Robert Burns in the Antipodes

Here, for Burns’ Night, Dr Benjamin Wilkie reflects on the significance of Robert Burns for Scottish communities very far from home, in this case settled in distant Australia, where representations of the poet might reflect Scottish values that the migrant community particularly prized.

As it was in Scotland, January 25 was an important date on the cultural calendar for Scots in the diaspora. It is, of course, Burns Night. Abroad as at home, commemorations of Burns were selective and romantic visions of Scotland’s past. In Australia, celebrations reflected Burns the democrat and man of liberty, and emphasised the universalism and individualism in his poetry. Burns could be everything to everyone, and we see this in the many statues erected to honour him.

Aside from statues of William Wallace and Walter Scott, eight statues of Robert Burns were erected in Australia between 1883 and 1935: in Camperdown (1883), Ballarat (1887), Adelaide (1894), Melbourne (1904), Sydney (1905), Brisbane (1929), and Canberra (1935), while Bendigo has a bust (1911). In other areas of Scottish settlement, the United States has sixteen Burns statues, Canada has nine, and New Zealand has four. Camperdown’s, it is worth noting, is probably the oldest outdoor Burns statue in the world.

Statue of Robert Burns, Scottish poet. Located at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Image Credit: Wikimedia

There exists a vast and eclectic variety of portrayals of the bard. Burns has been depicted, among other things, as peasant, ploughman, poet, philosopher, and dog-lover. Broadly speaking, the iconography of Australia’s statues of Burns represent a more masculine representation of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In Australia, Burns was also seen as an embodiment of romanticised nineteenth-century Scottish middle-class individualism and liberalism; a model of self-help, thrift, diligence, independence, and anti-aristocratic sentiment.

The selection of inscriptions on the Ballarat statue, for example, leaves an impression of Burns as the champion of liberty and democracy, and someone who believed social pretence should be abolished in favour of the meritocratic recognition of real excellence.

While these notions were highly popular in Scotland in the nineteenth century, they were certainly not out of place in Australian colonial society. Robert Burns, for Australians, articulated their sense of individualism and meritocratic egalitarianism. Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, would later draw heavily on Burns’ poetry in his ‘Forgotten People’ oration, a now famous paean to the humble, hard-working Australian middle class of the 1940s.

Others were less enthusiastic about Burns and his Australian admirers. Reflecting on the power of the Ballarat monument for a migrant Scot, the great Australian poet Henry Lawson wrote in 1887:

One of Caledonia’s sons,
Coming lonely to the land.
Well might think he’d met a friend
Who would take him by the hand,
And the tears spring to his eyes,
While his heart for friendship yearns;
And from out that heart he cries,
“Heaven bless ye, Bobbie Burns.”

Certainly, the Burns statues highlight the power of such national symbols as key reference points for a sense of belonging and identity within migrant communities. But by 1905, Lawson was not as convinced about Scottish Australians. After witnessing the unveiling of the Burns statue in Sydney, he wrote that those ‘tall-hatted and frock-coated’ people in attendance were ‘frauds’ and ‘fly-dirt on the pages’ of Burns’ poetry; they were nothing but ‘crawlers round the bardie’s name,’ he said. It was a scathing criticism of what Lawson saw as the excesses and absurdities of popular Scottish culture in Australia.

Much ink has been spilt over the question of whether Scottish cultural traditions such as Burns Night should be condemned as mere invented romanticism. They may well be, but it is perhaps is enough to say here that Scots abroad took them as they were and found in them a sense of home, identity, and, of course, plenty of enjoyment.

Dr Benjamin Wilkie is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow Library, an Associate of the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is the author of The Scots in Australia, 1788-1938.

The Scots in Australia, 1788-1938
By Benjamin Wilkie
Hardback (9781783272563) £37.50 or $67.50 after discount
eBook (9781787441613) £37.50 or $67.50 after discount

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