Burns and Mrs Brown

I was recently invited to give an immortal memory at a Burns supper, no great boast, most wise people would rather stick pins in their eyes than speak in public and Burns audiences are not known for their sobriety so the organisers of many Burns supper audiences have to seek far and wide to find a sucker, but the host was a pal who had done me a favour so I agreed.

There was a problem though, I didn’t know much about Burns so I turned to that ever helpful friend of the fraud, the Internet, to see if there was anything anybody else had written that I could pinch. It turned out there was indeed such a source and it actually made me weep.

It transpired that around seven of the evening (the same time I was due to speak ) exactly one hundred and sixty years previously someone else had made an immortal memory to what was obviously a drunken audience, and the occasion had been marked by many believing that the speech was going to be something approaching career suicide for the speaker. But the tears? What made me blub ? Well bizarrely, and I swear all of this is true, the speaker on that night turned out to be my great grandfather and not only that his speech turned out to be an over written ludicrous bit of sentimental hyperbole which is very much my own style. Plus it was unbelievably brave.

Now I am shamefully ignorant of the writings of my forebears, many of whom were noted Presbyterian ministers in the 19th century. Sure I had tried to come to grips with a few of their sermons but I am not a believer and after a few dusty verbose paragraphs usually making impenetrable references to the old Testament I find that my flaky mind usually comes up with something else that that I would rather be doing and I close the book and check my phone.

Sure there was one old ancestor that had seemed amusing, name of Norman. This Norman had run a slum parish in Glasgow, many of his congregation were probably Gaelic immigrants down from the clearances and I had briefly checked out a tale that he had married Queen Victoria to John Brown in a gaelic ceremony but a bit of research had shown that to be unlikely. In very truth I had never read a single word of his writings, other than a couple of novels he had written for children. Until last Wednesday when I had started writing the speech. And had been moved to tears.

The contrast between then and now was more than a little spooky. It turned out that on the date in question, January 25th 1859, the entire country was fiercely divided over a major issue, but it wasn’t Brexit it was whether our man Rabbie Burns should be lauded or reviled. Many in the Kirk , which you should remember was a major force in the land at the time, were adamant that what with his bed hopping, filthy poems and degenerate lifestyle Burns should hardly be seen as an exemplar and my understanding is that our Norrie was going against the instructions of the Kirk by lauding the man, even it seems from the pulpit.This Norrie was obviously a trouble maker and a fanatical Burns supporter and it’s easy to imagine that thousands in Glasgow were on the edge of their chairs waiting to see if the popular charismatic minister of the slums was going to do what he was telt by the Kirk and abandon Burns or side with the countless thousands across the land who were seeing Burns as the hero of the down trodden poor.

I exaggerate? Not a bit of it. As those of you who are Burns experts will have already realised 25th January 1859 when Norrie gave his speech wasn’t just any old anniversary it was the centenary of the Poet’s birth and over eight hundred Burns Festivals were being planned for all over the world, sixty hundred and seventy two of them in Scotland alone.

It was a national event. They even closed the shops in Edinburgh early.

Picture it if yuz will. The French Revolution not too long over, Glasgow on fire with pissed-off Gaelic immigrants either economic or driven out by violence thousands of them baying for change and singing Burn’s praise and many in the Kirk cursing Burns as a sinner.

Of the many Burns Festivals being held that night I would imagine the one being held in Glasgow City Hall was one of the biggest. One has the impression it was packed to the gunnels.

There were to be plenty of speakers, but only one from the Church, a certain Norman MacLeod of the Barony Kirk. My dear Great Grand Dad. Poor Bastard. Middle aged, kids to feed and his job on the line. He had already spoken out against the Kirk, saying that their instruction that true Christians shouldn’t travel on trains on a Sunday was a piece of nonsense, for which he was described as being the least trusted man in Scotland, and there he was, in trouble again.

It was reported that the crowd at the meeting was, how can one put, restless and confused by the time he rose to speak. Frankly I suspect that they were either pissed or angry at the social injustice of Glasgow at that time with many in the City immensely wealthy and many desperately poor.

Which way would he jump?

It wasn’t the political situation than made me cry last week. It was his words. And their lyricism. He said (and I paraphrase all of this) that we had to remember Burns for his love of humanity, the concept being I believe that we had to honour him for the entirety of his lust and failings. And the crowd went nuts.

And then the lyricism kicks in. Here was a poet who had magic wand (his pen) which he touched onto many parts of Scotland. For example he touched the Banks and Braes of Bonny Doune, which would thereafter ever be fresh and fair, ditto the Birks of Aberfeldy. And then came the bit that made me cry. Even the rough mechanics who built the steam engines now called them names like Souter Johnny and the steam engines huffed and whistled all over the land spreading his word.

Finally the line that really killed me. They have built a submarine cable from Britain to America. It lies cold in the bottom of the Atlantic. Except that is when the words of Burns are fed through it when it warms up to such an extent that it welds our two nations together!

How ridiculous, and yet how glorious.

So what happened to him after the speech? Well he survived and got lucky, and when two years later Prince Albert died Victoria asked him to Balmoral where, equally bizarrely, he taught Queen Victoria Burns poems as she sat at her spinning wheel. Oh and then married her to John Brown. Aye right.

She it seems came down on the trouble makers side. Today there are two windows in Crathes Church , dedicated to the trouble maker who took on the Kirk. My speech last night went fine thank you. How could it not. I hardly wrote a word of it.

Sometimes you just get lucky. Here’s to Norrie. If I meet him in heaven I’ll get him a dram.

Comments (6)

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  1. Wul says:

    Brilliant!

    Thanks Maxwell.

  2. Maxwell Macleod says:

    Thanks Wul

  3. Duncan Mitchell says:

    Hi Maxwell,
    Very interesting to me as I am the Session Clerk in St. Columba Gaelic Church in Glasgow.
    We had two Norman MacLeods as minister both related to your Norman MacLeod. One was his uncle and the other his cousin.
    If you are in Glasgow on a Thursday, we are open from 12noon to 2pm and you would be very welcome to visit us.
    Duncan

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Thank you for taking the trouble to reply. I already hold St C’s in awe and am grateful for your work.

  4. George Gunn says:

    Lovely human story, Max

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Thanks George, who was it who said they only write to make those they respect respect them? I remember seeing your play about the Vikings visiting the north coast with all that eery metallic music and it changing the way I looked at the music of the north and indeed northern literature, so your kind comment lifts my day!

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