BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 23 JAN 2020


the poverty of robert burns, january 2020

It's was a real labour of love but our Co-Founder and CEO, Russell Wardrop, recently delivered his own colourful take on The Poverty of Robert Burns in seven stories. All of which have 27 year old men in mind, a seminal year in the life of Robert Burns.

The event (on the 22nd January) was part of The Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow Lecture Series.


John Anderson, my Jo, John,
When we were first acquaint;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld John,
You locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow, John Anderson, my jo.

 John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And monie a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane another:
Now we maun totter down John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot, John
Anderson, my jo.

That makes me think of my mum and late dad, who will sleep together again one day. But not too soon mum, eh? In two verses Burns tells us the story of a married life.

Robert Burns never had hair of snow. He went downhill when he could have been in his prime, arriving in Edinburgh aged 27 looking ten years older.

How did you get here? I mean that literally, not metaphysically. Burns’ journey would have been miserable and arduous. Six miles per hour by carriage, dropped off at Trongate. Burns most likely would have saddled his mare, leaving tomorrow before first light, hungover, because every daylight hour in January was as precious then as wifi is today.

Why are you here? I mean that literally, too. Out of duty? Are you a relative? (Hello mum). Perhaps you don’t have a telly. With luck you are curious how poverty shaped Robert Burns and what that tells us about ourselves, on the same soil, a split second after The Bard left his mark. There are over sixty statues the world over, including Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, next the other Bard.   

At 14 Burns was doing the work of a full grown farm-hand but in truth will have been rearing lambs, chopping sticks and howking tatties when we were starting school. At 30 he was an excisemen, riding 200 miles a week.

All his life he put a shift in.

This was not the fate of William Shakespeare or James Boswell or Samuel Johnston. At 14 The English Bard left his grammar school after six intensive years; the 9th Laird of Auchinleck arrived at the University of Edinburgh to study the Arts; and Robbie Coltraine, the dictionary man, was a few years off attending Pembroke College, Oxford.

It is quite something Burns wrote much at all.

Burns’ life ended at 37 and he really did not want to go, bemoaning his decrepitude to his boss at the Excise the week before his daft final journey. Weep that Burns, with raging toothache and a weak heart, was sent ten miles from his home in Dumfries to bathe daily in the freezing Solway Firth.

My last doctor’s visit was arranged electronically at a time of my choosing. In a pleasant if spartan room, with my entire medical history on screen, a highly qualified stranger had me bend over and hum my favourite tune (Ae Fond Kiss). He put a gloved finger on my doughnut and told me it was still not a bagel. I was back two weeks later to give blood; they tested me “for everything”, because I am 57.

In his lifetime Burns might have caught smallpox, typoid or malaria. He did have depression and finally rheumatic fever. Treatment for everything was herbal tincture or a purging. Doctor Maxwell was Burns’ last true friend but a useless medic.

Burns shared the farm-houses he lived and vomited in with his family, servant girls, farm hands, relatives down on their luck and livestock. He never repaired to the study with his snuff, port and lamp, but sat with a candle by a peat fire or went to the attic in the gloaming. Not for Burns the three-storey townhouse just off Fleet Street, it’s little wonder Samuel Johnson had time to write that dictionary. When I walk past the bronze of Johnsons’ cat, Hodge, on my way to Pret I often wonder why Burns never took his chances in London.

Porridge was for life not just breakfast and never came with honey, seeds and a banana. My Grampa Oswald Wardrop, a farmer in Newton Mearns, threw a handful of salt and glug of warm milk from the teat on his oats. Gran slipped me some sugar.

Scotland’s climate ruined many a crop and drove Burns to despair. Life expectancy was forty and it was a coin toss that you escaped infancy, so Burns’ death was not unexpected. Death never was. Everything you hear about Burns must be understood in the context of life in 18th century Scotland.

Truly, we have no idea.

I delivered my first Immortal Memory thirty years ago this week in the Library of the Men’s Union at the University of Glasgow. Having heard worthies wax lyrical at posh suppers I took a different tack and proposed The Bard was known to his friends as “Shagger Bob”. Burns, founder of the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club, would have loved it. (Try to cancel him if you fancy, you won’t get all the statues.)

I was 27 when I delivered “Shagger Bob Is Immortal”. Everything you need to know about poverty and Robert Burns can be gleaned from his 27th year. It is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

Yuval Noah Hariri tells us in Sapiens our stories are what make us unique. I will tell Burns’ story in seven tales for today’s 27 year-old men, because 27 is an age you need to get on with things, Laddies. If you like everything I’m doing it wrong; if you dislike everything, you’re doing it wrong.

