HOW BURNS FOUGHT FOR THE RIGHTS OF HOUNDED TEACHERS!
By Stephen Wilson
(Moscow, Russia) - I can't help forgetting how my Uncle Jim passionately and ardently defended the Scots poet Robert Burns! He told he how he had gone on a tour of the poet's formal haunts by a guide who was taking the poor poet to task for alleged 'womanising', 'heavy drinking ', debauchery' and dissipation', not to mention 'sexism'.'
He had many answers to these questions and argued back that 'Burns did not look for women, but they sought him out' and 'Burns drank for sociable and cheerful company and not from any addiction to drink'. He died not from drink, but illness brought on by endless toil on the farm.
Burns loved and adored women and always treated them with decency. I wondered whether any research would support my uncle's claims. If it was required! For just reading his poetry would indicate this is poet has a curious and compassionate concern with long-suffering people and animals around him. Suffice to cite 'To a Mouse', 'The Jolly Beggars' and countless epistles written not about himself but paying homage to other people. He comes across as being thoughtful and anxious about the suffering of so many vulnerable and fragile people.
In any case, the best work which vindicated my uncle's views was by 'Robert Burns, The Man and his work by Hans Hecht.' It is regarded by many people as the greatest book on Burns. Few authors can surpass its quality! But Burns did not just write poetry defending his radical ideas. He actually lived his ideas.
According to Hecht, Burns took up the case of a teacher who was about to be unfairly dismissed and helped him win his case. If any poet deserves to qualify as the patron saint of teachers, it ought to be Burns. Anton Chekhov is another writer who passionately defended teachers.
Scottish teachers during the late 18th century certainly needed defending. They were poorly paid, worked long hours and were liable to be dismissed for expressing views at odds with the state or the church. The parish often refused to increase their meagre salaries and according to the historian Tom Devine petitioned parliament in 1749 to increase their stipend. The teachers often had to take on extra jobs just to get by.
Burns wrote a poem about one such school teacher called John Wilson who had opened a shop to supplement his wages. Burns wrote a satire about this teacher called 'Death and Doctor Hornbook'. The poem suggested Wilson was a conman who sold questionable medicine. You might think Wilson was offended by the poem! Far from it! He took the poem as a compliment and advertisement for his shop!
When he decided to take up a new job, he even asked Burns for a reference. Burns willingly obliged!
Perhaps the plight of teachers and what could happen to them is best illustrated by the former teacher of Burns John Murdoch. Murdoch taught Burns Latin, French and inspired his wide interest in philosophy.
Unfortunarely, Murdoch lost his job at Ayr in 1776 because in one incident he angrily criticised a minister as being a hypocrite and a liar. Being blacklisted in Scotland, he was forced to work in London teaching languages and selling stationary. He devised very original French textbooks. He died in extreme poverty in 1824.
One case which Burns won concerned the teacher James Clarke who was a school teacher from Moffat in Scotland. In 1791, Clarke was threatened with unfair dismissal. He was being accused of cruelly punishing some pupils at his school. He asked Burns to intervene to defend him. The poet diligently investigated the case and discovered that the teacher had been 'set up' by vindictive people. The whole case was a 'fabrication'. The poet defiantly declared that Clarke was 'falling a victim to the weakness of the many, following in the cry of the villany of the Few.'
Burns began writing effective letters in support of Clarke to not only the patrons of Clarke's school, but to many influencial people in authority. He found that he was up against the petty intrigue of the Earl of Hopetoun and viewed the case as a conflict between a plebeian and rich aristocrats and those 'hellish creatures, the go betweens'. The upshot of the case was that his friend was completely vindicated in February 1792. He won his case!
After reading about this case, I felt that my uncle had also won his case against this guide. Burns turned out to be a great friend and ally of the long suffering persecuted teacher! So his poetry and action blesses our cause!