Still Raising a Glass to the Plowman's Poet


It was the kind of party Robert Burns would have liked--a supper of cake and Scotch whiskey, song, merriment, lots of lassies and, of course, poetry.

Then there was the adoration and awe, not just for the great poet but for the 40 men who, 200 years ago, gathered in a local tavern here, raised their glasses and declared themselves the world's first Burns club.

What they spawned has grown into a massive network of clubs, societies and fans around the globe--not to mention 200 years of toasting lassies, heaping praise on field mice, stabbing haggis with long knives and pondering the universal frailties of mankind.

The Mother Club, as it became known, was formed in Greenock on July 21, 1801, five years to the day after the poet's death. Its unlikely mix of merchants, scholars, musicians and plowmen displaced by land reforms hinted at Burns' universal appeal and helped to turn a plowboy who wrote rhymes in a now-defunct dialect into one of the most popular poets the world has ever seen.

The Mother Club has spawned thousands of Burns clubs across the globe, including official chapters in San Diego and Los Angeles and Orange counties. The poet's works have been translated into more than 50 languages in 4,000 cataloged editions of his work. The number of reprints is in the millions.

"He was a humanitarian with a sense of humor," said John McQuarry, 59, a Burns archivist and former president of the Mother Club. "But there was something more. Burns seemed to understand the nature of men and women. His poems are fundamental and universal. What comes through most, I think, is his all-embracing love for humanity."

Looking at Greenock now--a gray, rainy, economically desolate town on the banks of the River Clyde, in west-central Scotland--it seems an unlikely birthplace for the Burns movement. It is the corpse of an industrial city. Empty brick buildings and giant iron cranes, like dank sea monsters, dot the waterfront, evidence that this was once the center of a massive shipbuilding industry and one of the busiest ports in the world. Cobblestone streets still dissect its downtown. Drab swaths of post-World War II housing--home to Greenock's sizable underclass--sprawl across the muddy green hills above the river.

But it was the river that brought the original members of the Mother Club here, and it was the river that carried the poetry of Burns to America by way of the thousands of emigrants who sailed from here. And it was the lure of the river--and the possibility of escape on one of its westbound ships--that is said to have brought Burns to Greenock.

"This is not a celebration about Greenock. It's all about Robert Burns, a commemoration of the man, his life and his works, and of the contributions of this club," said Jean McGilp, a past president. "Although it is interesting to think that so many people who got on the boats here for America and Canada, and even South Africa, carried with them two books--a Bible and the works of Robert Burns. That is a Greenock story."

The giant birthday cake was cut at the club meeting, glasses were raised and Burns' "The Twa Dogs" was recited--with feeling.

"This is the one that changed it all," said McQuarry. "I didn't discover Burns until I was 40. I was sitting around one day, looking at this poem, 'The Twa Dogs,' and thinking that this was really a terrible poem. Suddenly, two lines jumped out at me--'Poor tenant bodies, scant o'cash, How they maun thole a factor's snash.'

"That was it. How many of us have stood there, listening to a boss or a supervisor with our eyes lowered, our heads bowed, desperate inside, too frightened to speak, but forced to listen? Burns understood. I went back and read the entire poem. It all made sense. Then I went back and read his entire works. I was hooked."

Burns was born into the abject poverty of a tenant farming family in the village of Alloway, about 35 miles to the south of here, in 1759. He toiled behind a plow from the age of 6. The family moved from farm to farm, and Burns worked the infertile plots for the next 13 years before giving up the struggle.

Poetry became a diversion for Burns, an escape from his harsh world and an intellectual exercise. His other diversions--which would ultimately become as much a part of the legend as his poetry--included tavern drinking bouts and his love of women.

"My heart was completely tinder and was eternally lighted by some goddess," he wrote to a friend shortly before his death in 1796. "And like every warfare in this world, I was sometimes crowned with success and sometimes mortified by defeat."

It was while working in a harvest field beside a girl called Nelly Kirkpatrick that he first committed what he later described as "the sin of verse" by composing a little song to her. From then on, he never stopped writing verse or wooing lassies.