Burns grew into manhood that year, a good age at which to do so. Let us begin.

Story one: shit happens

At 35 Burns was set. There was money, a good job with promotion on the horizon, a nice house, his extended family working the farm, respectability, self-acceptance and a little fame as a poet.

Yet at 37 he was dead. Shit happens.

Burns’ father William was the best dad anyone could wish for, but he lived and died in poverty worse than his sons’. If you had a less than perfect childhood know that Burns never had a childhood at all. And Burns was lucky.

Fate gave the word, the arrow sped,
And pierced my darling’s heart;
And with him all the joys are fled
Life can to me impart.

A lament for a mother on losing her child.

We have all but forgotten the motivational force that is our own mortality. You must muffle the voices telling you everything will be all right, all will fall your way, the world cares about you: It won’t, it can’t and it doesn’t.

Politicians tell us life will be better with Independence, the Union, Brexit or Remain. Take it all with a sack of salt, or in the words of Ricky Gervais, “It’s all jokes, we’ll all be dead soon.”

Life is suffering and death are the truest words you will ever hear as well as being a great twitter handle.

By the age of 27 Burns had had a bellyful of suffering and death. Hard labour that compromised his health forever, only a few hours education a day, two surviving children from the first six births. In 18th century Scotland suffering and death happened every day, in the most egregious ways.

Richard Dawkins tells us there is a zero percent chance of us being born and Seneca to wake up expecting the worst. Amen to both. Accept life will throw seventy shades of shit at you and you are lucky to be on this small simmering sphere.

Then you will be free to celebrate every day.

If that message is too fierce let me give you immense hope. Expecting the worst does not preclude hoping for the best.

Story two: You Are M & S Laddies (Don’t Worry, Be Happy)

My mum at eighty can likely enjoy a further decade of lunches at the local Trattoria, then coming home to walk the dog before gin o’clock. She still drives her Ford Focus to see the great grandkids.

Your future lives will be better than my mum’s and Italian will still be the go-to cuisine. You are the most fortunate young men ever to have lived.

You are healthier, wealthier, safer, longer-lived, more equal and happier than any humans who have popped out, popped in and will pop their mortal coil. Hans Rosling’s Factfullness will give you the data; Pinker tells why you are prone to pessimism. Read Pinker twice if you are the life-sucker everyone avoids at the water cooler. Then go back a generation or two; a century or two; and another fifty years.

Shall we put a cherry on top? You are living in one of the best places on this toasty wee sphere, a place so cool many risk everything to get here. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, if you are born here you have already won the lottery.

Those thinking we will all be gone soon, burnt to a crisp, should know Puritans have been predicting our extinction since before Robert Burns saw a Lassie and wrote a rhyme. In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, Kurt Anderson lists the many times Armageddon has been prophesied. Like today’s Puritans, they just kept changing the date.  

Laddies, what would you do if you were not scared? Living in panic and fear is futile and merely a self-justification not to grow up. Fear stalked Burns’ whole life, rooted in his poverty, his father’s poverty and that of the entire nation in the wake of the Darien debacle. Not forgetting the run up to the French Revolution, which was intense, and fall out from American Independence.

Despite all that he packed quite a bit into his less than two score years. What will you do with your five score? At 27, it’s your time.

Story three: Happiness is a chimera

The mental and physical strength required to create poetry after a day on the land is quite something. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnman explains system one and system two thinking. The first is fast, instinctive and emotional; the second slower, more deliberate and logical.

You need both in high amount for any creative endeavour. Burns would have an inspired thought in the day, but the hard yards came in the evening:

 A lassie at harvest, his first rhyme

Oh once I loved a bonnie lass aye and I love her still
and while that virtue warms my breast I’ll love my handsome Nell

A mouse,

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me! The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backwards cast my e’e, on prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see, I guess an’ fear.

A dog,

His hair, his size, his mouth, his lugs; Shewed he was nain o’ Scotland’s dogs; But whapit someplace far abroad, Whare sailors gang to fish for cod.

A letter about lassies, there’s a lot about the lassies

My heart was completely tinder (Burns would have loved Tinder) and eternally lighted by some goddess or another… and like every warfare in this world, I was sometimes crowned with success and sometimes mortified with defeat.

Burns was prodigious given the constraints because had found his muse in poetry, but it was never easy.

