Professor Charles Sarolea, addressing the Greenock Burns Club as its Honorary President, on 25th January, 1929, said that if it be true that the historical significance of Burns lies in the fact that he is the greatest and most inspired prophet of Scottish nationalism, it is no less true that there never was a time when this gospel was more pressingly needed than it is to-day. There are, indeed, many patriotic Scotsmen who are anxiously asking themselves if there still is such a thing as a distinct Scottish personality, whether the very soul of Scotland is not being threatened with extinction or decay. In vain we are told that thousands of Scotsmen are more successful to-day than they ever were before. In vain are we told that individual Scotsmen have done more in building up the British Empire than any other section of the English-speaking people. For although in the process of Empire building, individual Scotsmen have certainly prospered, it is equally certain that Scotland as a nation has steadily gone back. The story of modern Scotland is not a story of progress; rather is it one of retrogression. She has sold her national birthright for a mess of Imperial pottage.
If we had any doubt about the retrogression of the Scottish nationality, and about the decline of Scottish culture, we have only to compare the Edinburgh of 1929 with the Edinburgh of 1786, which Robert Burns entered like a young conquering hero. The Edinburgh of 1786 was only a big village, with some 30,000 inhabitants – a population scarcely equal to that of one of the humblest modern suburbs of Glasgow. but that small Edinburgh community was second only to Paris as a literary and intellectual metropolis, it was a hotbed and a nursery of men of genius. There were more great men jostling each other in the High Street of Edinburgh than would be found to-day amongst the whole seven millions of London. To-day Edinburgh has twenty times the population which she had in 1786. But she has sunk to the level of a provincial town. She is only a backwater. She may still breed eminent men in every department of life; but those eminent men are no longer able to realise their destiny in their native land. Their ambitions can only be realised elsewhere. If Adam Smith or Dugald Stewart were living to-day they would be professors in Oxford. If David Hume were living to-day he would be in Government employment in London. If Robert Burns had been living to-day he would inevitably have drifted to the metropolis, and he would certainly not have blossomed out as a Scottish poet.
One contrast will illustrate the different positions held by the Edinburgh of 1786 and the Edinburgh of 1929. In 1786 such was the reputation of Scottish learning that it had become the fashion for the sons of noblemen to complete their education in the Scottish Universities. Today, on the contrary, it is the fashion for Scottish parents to send their sons to Oxford and Cambridge. Even Scottish parents are convinced that our own Scottish Universities are no longer good enough. In our own judgment we stand condemned.
Let us not be misled by the prevailing materialism and megalomania. Let us not forget that humility, even in politics, is not only the most Christian of all virtues, but also the most practical. It must be apparent a priori to any student of politics that the life of small communities must gain in concentration and intensity in proportion as it loses in scope and extent. And that fact is borne out by the evidence of history. It explains how it is that small States have played a much more conspicuous part than the most powerful Empire.
Professor Sarolea concluded it might be truly said that the gospel of Scottish nationalism, which constitutes pre-eminently the political and social message of Burns, is not an exploded ideal, the creed of a distant past. On the contrary, the ideals preached by Burns are more true to-day, more practical than they were in the eighteenth century. And if the Scottish people are loyal to those ideals, they shall refuse to be reduced to a dead level of uniformity. They shall refuse to seek their salvation in Whitehall or Westminster. They shall follow the spirit and the traditions which made them great in the past, in the face of the most adverse circumstances. They shall cherish once more that ideal of sturdy individual and collective independence to which Burns has given immortal expression.
NOTE. – Professor Sarolea held the Chair of French language and Literature at Edinburgh University. He was a Belgian by birth, and his statement is valuable from a European point of view.