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Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, was born in 1759 in his parents’ small, sparsely furnished agricultural worker’s cottage in the semi-rural parish of Alloway, near Ayr. His early adult years were spent as a small-­scale tenant farmer in s

Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, was born in 1759 in his parents’ small, sparsely furnished agricultural worker’s cottage in the semi-rural parish of Alloway, near Ayr. His early adult years were spent as a small-­scale tenant farmer in s

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statues—that were erected in Burns’s honor, material proof that he mattered profoundly to (at least) those who promoted and funded them.

It can be argued that there was nothing very exceptional about securing in stone and bronze the memory of a poet in an era—the second

half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth—that

has been described as having gone ‘statue mad’. But why Burns should

have been perhaps the most commemorated of all writers in Scotland

and North America demands explanation. Questions arise, too, about the

Fig. 10.1 Sir John Steell’s statue of Robert Burns, installed 1880, Central Park,

New York. Photo by Patricia E. Whatley



Fig. 10.2 George A.  Lawson’s statue of Robert Burns, installed 1891, Ayr,

Scotland. Photo by Katherine McBay

extent to which Burns’s reputation was shaped by the form that the statues took and vice versa. Were there transatlantic differences in the meanings associated with the memorials by those who promoted them and in

how the statues were ‘read’ by their respective audiences? Was the direction of travel in terms of Burns’s influence simply from east (Scotland) to

west (North America), or was there a reverse movement too? If so, how

did the counterflow manifest itself in the material artifacts in which we

are interested? To address such questions, this chapter draws on the rich

cache of documentary and visual evidence gathered for a research project

funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC),

‘Robert Burns: Inventing Tradition and Securing Memory, 1796–1909’.2

It begins with an outline of Burns’s transatlantic reception, then turns

to the (literal) solidification of that legacy in statuary, tracing the contested and multiple versions of Burns commemorated on both sides of

the Atlantic.




In January 1859, reporting on the centenary celebrations of the birth of

Robert Burns, the Illustrated London News described Burns as the ‘Poet

of the Scotch’.3 Indeed he was; even at the time of his death, and despite

the fact that much of his work was still unpublished, many of Burns’s

countrymen recognized that Scotland had lost a major poetic voice that

uniquely embodied the nation’s character. Long before this, however,

Burns’s poetry had begun to be read and appreciated far beyond his native

land. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that posthumous celebrations of

the poet took place across the Anglophone world, especially, though not

exclusively, in Scottish diaspora communities. Scots had begun to establish

themselves in Britain’s colonial empire in the seventeenth century. By the

early nineteenth century there were sizeable clusters of Scottish settlers in

several of the Caribbean islands and along North America’s east coast. The

first Burns dinner, or supper (a heavily ritualized, quasi-Masonic ceremony

usually held annually on or around January 25, Burns’s birthday) was

held in Alloway, Burns’s birthplace, in 1801; but these events became

increasingly common, spreading through Scotland and then to India,

Jamaica, and in 1816, Philadelphia. Other North American cities followed

Philadelphia’s example in the 1820s and 1830s, with Montreal, Canada,

joining the movement in 1851 as Scots who had read Burns or who had

heard of the tradition through letters or the reports of new arrivals became

increasingly aware of the emerging Burns-supper cult. Prior to this, Burns

had been added to toast lists on St. Andrew’s Day dinners (major occasions for Scots overseas) in both Canada and in the USA.4

Such rituals belonged to a wider culture of literary commemoration. Throughout much of the Western world—Europe as well as North

America—the nineteenth century was an age of anniversaries and memoryfixing through the construction of museums, the creation of archives, and

the erection of memorials in the form of large-scale statues. Burns, of

course, was only one subject amongst the proliferation of heroic statues.

Such memorials were one of several contemporaneous manifestations of

the active cultivation of cultural memory and construction of ‘memory

sites’ (lieux de memoire, to borrow Pierre Nora’s term).5 While they were

a means of building nations, they also contributed to the construction of

other communities, both imagined and real.6 The Scottish diaspora was

one of these communities, underpinned by formal associations of Scots

migrants and their descendants designed to provide mutual support but



also to foster affection for what became for many a faintly remembered

and largely romanticized Scotland.7 Another aspect of the same process—

by no means confined to Scots, or by Scots to Burns—was the organization of commemorative festivals celebrating the lives of writers and artists.