Laddies, nothing worth doing is ever easy. It takes focus, effort and commitment. Ask any elite coach to rank attitude, ability and coaching in order: attitude will come top every time. Scottish tennis player Andy Murray was number four in the world with an 80mph second serve; once he got it over 100mph he started winning majors: attitude gave him that extra 20mph.

Eschew happiness and seek purpose. Take the high road, not the low road. Burns did, he had no choice. The conditions for turning wet clay into gold were far from ideal, they never are, but the poverty of his circumstances begat his poetry. Ignore the siren call of the four-day week, because those who propose it never work only 28 hours in seven days. Scotland could do worse than appoint a Government Czar for hard work.

Find your purpose, Laddies, and decide what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

Poetry was his muse but Burns came out of his 27th year with a higher purpose than rhyming. His famous platonic dalliance with Agnes McElhose from Cessnock produced personal frustration- top half only- and Ae Fond Kiss.

A future of Clarinda, fame and high society was not for Burns (her Sylvander); he chose Jean, farming and the common weal. Burns chose what he knew. 

“I shall sit down a plain farmer. The happiest of lives if one can live by it”

But just like getting to the west indies in the 18th century, the route to a bucolic life in Dumfries would not be plain sailing.

Oh pale, pale now those rosy lips I aft hae kissed sae fondly,

And gone for aye the sparking glance that dwelt on me sae kindly,

And mouldrin’ now in silent dust the heart that loved me dearly.

But still within my bosom’s core shall live my Highland Mary.

Those are amongst the saddest words you will ever hear. Mary Campbell, Highland Mary, died in childbirth waiting for Burns in Greenock. A real tragedy.

(I mean, Greenock?)

Counting people of colour off far away fields was not something James Boswell had to countenance. Around this time the 9th Laird of Auchinleck was buying the Edinburgh home of David Hume and trying hard to catch the disease he would die of.

Burns met Mary when he was on tilt after being told to sling his hook by a respectable Mauchline builder. Jean Armour’s father was pissed he was to become a grandfather to twins, sired by a well-kent, feckless, penniless rogue and founder of the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club, Shagger Bob. Jean Armour was packed off by mum and dad to cool off in Paisley.

(I mean, Paisley?)

The problem for the Armours was Jean still had the hots for Bad Boy Bob.

Plus ca change plus ca meme chose.

By the end of his 27th year Burns was in Edinburgh, where his star burned bright then flamed out fast. He was too chippy, inflexible and talented for the menfolk and the posh Edinburgh lassies flirted with him but never followed through

Plus ca change plus ca meme chose.

The problem in Ayrshire had been too much follow through. In short order Burns had two women pregnant, a book of poems selling like haggis on 24th January, money to collect all over Ayrshire, a subscription (crowd funding) for his Edinburgh Edition to sort, a ticket to the plantations in his sporran, a lease on a Dumfries farm to finalise, exams for the Excise to pass… and sundry other shenanigans.

These all needed letters and visits and the sharing of a dram or seven by the charismatic farmer now cleverly marketing himself as The Ploughman Poet. It was intense, too intense. Something had to give.  

Burns two big breaks were the death of Mary Campbell and his poems being more popular than Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes. The first got him out of a romantic gordian knot and the second some real cash, softening the hearts of Jean Armour’s parents. Eventually Rab and Jean were wed.

“Mr & Mrs Armour, what did you see in the recently popular, successful and solvent young poet, Shagger Bob?”

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw I dearly like the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives, the lassie I love best,
Where wild winds blaw and river a row, and monie a hill between
But day and night my fancy’s flight is ever wi’ ma Jean.

In truth, Burns knew he had only recently become a man with enough substance to be the husband of the builder’s daughter. Mr and Mrs Burns had loads of kids, Robert a few more than Jean. Many died in infancy. Burns just about lived as a farmer and family man, though Ellisland went the way of all the other farms and was sold at a loss, the family decanted into a house in town, and another bastard wean appeared for Jean to nurse.

At 27, Laddies, like Burns, it is time.

Story four: Be More Billy (Risk it for a biscuit)

At ten o’clock one Saturday night in 1975 on the Parkinson Show a big bearded Scotsman, against all advice, told a politically incorrect joke about murdering his wife. The punchline, “…I needed somewhere to park my bike” started Billy Connolly on a journey to worldwide fame.

