Immortal Memory For The Year of Natural Scotland - Burns The Environmentalist

Burns was one of the first poets to highlight the importance of landscape and nature.

The land where we live is a key component of how we see ourself.  Our natural identity is also in many respects our national identity.  And it is perhaps not surprising that we can trace this back to our national bard, Robert Burns. He wrote about the landscape with deep affection that then inspired artists, painters, writers and even today’s film-makers. 

2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland.  But the word environment was first coined long ago by another Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, who used the term in a letter to the German poet Goethe. Many years earlier, Burns also spoke the language of the 21st century environmentalist. His passion and compassion extended beyond his fellow human beings to all varieties of animal and even plant life. Conservation - the struggle between nature’s social union and “man’s dominion” as he puts it in To A Mouse  - is a theme that runs through some of his most famous poetry.

 Even the ‘modest crimson tipped’ mountain daisy, ploughed at his farm in Mossgiel, is deemed worthy of his attention and remorse:

‘Thou’s met me in an evil hour,” he wrote

“For I maun crush amang the stour, thy slender stem, to save thee now’s beyond the pow’r, thou bonny gem’.

In His 1996 book, Robert Burns, A Man for All Seasons” John Young sets out to prove that Burns was a true naturalist, a farmer and a writer who was aware of man’s influence on the environment for good or bad.  Young found that Burns made almost 3000 references to the environment in his work, which is perhaps not surprising given that he spent most of his life immersed in it and indeed trying to make it work for him.

As he wrote himself in his epistle to John Lapraik

Gie me ae spark o' Nature's fire,

That's a' the learning I desire.

Nature for burns was about more than the land. He had a deep empathy with animals and his love of his dogs is well know. He first articulates his abhorrence of blood sports in ‘Song Composed in August’, Which to this day is described by contemporary musicians; such as Dick Gaughan and Kathy Mattea as one of the most beautiful songs ever written:

‘Now westlin winds and Slaught’ring guns, bring Autumns pleasant weather’.

He goes onto describe:

The Sportsman’s joy, The murdering cry, The fluttering gory pinion”.

I am fortunate to represent the south of Scotland and one of Burn’s homes, Ellisland Farm, is just a few miles up the road from my constituency office.  Ellisland has changed little from when Burns took up his tenancy there, at the time he legally wed Jean Armour and attempted to settle down to the pastoral life after the huly burly of Edinburgh adulation.

If you have not visited Ellisland I can highly recommend it – you can see the stove where Jean baked bread, the desk where Burns wrote and the orchard that he planted.

The Friends of Ellsland are currently reviving some of the 18th century apple varieties that would have existed in his time.  Burns had a farmhouse built to his own specifications.  In those days most farm houses would have had windows overlooking the yard, so that the farmer could keep an eye on stock and workers.  But Burns broke with tradition and insisted he had a window beside his desk looking towards the River Nith, because he found the view so inspiring. But

Burns himself described the farm as “the poet’s choice” because he picked it for its beautiful riverside setting instead of the quality of its land. It was stoney and badly drained and life there was extremely hard. The farm was around 170 acres and Burns keps around 10 cows, four horses and a few sheep. He grew oats as well as apples and spent a lot of time building dykes. Keeping cattle over the winter without silage was extremely hard and after a short time Burns gave up and moved to Dumfries where he worked full time as an exiseman. But it was the tranquil setting of Ellisland which inspired some of his loveliest nature poems.

One which features prominently in the displays there and which strikes a particular chord with visiting children today is

 ‘To a Wounded Hare’, in which he expresses deep anger and sadness at discovering a doe hare that had been shot by a neighbouring farmer.

“Inhuman Man! Curse on thy barb’rous art,

And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye”

The poem had first been published in the 1793 Edinburgh edition of Burns ‘Poems’.  In 2010, correspondence was discovered in the basement of Floors Castle in Kelso by Borders historian Walter Elliot containing an early draft of the poem. The letter was dated 13th May 1789 and was addressed from Burns to Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University John Gregory.

Burns’ writes in the letter that the poem was sparked by an incident that took place in the early hours Sunday morning 19th April 1789. Burns was sowing grass seed in the Ellisland fields. He heard a shot from a neighbouring plantation and later wrote: “Shortly afterwards a poor little wounded hare came crippling by me…you will easily guess that this set my humanity in tears and my indignation in arms.”

Burns was incensed that a doe hare should be shot out with the hunting season in mid April when her leverets were newly born. He chased after the gunner whose name was James Thomson, the son of a neighbouring farmer. Decades later the poet’s biographer Allan Cunningham interviewed the middle aged Thomson who recalled:

“[Burns] was in great wrath, and cursed me, and said little hindered him from throwing me into the Nith; and he was able enough to do it, though I was both young and strong.”

As a farmer’s son, brought up in the Ayrshire countryside Burns had a respect for the land around him and the creatures who shared it with him. This is what he meant by Nature’s social union almost two centuries Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the League Against Cruel Sports.  I’m sure that he would have been delighted to know that a ban on hunting was one of the earliest laws passed by the reconvened Scots parliament.

He may also have enjoyed the debate on bio-diversity which took place in the parliament only last week.  He would certainly have approved of what his nation had become, a world leader in renewable energy with an ambitious target to reduce the emissions that cause climate change and natural disaster. Burns knew that the harmony of nature is mainly up to human beings’ realization of the universal law: live and let live. As more and more natural disasters arise as a result of man made climate change, the importance of maintaining this harmonious balance and respecting the environment becomes increasingly urgent.

Burns’s took the view, through his poetry, that all organisms within what we now refer to as the ecosystem, are of equal status.  Just as he dismissed social rank, he did not believe that man’s elevated status in the universe gave him the right wilfully destroy the natural world that had been entrusted to him. What concerned him was the increasing lack of social responsibility, to each other and the environment.  It is perhaps not surprising then that Burns’s work was so inspirational to another great Scot, John Muir, the father of American conservation and the national park movement. 

Muir was a champion of the wilderness and spent much of his life exploring wild places and writing about them.  In a newspaper article written by Muir in 1907, he speaks of how the man of science often “loses sight” of the “essential oneness of all living beings” but that is not a mistake the poet ever makes. And of all the poets, none had such a sympathy for this inter-connectedness than Robert Burns

I would like to quote Muir at length here. He wrote:  “On my lonely walks I have often thought how fine it would be to have the company of Burns. And indeed he was always with me, for I had him in my heart. On my first long walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico I carried a copy of Burns's poems and sang them all the way. The whole country and the people, beasts and birds, seemed to like them. In the Sierra I sang and whistled them to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me. So real was his companionship, he oftentimes seemed to be with me in the flesh, however wild and strange the places where I wandered -- the Arctic tundras so like the heathery muirlands of Scotland, the icy Alps and Himalayas, Manchuria, Siberia, Australia, New Zealand -- everywhere Burns seemed at home and his poems fitted everybody. Wherever a Scotsman goes, there goes Burns. His grand whole, catholic soul squares with the good of all; therefore we find him in everything, everywhere. Throughout these last hundred and ten years, thousands of good men have been telling God's love; but the man who has done most to warm human hearts and bring to light the kinship of the world, is Burns, Robert Burns, the Scotsman

So there you have it. Robert Burns, the Scotsman who warms human hearts and brings light to the world.  But the bard could equal rejoice in the affectionate title that Muir himself has been given by American followers.  Citizen of the Universe.  

Ladies and Gentlemen will you please be upstanding to toast the immortal memory of Robert Burns, a great Scotsman and Citizen of the Universe. 

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