The Dean's Diaries: The Dean and the United Kingdom

The Dean's Diaries: The Dean and the United Kingdom

by Prof D.W. Purdie
article from Tuesday 14, January, 2014

Office of the Dean:
St Andrew's College,
King George IV Bridge,
Edinburgh EH1 3TD

  IT HAD to happen sooner or later. Inevitably, our National Bard has been resurrected, reanimated and re-programmed to trumpet and champion Independence. In Saturday’s Herald there appeared an article about Prof Robert Crawford of St Andrews University who has apparently written a book entitled Bannockburns. Apart from the dreadful title, degrading not one but two of our revered institutions, the piece insinuated that Burns was effectively, a liar. His letters, verse and songs which supported the Revolution Settlement of 1688 and the constitution as settled by the Union, are false. They are the pathetic whinings of a placeman, a civil servant cowering in the train of authority, desperate to keep his job as an officer of the Excise. All the time, apparently, he was actually in favour of a breakup of the Union he claimed to defend with a view to establishing an independent Scotland. 

Burns thus was a cynical hypocrite, prepared to sink to rank mendacity to keep his nose clean. Worse, he must have perjured himself in his Oath of Allegiance to the Crown when he joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, falsely promising to defend a united Kingdom he actually wished to see dismembered.

  Burns was no hypocrite ; he was an honest man and prized honesty and plain dealing above all other virtues – as shines out from the verses of, A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ his great Anthem for the Common Man -.
    “He showed my youth,” wrote William Wordsworth, a firm admirer, “how verse could build a princely throne – on humble Truth!”

Prof Crawford, says The Herald is to be commended for ‘picking through the poems with a fine tooth comb’ to discover ‘prime examples of Burns showing his patriotic tendencies.’ These prime examples discovered by Crawford’s fine comb include Scots Wha Hae ! This song, whose correct title, given by Burns, was Robert Brice’s March to Bannockburn, does not display ‘tendency’ – it is a magnificent shout of defiance at an alien invader, our ancestors well aware that what awaited them on that field was either a gory bed – or victory.
    “You will gain that field,” the Bruce told them, “or you will lie beneath it for ever. Forward.”
Constitutional freedom came with the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 which ended the War and recognised Scotland a sovereign independent State. Of course Burns took the Scottish part in what had been a military campaign; of course he advocated armed resistance to invasion, occupation and subjection. But what on earth has that to do with our present constitutional debate?   

  Another song cited by Crawford being in favour of sundering the Union is; A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.  Burns was certainly highly critical of some of the tactics used to secure the votes necessary to send the Scots Parliament in to its 300 year recess – so am I. What happened was often disgraceful, but the outcome is what matters. Did we descend again into invasion, occupation and subjection – no we did not. The Union, as Burns well knew, gave us two tremendous assets: it gave us peace; peace after five centuries of cross-border warfare, untold misery and loss of life and property. But above all, it gave us the markets. Markets for our greatest asset; the intelligence, energy, inventiveness and endurance of our people. They swept south to position of power in England and then out to all corners of the Empire as adventurers, soldiers, governors and merchants.

Some rogues there were indeed at the foundation, but their roguery was to produce results for the new Union which neither nation could have produced alone.

  Let me conclude with the last days of the Bard. He died of untreated rheumatic heart disease and terminal endocarditis in Dumfries, aged 37, in the summer of 1796. He was buried with full military honours as befitted a serving soldier in the local territorial army unit, The Royal Dumfries Volunteers. He and his comrades were prepared to fight for, and if necessary to die in defence of, the United Kingdom, the Union. For it was neither England nor Scotland that saw off Napoleon Bonaparte in Burns’s day; it was the Union. It was neither England nor Scotland in 1940 that spat defiance in the faces of Hitler and his gang; it was the Union. It was the Union with its allies, led by the United States that faced down the Warsaw Pact.
And in our own day, finally: is England, or is Scotland, a permanent Member of the Security Council of the United Nations…. No, it is neither. It is the oldest, most enduring and most successful Union of two distinct Nations in world history.
  Burns was a Union man; and if there was any doubt it lies in the smash-hit Song of the year 1795 which was sung all over a Union then threatened with invasion from across the Channel. Guess who wrote it:

Does haughty Gaul Invasion threat?
    Then let the loons beware, sir!
There's wooden Walls upon our Seas,
    And Volunteers on Shore, sir!

Be Britain still to Britain true,
    Amang ourselves united !
But never but by British hands
    Maun British wrangs be righted….




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