Where Would Robert Burns Stand Today in Labor Problems? (1908)

By J.B. McLachlan

Scotsmen everywhere will, on the 25th, be celebrating the hundred and forty-ninth anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. He is more of a patron saint to Scotsmen than St. Andrew, his name and life being better known and his anniversary more generally kept. Not more than one Scotsman in a hundred, if asked when is St. Andrew’s Day, could answer correctly straightaway, while ninety-nine out of every hundred of them could do so in regard to Burns Day.

Robert Burns

Why the memory of Burns should thus be enshrined in the hearts of his countrymen seems the more strange when it is remembered that Scotland more than all nations was and is Calvinist in her thinking and Presbyterian in her church government, both of which Burns satirized unmercifully. See his burlesque lamentations on a quarrel between two reverend Calvinists in his poem “The Holy Tulzie.” “The Ordination” was a bold satire in ridicule of Calvinism and in commendation if not Socinianism, something near thereto. “The Kirk’s Alarm” was really written in defense of Dr. McGill, one of the parish ministers of the town of Ayr, who had published a work impregnated with Socinian doctrine, and for which he was brought before the church courts.

Not only did Burns defend Socinian writers when in the clutches of the church, but even free-thinkers had his sympathy when the church attacked them. John Goudie, a tradesman in Kilmarnock, a free-thinker and a well-read man, published a volume of “Essays on Various Subjects, Moral and Divine” that became so popular that the book was termed “Goudie’s Bible.” In a letter addressed to that worthy on the mischief done by his book, and on the way the church would restore matters, Burns says:

But, win the Lord’s ain falk get leave

A toom  [empty] tar-barrel

And twa red peats wad send relief

An’ end the quarrel.

Not only what Burns has written against Calvinism, and in defense of Socinians and free-thinkers, but his profound silence on the awful struggle the Church of Scotland passed through from the coronation of Charles II till James VII retreated from the Boyne, makes one wonder why Presbyterians now make so much ado about him on the “25th.”

Burns was born, lived, and died in the very heart of the district where the Covenanters struggled and bled and died for their faith. Why has not Burns enshrined in immortal verse the name of the uncompromising and youthful Renwick, the last to give up his life for the cause of religion in Scotland? Burns must have been well acquainted with the lives of the “Prophet” Peden and Richard Cameron, “the Son of the covenant,” and yet spares them not a word.

The tragic death of John Brown of Priesthill was a subject that might well have aroused the muses in a colder bosom than that of Burns. Here is a lone family living in a moorland wilderness. Viscount Dundee, with three troops of dragoons, rides up to his home about six in the morning. He puts a few questions to Brown. Brown, like a true covenanter, refuses to dissemble and answer straight. Dundee immediately orders him to prepare to die. Brown prays for his wife, for his two helpless children who cling to their mother’s dress, and for his unborn babe. His prayer so unnerved the soldiers that a minute later, when ordered to fire, they point-blank refused. In desperation Dundee pulls the pistol from his own belt and empties it into the head of Brown, then rides off, leaving the widow and orphans to tie up the shattered head of the murdered husband and father and carry his dead body into their wilderness home.

On seeing a hare that someone had wounded by a shot from a gun, Burns wrote:

Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb’rous art,

And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;

May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,

Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart!

Yet Burns has not a curse for the murder-aiming eye of Dundee, nor a word of praise for the heroic John Brown. On what other supposition can we account for such silence of Burns on this part of his country’s history if it be not of his horror of “the gospel of the shambles,” preached then and now by Presbyterians as the only way to reconcile God and man?

When reading Burns, one cannot but speculate on what would have been his political and theological whereabouts had he lived in this twentieth century. The greatest question of this century is how to distribute the enormous wealth that the ingenuity of the last century enables the world now to produce.

J.B. McLachlan

Twenty years from now, the names Grit and Tory shall have given place to the names that shall designate those, on the one hand, who now control the wealth and capital, and have the right and privilege to hand out the jobs when, where and to whom they like, and just so long as they please. And on the other hand, a propertyless wage-class who have no legal right to demand room to make a living on this planet, but must humbly wait the pleasure of their economic masters before being admitted to the means of life.

Where would Burns have stood in this twentieth century conflict?

Where Burns did take a stand on any question, it was invariably on the side of the oppressed. His sympathies were broad and international, and he dreamed of the time when “man to man the world o’er shall brothers be.” I unhesitatingly believe had Burns been alive today he would have been the poet laureate of the international socialist movement.

Burns’s theological whereabouts, had he lived today, I question if it would have been anything different from what it was. It was a kind of half agnostic, half universalist. Writing to Mrs. Dunlop, he says: “If there is another world, it must be for the just, the benevolent, the amiable and the humane. What a flattering idea, then, is a world to come? Would to God I as firmly believe it as I ardently wish it!”

The higher criticism and the tearing the old Bible to tatters would not have helped Burns or his like to settle the disturbing element that enter into their religious opinions. The baffling questions are not answered either in or out of the Bible yet.

J. B McLachlan

Sydney Mines, January 20 [1908]

Editorial note: This document was published as a letter to the editor in 1908. Signed in his own name, it confirms McLachlan’s increased visibility as a public figure.[1] It is also obvious that McLachlan knew his Burns, a staple of working-class culture in the Scotland of his generation, though perhaps not so widely appreciated among the Scottish Catholics with Highland roots who made up a large part of the working-class population in the Cape Breton coal towns — a cultural difference that at times limited the influence of more recent immigrants such as McLachlan. He and Burns shared a background in the same southwest rural Lowlands, and McLachlan’s upbringing was steeped in the anti-establishment views of the covenanters. In this context, his appreciation of Burns’s defence of dissidents and attacks on clerical hypocrisy are not surprising. Socinianism (named for two sixteenth-century Italian theologians by the name of Sozzini, Socinus in Latin) refers to a rationalist movement within Christianity that rejected much orthodox theology and allowed for the more practical and benevolent religiosity that Burns favoured. In this discussion, McLachlan comes to the conclusion that Burns preferred to rise above doctrinal conflicts and dated causes because he was repelled by “the gospel of the shambles”, a Biblical injunction (1 Corinthians 10: 25-31), advising believers to suspend one’s conscience and conform to prevailing conventions. Above all, he finds that Burns was not theologically driven but “half agnostic, half universalist”. His expressed hope here is that Burns, as a humanist with broad sympathies for the oppressed and a hardscrabble personal history among the labouring classes, would find a home in the socialist movement. McLachlan himself had already done so, by joining the Socialist Party of Canada in 1907.[2]

David Frank

David Frank is the author of J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1999). A new edition will be released this year.


Robert Burns (1759-1796), a 1902 print based on a painting by Alexander Nasmyth, c. 1821, Wikimedia Commons.

J.B. McLachlan (1869-1937), detail from a group photograph of Canadian delegates to a union meeting, 1910, United Mine Workers’ Journal.


[1] “Where Would Robert Burns Stand Today in Labor Problems?” Halifax Herald, 24 January 1908. Minor inconsistencies in typography and quotations are corrected, and some paragraphing is added.

[2] The case for Burns as a radical democrat of his time, whose poetry and politics were shaped by the civic humanist discourses of the Scottish Enlightenment, is argued in Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002).

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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