Mr.Croupier, honoured guests, and fellow members.        



         Why a poet? Why should we be gathered together tonight in celebration

         of  the life and work of a man who was a poet ?   And if someone was to

         suggest  that the reason is that our particular Club was founded by a man

         who was himself a poet and that our particular town  is one that once

         was  famous for its poets, that does not explain why there are gatherings

         like this all over Scotland, and indeed all over the word, tonight

         celebrating the work of Robert Burns, a poet. For it is as a poet that

         we admire him. He wasn’t a very good farmer;  he wasn’t a particularly

         successful  exciseman, or for that matter anything else; he would have

         been  forgotten long ago if it hadn’t been for his poetry.         


         Every nation tends to have its own heroes, people who made a

         contribution   of some kind to their country’s development that has

caused  them  to be remembered long afterwards, to have statues built in

their  honour,  to have their birth places noted, their faces appear on

         banknotes,  and have streets, squares arid even whole towns named after

         them . Somehow they are seen as having qualities that render them         

         fitting  symbols of a nation’s pride in itself and its history. For

Americans, a combination of pioneering spirit and statesmanship,

coupled with success, seems  to be what has been required, and Abraham

         Lincoln has filled the bill admirably. The English have tended to

choose soldiers and sailors, like Wellington and Nelson, or statesman-like

figures such as Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill. The French have

of course Napoleon; the Germans have Bismarck, and the Italians have

Garibaldi or perhaps Julius Caesar. The Russians are more political and

have Lenin, the Indians have a philosopher statesman in  Mahatma

Gandhi, and China has Mao Tse-Tung. They all tend to have been

notable patriots, or to have been men who inspired patriotism        


There are few such heroic figures seem to come from the arts, although

 there are examples like Rembrandt appearing on the banknotes of the

Netherlands, or Beethoven or Rossini being second-line heroes from

Germany or Italy, while Shakespeare’ s birthplace is a major tourist

attraction in England. But nevertheless it is relatively rare for a

nation to focus its pride on someone like a poet, and virtually

unparalleled for that focus to take the form of dinners such as this.

So why do we do it in Scotland?       


It is not as if we had nobody else to be proud of. Although a small

nation, we in Scotland have produced an astonishingly large number of

men who have made an important contribution to developments all over

the world. If we wished a soldier patriot we could choose Wallace or

 Bruce. We have had great inventors like James Watt, Alexander Graham

Bell, and John I.ogie Baird. We have had men who transformed the

world of medicine like James Young Simpson or Alexander Fleming.

We have had explorers like David Livingstone and Mungo Park. We

have had  philosophers like David Hume and economists like Adam

Smith. We have story tellers like Walter Scott and Robert Louis

Stevenson, and we have had romantic  legendary leaders like Montrose

or Bonny Prince Charlie.  We have had at least a dozen figures that

might elsewhere have been chosen as the national symbol, but we have

chosen a poet, Robert Burns.


         Oh, yes, we remember the others in various ways too, have named

streets after then and put their faces on banknotes, but we don’t hold

annual dinners to celebrate their memories.        


         And yet it is not as if we have happened somehow to produce the

world’s  greatest poet, a writer so clearly pre-eminent in his particular

field  that we had to choose him, in spite of all the merits of the others.

To  claim that just wouldn’t be true. Men like Watt and Bell, Livingstone

 and Simpson are more important figures in the histories of their spheres

of endeavour than Burns is in the history of poetry. His work is of a

  very high order, as I hope I shall show later in this address, but no

  one with any serious appreciation of poetry would put him in the same

class as a writer like Shakespeare, who surpasses him easily in the

extent and range of his work, the inventiveness of his language and

the profundity of his thought.        


And it is not as if we were as a nation somehow especially interested in

 poetry. People in this town of Paisley may have been once, but it is

hardly true today. Torn Gibson has a talent for writing it, as we shall

 see after the interval, and Clark Hunter and one or two others are

 knowledgeable, while the rest of our members show an interest in a

Burns’  reading once a month throughout the winter, and are fairly

exceptional in that — but the reading of poetry must come a long way

down the list of the national pre-occupations of the Scots today.


Undoubtedly there has been a change in that respect over the last 200

 years or so. If we had lived around 1800, then civilised men of our

 general standing in society would have taken an interest in poets. We

 would certainly have known the names of the best and have read

something of their work, and if one happened to be visiting the place

where we  lived, we would have been pleased and perhaps even anxious

to make his acquaintance. That is why Robert Burns was so well

received on his  travels, why ladies and gentlemen of property were

pleased to have him as a guest in their homes, for to be a poet in those

days was to be a celebrity. But that is hardly the case today, when,

unflattering as the word may seen, it would be truer to say that to be a

poet is to be a  curiosity.              


We could think for a moment about the founder of this Club, Robert

 Tannahill.  In his own day he was a minor poet; now he is a forgotten

 poet. But the interesting thing is that he wanted to be a poet, that he

 saw poetry as a natural medium for the expression of his feelings, and

that it was in poetry that he found escape from the monotony of his

weaving. A man of talent and imagination, with a gift for song and an

interest in literature; today he might have been a school teacher,

perhaps Head of English in Paisley Grammar, writing lyrics or television

scripts on the side; then his ambition was to be recognised as a poet.

