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Statue of Burns in Dumfries
Statue of Burns in Dumfries

Flawed Nature

Friday January 25

The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers considers the Bard's relationship with the Church of his day


Every January for more than 40 years I have found myself, somewhere in the world, toasting the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

This is something of the legacy of being brought up in Ayrshire, where it was impossible to escape the influence of Scotland’s most remarkable poet. Given, however, his stormy relationship with the Church and a lifestyle that disturbed the pillars of the establishment I’m often asked: “Why the admiration for Burns?”

For me the answer is simple enough. Every facet of our life, public and private, has to be held up to open scrutiny; examined for double standard, hypocrisy and false piety.

By all accounts Burns had a genius for holding a mirror in front of his contemporaries and exposing their sanctimonious cant and humbug. It may, however, be surprising to know that in exposing those failings his most common reference point was the Bible, which he knew as intimately as any of those who sought to control both church and people from the pulpits of Scotland.

Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees of his day; Burns did the same for the self-righteous of his day. In the Address to the Unco Guid he offers a triumphant critique of those who poke around for the speck in the other person’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own:

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours’ fauts and folly!

On the other hand, he provides a generous expression of the grace and goodness of God:

Who made the heart, ‘tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;

He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:

Then at the balance let’s be mute,

We never can adjust it;

What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.


Over two hundred years ago, Scotland was trapped in the clutches of an insensitive theology which has left an indelible mark on our history and on our present. Burns challenged that theology in one of his most celebrated works, Holy Willie’s Prayer:

O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
Wha, as it pleases best Thysel’,

Sends aen to Heaven an’ ten to Hell,

A’ for Thy glory,

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore Thee!

In this extract the poet shows that he has engaged with this ultra-Calvinist view of life and found it wanting. Burns’ sympathies lay with the New-Licht Moderates and in another remarkable poem which he sent as an Epistle to the Rev John M’Math, Burns hails religion as a Maid Divine! and rejoices in an expression of theology which does not limit the lavish and generous nature of God’s love.

In the epigraph to the Address to the Unco Guid, Burns paraphrases Ecclesiastes 7:16:

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An’ lump them aye thegither;

The Rigid Righteous is a fool,

The Rigid Wise anither:

The cleanest corn that ere was dight

May hae some pyles o’ caff [chaff ] in;

So ne’er a fellow creature
For random fits o’ daffin.[larking]


Burns goes on to acknowledge the flawed nature of even the best intentioned, he acknowledges his own weaknesses and shortcomings and he pleads for an expression of faith which offers the open hand of God rather than the judgement call of the self-righteous. Trace this back to a cottage in Alloway where his father raised him to have intimate knowledge of the Bible, an acute sense of justice and an understanding of God which was more generous and gracious than that prescribed by most of the preachers of his day.

Read about his foundation in the generous love of God in The Cotter’s Saturday Night and you too might agree, that:

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings
‘An honest man’s the noble(st) work of God’


Burns Day Prayers: the Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald offers prayers of intercession based on poems by Robert Burns