Friday, 25 January 2013

A Hardy Son of Rustic Toil

There was nothing “heaven-taught” about him, however scatter-gun may have been his formal education, and however much of an autodidact he may therefore have been during the rest of his life. But so what? Of far great significance is that Burns and Scotland do not quite fit.

Or, rather, they did not quite fit. His sheer genius turned a culture bipolar between Calvinism and Enlightenment rationalism into one conducted within a triangle with the Westminster Confession and its staunchest upholders in one corner, the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume in another, Robert Burns (and also, later, Sir Walter Scott) in the third, and most people somewhere in the middle.

Another is that his writing in Scots identified him in his time as falling within a category mostly comprised of Episcopalians and of such Catholics as there were in the eighteenth-century Lowlands. He maintained good relations with both, even if it is true that he had little or nothing in common with either beyond a hostility both to rationalism and to Calvinism, or at least, in the Episcopalian case, to the Westminster variety of it. And those hostilities not only formed his own rural proto-Romanticism, but then went on to inform, not least through him, the Medieval and Jacobite nostalgia of the Episcopalian Scott.

Indeed, Burns entered Continental intellectual life via the Scots Catholic seminaries in exile. Such seminaries serving these islands have a great deal to answer for. Among very much else, they also introduced football to the Iberian Peninsula. But then, pre-Union Scotland had been part of the wider Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Baltic world. She was a member of the Hanseatic League. There was nearly Union with the Netherlands, not with England. There is still a Scotophile subculture, very much characteristic of working-class white men, in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

And Jacobite émigrés controlled much of French and Spanish banking, maintained a network of merchants in every port circling Europe, founded the Russian Navy of Peter the Great, dominated the Swedish East India and Madagascar Companies, and did much else besides, including in North America and the West Indies. By no means all of them were Scots. But there was proportionately far more Jacobitism in Scotland than in England. And the Jacobite diaspora is currently an academic growth area. Some of us are in it.

Though some of us are even more in the emerging field of continuing Jacobite influence through the subcultures that produced the movements that eventually produced the social democratic means to the defence of the Union.

For both his staggering influence, and the simple fact of his writing in Scots, place Burns within the tradition throughout these Islands of those Catholics, High Churchmen (subsequently including first Methodists and then also Anglo-Catholics, and always including Scottish Episcopalians), Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others who, never having been convinced of the full legitimacy of Hanoverian Britain, of her Empire, and that of Empire’s capitalist ideology, created the American Republic, fought against slavery both there and in the British Empire, demanded and delivered factory reform, transformed the United Kingdom into a parliamentary democracy, founded the Labour Movement, and opposed the Boer and First World Wars.

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