Robbie Burns, Mackenzie and Gaza

Many people in Northern British Columbia have Scottish blood in them, and the same holds true for people across Canada, especially in parts of Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Indeed, at one point in Canada’s history, Scots were the third largest ethnic group, and they have certainly played an important role in the development of the country.

A good number of these men, women and children are descended from the hardy Scots who were scattered to the wind in the 18th and 19th Centuries, sometimes driven out of their homes and forced off their land, sometimes imprisoned or exiled, other times leaving poverty and hardship, in search of opportunity and a better life.

Today, the surnames of these pioneers dot the street names, business signs and phone books of northern communities like Mackenzie, Prince George, and Fort St. James, with the town of Mackenzie, of course, being named after the Scottish explorer, who was the first European to travel through these parts to the Pacific Ocean.

For these people of Scottish descent, and, for that matter, people of all nationalities, a special day is once again approaching.  And that is, of course, the birthday of the great Scottish poet and patriot Robert Burns, who lived from January 25th, 1759 until July 21, 1796.

Whenever, I think of Burns and his immortal work, I can’t help but think of what he would make of events that are going on in Canada and the world today.  For example, what would he say about the dire situation facing people in forestry-based communities across Canada, such as Mackenzie?  Or the situation facing the Palestinian people of Gaza in the Middle East?

But before we get into these current troubles, let’s first talk a bit about this remarkable writer himself, Robbie Burns, the national poet of the Scots.

Burns was, above all, a poet of the common man, his father an impoverished tenant farmer, his mother illiterate.   He did hard physical work for much of his life (which may have contributed to his early death) and was largely self-educated.  Yet he somehow found the time to write some of humanity’s best loved lyrics, including “Auld Lang Syne,” which is sung the world over on New Years Eve, as well as the poems “To A Mouse,” and “A Man’s a Man for a’ That.”

One of the qualities that shines through Burns’ poetry is his natural good cheer and love of life, especially the traditions and habits of the people who worked the land, as in poems like “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”  But he lived during turbulent and troubled times.  Just before he was born, the battle of Culloden was fought between the Highland Scots and the English army.

The Highland Scots were renowned for their bravery and fighting spirit, despite the fact that they often were barefoot, carried primitive weapons, and felt lucky to have a couple of handfuls of oatmeal in their pockets for provisions.  But they were up against a powerful, ruthless and well-armed English army led by the Duke of Cumberland (later to be know as the “Butcher” Cumberland), and they lost badly.

What took place in the aftermath was what today we would term the worst kind of “war crimes,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “genocide.”  Highland Scots, whether rebels or not, were hunted down and butchered like animals, some being tortured or burned alive.  Women were raped and livestock slaughtered, and much of the countryside was left in ruin.

The aim of the English ruling class was to extinguish forever the Scottish national struggle (an aim, of course, which was ultimately unsuccessful), to the point that, for many years after, even wearing a kilt or playing bagpipes was prohibited by law and could result in jail or exile.   As well, prejudices were common among English and Scottish aristocrats who considered the Highland Scots, in their fierce desire for freedom and independence, to be “wild-eyed”,  “barbaric,” and even “sub-human,”  similar, as we shall discuss, to how the Palestinians are depicted by some news media and government officials today.

Later in the 18th Century, during Burns’ lifetime and after, Scotland was caught in the throes of the Highland Clearances, which is the name given to the forcible removal of Scottish farmers from their ancient lands.  The main force behind these Clearances were the Scottish and English big landowners, in league with government officials, who wanted more land to raise sheep and engage in leisure pursuits like game hunting, as well as rid the land of a rebellious population.

Hundreds of thousands of cotters (small tenant farmers) were driven from the land that their families had tilled from time immemorial.  In some cases, Scots were sold by their own clan chiefs into indentured servitude or slavery in the New World.  In other cases, homes were burned to the ground, land was confiscated, and whole families were sent packing down the road, facing starvation, death, or, at best, an uncertain future.

Some say that Scotland never got over these calamities.  Even today, a visitor to the Highlands of Scotland is struck by how depopulated and barren much of the region remains.