There were numerous women--and at least 15 children, 11 of them illegitimate--in Burns' short, tempestuous life. He cut a dashing figure, with his large, stocky frame, fine-featured face, the shock of black hair across his forehead and his lyrical tongue. Most of these women ended up as heroines of one poem or another.

In 1786, Burns married pregnant Jean Armour in the Ayrshire town of Mauchline. Though still largely unknown in print, the great poems were already rolling from his pen. "To a Mouse," which immortalized the field mouse whose nest his plow had disturbed and to which he apologized ("Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie ... I'm truly sorry man's dominion has broken nature's social union") was written during this period and set the tone of his sensibility to the world around him.

Anti-clerical satires, such as "Holy Willie's Prayer," also began to appear, with manuscripts circulating around the district in mocking torment to the dominant Calvinist church.

His marriage to Armour, without the blessing of the church, enraged her father. The God-fearing Calvinist is said to have fainted when confronted with the news; he tore up the written marriage declaration and banished his daughter.

When the old man discovered she was pregnant--with twins, it turned out--he took out a legal writ against the poet and demanded a substantial financial settlement. Burns absconded to the Clydeside town of Port Glasgow, next door to Greenock.

While there is no documented evidence that he ever actually came to Greenock, much to the disappointment of the Mother Club, the circumstantial evidence is powerful and tales of his days here abound.

What is certain is that when Burns came to the area, it was in the throes of the industrial revolution, and Greenock was a wealthy, booming river town of nearly 80,000. Evidence of that wealth remains in Greenock's westside neighborhoods, where the mansions of sugar barons, tobacco kings and shipping millionaires, now mostly cut up into apartments, command majestic views of the Clyde and Highlands.

Nor is there any doubt about Burns' short, intense love affair with Mary Campbell, a 23-year-old domestic servant in Greenock whom Burns immortalized in his poetry as Highland Mary. Her nickname, scholars believe, came from the fact that she probably spoke English with the musical lilt of a Gaelic speaker.

Burns had accepted a job as a plantation bookkeeper in the West Indies and was ready to set sail when his love affair with Campbell blossomed. The affair lasted only a few months. At least according to the poems that Burns wrote about her, he and Highland Mary planned to marry and immigrate together to Jamaica.

But suddenly his world changed. It was July 1786. A Kilmarnock publisher had printed 612 copies of his 30-poem book, "Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect," and within three weeks they sold out and the whole country was aflame with interest in it. Rich and poor alike clamored for it.

He took off for the capital city of Edinburgh and shot to stardom as the Plowman's Poet. He was patronized by Edinburgh high society and a new and enlarged edition of his work resulted. He became the darling of lofty social gatherings. His ideas for emigration vanished.

On Oct. 6, while spending the night in Port Glasgow at the home of one of his wealthy patrons, the devastating news came that Campbell had died. The circumstances of her death are unclear. Some biographers claim it was typhus that killed her; others claim she died in childbirth with Burns' offspring.

Highland Mary's grave has been turned into a monument in Greenock cemetery, and has been maintained for 200 years by the club. Perhaps significantly, Burns made no mention of Campbell in any of his correspondence. His private grief may have spurned him to write the poem, "Will ye go to the Indies, My Mary."

Local legend has it that he was seen visiting her grave on numerous occasions.

Burns died in the town of Dumfries of heart disease and consumption at the age of 37. He was by then a legend, and some 10,000 mourners turned out for his funeral. Burns clubs sprang up around the globe within a few years and souvenir hunters and memorabilia fanatics began unearthing every aspect of the poet's life.

Back at the Mother Club gathering, Richard McPaul recounted a tale about his childhood. He was born in the Port Glasgow house that Burns had lived in.

"It's in my blood," McPaul, 38, said. "When I was 3, my mother didn't read me nursery rhymes, she read me Burns. I remember the house and room that Burns is said to have slept in. It was all paneled with ship's wood, like the inside of a cabin."

The house was demolished in 1965, but the story, like so many others about Burns, will undoubtedly live on, thanks to the Mother Club.

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