A hundred guests met in Edinburgh last night to enjoy a Burns Night with a difference hosted by Kay, Dowager Duchess of Hamilton – and to launch the OneKind centenary celebrations.
In toasting the Immortal Memory, Policy Director Libby Anderson spoke of Robert Burns’s understanding of animals as individuals.
Ladies and gentlemen, lads and lasses -
A great many individuals and organisations want to claim Robert Burns for their cause. At OneKind, a charity campaigning for better treatment of animals, we feel that we also have a rightful claim.
It’s not only those famous lines from To a Mouse - regretting the fact that Man’s dominion has broken Nature’s social union. It’s not only the poet’s description of himself as the mouse’s poor earth-born companion, and fellow mortal.
No, there’s more to our connection than those few lines. There are many Burns poems about animals, and even today they remain relevant.
Attitudes to animals and to animal welfare campaigning have changed since Burns’s time, but not entirely. Those 18th-century reformers who started the campaigns for kindness to animals were often mocked as bleeding hearts, dangerous radicals or cranks. Welcome to our world – we still get that too, even though we burned our balaclavas long ago. Nowadays, agitation about animals can be seen as a middle class preoccupation and a weapon in social strife. And so it was in Burns’s day.
Nonetheless, there was plenty of reason to campaign for animals in the 18th century. Plenty of real cruelty – animals were worked hard, and slaughter was often inhumane; there was cockfighting and dogfighting, bull and badger baiting. Fields sports were almost as hard on the dogs and horses as they were on the hunted animals.
But it was also a time of change. More people were keeping pets and their passions – or as we would say nowadays, their emotions – were increasingly recognised. The science of sentience was beginning.
Burns would not be described as a campaigner: he simply knew animals – farm animals, pets and wildlife. Many of his poems were composed out of doors, while he was working in the fields, and only written down when he went home at night. He wrote about animals in terms that were radical for their time, and he spoke to them as individuals. And his great gift, as he did so, was to meld together tenderness, sentimentality, and a dose of irony which has kept the lines fresh to this day.
Let’s take Poor Mailie, the sheep. Burns mocked himself for giving his pet yowe a name but in his two poems about her he made it clear that Mailie was not mere property – she was her owner’s most faithful friend.
Possibly you don’t know the story of Mailie, but in those days sheep tended to be tethered rather than grazing free on the hillside, and this poor yowe became tangled in her rope:
Upon her cloot she coost a hitch
An' owre she warsl'd in the ditch
As you know, when you warsle ower in a ditch, the outlook is bleak. That was the end of poor Mailie, but not before she delivered a lengthy message for her careless master which included a recommendation for wholesale change of agricultural practice:
Tell him, if e’er again he keep
As muckle gear as buy a sheep
O, bid him never tie them mair,
Wi' wicked strings o' hemp or hair!
But ca' them out to park or hill,
An' let them wander at their will.
So may his flock increase, an' grow
To scores of lambs, an’ packs o’ wool!
So there you are, a cost-benefit analysis, from a sheep or as we would say nowadays, a stakeholder. Better welfare for the animals, improved economic return for the farmer. And they say the animal welfare movement is impractical....
Last year the First Minister chose a Burns song for the opening of the Scottish Parliament. The surprise was that he did not pick A Man’s a Man or even The Rights of Woman. No, it was Now Westlin Winds, a celebration of nature, of love and of every happy creature. And better still, a song with a strong anti-bloodsports theme:
Avaunt! Away! The cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion
Burns was no lover of any kind of hunting for sport. He said: “there is something in that business of destroying, for our sport, individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, which I could never reconcile to my ideas of virtue”.
Yes, he blithely sent his heart to the Highlands a-chasing the deer. Yes, he wrote a cheery elegy -“a rhyming blether”- for his old friend Tam Samson, who was a dedicated harrier of wildlife. But he had his tongue firmly in cheek – he let the salmon, the partridge and the moorcock all rejoice: “your mortal fae is noo awa, Tam Samson’s deid”. And he gave the grouse a last small revenge:
There, low he lies, in lasting rest;
Perhaps upon his mould'ring breast
Some spitefu' muirfowl bigs her nest
To hatch an' breed:
Alas! nae mair he'll them molest!
Tam Samson's dead!
One more poem: Burns and his family spent three hard years at Ellisland Farm on the River Nith near Dumfries and it was there, in May 1789, that he wrote The Wounded Hare. In one of his letters, he told a friend how it came to him: “One morning lately, as I was out pretty early in the fields, sowing some grass seeds, I heard the burst of a shot from a neighbouring plantation, and presently a poor little wounded hare came crippling by me. You will guess my indignation at the inhuman fellow who could shoot a hare at this season, when all of them have young ones.”
That is one of the themes we return to again and again at OneKind, in our campaigns. From seals to squirrels, we have pressed for close seasons so that young animals can be given a chance at life. In 2011 Scotland did introduce close seasons for hares, and they are now protected during their breeding seasons. But Burns spoke of this over 200 years ago – it was a long time to wait.
The Wounded Hare opens with anger – he rages at the hunter and his poor aim –“Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb’rous art!”
But it ends with words of personal loss, with grief that this one little animal will no longer lead her blameless life around his farm:
Oft as by winding Nith I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I'll miss thee sporting o'er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian's aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.
“I’ll miss thee.” This is not about conservation or biodiversity. It’s simpler than that. It’s about how the loss of one animal’s life reduces the life of a human. It’s about one mortal to another.
Fellow mortals, at the beginning of this toast I spoke of the number of people and groups we have to share our national poet with. We don’t mind that. Sharing is the OneKind way, and it is good to think that the animals have a share of him too.
So with that happy thought, let us all take great pleasure in toasting the Immortal Memory - Robert Burns.