A Man's A Man For A' That - Rabbie Burns (1/2) 

Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that,
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A Man's A Man For A' That - Rabbie Burns (2/2) 

A price can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that,
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that.

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (1/6) 

There are two Robert Burns. The first is the one found on shortbread tins and whisky bottles, the romantic poet who portrayed Scottish life. This is the Burns celebrated every 25 January, clothed in tartan that Burns could hardly have ever come across in his short life, and certainly never wore. The other is the radical, indeed Jacobin, supporter of the American and French revolutions whose poems and songs were sung by those fighting for democracy and social justice.

In his recent bigraphy of Burns, The Bard, Robert Crawford produces evidence that Burns was a member of a republican circle in Dumfries and remained a ‘staunch republican’ until his death. He adds that ‘it takes a tin ear and a narrow mind’ to ignore the radical message in so many of Burns’ poems.

Burns lived at the close of the eighteenth century, where Scotland was undergoing a sudden, rapid transformation.

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (2/6) 

The agricultural revolution was driving the peasantry from the land – this was the class Burns was born into. The Industrial Revolution was changing the lives of Scots, for better and for worse. Burns was born in Alloway, just outside Ayr, the eldest of seven children, in a single-room thatched cottage with a barn and cowshed. His father worked as a gardener, but in order to support his family became a tenant farmer. By the age of fifteen, Robert was the pincipal labourer on the farm, interrupting his school days to help his father.

Burns tried his hand as a tenant farmer, but with the rising rents it was hard to make a living. Despite his poetry and songs being widely acclaimed, Burns also failed to find a wealthy patron. Evetually in 1789, he moved to Dumfries and took a job as an excise man (a costums officer), which he held until his death in 1796.

The greatest event in Burns’s life was undoubtedly the French Revolution of 1789.

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (3/6) 

The new ideas of the Enlightenment had challenged the hold of the Kirk and the oligarchic political system. Now the French revolutionary slogan of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ spoke to Burns as it did other Scots, and he read Tom Paine’s revolutionary text The Rights of Man. This fervour is reflected, directly and indirectly, in his poetry.

He knew poverty and injustice too, and lived a life that was shocking to the Calvinisr faithful. As one of Scotland’s foremost folk singers, Alastair Hullet, explains, ‘Cam Ye Ower Frae France’ is a scathing attack of the new Hanoverian King George that possesses an astonishing level of vitriol. These authentic period pieces gave rise to the use of faux-Jacobite verse as a veil for promoting egalitarian ideas in support of a universal franchise and social equality. This was at a time when Britain was a virtual police state and many of the ‘Jacobite’ songs form part of this legacy.

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (4/6) 

In 1793, in Dumfries, Burns was effectively on trial because a government spy had told his employer, Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise, that he was the head of a group of Jacobin sympathisers. Burns responded by denying all, writing a letter to his employer stating, ‘I know of no party in this place, either Republican or Reform, with which I never had anything to do...’ However, privately and anonymously he continued to write poetry for the movement. ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ was written two years after he took his vow of silence. He described it as the ideas of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man worked up into verse.

Burns took his display of loyalty further. In 1795 he signed a petition to set up the Dumfries Volunteers to resist a French invasion, and then wrote them an anti-French anthem. He was not the first to run for cover when times were hard, but his allegiances remained true.

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (5/6) 

He also wrote songs and poems for the movement he supported. One of his most famous songs was a contender for modern Scotland’s national anthem, ‘Scots Wha Hae’. It was published anonymously in 1793, coinciding with the trial of the most prominent Scottish champion of the French Revolution, Thomas Muir. Bruce’s army marched to its tune on the way to Bannockburn, or so Burns believed. Its words are an attack on tyrants and despots, and a call for liberty.

"Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie.

'Now's the day, an now's the hour:
See the front o battle lour,
See approach proud Edward's power –
Chains and Slaverie.

'Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha will fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn an flee."

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Rebel Lives: Robert Burns (6/6) 

When news of Burns’ death, in 1796, reached Belfast, the Northern Star, newspaper of the republican United Irishmen, published ‘Scots Wha Hae’. Their rebellion would follow two years later. Unfortunately, French help arrived too little and too late, and the British administration in Ireland had sufficient time to prepare. Although initially successful, the United Irishmen were eventually defeated and subject to merciless persecution.

‘Scots Wha Hae’ would be sung by radical reformers and Chartists in the 1820s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Not simply in Scotland but south of the border too, in tribute to the idea of freedom. In 1839, the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, touring Scotland, reported back from Kilmarnock that the ‘whole population’ could sing the song in perfect harmony. Few of those who recite ‘Scots Wha Hae’ at school or at a Burns Supper will be aware they are inciting revolution.

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This was an excerpt from the book 'A People's History of Scotland' by Chris Bambery, it can be purchased from Verso Books or your nearest radical bookstore/bookfair


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