There are of  course various reasons why we are not as interested in

poetry now. The first is that there are so many other leisure

activities and art forms available to us, and it is much easier for us

to hear good music or see good drama than it was 200 years ago – either

by going to a live concert or theatre or by doing so via a machine.          


Moreover, art that is successful today tends to be linked closely to

technological development, with high quality music being made

available  through records, cassettes and compact discs, drama through

television, and even a relatively new art form like the cinema being kept

alive by the existence of the video cassette. It is an age of mass art, art

 communicated  mainly through a technological medium which demands

visual images, and poetry is not well suited to it.

Furthermore, art today often has a commercial aspect to it, and the art

forms which flourish or even just survive need to make money or attract

sponsorship. Poetry cannot  make money, and it lacks the mass appeal or

the visual impact to make it a suitable medium for sponsorship.                 


This is related to the fact that the poetry which is written in the

second half of the twentieth century appeals to relatively few people.

If we try to read it, it often seems strange, different from what we

expected, and few of us are prepared to make the effort to appreciate

 it. Why don’t people now write poetry like Burns did, or something like,

say, Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”, or Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”?  Poetry isn’t

like that now. Why not? Why doesn’t any serious poet try to write like

Robert Burns today? And the answer of course is that it has been done.



Art forms must evolve; they must grow and develop or they wither away.         

A modern poet would not try to write like Burns, for the same reason

that a modern composer  wouldn’t try to write music like Mozart or

Beethoven. It has been done, and it cannot be bettered. Do you ever

wonder why they don’t make western films like “High Noon” or

“Shane”  anymore? –  the answer is that that particular art genre reached

its peak in our lifetime in the 50s and 60s, and they cannot better it now,

only produce occasional pale imitations.              


Art forms evolve or they die. Think of the work of the Moghul architects

in India in the mid—l6th and early 17th centuries, whose work came to a

peak in the building of the Taj Mahal. They kept on trying to build like

that for a hundred years or so after the Taj , and it faded away for lack

of fresh imagination, with the gleaming marble replaced by crumbling

stucco that no one bothers to go to see.             


 If Burns had been alive today, it is most unlikely that he ever would

 have been a poet. He would have grown up watching television and

listening to pop records; he would almost certainly have become

 interested in politics; and with his gift for communication he might

well have became a media man himself – either as one of those who work

 with the media, like a newspaper editor or a television personality, or

 one of those who use the media to project their ideas like a politician.

 His talent would have taken him to the top, whatever he did, but if he

 had written poetry it would probably only have been as a spare-time



Yet here we are tonight, gathered to celebrate him as a poet. Why ??


There is of course an element of convention, of coming along to

an evening like this for the sheer enjoyment of the conviviality it

brings, and perhaps in the middle of winter we need an excuse for an

occasion of this kind. But that is hardly sufficient to explain the

phenomenon, for people all over the world are also engaged tonight in

the unlikely practice of celebrating a poet who died nearly 200 years

ago, and some of them are doing it in countries like New Zealand, where

it is the middle of the summer. If they only wanted an excuse for a

convivial evening, they could surely came up with another one of their

own. There must be a better explanation than that.   



Of course there is, and now that I attempt to give it, I cannot say

anything  that has not been said before, and said better at that, for

this toast is given every year by thousands of speakers, and over the

last 150 years almost every Scotsman of any distinction has been

required to attempt an answer to my question. But sometimes the

familiar is still worth repeating.          


Successful artists either develop the existing format, or they try, like

the Impressionist painters, to break away from them completely and do

something new. Robert Burns was of the former kind, and he took as

his  starting point a tradition of poetry which had been established in

  Scotland by earlier writers like Robert Sempill, Alan Ramsay and

Robert  Fergusson, and then he raised that to a level where it couldn’t be


In doing so, he was aided by certain qualities that came from within

himself, and one was strength of feeling. Whatever he cared about –

whether it be a girl he was in love with at the time, or his resentment

of the inequalities of the society of his day, or his scorn of the

 hypocrisy of  some of the churchmen he saw around him, or his feelings

of   patriotism for his native land – he wrote with a strength of feeling

that left his predecessors as pale shadows by comparison. If  we took as

the example of that his ability to write patriotic verse, you gentlemen

have already experienced that strength of feeling tonight in the singing

of Scots Wha Hae, and I have asked Nicky McMillan to sing

another of his patriotic songs later in the evening to illustrate that

strength of feeling again.                 


This was a Jacobite love song which he modelled on an earlier street

 ballad called “Mally Stewart”, and he manages in it to give a striking

 evocation of the mood of the Jacobites’ Lost Cause, to link the love of

 country with the love of a woman, and to combine then both in a sense

of  exile which I find very powerful. Perhaps I could read it for a




             It was a for Our rightfu’ King        

             We left fair Scotland’s strand;        

             It was a’ for our rightfu’ King

    We e’er saw Irish land, my dear,        

             We e’er saw Irish land.             


