Robert Burns the revolutionary – and Harry Holland

In the nineteenth century, as the wars to dispossess the Maori of their land got under way in New Zealand, on the opposite side of the globe another violent act of land dispossession was coming to an end.

Robert Burns 1759-96

Robert Burns

The highland clearances in nineteenth-century Scotland were the final act in the enclosures of the commons, the long historic process through which the peasantry of the British Isles was forcibly evicted from its land and converted to a propertyless class, dependent on selling its labour-power in order to live. The enclosures had begun in England in the time of the Tudors; the highland clearances of Scotland were late, rapid and brutal. There were times when more than a thousand families were evicted in a single day, their houses burned to the ground to prevent their return. Old people who refused to leave were burned alive in their houses.

The evicted Scottish farmers ended up eking out a starvation existence on the coast, or crowded into the proletarian slums of Edinburgh and especially Glasgow, which grew to become one of the wealthiest and most miserable cities of industrial Britain. Some had little choice but to join the British army, whereupon they were required to do to the inhabitants of other lands what had been done to them. Others emigrated to the Americas – especially Canada; Nova Scotia means New Scotland – and Australasia. The dispossessed Scots formed one of the major sources of immigrants to the New Zealand colony in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dunedin (Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh) was the largest population centre in New Zealand up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ruined croft houses, Fuaigh Mor, cleared in 1841. Photo: Sarah Egan

Ruined croft houses, Fuaigh Mor, cleared in 1841. Photo: Sarah Egan

In both Scotland and New Zealand, the ‘cleared’ land was turned over to sheep – and to a small number of wealthy sheep-farmers supplying wool to the burgeoning English textile industry. In New Zealand, evicting the indigenous inhabitants was not sufficient to break their ties to the land; the new rulers felt the need to actively suppress Maori culture. In Scotland, too, active suppression of Scottish culture, including bans on wearing tartans and kilts, even on playing the bagpipes, was enacted in law. In this manner, after the last major military engagement, the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the last fires of Scottish military resistance were extinguished.

Duchess of Sutherland, clan leader become landlord

Duchess of Sutherland, hereditary clan leader become landlord

But unlike New Zealand, where the tribal chiefs fought alongside their people in defence of their land, in Scotland the chiefs of the clans played a more ambivalent and even treacherous role, especially after Culloden. In many cases, the hereditary clan leaders, titular owners of the clan’s common lands, proclaimed themselves individual owners of the land as their private property, taking upon themselves the role of landlord, and evicting their own clansmen to make way for the sheep. Marx describes this process in detail in respect of one of these, the Duchess of Sutherland, in Capital.

The accumulated historical memory of these bitter events was carried by the Scots emigrants to the colonies of North America and Australasia, in the form of a strong attachment to the Scottish culture. In particular, the Scottish immigrants brought with them a deep love of their national poet, Robert Burns. Burns’s poetry was their means of rising above it all.

In New Zealand, Scottish immigrants erected a bronze statue of Burns in Dunedin in 1887. Further monuments to Burns were placed in Timaru (1913), Auckland (1921), and Hokitika (1923). With the exception of a statue of Katherine Mansfield in Wellington, these are, as far as I am aware, the only public monuments to any literary figure anywhere in New Zealand.

Harry Holland was one of these immigrants of Scots ancestry. Like Burns, Holland was born to a poor rural family, and received only the most rudimentary formal education, which ended at the age of ten. And like Burns, the self-taught Holland developed a lifelong love of reading and literature, poetry in particular. Holland also identified with Burns’s religiosity, and with his contempt for religious hypocrisy. Like Burns, Holland knew the pain of losing a child.

Today poetry no longer occupies the place it once did in the proletarian movement. But for Harry Holland, poetry was his battle-cry in times of struggle and his solace in times of defeat. He wrote a number of poems himself, using similar rhyme and meter to Burns. Holland’s poetry is rooted in the landscape of the wild West Coast, and as with Burns, human beings are firmly at the centre of the landscape.

During his time as a Labour Party Member of Parliament, Holland researched and wrote several long historical investigations, some of which were published in newspapers in serial form. These included a history of coal-mining and the miners’ unions in Britain (this was an act of solidarity with the workers movement in Britain at the time of the British General Strike of 1926), and a series on China (coinciding with the Chinese revolution of 1927). He also wrote a hundred-page literary and political biography of Robert Burns.

