Robert Burns – Brandmaster

By January 25, 2017Business

Tonight I am delivering the Immortal Memory for the University of Edinburgh Business School. I may say something like this:

Robert Burns was born on this day in 1759, making today his 258th birthday. On this day, all over the world, people meet to celebrate the life of this man, a poet. He is on stamps and banknotes; his statue in Leith is wearing socks today; and his portrait stares at the First Minister in Bute House. But what can the average MBA student learn from the life of this man? Well, how not to succeed in business, for one.

First, his skills as an entrepreneur. I have here a cheque. It’s from the British Linen Bank. This bank was set up on the basis of an industrial charter to ‘Improve Linen Manufactury in Scotland.’ The Burns family had a farm which was not prospering, so Robert and his brother rented three acres to farm themselves. In those days, flax was all the rage, so in 1781 Burns went to Irvine to learn how to dress it. Sadly, Burns and his business partner got so drunk seeing in the New Year there that they burned the house down, and their fortunes along with it. He returned to the farm to write more poems, and get a few women pregnant. He was pretty good and both, but the latter mean he was pursued by wrathful fathers and by the kirk, so he decided to publish his poems to finance his next business venture: the sugar plantations.

I have here a book, written by my old English teacher, Andrew Lindsay. It’s called Illustrious Exile, and is the imagined diary of Robert Burns in the West Indies. Here’s what his famous ‘communist’ poem might have sounded like if he’d emigrated to the plantations:

What man deserves to live in dread
To cower and cringe, and a’ that?
Why should he learn to bow his head
And call me ‘Sir’, and a’ that?
For a’ that and a’ that,
Their manacles and a’ that:
You canna brand the human soul –
A man’s a man for a’ that.                          © Andrew O Lindsay, 2006

Burns tried to emigrate to seek his fortune in sugar at least twice. The first time was on The Nancy, which sailed without him from Greenock to Jamaica on 12 July 1786 – presumably because he was with another Nancy somewhere in a hayloft. He also failed to turn up to sail on the next ship, The Bell, probably because his first book of poems had finally been published, as the famous Kilmarnock Edition, on 31 July 1786.

Aha – so he did succeed! I hear you cry. Well, no, not in business terms. It is estimated that he made £50 from the Kilmarnock edition. He signed away the copyright for the Edinburgh edition for around £855, so that’s £905 all told – less than a grand. I have here another book, it’s a book of Scottish songs, and this is the reason why he died in poverty, being sued by a Haberdasher for a £5 bill he had been unable to pay. It’s also of course one reason why we’re here today. But why is it my last cautionary tale for the canny businessman? Well, Burns had to forsake the literary heights of Edinburgh to provide for his large and complex family in Ayrshire, so he whiled away his time collecting together these songs. But he refused to charge the publisher for this enormous project, proclaiming that to do so would be ‘sodomy of soul.’ But it is thanks to his largesse that Scotland has such a rich folk-song heritage, which might well have died out had he not collected together so many tunes and re-popularised then with fresh words. Here’s a verse of one of them for you:

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

But let’s be serious. The story of Burns for leaders in industry is not about his success as a businessman. It’s actually about his extraordinary success as a master of the Personal Brand. Burns was a farmer, and in the Preface to the Kilmarnock Edition he deliberately hams this up: ‘the Poetic Genius found me at the plough…I turned my wild, artless notes, as she inspired.’ When he visits Edinburgh in triumph, he does so in costume: in the buck-skin breeches and boots of an idealised peasant, with his hair tied in a ribbon. You’ll see him dressed like this in every picture we have, and the credulous Edinburgh literati lapped it up – he was the archetypal natural genius.

Actually from age 6 Burns shared a private tutor with some neighbours, and went to board with his tutor in Ayr when he was 14. He was taught English Literature, French and Latin, and was even sent to classes to improve his handwriting. This was a man who read theology, philosophy, history, geography, mathematics, science and astronomy. He didn’t just plough fields, and he was a member of that extremely powerful and secretive networking society, the Freemasons. But on his mausoleum, as in the public imagination, he is still the genius who was bred to the plough. Above his grave is a statue of Burns, standing by his plough, while the Muse hovers overhead: the immortal memory. Saatchi and Saatchi eat your heart out.

It was at the Grand Lodge of Scotland in January 1787, on his first trip to Edinburgh, that Burns was first heralded as a national poet. So tonight, in Edinburgh once more, let us be upstanding for a toast, the toast they gave him then: ‘to Caledonia, and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns.’

Source: the source for most of this speech was the excellent Robert Burns and His World, By David Daiches, (London, Thames and Hudson: 1971).

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