Often these attracted large attendances, as did the highly orchestrated ceremonies held to inaugurate statues erected to honor and secure the memory of the heroic dead.8 While this perspective should help us to guard

against exaggerating the scale and singularity of the enthusiasm there was

for Burns, celebration of Burns was at the high end of the scale for a poet,

a distinction he shared with William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott;

in terms of popular participation in such activity, Burns surpassed them

both. Leaving aside for a moment the question of why this was the case,

we might note that by 1859, Burns was already a global phenomenon.

An unprecedented 872 celebratory events were recorded on January 25

of that year, with probably thousands more undocumented.9 The celebrations varied in kind, ranging from street processions and soirees to dances

and gargantuan dinners. While the vast majority of the festivities recorded

were held in Great Britain (676  in Scotland, 76  in England), the USA

was host to most (sixty-one) outside of the United Kingdom. Fewer but

nonetheless substantial numbers were convened in Canada as well as in the

British colonies. That the 1871 centenary celebrations for Scott, Burns’s

near contemporary, were muted by comparison (commemorative fatigue

having, perhaps, set in) is telling.10 It was toward the end of this decade

(the 1870s), eighty years after Burns’s death, that thirty or more years

of intensive Burns statue building commenced in Scotland and North

America, evidence that appears to underline the deeper and lasting attraction of Scotland’s peasant bard.

Our understanding of Burns’s reception in North America has been

greatly enhanced by recent scholarship,11 and we now have a fuller sense

of how profound Burns’s impact was on transatlantic literature and culture. Consequently, we can now outline more clearly the chronology and

spread of Burns’s poetry and song, thereby providing the context in which

the memorialization of Burns in the form of material objects (above all,

monuments) occurred.

Burns’s conquest of North America began early. Outside of Scotland

and Ulster, it was in North America that Burns found his first devoted

readers. Copies of the first (Kilmarnock) edition of his Poems were printed

and published in Philadelphia and New York in July 1788. A year earlier,

single poems had begun to appear fairly frequently in the Pennsylvania



Packet.12 By the early nineteenth century in Canada (mirroring the situation in Scotland), printed editions of Burns’s poems were ubiquitous, a

proud and much-thumbed possession in countless settler households in

both town and country.13 Burns’s works, too, were pirated and appeared

in the ubiquitous cheap chapbook literature of the period, which found a

ready market in the USA and elsewhere.14

Although not exclusively, many of the first copies of Burns’s Poems that

reached or were published in North America appear to have been read by

Scottish settlers. Many brought copies of Burns’s poems with them.15 The

two North American countries absorbed a large proportion of the two

million Scots who left the country of their birth in the eighteenth and

nineteenth centuries. As early as 1790, there may have been 260,000 Scots

in the USA alone, some 8% of the total population, with most of them

settled in the southern states.16 Scottish settlement in Canada was smaller

and slower until after 1815. Mainly in the eighteenth century, benevolent

organizations to aid Scottish expatriates were founded in several towns.

Canada’s first was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1768.17 From the Caribbean

to Upper Canada, Scots abroad were notably clannish, closing ranks in the

face of adversity, using networks often based on kin and former locality as

a means of securing whatever opportunities there were for advancement.18

Religion, too (Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism), was a potent

binding agent, as was the Gaelic language for Highland immigrants.19

Scots were also intensely patriotic. Many felt a powerful sense of loss in

having left their homeland, some involuntarily as Highland estates were

cleared for sheep and as life on the marginal shoreside locations to which

they were removed became intolerable. Lowland Scots were pushed out,

too—or pulled by the better prospects offered in North America.20

Burns suppers were thus one means of drawing together Scots abroad

for a sociable evening of conviviality tinged with nostalgia for home. The

emigrant Scots’ sense of attachment to their native soil was a recurrent

theme at Burns-related ceremonies throughout the nineteenth century

and beyond. Burns’s poetry, with its vivid and detailed depictions of the

countryside and villages of Lowland Scotland, as well as of ‘the peculiar

manners of his country’, often drawn in the familiar dialect (unique in

its Scottishness) of the region’s people, evoked both home and nation.21

Burns’s was a world that was disappearing beneath the march of ‘improvement’ but remembered nostalgically by those who had left, whether for

imperial postings in India, for land and work in colonial Canada (until

1867, when Canada became a nation), or for the new United States repub-



lic. As Burns remembered Scotland, so, in Carol McGuirk’s words, ‘Scots

remembered Burns’.22 Much was made, too, across the Atlantic as well as

in Scotland, of Burns as the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, the Romantic,

perhaps even primitive, poet of nature and of human feeling.23

As a poet of the heart and of one’s native place, Burns offered a portable template for national feeling that could be absorbed by readers of

