Robert Burns (1759–1796) is a much-loved Scottish poet. His fame has spread beyond Scotland and his work is still valued today. Vancouver’s Stanley Park contains an imposing statue of the poet. The statue is located on a lawn near the Georgia Street entrance to the park and overlooks an inlet. Samples and illustrations of Burn’s poems are placed around the statue’s base, turning it into a monument for his work. In this post, I describe the background of the sculpture, some facts about the poet’s life, and information about his Tam o’Shanter poem.
The original Robert Burns statue was created by Gerald Anderson Lawson (1832–1904). The version in Vancouver is a replica of the one located in Ayr, Scotland. The money for its purchase was raised by the Vancouver Burns Fellowship. The statue was shipped to the city via the Panama Canal, but the pedestal and its bronze panels were created in Vancouver. Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered the name of the artist who created the panel illustrations representing Burns’ poems.
The sculpture was unveiled in 1928 by J. Ramsey MacDonald. It was a major news item at the time because it was the first statue in Vancouver. A pipe band and and the Vancouver Scottish Choir performed at the event, which was attended by an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people. Loudspeakers were used so that everyone could hear what was going on and a motion picture was recorded to be shown in cinemas. A dinner at the Hotel Georgia followed the unveiling ceremony. Ramsey MacDonald was a former prime minister of Britain at the time of the unveiling, though he regained the position in the following year.
Gerald Lawson’s artistic reputation was based on his statues of famous people and his classical friezes. He created several sculptures of Robert Burns, each showing a different pose. They (or perhaps their replicas) are currently located in various parts of the world.
Robert Burns was born on January 25th, 1759 in Alloway. Today the location is thought of as a suburb of Ayr, but in Burn’s time it was a separate village. The cottage where he was born is now part of a museum honouring the poet. January 25th is celebrated as Robert Burns Day in many parts of the world.
Burns’ parents were farmers. Their son received a basic education and became an enthusiastic reader. His love of books was encouraged by his parents. He started his working life by helping his parents on the farm. He eventually supported himself by writing, though not for his entire life. His works became well-known and liked.
According to the BBC, Burns became a fan of “poetry, nature, drink and women”. He had multiple children out of wedlock. One of Burns’ paramours was Jean Amour, whom he eventually married. The pair moved to a farm and had nine children. Sadly, only three of them survived.
Burns eventually spent most of the money that he had earned from writing. He became an excise officer (a person who assigned taxes to items) but continued to write and remained popular. He died on July 21st, 1796, which was the day on which his son Maxwell was born. Burns was only 37. A memorial edition of his work was published to raise money to support his family.
Information from the University of Glasgow paints a sad picture of Burns’ later life. He experienced periods of illness throughout his life. The event that caused his death began in the winter of 1795. He was so weak that he had to stay in bed as his symptoms became worse.
God help my wife & children, if I am taken from their head! – They will be poor indeed. – I have contracted one or two serious debts, partly from my illness these many months, & partly from too much thoughtlessness as to expense when I came to town that will cut in too much on the little I leave them in your hands. (Robert Burns in a letter to his brother, via the University of Glasgow)
His financial situation was so serious that Burns might well have been sent to debtors’ jail if he hadn’t died. His death was sad and premature. There has been much speculation about its cause. The most recent belief is that Burns died of bacterial endocarditis. The condition is an infection of the lining of the heart or of other structures in the organ.
Burns wrote many poems. He was also a collector of traditional folk songs and sometimes adapted them for his own purposes. He created works in both the Scottish dialect and in English. Many of them are still enjoyed. One of his most popular works is “Auld Lang Syne”, which is traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve.
A scene from Burns’ narrative poem entitled “Tam o’Shanter” is depicted in my second photo. Today the term tam o’shanter refers to a Scottish cap made of wool. It has a tight headband, a lose top, and a pom pom. The photo below depicts a farmer named Tam drinking with his friends. As might be expected, he’s wearing a tam o’shanter. Burns’ poem describes an adventure experienced by Tam and his horse Meg. I’ve summarized the plot of the poem below.
At the end of market day, Tam enjoys a visit to a public house. On his ride home, he passes by Alloway Kirk. The kirk (or church) is a ruin today and was also a ruin when Burns was alive. Both of his parents are buried in the churchyard.
Tam is amazed to see that the kirk is lit up. It’s filled with dancing witches and warlocks as well as some gruesome objects. The devil himself is providing music for the dance. The witches cast aside clothing as they dance. Tam seems to bewitched by the scene. He is especially impressed by a dancing witch named Nannie, who is wearing scanty undergarments. He makes the mistake of calling out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” to her, revealing his presence. The term “cutty-sark” referred to her short shirt.
The lights immediately go out and the devilish beings rush to attack Tam. He and Meg gallop towards a stream because the farmer knew that the devil and his companions couldn’t cross running water. As he and Meg leap across the stream and escape, Nannie reaches out and pulls Meg’s tail off. The horse becomes a reminder of the power of evil. The scene is which Nannie reaches for Meg’s tail is shown in a plaque on the sculpture.
The full poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation website. Exploring the poem and other works of Robert Burns is interesting. He created many literary works within his short lifetime. I enjoy exploring them. It’s a shame that the poet didn’t live for longer.
- Information about the Robert Burns statue from the Vancouver Archives
- A biography of Robert Burns from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
- Information about the poet’s life from biography.com
- The death of Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow
- Tam o’Shanter poem from the Poetry Foundation