For whatever reason, the Burns work was never published, and exists only in manuscript form in the collection of Holland’s pamphlets and papers at the Australian National University. This is a great pity, because Holland’s study reveals a side of Burns that was largely overlooked or suppressed in Holland’s day: his revolutionary sympathies. Throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the standard biography of Burns was John Gibson Lockhart’s 1828 Life of Robert Burns, which fashioned an image of Burns that was more acceptable at the bourgeois dinner-table. It was only in the 1990s that scholarly critics began to give due recognition to Burns’s revolutionary-democratic sympathies.

Burns was born during the period of suppression of Scottish culture, only thirteen years after the defeat of Culloden. His early reading led him to admire and identify with Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who fought against imperial Rome, and the Scottish patriot William Wallace.

These were revolutionary times. Burns was a child at the time of the American revolution, and aged thirty when the thunderbolt of the French revolution broke over Europe. Tom Paine’s manifesto of ‘The Rights of Man’ was banned literature in Scotland, but circulated widely underground, even in Gaelic translation. Burns owned a copy and absorbed its contents. At one point, he sent a set of guns to the revolutionary French legislature together with a note of solidarity, just as the kings of England and Germany were launching a war to overthrow the revolution in France. These sympathies infuse his poetry.

Holland goes further: “In much of Burns’s writings there is a decided Socialist trend,” he writes. “In his day, it is true, there was no definitely-shaped socialist movement as we know it now. Socialist thought was then more or less nebulous…In A Man’s a man, for a’ that the Socialist idea finds its most adequate expression…Viewed in the light of the time, nothing more intellectually revolutionary in the real sense has ever been written.”

Even at a further hundred years’ distance from Burns, this rings true.

A Man’s a man, for a’ that by Robert Burns

Is there for honest 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.                              [gowd – gold]

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;                                 [hoddin grey – a coarse cloth]
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and 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:                                      [coof – fool, simpleton, coward]
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 prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,                 [aboon – above]
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!                            [maunna – mustn’t]
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 beir the gree, an’ a’ that.                                  [beir the gree – win the victory]
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

5 responses to “Robert Burns the revolutionary – and Harry Holland

  1. Really glad to have discovered this blog, James, and thanks for all the stimulating articles.

    Burns is a particular love of mine. There’s so much that could be written on how he was used and remembered in the labour movement. There’s the Holland connection you mention, and Maori-language newspapers were printing translations of Robert Burns (Ropata Purana) in the nineteenth century. Nikki Hessell is in the middle of a large project exploring this history. Overseas of course too there’s the way the German workers’ movement makes “for A’ that” it’s slogan, with Liebknecht in particular making the term immortal.

    In terms of middle-class dissent too there’s of course the Baxter family connection, which then feeds Burns back in to a later generation of protesters and radicals who come to him via James K Baxter’s poetry.

    Thanks again. Lots for me to think about.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dougal, and for the information in it. I had no idea about the translations into Maori – obviously there are people who know a lot more about this than I do! – and I look forward with great interest to the results of Nikki Hessell’s investigations. I find the international interest in Burns a fascinating subject in its own right. A Burns biography I read mentioned interest in Burns in China, for example. That blew away all my narrow preconceptions – I had assumed that a large part of Burns’s appeal is in the particular rhythms of the Scots dialect he uses. But there is no way this could be reproduced in a tonal language like Chinese. Obviously, the connection must be at a much deeper level. Let me know of anything else you find.

  2. Burns gets shat on quite a lot sitting there on his own in the octagon, thanks for that poem it is brilliant. You’ve also made me realise I need to find out more about Holland. I’m chipping away at reading John A Lee but finding him quite a chore to read – Children of the Poor is good but Civilian into Soldier is dreadful. I’d be curious about your opinions about him.

    • I find John A Lee insufferably pompous and egocentric, so haven’t read much of his. I guess I will have to force myself to read a little more, because I suspect he was quite influential in the crucial period between 1916 and the early 1920s in pushing the discussion in the Labour Party to the right, towards a nationalistic and electoralist framework (as I discussed in my recent post on the Mana Party and electoralism).

  3. There was an excellent one-page spread on Lee & his context in Socialist Action in the 70s, by Keith Locke I think. I’ve got a copy in a box somewhere I’ll try and dig up and scan. It’s a good bit of journalism but also gives a great sense of changing contexts: the Socialist Action feature starts off along the lines of “who is this reactionary windbag on TV?” Of course by the 90s in the Labour and Alliance-voting parts I grew up around I got this sense of him as a figure from the Left.

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