Sketch of where Burns was born from an 1895 edition of his collected works
Pass Herald Reporter
It has been thirteen years since I sat in the Crowsnest Center and listened to John Baxter deliver his nine page speech on Robbie Burns’s night. That speech is known as The Immortal Memory and is the main talk of the evening, designed to underline the reasons why Burns’ memory is, and should be, immortal. It was an evening to remember with the Red Deer Scottish Country Dancers in attendance and a variety of single malt Scotch flowing like fine wine. The Center was the perfect setting for this gathering and many of us miss having access to the lovely hall there.
What has stayed in my mind all these years is how eloquent Ian Baxter’s dad sounded that night and how well he knew and loved Robert Burns, his poetry and his philosophies. Ian said to me that one of the reasons his dad loved Burns so much was that he had more or less come from similar circumstance. His father’s family struggled to keep a small farm going and his grandfather had worked in the coal mines and sworn that his children would never go underground. John Baxter and his wife sold everything they had and left Scotland for Canada in 1963 to make a new and better life here. Ian noted that what he found remarkable about his father was he was highly intelligent for someone who had left school at age 12. John Baxter spent 41 years organizing Robbie Burn’s nights in the Red Deer area and even prepared the haggis for many of the annual events. And of course he delivered variations of his Immortal Memory speech at every event. He passed in 2005 and is sorely missed for his intellect and his gentle demeanour by his extended family.
Right from his opening sentence that night I knew we were in for a treat and I laughed when he finished it because in true Scottish fashion he was quite stingy with the use of periods. So make sure you take a breath when you read the following quote. Read it out loud! He asked the question to us the audience: “What are we doing here tonight?” and then replied in a truly extended sentence:
“We have come out in the most inclement weather to eat what to most of us is unfamiliar food, to drink a foreign alcoholic preparation and to listen to a man with a strange accent quoting poetry written in a sometimes incomprehensible dialect in memory of a ploughman who was born in a two room clay built structure roofed with thatch in a country separated from us by seven thousand miles and two hundred and seventeen years.” I didn’t make it without taking a second breath, how about you?
John Baxter then observed that: “The most charitable observer would be justified in thinking we were all out of our tree.” Out of our tree indeed! But drawn together we were by admiration for the genius of a simple but incredibly gifted man. We were not alone that night in our admiration for all around the world every year small groups gather to share and dine and commemorate. All across Canada, the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand and even the Soviet Union celebrate the ploughman poet. In Imperial Russia Burns was translated into Russian and became a source of inspiration for the ordinary, oppressed Russian people. He became the “people’s poet” and in 1956 the USSR issued a commemorative stamp of him. John had brought books by Burns with him that contained all 680 poems and songs and one book even had a recording of a girl’s choir in Moscow singing one of my favourites, “A man’s a man for a’ that.”
Nine pages of tribute passionately and faithfully given to us all in order to share memories of Burns life, his many loves and his oft times profound and moving poems. I know in my heart that I will never again hear a more moving tribute to Burns than that was delivered that night. John Baxter closed his Immortal Memory by saying: “I would like to say to his most ardent critic, ponder for a moment and look ahead 200 years and try to visualize how many people will be gathering at an event like this to celebrate the legacy you leave behind for mankind.”
John closed by reciting a few lines from one of my favourite poems. In it a defiant Burns laughs in the face of the ruling classes and who openly claims that he, and his people, are as good, if not better, than any of them.