The Crucifiction,“Hey, Peter, I can see your hoose fae here; The Territorial Army, “… I make forty pound a week all told and I keep the lot coz I’m a selfish bastard”; Ivan The Terrible, “it’s amazing the surge of strength you get when you bite yer ain Wullie” were punchlines from my teenage years.

The Big Yin is remembered the world over, in a black leotard and Fyffes banana boots, because he left. He was set in Scotland and could have stayed. Both are global superstars, Burns has more statues but Billy got to enjoy the spotlight.

In “To A Mouse” Burns says he can’t see the future. It was certainly not a strong suit and when he did it was dark and poverty stricken. At 35 living in the town of Dumfries, near the pubs, Burns was offered a job in London. It paid handsomely and promised a host of other lucrative opportunities, but he was dying. Shit happens.

It is never easy to make a living from a creative enterprise, but at 27, in his pomp, the ten pounds and three days that would have taken The Ploughman Poet to London would have been the best tenner a Scot ever spent.

Material poverty weakened his constitution and helped him to an early grave but it was the poverty of Burns own imagination that stymied him, never giving London serious thought. Connolly paid a price in the Scottish press for his leaving and the friends he kept over the years, to be sure, but in context that sledging was loose change. And my, what a journey The Big Yin had.  

Give it everything, laddies. Be ambitious, be bold, be fearless.

Every poet or comedian knows there is no single route to fulfilment, nor is success guaranteed. The commis chef on crepes and eggs in my Tenerife hotel may one day own a restaurant chain; the joiner fitting kitchens in my son’s new house could soon be buying plots and building mansions; or the farmer’s son who got himself sent home from school so he could work on the farm and went on to build the biggest industrial waste business in Scotland.

Be more Billy.

story five: your own personal jesus

In the summer of 2019 Peugeot used Depeche Mode’s brilliant “Your Own Personal Jesus” to advertise their new SUV, the vehicle type with heaviest responsibility for the present poaching of our planet. If you have one of these daft vehicles never mention the straw in my Pina colada, even if I have it in Tenerife.

Today we are in an era of useless empathy, where we can pretend to care about everything and do nothing.   

Today we donate money to a foodbank without ever seeing one, unless we go at Christmas to feel virtuous for a day; in Burns day you heard the poor at the door, gave to them from the little you had, took them into your modest home.

We collect twitter followers but don’t not know our neighbours, not even the name of the new-born next door; in Burns day you’d know the bairn’s name and likely attend its funeral.

Before he settled down Burns was a bit of a lad. Poetry, houghmagandie and drinking were his thing.

Plus ca change plus ca meme chose.

Public penance at the Kirk, kneeling on the Cutty Stool, was Burns punishment for, well, he can tell you himself.

Before the congregation wide, I passed the muster fairly,
My handsome Betsy at my side, we gat our ditty rarely.
But my downcast eye by chance did spy what made my lips to water.
Those limbs between, where I, between, commenced a fornicator.

Much of it was his own making, but Burns was compromised at every turn. Shit happens.

Contraception, feminism and social media would have made his romantic life a different proposition; free education and a more meritocratic business environment would have allowed him self-improvement and personal freedom; modern modes of transport and communication the world a smaller place.

Burns would marvel at our lives. No need to be or stay married; marketing jobs that paid handsomely for his ideas; twelve cans of cider for under a tenner.

You Laddies have three score years ahead and this warming world is at your feet. Just as it was for Burns and Billy. At 27 you are as useful as a chocolate fireguard unless you get up early, stay late and focus, but how you balance self-interest with talking one for the common weal will be the biggest conundrum of your best years.

You are quite right if you say we must climb this hill together, Laddies. A pressing need as we are often at daggers drawn, coming out of our shells only to virtually jab or block someone not in our tribe.

Some would call it leadership. Are you equal to it?

My next tale tells you exactly how you might achieve such self-fulfilment. Buckle up, Laddies.

story six: wear sunscreen

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.

Laddies, you could do worse than say, “Alexa, play Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen) every morning.

Your own personal Baz Luhrmann:

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth… but be smart enough to know they fade; then you need to be competent, reliable and industrious.

Respect your elders… be sceptical, not cynical; Boomers know stuff.

Do one thing every day that scares you… Aristotle would force Alexander The Great to swim the Tiber every morning before class, so Alexander got up an hour earlier and did it before his teacher arrived.

Don’t be reckless with other peoples’ hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours… play nice but do not be afraid to be a man, Laddies; imagine you are your own best friend and be kind to yourself.

