So, that's settled then, it's a sermon from me............
The British history regarding the slave trade has been one of quiet shame. Many of our landed gentry grew very rich on the trade of humans from Africa, or from the sale of slave-produced goods, in the 17th and 18th centuries. These families today are cunningly described in their histories as “West India merchants”. It was geography that made this feeble disguise possible, what completed the disappearing act was our one redemptive chapter in the whole story. William Wilberforce and the abolitionist crusade. He has become a convenient educational cover story behind which the darker history of slavery has been hidden. We can now all pretend that he was acting on our behalf, and our conscience is now clear. Just don't ask too many questions.
Dark times perhaps, and to put it mildly just bit un-christain, (just don't get me started on the 'Opium Wars' or even the recent treatment of the 'Windrush Generation'). If all this is getting you down - and you need reminding of what a great nation we live in, have a communal rendering of the boastful 'Rule Britannia' and 'Britain (of course), well never, never ever be slaves'.
Slavery was once thought of as an activity largely limited to the ports from which the ships of the triangular trade set sail, Glasgow being one of the most prominent. In proportion to population, the highest rates of slave ownership are found in Scotland. Your local immigrant Scotsmen out in the colonies also made surprisingly good slave-masters. This trade happened far away and rarely showed its ugly face to the Scottish people. Presbyterian Christian doctrine carefully taught to keep their own people in a near, if not total, slave-like existence. All men are equal just some more equal than others!
Robert Burns had a lot of sympathy for those in slavery and recognised that the agriculture workers were treated no better than slaves. He also saw that the low status of women was also to be worthy of mention. A Poem ‘The Rights of Women’ written (note the date)….. 1792.
“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”
And to put it into prospective – it’ s still 50 years until Darwin publishes ‘The Origin of Species’. The Battle of Waterloo still 20 yrs away.
Nowadays as then, how apt are these words: when in 2021 it’s announced that the 12 wealthiest men in the world earn more than all the women in Africa.
It was his father that give Robert a chance for him to escape the poverty trap and a near servile existence. He sacrificed precious income to support Robert in giving him an education. Burns was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1759. His youth was spent working on the family farm. Robert did not enjoy the physical labour on the farm, and though he strived to be a success. What he was particularly good at was procrastination, ‘distracting’ himself with poetry, nature, drink and especially women.
As for the womanising, it should be remembered that Burns was himself much sought after by the ladies. As father to 13 children by nine different women, he was certainly no saint. Today's cultural, social, and political problems would be instantly recognisable to Burns. There is one exception to this statement and that would be the power and influence of the church. In particular, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, its hold on the Scottish people was total and ordered full obedience from its congregation.
An example of the churches grip on society is the tale of poor Mr James Aikenhead, who in August 1696 had been walking through Edinburgh with a couple of his friends, and had cause to remark that the Scottish weather was so unforgiving, he,
"wished he were in Hell, where at least it would be a little bit warmer".
He was unfortunately overheard by a Minister of the church. He was tried and executed for blasphemy. He spent two years making appeals. Some very important intellectual minds fought and pleaded on his behalf. In the end he was hanged but it left a very bruised law court that lead eventually to the near separation of the church from our legal system.
I say ‘near’ separation. How many unelected Church of England Bishops can currently vote on legislation in the House of Lords? Ans. 26.
In the public’s mind Mr Aitkenhead’s fate was a clear warning by the church asserting its dominance. It wasn’t so much as an offense against God, it was simply a means of control. Robbie Burns would not have been able even in his time, (30 years after the hanging) to directly criticise the church.
Burns hated pomp, hypocrisy, and fundamentalists, especially of the religious variety. In this verse he rails against powerful hypocrites in a stanza that remains relevant today and has a direct connection to poor old Mr Aitkinhead.
We think we are more comfortable, better off, advanced, and civilised. If that is so, why does so much of Burns work still ring true today? This especially applies in these times of religious based terrorism.
Let’s, talk about slavery, Burns uses the word quite of few times to both illustrate his own plight but also to acknowledge it in the people he meets.
Still arousing words are they not? But what about this one....
Burns talks about ‘The cowering slave – we pass him by’.
But do you know in what year was slavery made a statutory offense in the UK, (not abolished, that was 1833)? Ans. April 6th 2010.
While it’s true that Burns sometimes wrote sharp-tongued pieces, there was no real bitterness or malice in him. His work demonstrated a wonderful capacity to laugh with life, never against it. Yet he was often saddened by gremlins in the character of man and was particularly fraught over man’s apparent inhumanity.
The fact that we can apply rational thought to our deeds, good or bad, preoccupied Burns. He felt there was an added dimension in human behaviour which makes us unique.
What off Scotland's skating minister? Probably the subject of Scotland’s most famous painting. The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. And what is the connection with the slave trade, Robert Burns, The Reverend Walker and the painter Henry Raeburn?
From 1784 until his death in 1808, Robert Walker was minister of Edinburgh's Canongate Church.
As a young boy Robert had learned to skate on the frozen canals of the Netherlands where his father had been Minister at the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam. His Scottishness comes from where he was born, Monkton in Ayrshire 30th April 1755. Coincidentally, Burns and Walker were born only a few miles apart and were of similar age. Both had the same Edinburgh publisher, sharing this common background and it can be assumed they knew each other well. Both members of, or invited to, speak at Edinburgh debating clubs.
Robert was a talented ice skater and became a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club. The Club met on Duddingston Loch just outside Edinburgh. Robert's skating elegance was captured by the artist, Henry Raeburn. An interesting aside is that the motto of the Skaters Club motto was ‘Ocior Euro’ – swifter than the east wind. Very apt for Edinburgh and equally apt for the energetic Walker.
To answer to what was Walker’s connection with the slave trade? Unlike Burns who mocked and pricked consciences from the 'outside' (Burns knew his place within the Edinburgh high society). Walker had a privileged place within these high circles, although it was probably Burns that opened his eyes to the human injustices that was going on. He, however, was not just a man of intelligence and eloquence - he had character. His work to change and bring to the attention of society was from the 'inside' of the establishment. The important association was that the artist Raeburn also knew both Roberts’.
His appointment at Canongate, also made him minister at the Palace of Holyrood House, Robert Walker was the epitome of an establishment figure and yet against the vested interests of many in Edinburgh and beyond, in 1788 Walker persuaded the Presbytery of Edinburgh to petition Parliament to end the slave trade.
The Parliamentary procedure turned slowly, William Wilberforce championed the cause, and it wasn't until 1833 the Slave Abolition Acts were passed outlawing slavery throughout the British Empire. Not before the wealthy owners were of course, handsomely compensated by the taxpayers. That money was partially recovered from the slaves themselves who had to continue working to pay back this compensation money.
So, what influence had the mighty thinkers (Burns included) had on the religious Reverend Walker. Well, this text taken from one of Walkers published sermons, indicates a softening of thought, does it not?
Too many of those who make profession of religion ……..Indulge themselves in a bitter censorious disputation, more allied to peevishness than either to virtue or religion….Their conversation is gloomy, their countenances and manners forbidding. From such unfortunate examples, it is often rashly concluded, that the nature of religion itself is harsh, melancholy, and severe.
A Robert Burns influence is all over this quotation (and I argue later, the painting also)– a man whose eyes have been opened and now enjoys life and good company.
Walker, of course, had to tread carefully. Not only Chaplain of the Royal Company of Archers, a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, chaplain of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. His’s membership of the Speculative Society would have also put him under the influence of both David Hume and Walter Scott. Even one of his parishioners was the author of Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith.
These three individuals were in Edinburgh at a time of enormous intellectual ferment. Edinburgh was the place for philosophers to meet and the era was generally known as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’.
Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority that could not be justified by reason. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief values were improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for the individual and society as a whole.
Quote from 'The Scottish Enlightenment,' Alexander Brodie.
Describing by himself as ‘Edinburgh’s Portrait painter’ underplays his influence on Scottish art. Born in Edinburgh 1756 (a year younger than Walker). Studied in Italy before returning to his home city to make a comfortable living as a portrait painter to the gentry. Well…not quite true. Having made his fortune and knighted by George VI he speculated in insurance and shipping leading him, soon afterwards, to be declared bankrupt. Raeburn then tried painting himself back to solvency. Unfortunately, hitting his own market with over-production. It became less likely therefore for Raeburn to turn to experimental or self-expression in his subjects, the result – no more 'Minister Skating on the Loch', paintings.
He became the acknowledged chief of the new Scottish art elite which was growing up in Scotland during the early 19th century, and his example and influence at a critical period were of major importance. So varied were his other interests that sitters used to say of him, "You would never take him for a painter till he seizes the brush and palette."
Raeburn using a modern term was an ‘influencer’ and was equally accepted into the intellectual societies of the Edinburgh elite. But perhaps because Raeburn was a society painter, he could not afford to make his painting politically symbolic and anti-establishment. A situation the Reverend Walker would have very much identified with.
There has been minor debate as to whether the work of art is by Henry Raeburn. The main argument for this has be that it is not the usual subject or approach by this artist. It stands out as different to what would be normally painted by him. Most of the analysis of the painting as to its authenticity has been on technique.
We, of course, must mention also why this image is so popular with the British public and the answer lies in pure commercialism. It is currently on display at the National Gallery of Scotland. That imposing edifice in the centre of Edinburgh (that building that the needs to move back 100 meters). The Reverend can be seen skating on postcards, tea towels, coaster and even wallpaper. The odd thing about it was that pre 1950 its fame was hidden and scarcely mentioned. It wasn’t until the 60’s that Art Galleries started making use of their assets and to shake off its stuffy, boring, elitism. Mainly, of course, it was a means of raising funds!
So, what did Raeburn see on Duddingston Loch on that cold winters day. Well, he firstly saw a friend, someone he trusted, a person he shared intelligent debate with. Perhaps, also at that moment, a person free from the oppressive social constraints and pressures. He saw a man with ideals, a man who took the case of human suffering to his Church Elders and to Parliament. Did Raeburn simply wish that was him on the ice that day?
What, a breath of fresh air it must have been for Robert Walker and Henry Raeburn to have met Robert Burns, a man who mocked the establishment and was a free spirit? Just like the free spirit Raeburn spotted in Walker as he 'flew faster than the wind' over the frozen waters.
What if this painting was of Robert Burns? Its meaning would be the same - but just less subtle perhaps.
There is a simpler point to the painting, a talented artist saw the image as ‘art’ and the painting itself was Raeburn free self-expression, having no connection with the usual commissioned portraits. Art for art’s sake!
There is, however, probably a message as well, I see the man, Walker, as a mirror image of myself. Is this why it is also so well liked by the public? Do viewers identify with themselves being that lonely skater on Duddingston Loch? They do not need a back story to recognise the man is alone, he is on a non-descriptive place. It is clearly (through his dress) an educated, wealthy man, currently free to do something he enjoys, a hobby for which he has talent. The man is not smiling but clearly doing something technically challenging from which he is free of current work and society pressures.
Not until that moment is captured, so brilliantly, by Raeburn and in the influence of the Burns poetry do we perhaps, now see Raeburn and Walker also as slaves to the society they are currently caught up in.
Raeburn at the mercy of his patrons – paying him with money that was not contributing to his family inheritance. Walker, the intellectual idealist, restricted by dogma unable to break free and only finding true release in his unusual hobby.