Ramsay’s reputation of presenting a distinctly Scottish Romanticism, is noticeably lacking in Scots language. This was almost certainly, given the context of the poem, a means of reflection on other aspects of culture that Scotland faced to lose as a result of the Act Of Union: it reflects the growing sense of Anglicisation, and the infectious nature of surrendering Sovereignty out of Scotland, and the fear of cultural annihilation. Therefore, Ramsay has retrieved characters, and literary traditions traditions from long in the past, and renewed them to make a critical comment on Scotland’s place in the Union, as was done by so many writers at the time. Ramsay regenerated Scottish Literature, and jumpstarted the larger Romantic movement of literature – this poem contained raw passions, and sophisticated political thought, mourning lost liberties.
A poem in which Ramsay deploys similar themes, but adapts his language to look reminiscent of the works of Dunbar and Henryson was one found in his collection The Evergreen, known simply as ‘The Vision’. In their introduction to the Poetry Collection Scotland’s Poets and the Nation, Riach and Gifford describe ‘The Vision’ as ‘outstanding example of angry nationalism.’ The editors go on to comment:
Ramsay’s trick is to pretend that he is writing about the Wars of Independence, when his real message, invoking the spirit of the past in Wallace, is an exhortation to present rebellion and the re-assertion of Scottish Independence. And his successor Robert Fergusson and Burns continue his nationalist, visionary poetry.
The lines that make this critical comment more than apparent have a real contemporary tone to the world of Ramsay: Our trechour piers thair tyranns treit,
Quha jyb them, and thair substance eit,
And on their honour stamp;
They, pure degenerate! bend thair baks,
The Victor, Langshanks, proudly cracks
He has blown out our lamp;
Quhyle trew men, sair complainand, tell,
With sobs, thair silent greif.
By writing these lines in the present tense, the reader can see the passion seeping through the words of Ramsay. The Lords and Peers of Scotland are widely regarded as those responsible for the sale of Scotland’s freedom. The language of the selected passage shows clearly the ‘angry nationalism’ Riach and Gifford spoke about previously. Furious words such as ‘trechour’ and ‘degenerate’ wreak of pure rage on behalf of the speaker, and what is seeming more than apparent, Allan Ramsay himself.
Allan Ramsay invoked the spirit of writers of the past, such as Henryson and Dunbar, and brought in the voices of historical characters of the past such as William Wallace and Robert Bruce, and renewed their voices for the present, and the fight for political self-determination for those living in Scotland.
Burns, whom i have hitherto mentioned was majorly influenced by both Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Like his predeccesors, Burns had taken an interest in the Scots language and used it in much of his poetry. Burns, like Ramsay is beginning to be credited as one of the major influences of the subsequent Romantic Period in Literature.
Scotland’s greatest poet did not live to see the birth of the new literary movement (if one dates it from publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798), but his work was such a powerful influence on its authors, many would claim him as its godfather, if not its progenitor – titles he deserves to share with Cowper.
Burns was regarded as Scotland’s ‘Bard’ . Katie Trumpener in her critically acclaimed piece, ‘Bardic Nationalism’ described the notion of the bard as:
For nationalist antiquaries, the bard is the mouthpiece for the whole society, articulating its values, chronicling its history, and mourning the inconsolable tragedy of its collapse. English poets, in contrast, imagine the bard (and the minstrel after him) as an inspired, isolated, and peripatetic figure.
Burns was indeed a mouthpiece of a poorly represented segment of society, however, by attaching the label ‘bard’ to him, many perceive him as a mere regional poet, and absent from the great Romantic Tradition. Burns was a major player in the Romantic Era of literature, and inside his sentimental heart lurked a political giant, crying out for the lost liberties of not only his land, but the lost liberties of all peoples when faced with oppression from those above them in the gravy-train of society. Robert Crawford discussed Burn’s conflict with this status of the ‘Bard’ :
In adopting the description ‘a Scotch bard’ and calling it his ‘highest pride’, Burns attempts to valorise this patronising term. It allows him again to side firmly with those supposedly rather primitive Ayrshire peasants from whose society he comes and whose language he often uses.