You are imperfect. Accept your imperfections and be better tomorrow than you are today. You have time.

Finding the sweet spot between single-minded self-fulfillment and the common weal is a challenge we have been grappling with forever, the pace increasing since the sixties.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

(Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.)

Two centuries ago everyone knew your business and it was impossible to disengage from your neighbours; now we can virtually live as far away from them as we fancy.

Two generations ago we knew our neighbours, went to church, Friday was Scouts and only the farmer’s kids were dropped off at school in a SUV.

Two years ago I opened the eulogy to my dad with this story. It happened when I was 14, the age Burns started work as a man. Three hundred went on their own journey at dad’s funeral, later telling me about Hugh Wardrop in the Eglinton Arms hotel, over soup and a sausage roll.

John Donne never met my dad; he could be reached if you built a bridge. Fortunately he married Jean- Izambard Kingdom Brunel- McEachen. My dad is the embodiment of the Neitchzian view that we must be “prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable”. His capacity for hard work was simply awe inspiring. Stoic, single-minded and taciturn my dad would have hated his eulogy as much as he loved his soup.   

A flat-bed lorry outside a neighbour’s house. Wee ones playing on the pile of chukkies on the back, high on lime-green E numbers from the Alpine man. Teenagers mooching around, all spots and flares. The lorry driver is having a smoke, chatting with someone’s dad. It’s tea-time in the hot summer of 1976, so hot you can smell the soft tarmac on the pavements of Eaglesham.

A burgundy Rover Fastback swings past and stops at 6 Brownmuir Avenue, the lorry driver nips his fag and in jig-time Hugh Wardrop is striding towards us, two shovels in one hand and six heavy duty plastic sacks in the other. Tie tucked in, sleeves rolled up, brown moccasins on fast-moving feet. 

His tongue is out.

He sends a wee one to get hauf a dozen carrier bags, “giud yins mind”. Two bigger boys have shovels and are now up top, filling bags held by two smouts. Holding a bag for a shovelling Hugh Wardrop was the worst job in the world.

Now we are shuttling back and forth in the heat, humping chukkies. Hugh Wardrop takes two bags at a time. Half an hour later he palms the driver a fiver, picks up his shovels and bags and goes in for his fish tea. Inside an hour he will be sleeping on the couch, watching telly.

My dad arranged the lorry. My dad employed the driver, for 20 years. My dad got those chukkies at a good price, because he knew folk.

There were twenty men and boys in the chain gang. As many as lived in Ellisland farm, Dumfries, with Burns when he briefly felt he had his own, personal, Jesus.  

My late uncle Gavin loaned dad £1135, money that allowed a man with no secondary education 15 years later to sell the biggest industrial waste business in Scotland. His business cleaned up the biggest mess humans make.

The fruits of Hugh Wardrop’s labours rippled throughout our immediate and wider family to friends, neighbours, community groups and hundreds of employees. Many mourners had started their own businesses inspired by my dad, “borrowing” his shovels, plastic bags and overalls (recycling before it was trendy).

That is your blue-print, Laddies. Find your focus, go out and get busy, give something back. Before you try and change the world do a bit of work on your second serve.

It is no coincidence I started my business at 35, the age he was when he started his. The age Burns knew he was dying.

story seven: Joy

The common weal will remain as intangible as gold at the end of a rainbow if we continue to demonise our fellow travellers. If we can’t stop cancelling everyone outside our own narrow tribe; stop using hyperbole to monster others; reflect more and type less.

You can start today by not taking offense at anything here. 

Then gently scan your fellow man
Still gentler sister woman
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human.

Step aside and you will become more content and mindful in this wonderfully warm world. You can call it happiness if that will make your tofu tastier but I prefer joy, because it’s obvious you can’t always be joyful.

If you leave it be it will be yours. Stay in the present, do the work and don’t compare yourself to others- there will always be someone taller, thinner, richer and better looking than you- and joy will come. Every day and in a thousand ways.

For Burns it was a pretty girl, by a river…

Thy crystal stream Afton, how lovely it glides and winds by the cot where my Mary resides.

How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave, as gath’ring sweet flow’rets she stems thy clear wave.

A drink with friends…

While we sit bousing at the nappy, And getting fou and unco happy.

Spring flowers, winter snow...  

But pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flower its bloom is shed. Or like the snow falls in the river, one moment white then gone forever.

Find your purpose and you will discover deep joy, Laddies. Burns knew it was always there, in the shadows.