many different backgrounds. Indeed, non-Scots often claimed Burns as

one of their own. This is one reason why Burns’s transatlantic appeal

stretched beyond his own countrymen. While the response of Americans

(as well as Scots) to Burns was far from uniform, powerful attractions

included Burns’s own interest in and support for the rebel cause in the

War of Independence, even if it was well into the nineteenth century

before his sympathies were fully and posthumously revealed.24 (Some

of Burns’s most stridently political poems were published only after his

death, while, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Tory—or conservative—editors, biographers, and promoters of Burns did their best

to play down his radicalism.) There was also the convergence of values

espoused by Burns—liberty and equality (variously interpreted), fraternity

and happiness—and those embedded in the Declaration of Independence,

which, evidently, Burns had read and been inspired by. ‘“A man’s a man”’,

declared one speaker at a New York dinner to mark the Burns centenary

in 1859, ‘is the Declaration of Independence set to music’.25 In Boston,

George Forrest was cheered after paying tribute to Burns’s uncompromising independence of character and his advocacy of ‘those doctrines

which are the basis of the social system in America, that all men are created equal’.26 Hardly even in Scotland itself, wrote A.  C. White in the

Burns Chronicle in 1911, ‘has Burns been more lovingly studied and more

highly lauded and appreciated than among the citizens of the great transatlantic Republic’.27

This sort of transnational logic helps explain a good deal of the rhetoric that surrounded Burns commemorations. For instance, in 1913 the

Chronicle carried a report of a speech Andrew Carnegie made prior to

inaugurating a statue of Burns in Montrose on Scotland’s east coast

in August 1912. Carnegie, the Scots-born son of a handloom weaver

whose family had emigrated in 1848, conspicuously embodied transatlantic Anglophone culture. As one of the USA’s most successful steel

magnates and a major philanthropist, he became a symbol of American

social mobility; still, throughout his career, Carnegie held to his Scottish

roots, understanding his two national identities as mutually reinforcing.



He could trace his commitment to democracy to the years of his boyhood when he was exposed to the ideas of Dunfermline’s notoriously

radical weaving community. To Carnegie, then, claims that America and

Scotland were ‘kindred’ nations made perfect sense. Unsurprisingly, in his

Montrose speech, Carnegie drew on earlier American tributes to Burns

to make the claim that Burns’s political gospel—the rights of man—now

‘rules our English-speaking race’.28 The concept of ‘race’ here depended

on language, political ideals, and other strands of cultural inheritance as

much as on biology.

Burns’s use of vernacular language was also appealing as a potential

model for Americans, as were his satires on religious cant, conceit, and

hypocrisy, which were much admired by Abraham Lincoln.29 Given all

this, and with no serious rivals, the claim has been made, and not unreasonably, that from the later eighteenth century through to the Civil War,

Burns the Scot was, in effect, America’s poet too.30


It was at a Burns supper in Glasgow in January 1858 that the idea of a

global centennial celebration of Burns was apparently first mooted. The

laying and inauguration of the cable telegraph across the Atlantic seabed

in the same year seemed to promise that distance would pose no barrier to

a simultaneous transatlantic demonstration of Burns love.31 As it turned

out, the Atlantic telegraph was down in January of 1859, so resort had

to be made to letter writing in order to make manifest the international

link forged through Burns, the other transatlantic ‘connector’, to use Ann

Rigney’s term.32 The Illustrated London News’s editor credited America

and Britain, ‘the two most practical nations on the earth’, for giving a

‘song-writer’ an ‘ovation greater than ever was given to a King’ and recognizing that poetry had its ‘proper share in shaping the fortunes and

elevating the character of mankind’.33 The Burns centennial was conceived

as a transatlantic cultural union that transcended politics and national difference on the basis of a shared language and through the celebration of

canonical Anglophone writers.34

As noted above, enthusiasm in the USA for Burns was above all manifested in the construction of permanent memorials, material demonstrations of author love.35 There was much about these ambitious attempts

to secure Burns’s memory in perpetuity (as well as to proclaim their promoters’ admiration for Burns) across the Atlantic that was recognizable



in Scotland. This form of memorialization had a common root: the proposal had come as the arrangements were being made in Glasgow for

the 1859 anniversary dinner there. But just as these celebrations were

transatlantic in their conception, the transmission route of Burns commemoration was not one-directional. There was a return flow from North

America to Scotland of affection for Burns and opinions about how he

should be remembered—to the extent that a lasting mark was made on

some of Scotland’s townscapes. The process began early, with over £100

being remitted from Charleston, South Carolina, and Louisiana—‘from

Scotsmen domiciled in these places’—for the much-revered Alloway Burns

birthplace monument, completed in July 1823.36 But as we will see below,

American influence was to become even more overt in the wake of 1859.

