‘Would Robert Burns have supported independence for Scotland? His politics are hard to pin down’
Four years ago the regiment of the British army stationed in Canterbury marched through the streets to the cathedral where it received the freedom of the city. That regiment is the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, the 5th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, currently resident at the Howe Barracks, where the local garrison has been quartered since Roman times.
The Argylls received the freedom of the city partly in recognition of their (relatively) good behaviour, but mainly for lengthy and arduous service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel David Richmond, was at one point the highest-ranking British casualty since 1880.
The crowd was immense, the narrow streets crammed. I had wormed my way through the throng to a vantage point on the war memorial almost opposite the gate to the Cathedral Close, where a kilted honour guard of Argylls waited under the eye of a short, fierce colour sergeant who bore a distinct resemblance to Rab C. Nesbitt. From far along the street, echoing between the medieval houses, came the sound of marching feet and bagpipes playing “Cock of the North”, or as Robert Burns probably would have called it, “Aunty Mary had a Canary”.
Auntie Mary had a canary
Up the leg of her drawers.
When she farted it departed
To a round of applause.
Just before the parade arrived, a kindly lady-perhaps animated by romantic notions of the sort popularised by the novels of Walter Scott-leaned forward to ask the Argyll on point duty next to the war memorial where in the Highlands he came from. He turned and gazed at her coolly for a few seconds before answering: “Glasgae!”
Burns would have enjoyed that. A few moments later the parade reached us, and we received the salute of the entire terrifying lot of them, bayonets fixed, as they snapped eyes left at the memorial to all the fallen soldiers of the United Kingdom.
The Argylls were raised in 1793, and their battle honours trace the expansion and struggles of the British empire: Cape of Good Hope, Corunna, Balaclava, Lucknow, Mons, Arras, El Alamein, Rhine, Aden. In the Crimea, the regiment was, as William Howard Russell reported, the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel”.
Robert Burns died three years after the Argylls entered the British Army’s order of battle. He wrote sympathetically about poor Scotsmen who had gone soldiering for the King.
O why the deuce should I repine,
And be an ill foreboder?
I’m twenty-three, and five feet nine,
I’ll go and be a sodger!
Would Burns have supported independence for Scotland? He was fiercely proud of his country and its long history, but his politics are hard to pin down. Certainly he was a radical libertarian with an unshakeable belief in the rights of man. But he was also a pragmatist.
Burns was no Jacobite: he mocked his fellow-countrymen’s romantic devotion to the lost Stuart cause. Neither was he a Jacobin: initially rejoicing in the American and French Revolutions, he was repelled by the excesses of the guillotine.
At different times he supported and savaged both Tories and Whigs. He had a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, still the most powerful constituency in British politics. In one of his most ferocious political poems, “Such A Parcel of Rogues in A Nation”, he scorned the Scottish aristocrats who in 1707 had been bribed by the English crown to agree to the Union of Parliaments:
What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few,
For hireling traitor’s wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station;
But English gold has been our bane-
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
Nevertheless, Burns supported the Un-ion: he merely decried the greed and jobbery displayed by the Scottish lairds-the parcel of rogues.
Burns believed that the British constitution was based on sound, even noble principles. He was critical of the corruption of the Commons by the executive, and special interests. But he believed that Scotland would thrive best under the Union, and that the honourable way was to fight in Parliament for the interests of Scotland and all the British people.
“… For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!”
Burns was even prepared to toast the monarch:
The next in succession I’ll give you’s the King!
Whoe’er would betray him, on high may he swing!
I think Burns would have remained a unionist, though not a Tory. He would appreciate the Scot Nat leader Alex Salmond’s rhetorical skills, but regard him as a Walter MacMitty, posturing on a platform largely paid for by English gold. This is the essence of Burns: freedom, passion, wit and song, dedicated to enjoyment and the betterment of all, under a fair and honest union.