This is the time of year when Scots and non-Scots all round the world pay all kinds of homage to Robert Burns – and OneKind is no exception. Since our earliest days, from our roots as the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection, through the years as Advocates for Animals and now, as OneKind, we have maintained a feeling of connection with Scotland’s national poet. For several years in the 20th century, this was shown in the cover of our annual report – a beautiful engraving of Burns, surrounded by animals, along with two of the most famous lines from To a Mouse:
I’m truly sorry Man’s Dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union.
The rest of the verse, although not shown in the image, is more personal:
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
For a man of the 18th century, born and bred on the land and all too familiar with the harsh realities of life, these egalitarian words sum up Burns’ enlightened attitude towards animals. In the 21st century, animal welfare is often seen as a middle-class preoccupation and a weapon in social strife, and so it was in Burns’ day. Early reformers had started to campaign for kindness to animals, but were often mocked as bleeding hearts, cranks or dangerous radicals.
There was plenty to campaign about in the 18th century. Animals were worked hard, and slaughter was often inhumane; there was cockfighting and dog fighting, bull and badger baiting. Fields sports were almost as hard on the dogs and horses as they were on the hunted animals.
But it was also a time of change. More people were keeping pets and their passions – or as we would say nowadays, their emotions – were increasingly recognised. The science of sentience was beginning.
If Burns was not a campaigner, in the modern sense, he certainly knew animals – farm animals, pets and wildlife. Many of his poems were composed out of doors, while he was working in the fields, and only written down when he went home at night. He wrote about animals in terms that were radical for their time, and he spoke directly to them as individuals. And there, his great gift was to meld together tenderness, sentimentality, and a dose of irony which has kept the lines fresh to this day.
Burns mocked himself for giving his pet sheep a name – Poor Mailie – but in his poems about her he made it clear that Mailie was not mere property – she was a faithful friend. In those days, sheep tended to be tethered rather than grazing free on the hillside, and this poor yowe (ewe) became tangled in her rope:
Upon her cloot she coost a hitch
An’ owre she warsl’d in the ditch
In real life Mailie was rescued but in the poem that was the end of her, although not before sending a lengthy message to her careless master. This included a recommendation for a wholesale change of farming practice:
Tell him, if e’er again he keep
As muckle gear as buy a sheep
O, bid him never tie them mair,
Wi’ wicked strings o’ hemp or hair!
But ca’ them out to park or hill,
An’ let them wander at their will.
So may his flock increase, an’ grow
To scores of lambs, an’ packs o’ wool!
In June 2011, the song chosen for the opening of the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament was – unsurprisingly – by Robert Burns. But the choice was not A Man’s a Man or even The Rights of Woman (although that title promises more than it delivers …). No, it was Now Westlin Winds, a celebration of nature, of love and of every happy creature. And better still, for the OneKind connection, a song with a strong anti-bloodsports theme:
Avaunt! Away! The cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion
Burns was no lover of any kind of hunting for sport. He said:
“there is something in that business of destroying, for our sport, individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, which I could never reconcile to my ideas of virtue”.
Yes, he blithely sent his heart to the Highlands a-chasing the deer. Yes, he wrote a cheery elegy for his old friend Tam Samson who was a dedicated harrier of wildlife, but he had his tongue firmly in his cheek. In that “rhyming blether”, the salmon, the partridge and the moorcock all rejoice: “your mortal fae is noo awa, Tam Samson’s deid”, and the grouse gets its small revenge at last:
In The Wounded Hare (commemorated this year in a beautiful print by Kate Powell in support of OneKind), yet again Burns saw the sentient individual. Burns wrote the poem in May 1789 at Ellisland Farm on the River Nith near Dumfries, where he and his family lived and worked for three hard years. He wrote to one of his friends:
“One morning lately, as I was out pretty early in the fields, sowing some grass seeds, I heard the burst of a shot from a neighbouring plantation, and presently a poor little wounded hare came crippling by me. You will guess my indignation at the inhuman fellow who could shoot a hare at this season, when all of them have young ones.”
The Wounded Hare opens with anger – the poet rages at the hunter and his poor aim – “Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb’rous art!”. But at the end come simple words of loss, of grief that one little animal will no longer lead her blameless life around his farm:
Oft as by winding Nith I, musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate.
“I’ll miss thee.” Just like the mouse and the sheep, Burns sees the hare as a fellow mortal, no more, no less. What an inspiring message for Burns Night, as we raise a glass to Rabbie and to animal life around the globe.