Of the twenty-seven life-sized or larger statues of Burns erected in

the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (listed by Detroit’s Edward

Goodwillie in his 1911 World’s Memorials of Robert Burns), the USA could

boast eight, more than anywhere other than Scotland. The earliest was

unveiled in New York City in 1880, only three years after Glasgow’s. That

one, in 1877, was the first of the second (international) wave of Burns

statue construction sparked by the centenary celebrations of his birth in

1859. In the USA, after New York came Barre, Vermont (1899); Denver

(1904); Chicago (1906); San Francisco (1908); Milwaukee (1909); and

Boston (begun pre-1914 but not completed until 1920, after the First

World War). Toronto, notable for its relatively high proportion of Scottish

settlers,37 led the way in Canada, although not until 1902. Others soon followed. Currently there are twenty-two statues of Burns in North America

(more than in Scotland), which places him ahead of all other writers, including Dante, Goethe, Ibsen, Whitman, and even Shakespeare (Fig. 10.1).38

The surge in Burns statue-building in North America coincided with

the second half of the period of ‘statue mania’ that swept the UK (and

much of Europe) between 1850 and Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. A

prime feature of this frenzy of memorial construction was the demand

from the emergent middle classes for public commemorations of non-elite

figures. A rhetoric of virtuous hero worship animated the memorial campaigns: the celebration of (overwhelmingly) men deemed to have been

of good character and high moral worth, examples befitting emulation.

Exemplars included individuals who had contributed to the betterment

of society: religious leaders, statesmen, urban reformers, scientists, and

inventors—and writers and artists. There was often a patriotic dimension, with statues erected of individuals most closely associated with the



nation (the medieval warrior and freedom fighter William Wallace being

the prime example in Scotland).39 Burns was no ‘virtuous hero’ in the traditional sense, but one way or the other he was deemed by his supporters

(who studiously ignored, or explained as aberrations, his womanizing and

fondness for drink) as an apposite figure for public commemoration. His

poems and songs had given him a national and transnational voice.

Prior to this bout of statue erection, in the decades surrounding the

turn of the nineteenth century, North American Burns enthusiasts had to

join the thousands of pilgrims (literary tourists) who visited Alloway and

other sites in southwest Scotland associated with the poet.40 Burns memorial construction at this stage was almost wholly confined to Scotland.41

The exception may have been the Ayrshire-born James Thom, a stonemason who carved characters from Burns’s poems in Scotland and who

settled in the USA after 1836. Thom appears to have cut a Burns statue

in sandstone for public view in Newark, New Jersey, although how long it

survived is not known.42

From 1911, however, Americans could enjoy at least the simulacrum of

the Burns birthplace experience without crossing the Atlantic.43 This was

due to the construction in Atlanta of a faithful reproduction of the cottage

in which Burns had been born in Alloway—a shrine located in Scotland’s

‘Burns Country’ that drew tens of thousands of visitors each year. Albeit on

a lesser scale, the Atlanta replica served a similar purpose, evoking the spirit

of Burns and connecting Americans who could not travel to Scotland with

the poet. D. M. Henderson in Baltimore reflected on the logic of shrine

transplantation in lines he wrote after the inauguration of the Burns statue

in Albany, New  York (1888): ‘No more to Bonnie Doon, and winding

Ayr […] Here too, a shrine is hallowed, and men pay | Their homage to

the bard, alive for aye!’44 Burns was transported over the Atlantic in other

ways, too, as in the acquisition from an early date of Burns memorabilia,

relics, and souvenirs, which were avidly sought and proudly displayed.45

One of the most spectacular and eclectic North American collections was

that of the Boston Burns Club. Amongst the items on display in Parker

House for the 1859 centennial dinner were paintings of Burns and places

with which he was associated. There, too, were stereoscopic pictures

and numerous photographs including one of Burns’s sister, holograph

letters, and objects from Ayrshire, amongst which were various flowers

from iconic locations such as ‘a [m]ountain daisy from the field where

Burns turned one under with his plough’.46 The relics even included fragments of wood purportedly taken from a tree that had grown inside the



dilapidated Alloway Kirk, the landmark of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ renown,

which, over time, unscrupulous relic hunters had stripped bare.47

Collecting objects of this kind was relatively simple and inexpensive,

and the market was soon flooded by businesses keen to cash in on the

Burns cult. However, the production of larger-than-life-sized statues cast

in bronze or carved in stone (placed on top of immense granite pedestals

that demanded secure and often deep, foundations) was a different matter. Someone had to initiate and more often than not lead such a project,

