A Man's a man for a' That

East Lothian is undoubtedly Scottish, but not in the way people expect.

Perhaps one of the apparently disappointing things about my part of the world is that sometimes it does not come up to my visitors' expectations of "Scotland". There are no great lochs, or soaring mountains or lots of people in kilts leaning on rams horn walking sticks. I have yet to see anybody tossing a caber. But if you scratch the surface, you can find that which is the quintessence of Scottishness, because a few miles away lies the abode of Agnes Broun. Perhaps you may not have heard of Agnes Broun of Grant's Braes. She was an illiterate woman who could not even write her name and had suffered from a broken engagement to a fellow manual worker. She then married a restless gardener called William Burnes and died at the age of 88, having outlived her famous son, one Robert Burns. A monument, erected in 1932, remains as a noble and uplifting memory of her life:

"Drink of the pure crystals and not only be ye succoured but also refreshed in the mind. Agnes Broun, 1732 - 1820. To the mortal and immortal memory and in noble tribute to her, who not only gave a son to Scotland but to the whole world and whose own doctrines he preached to humanity that we might learn." 

Which puts me in mind, speaking of doctrines, of a favourite Burns poem of many; A Man's a Man for a' That.

I believe it is a decrying of rank, and the trappings of importance that separate man from man, together with a prediction that in future, That Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that. 

Oh that Burns' wish had come true. Sadly, merit, or pride o' worth,  is no guarantee of social or political rank or advancement; just look at the bunch of hapless party mouthpieces who were recently caught touting their tarnished wares for business on Channel Four's Dispatches programme.


Elphinstone, also nearby, is a nondescript, down at heel hamlet that is of no interest, save that it gives its name to the Lords of Elphinstone, who, by a series of circuitous alliances and marriages, were descended from the Bullers of Looe. It may be the case that the name John Buller does not ring a bell, and why should it? Here is a picture clue - the hookah is a red herring; he was resident in India for some years until the affairs of England and a very naughty wife, caused his return.

Still no idea?

The Bullers were a very powerful Cornish family who happened to control several seats in Parliament through the ownership, if you can call it that, of Rotten Boroughs. The Rotten Borough of East Looe, for example, incumbent, John Buller, had about 38 voters.

Perhaps Buller was not all bad. He chose not to bother with the affairs of state and never took a position in the Government, but he was a supporter of Pitt and Grenville. In Buller's time as an MP, he heard news of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar and saw the beginning of the end of the Slave Trade. I do not know what his position was on this but it is most likely he was a supporter of the abolitionists.

Robert Burns hoped for the end of deference and patronage. It was not to be. The John Bullers of this world may have disappeared with the Reform Act of 1832, but patronage and favour still exists, albeit in modified form. The great and the good, or those who think they are, can still parachute a favoured protege, such as the pretty-looking Tristram Hunt - a friend of Peter Mandelson - into a safe, Parliamentary seat. Who knows if Hunt, whose tenure for the position of Member for the safe seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central has raised so many local hackles, will turn out to be for the good? After all,

A Man's a man for a' That

2 comments:

Ruth@VS said...

Most educational! I rather like East Lothian myself though it is years since I paid a visit.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

In that case Ruth, next time you are in the area, drop me a line and meet Mr and Mrs Weasel!

I am fascinated by historic little figures who get forgotten - just like you. Try Googling Lady Anne Barnard.