The Politics of Robert Burns - his influences and political life

Robert Burns: Politics influence, political life


Robert Burns:
Who was he?

Short biography:
Early life
Farm Life
Later life

Background to the man:
His poetry
His women
His politics
His Freemasonry

His celebration:
Burns Night
Celebration running order
Auld lang syne

Burns home page

Robert Burns: Politics

“A man’s a man for a’ that”

Scotland was losing its identity. First its monarchy and then its parliament had moved south to England with the act of Union in 1707. Only to have that reinforced by the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746, the suppression of the Clan system and the banning of the wearing of tartans. Even the language was giving way to English, at least in the South.

Overseas dramatic events were unfolding, when Burns was 17 the Continental Congress carried the American Declaration of Independence, when he was 30 the Bastille was stormed by Parisians. All around there were revolts against ingrained class systems.

Robert Burns was a political animal though it is difficult to know what he would have thought of the fact that he is now claimed by every side of the political debate in Scotland as representing their views. Still, as an artist, perhaps he can unify them all and perhaps it is this factor that makes him a national hero.

The political themes of his poetry, often in English rather than Scots dialect (or, sometimes, both), covered Republicanism, class inequality, gender roles, the Church and State, Radicalism.

Yet curiously he joined the Establishment while still expressing and believing in these things. He was an 'Exciseman', which is to say, a tax collector particularly of those taxes to be raised on alcohol.

It seems an odd choice for a man with such anti-establishment views, and as fond of a tipple as he was. In these days this was no desk job, and one true tale was the seizure of the smuggling ship "The Rosamund".

The Rosamond, a schooner registered at Plymouth, was being used for smuggling. It had run aground in the Solway Firth and Burns with forty-four dragoons were required to capture it. The smugglers fought back firing grape shot from their cannon but because the ship was aground they couldn't shoot in the right direction.

Eventually the dragoons managed to get close enough to fire and board the ship. Meanwhile the entire crew had jumped off, after firing a cannon through the ship's hull, and escaped to the English shore.

However, it was this choice of profession that led to his death — by illness rather than misadventure.