find equally committed allies, and secure sponsors. Pamphlets, newspaper accounts, and other ephemera produced for unveiling ceremonies

usually give the impression of carefully planned and efficiently executed

campaigns, leading seamlessly to successful outcomes in the form of

accomplished, well-received statues of Burns, fitting tributes to Scotland’s

secular saint. Yet closer inspection of the minutes of statue committees and

clues to be found in local newspapers reveal the sheer variety of complicating factors that lay behind the ‘smooth surface of the finished memorial’.48 These ranged from arguments over aesthetics at one end of the

scale to the challenges of raising money at the other, along with wrangles

over land and location. Statues and their pedestals and site preparation

had to be paid for, the high price of civic author love. Costs varied, but

in North America at least $5,000 was required—double this and more

for the more ambitious monuments—no small challenge for a Burns club

like Boston’s, whose treasurer reported bank assets of $35.26  in 1852,

the year after its founding.49 Fund-raising was time-consuming for the

organizing committees, whose members often found themselves at odds

with each other. Trade recessions and periodic local economic downturns

were other hurdles to be overcome. Chicago, for instance, was particularly hard hit in the early 1890s, which was the main reason why eighteen

years passed between the idea of a Burns statue and its erection in 1906.50

The Burns Memorial Association in Boston took twelve years to raise the

$15,000 needed for the Burns statue by the Charles River.51 Sculptors had

to be identified, briefed, and then commissioned, and the preference in

North America for Scottish sculptors of Burns created an additional layer

of complexity. The main reason for the delay in completing the Burns

monument in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (the promoters had

hoped the unveiling could take place on Labor Day in 1906) was the

statue committee’s tardiness in paying the sculptor, W. G. Stevenson of

Edinburgh. Until he received payment, Stevenson refused to ship his commission to North America, although letters between the parties concerned



show that indecision on the part of the Memorial Committee about the

size and content of the bronze panels for the pedestal had also led to

delay.52 Pedestals, too, became complicating factors in several installations.

Suitably large blocks of stone had to be quarried, dressed, and polished,

whether sourced in Scotland (as it was for the New  York City pedestal,

which was made of Aberdeen granite) or locally (typically, monument

builders used local stone to avoid expensive shipping).

We have seen already that North America’s first Burns statue was

unveiled in New York’s Central Park in October 1880, three years after

the inauguration of Glasgow’s Burns. Yet if Glasgow led the way with its

proposal for a Burns statue in March 1872, it was only just, with a Burns

statue committee formed in New York in April 1873.53 Statue building was

highly competitive—a sort of memorial arms race. In Scotland, Glasgow

vied with Edinburgh.54 News that the Glasgow Burns project was nearing completion sparked a similar, faster-moving campaign in Kilmarnock,

which resulted in a monument unveiled in 1879.55 But the competition

was global, with New York’s Burns statue, as well as the flurry of Scottish

monuments between 1877 and 1880, triggering a meeting in Dunedin,

New Zealand, in September 1881 ‘to consider the advisability of Erecting

a Statue […] to the memory of Robert Burns’.56 Such was the impact of

reports of the New York Burns in London, capital city of Britain’s global

empire, that an exact replica was called for and, with some minor alterations, executed in 1884.57

On both sides of the Atlantic, clubs devoted to Burns’s memory played

key roles in instigating the statue projects. The 1859 centennial celebration had given rise to a cluster of new Burns clubs in Scotland as well as

overseas, including several in the USA and Canada. One of the first post1859 Burns clubs in Scotland, founded in 1860, was the Waverley, later

the Western Burns Club, in Glasgow.58 Although not all or even most

Scottish clubs in North America denominated themselves as Burns clubs

(preferring instead more inclusive names such as Caledonian clubs, St.

Andrew’s or, later, Sons of Scotland societies), for many, a major part

of their broader mission of encouraging interest in Scottish history, literature, and culture was the organization of Burns suppers and similar

events.59 In sustaining a version, or versions, of Scottishness (of which

patriarchy and drink were prominent features), the part played by Burns

clubs and other Scottish societies overseas was of critical importance.60 By

inspiring those who looked at them, large-scale statues were one way of

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Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, was born in 1759 in his parents’ small, sparsely furnished agricultural worker’s cottage in the semi-rural parish of Alloway, near Ayr. His early adult years were spent as a small-­scale tenant farmer in s

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