         Now,  a’ is done that men can do,       

            And a’ is done in vain;


         My Love and Native Land fareweel,        

            For I maun cross the main, my dear,        

            For I maun cross the main.       



         He turn’d him right and round about,

                     Upon the Irish shore;        

         And gae his bridle reins a shake,        

            With adieu for evermore, my dear,        

            And adieu for evermore.        



         The soger frae the wars returns,        

            The sailor frae the main;        

         But I hae parted frae my love,        

            Never to meet again, my dear,        

            Never to meet  again.




       When day is gane, and night is come,

            And a’ folk bound to sleep;

            I think on him that’s far awa,

            The lee-lang night and weep, my dear,

            the lee-lang night and weep.




The second gift that allowed him to raise his kind of poem to its peak

 was that of finding the perfect expression for ideas of lasting

significance. A reader of one of his poems or a listener to one of his

 songs finds Burns saying exactly what he would have liked to have been

 able to say himself, but saying it far more effectively that he ever

 could. For example, anyone who has been in love and had to part from

  the beloved, recognises the perfection of Burns communication of the

 poignancy of that moment in ‘Ae Fond Kiss’          


                     Had we never lov’d sae kindly        

                     Had we never lov’d sae blindly        

                     Never met – or never parted        

                     We had ne ‘ er been broken-hearted       



     Those two qualities made him a great poet, but there was also a third

 one which made him not just our poet, but the world’s. This was his

 ability to express the aspirations not just of Scots, but of mankind.

This is what has given him the universality of his appeal. People who

have never seen Scotland, and who never will, have recognised in his

work something that expresses their own innermost feelings, because at

 his best he was writing not just for his country and for his age, but

for all countries and for all ages.            

That is seen most clearly of course in a song that you are going to be

 singing later on this evening — “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” – the

last lines of which are an affirmation of the brotherhood of man which

has rung round the world ever since it was written. But I won’t end my

toast with that; it is too conventional; and besides I want to end with

the one we’ll all end with, round about 11 o’clock this evening, a song

that everyone thinks he knows, but which we all take far too much for



 “Auld Lang Syne” goes back to an old anonymous ballad, printed in the

Bannatyne Manuscripts of 1568 entitled “Auld Kyndness Forgett”, and

to another version attributed to Aytoun and Semphill,  perhaps dated

about 1630, in which these two lines appear –      


                  Should auld acquaintance be forgot       

                  And never thought upon


Burns must have known that version, for in 1788, in a letter to

Mrs.Dunlop, he referred to the Scots phrase “Auld Lang Syne”, and went

on to say that there was an old song with that title which had often

thrilled his soul. Shortly afterwards his own song was written.            


It is an interesting illustration of his poetic gifts to see what Burns

did  to give it its place as the traditional song of parting in so many

lands. He recognised that the phrase “Auld Lang Syne” encompassed

both the idea of times long past and that of the friendships of those days,

and he proceeded to clothe those ideas with simple images, which refer

to experiences which most of us can feel we have shared, and which we

half remember through a veil of nostalgia, so that they become, as it

were,  the symbols of our lost youth —

                  We twa hae run about the braes,

                  and pou’d the gowans fine:        

                  But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fitt,

                  Sin’ auld lang syne.


                  We twa hae paidl’d in the burn        

                  Frae morning sun till dine:        

                  But seas between us braid hae roar ‘d        

                  Sin’ auld lang syne.       


But if in these verses we remember the past, we do not have to do so

sadly, for we are doing it in the context of present happiness and

fellowship, and Burns brings the poem to a climax through the time

honoured custom of clasping hands and sharing a drink together –         


                  And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere        

                  And gie’s a hand o’thine        

                  And we’ll tak a right gude—willie waught        

                  For auld lang syne            


If one seeks to explain why that song came to be so well known across

the world, one can refer to the growth of the Burns legend in the early

part of the 19th century, at the same time as the wave of emigration

that took Scots to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so on,

and wherever they went they took this song with them. Scottish

regiments were prominent in the Napoleonic Wars, the suppression of

the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War ; and the Boer War, and at their

social evenings and formal dinners this song came to mark the traditional

end to the evening. But the most important reason for the song‘s success

 must have been the appeal of its sentiments, which made it appropriate

for so many occasions.

   It is very remarkable that one song, without the aid of any mass media

   should thus have captured a special place in the hearts of so much of

   the world. If Burns could only have received royalties from it, he

   might have written nothing else and been a very rich man, but I like to

   think that the poet we are remembering tonight would have derived

   mere satisfaction from knowing that he had found the right

   expressions for  the feeling of so many people in so many lands,

   across the oceans and across the years.        

 Gentlemen, why a poet?  — Because although he may not have been

the  greatest poet, he is the world’s poet as well as ours, and the Club that

has been the longest to recognise and celebrate his achievement honours

him again tonight.                  


Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the Immortal Memory of Robert