Burns played with the old status of the ‘bard’ which had strong links back to Scotland’s past, and traditional Folk Tales, and presented himself as a man of the people as he unleashed his radical politics onto society. His poem A Man’s A Man For A’ That is a key example of him doing this.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.’
Burns in this poem discussed the fraternal nature of mankind – the reader can clearly see the egalitarian nature of Burns’ politics – what shines through is the radical in Burns – one can almost envisage Burns’ as a republican with the egalitarian and internationalist politics at work in this poem. Burns’ used his status to retrieved the sentiments and the imagination of the past, and renewed them for the future as he looked forward and asserted himself in Scottish society.
His poem, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ does the same, however makes a clear case for Independence as well as general liberties for the people, whether against the brutality of employers or landlords. This poem is very like that of Ramsay’s ‘The Vision’ as it plays on the tradition set by the likes of Henryson and Dunbar, of creating a setting which is based firmly in the past, but sentiments and themes are ones which are incredibly relevant to the present and future. This was a technique that many writers adopted as a means of placing some distance between themselves and their work, through their fear of repercussions if their publication is considered Radical by the authorites. It also plays firmly with the tradition that has been hitherto discussed regarding Ramsay of retrieving from the past, and renewing for the future as a means of making a case for Independence.
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!!!’
The note for the ‘Scots Wha Hae’ notes that it should be sung alongside an old Scots tune ‘Hey Tutti Taitie’ which was said to have been the tune to which Bruce’s troops marched to Bannockburn to face Edward II in the penultimate battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. By retrieving a tune from the past, Burns was inviting his audience to hum the tune that was hummed by the Scots preparing to fight and die for Independence. It is evident here that Burns was taking a full and open part in the regeneration of past texts and past traditions in order to make the case for Independence, and called on his readers to display the bravery that their ancestors had shown years before. This revival and renaissance was typical of the revolution that Ramsay had started in reaction to the Act of Union in which Scottish Artists fought for their identity and fought to assert their cultural uniqueness and individual contributions they could make to the literary world.
‘Such a Parcel O’ Rogues In A Nation’ was very like Ramsay’s text, in which it can be described as an example of ‘angry nationalism.’ The poem, like Ramsay’s poem attacks the wealthy few who sold Scotland out for more riches for themselves.
‘Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel even to the Scottish Name,
Sae fam’d in martial story!
Now Sark runs o’er the Solway Sands,
And Tweed runs to the Ocean,
To mark where England’s Province stands,
Such a Parcel of rogues in a nation.’
This stanza reflects heavily on Scotland’s past, and proud history. This poem asserts that all of this was sold when the Act of Union was signed. The repetition of ‘Fareweel’ reflects the severity of the actions of those few who signed the Act of Union. ‘Fame’, ‘Glory’ and ‘Name’ are all what Burns’ says Scotland has signed away with the surrender of sovereignty. This poem is perhaps the most radical in Burns’ entire collection, as it doesn’t have the suitable historical distance to be excused – Burns was writing not long after the ’45 and Culloden as seen in the Jacobite Rebellions, and to write so close to a time when those fighting for the Scottish Kings against the new British Kings had been subject to a massacre would have been incredibly dangerous. It was published posthumously however, presumably due to its dangerous content. It is likely that Burns would have passed this poem around friends of his, and allowed them to personally reflect on the lost liberties; but it wasn’t for general public consumption till after Burns’ death.
Burns in ‘Such A Parcel O’ Rogues in a Nation’ draws on Scotland’s history; referencing culture and tradition, urged Scotland not to give up on these things. Burns’ poem was truly a symbol of the Renaissance of Scottish Literature in the 18th century, in the face of Cultural Annihilation. Both Burns’ and Allan Ramsay in their poetry fought for the re-assertion of Scottish Independence, and their work, along with the work of their contemporaries was to be referenced and serve as an influence to future writers seeking to recover, and renew older elements of Scottish Literature in order to make the case for Scottish National self-determination.