These historical events run through Burns’ poetry like the darker tones of a minor key on a piano.  Indeed, part of Burns’ universal appeal is that he was not afraid to speak out against the exploitation, injustice and oppression of his time, even though the threat of persecution and even imprisonment was very real for someone like him, who, contrary to his government, sympathized with both the French Revolution and American War of Independence.

Burns was especially sharp in his criticism of the big landowners, both English and Scottish, who with their “tinsel show,” “ribbands,” and “silks,” held their aristocratic noses in the air, while treating the common people like dirt.

For me these days, over two hundred years later, the Burns’ poem that often comes to mind is “To a Mouse.”  In that poem, the narrator / poet is plowing his field in the Fall with a hand plow and accidentally breaks up a wee mouse’s nest.  The mouse, of course, panics and scurries off, while the narrator, in good humour, apologizes to it for disrupting its “plans” and breaking “Nature’s social union.”

At first, the tone of the poem is playful and humorous.  But it soon takes on a darker pall, when it becomes clear that “winter’s sleety dribble” is fast approaching and the mouse is without food or shelter.  The narrator notes that the mouse is not alone “in proving foresight may be vain.”  And then speaks the famous lines: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Gang aft agley / An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain, / for promis’d joy.”

Gripped by these bleaker thoughts, the narrator realizes that he is even worse off than the mouse.  The mouse’s outlook is limited to the present.  While he, on the other hand, can see what terrible things have happened in the past, and what misfortune might come to him, his family, and his country in the future.   Thus he speaks to the mouse:  “Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me! / The present only toucheth thee: / But och! I backward cast my e’e, / On prospects drear! / An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

When I read these lines, I think of the forestry workers and other residents of towns like Mackenzie and Fort St. James in BC, and Smith Falls in Newfoundland.  They, too, like other “mice and men”, have their plans, their hopes, their dreams.  But they, too, are seeing these threatened by the cruel blade of economic necessity.

Similar to the English and Scottish lords of the 18th Century, the big forest companies, whose head offices and shareholders are often based far away in other countries, do not want to have any commitment or responsibility to the people who live in these communities, and, indeed, care little whether they are, as one “expert” has put it, “marked for exit,” and scattered far and wide as a result of mill closures.  Yet, like the English and Scottish absentee landlords, these modern day barons of industry insist that the rights to the land, in this case the timber rights, stay in their possession.

But in the spirit of the Highland Scots, the communities are fighting back.  Just last Spring, the small town of Mackenzie had the largest rally in its history, with over 1000 people coming together to save their community.  Similar events have been held in Fort St. James, BC, and elsewhere in the country.

And then there is the situation in Gaza.  The Palestinians who live there are among the most impoverished and oppressed people in the world.   They are refugees in the very land they have lived since ancient times, land which was ripped away from them by force and is now occupied by the state of Israel.  Recently, the few square kilometers they are crowded into in Gaza, has been blockaded, attacked and bombarded by the Israeli army, one of the most powerful and sophisticated in the world, supplied with advanced weaponry and the latest American aircraft.

Criticizing the actions of the Israeli government against the population of  Gaza, Sir Gerald Kaufmann, who is Jewish and an MP in the British parliament, has labeled its leadership as “war criminals,” while an Italian Roman Catholic Cardinal has described Gaza as resembling “a big concentration camp.”  For his part, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has characterized the Israeli system of discrimination against Palestinians as being similar to the “apartheid” regime of South Africa.

When all is said and done, the main “crime” of the Palestinians today is that they have refused to accept their second class status and fiercely resisted the illegal occupation of their lands, just as the Highland Scots of Burns’ day refused to accept English rule.  But, of course, truth gets turned on its head.  Somehow it gets spun that Israel is the “victim,” just as, in the 18th Century, the English aristocracy, with its gloved hands, crystal wine glasses, and fenced estates, claimed it was the “victim” of the “barbaric” Scots.

If Burns were alive today, I believe that he would still be standing with his beloved Scots.  But my bet is that he would also be standing with the people of Mackenzie and other beleaguered communities throughout Canada.  And he’d be there with the people of Gaza.  May his memory live forever.

PETER EWART is a writer, instructor and community activist based in Prince George, BC.  He can be reached at: