Robert Burns in Colonial Queensland: Sentiment, Scottishness and Universal Appeal

By Buckridge, Patrick | Queensland Review, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Robert Burns in Colonial Queensland: Sentiment, Scottishness and Universal Appeal


Buckridge, Patrick, Queensland Review


Worldwide, 25 January 2009 was celebrated as the 250th birthday of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96). The anniversary celebrations will continue all through this year, however, as the Scottish Parliament has proclaimed--in recognition of Burns' powerfully unifying significance--that 2009 will be a 'Year of Homecoming' for all those Scots, or Scottish descendants, who compose the great intellectual, economic and social diaspora that has emanated from this tiny, harsh and indomitable country over the last 300 years.

The 'presence' of Burns in Australian history and culture is a large and complex topic, as well as an ongoing reality. This is the more so as that presence tends to differ in strength and character from one state to another--a consequence, in large part, of the distinct histories of Scottish immigration experienced by the several colonies that came together in 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Differences of religious denomination, of highland or lowland origins, of historical clan loyalties, alliances and enmities, even of language, all combined within the Scottish immigrant communities in different ways, and these communities themselves then developed differently, through the colonial period and beyond, in relation to the political culture, the religious and ethnic mix, and the economic conditions into which they came, and which--often from the beginning--they had helped to shape. These are not the sorts of questions that can be adequately addressed in a single paper, and I have not tried to do so.

My intention here is in fact fairly modest, though suitable enough to the time and place--Brisbane in 2009, the year of its own sesquicentenary and of Burns' sesqui-bicentenary (a word that not even Google recognises). It is simply to examine the presence of Burns in colonial Queensland. His most obvious public presence in Brisbane (leaving out of account his annual, largely unacknowledged appearance as the author of 'Auld Lang Syne') takes the form of a large statue, mounted on an even larger plinth, close to the centre of Brisbane. (There are Burns statues in several Australian towns and cities, and they are all very different from one another, so a comparative study is certainly there to be done.)

The Brisbane statue (Figure 1) was completed in 1929 and erected, with some government assistance, by the Burns Club in 1932. The sculptor was Ward Willis. As can be seen, it closely resembles the better-known statue (Figure 2) erected in the little town of Paisley, just outside Glasgow, in 1896 by the sculptor F.W. Pomeroy, with the right hand on the plough and the broad-brimmed farmer's hat. The difference, I would suggest, is in Willis's allusion to Michelangelo's David in the posture of the Brisbane statue: this 'Michelangelisation' of the statue no doubt reflects the idealising and universalising character of the colonial appropriation of Burns, of which I shall have more to say in a moment.

The other fact of note about the Brisbane statue is that it occupies a public site, Centenary Place, which was opened in 1924 and envisaged as the forecourt of an enormous Catholic basilica, the Holy Name Cathedral, which fell victim to the Great Depression, so that only the foundations and the crypt were ever built. (1) The lesson about the rewards due to Scottish prudence and Irish extravagance was probably not lost on Brisbane's Scottish community at least, though it may not have occurred to the Irish.

Comparison between the Scottish and Irish emigrations to nineteenth century Queensland does throw up some interesting sociological differences: for instance, whereas the large majority of the Irish arrivals in Queensland were working-class Catholics, the Scots migrants were much more uniformly distributed across the class spectrum. Families like the McConnels, Leslies, Mackenzies and McIlwraiths, for example, belonged to Queensland's pastoral and political elites, but there were also substantial numbers of Scottish merchants, tradesmen and labourers in the colony.

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