I was recently invited to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns Supper. No great boast: most wise people would rather stick pins in their eyes than speak in public and Burns audiences are not known for their sobriety. The host was a pal who had done me a favour, so I agreed. There was a problem though, I didn't know much about Burns, so I turned to that ever helpful friend of the fraud, the internet, to see if there was anything anybody else had written that I could pinch. It turned out there was indeed such a source and it actually made me weep.
It transpired that at around seven o'clock in the evening (the same time I was due to speak), exactly 160 years previously, someone else had made the Immortal Memory to what was obviously a drunken audience, and the occasion had been marked by many believing that the speech was going to be something approaching career suicide for the speaker. But the tears? What made me blub? Well, bizarrely, the speaker on that night turned out to be my great grandfather, and not only that, his speech turned out to be an over-written, ludicrous bit of sentimental hyperbole, which is very much my own style. Plus, it was unbelievably brave.
I am shamefully ignorant of the writings of my forebears, many of whom were noted Presbyterian ministers in the 19th century. Sure, I had tried to come to grips with a few of their sermons, but I am not a believer, and after a few dusty verbose paragraphs usually making impenetrable references to the Old Testament, I find that my flaky mind usually comes up with something else that that I would rather be doing and I close the book and check my phone.
My great grandfather, Norman, had run a slum parish in Glasgow and many of his congregation were probably Gaelic immigrants from the Clearances. I had never read a single word of his writings, other than a couple of novels he had written for children. That was until last Wednesday when I had started writing the speech. And had been moved to tears.
The contrast between then and now was more than a little spooky. It turned out that on the date in question, 25 January 1859, the entire country was fiercely divided over a major issue – but it wasn't Brexit, it was whether our man Robert Burns should be lauded or reviled. Many in the Kirk, which you should remember was a major force in the land at the time, were adamant that what with his bed-hopping, filthy poems and degenerate lifestyle, Burns should hardly be seen as an exemplar. It's my understanding that Norman was going against the instructions of the Kirk by lauding the man, even, it seems, from the pulpit.
Norman was obviously a trouble-maker and a fanatical Burns supporter, and it's easy to imagine that thousands in Glasgow were on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the popular charismatic minister of the slums was going to do what he was telt by the Kirk and abandon Burns, or side with the countless thousands across the land who were seeing Burns as the hero of the down-trodden poor.
I exaggerate? Not a bit of it. As those of you who are Burns experts will have already realised, the night that Norman gave his speech wasn't just any old anniversary, it was the centenary of the poet's birth and over 800 Burns festivals were being planned all over the world – 672 of them in Scotland alone. It was a national event. They even closed the shops in Edinburgh early.
Of the many Burns festivals being held that night, I would imagine the one being held in Glasgow City Hall was one of the biggest. One has the impression it was packed to the gunnels. There were to be plenty of speakers, but only one from the church – a certain Norman MacLeod of the Barony Kirk. My dear great grandfather: middle-aged, kids to feed, and his job on the line. He had already spoken out against the Kirk, saying that their instruction that true Christians shouldn't travel on trains on a Sunday was a piece of nonsense, for which he was described as being the least trusted man in Scotland. And there he was, in trouble again.
It was reported that the crowd at the meeting was, how can one put it, 'restless and confused' by the time he rose to speak. Frankly, I suspect that they were either drunk or angry at the social injustice of Glasgow at that time, with many in the city immensely wealthy and many desperately poor.
Which way would he jump?
It wasn't the political situation that made me cry last week. It was his words. And their lyricism. He said that we had to remember Burns for his love of humanity, the concept being that we had to honour him for the entirety of his lust and failings. And the crowd went nuts. And then the lyricism kicked in. Burns was a poet who had a magic wand (his pen) which he touched onto many parts of Scotland: 'For example, he touched the Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, which would thereafter ever be fresh and fair, ditto the Birks of Aberfeldy'.
And then came the bit that made me cry: 'Even the rough mechanics who built the steam engines now called them names like Souter Johnny and the steam engines huffed and whistled all over the land spreading his word. They have built a submarine cable from Britain to America. It lies cold in the bottom of the Atlantic. Except, that is, when the words of Burns are fed through it – it then warms up to such an extent that it welds our two nations together'. How ridiculous, and yet how glorious.
Today there are two windows in Crathes Church dedicated to the trouble-maker who took on the Kirk. My speech went fine – how could it not? I hardly wrote a word of it. Here's to Norman. If I meet him in heaven, I'll get him a dram.