Donald Gordon and Dunedin's Robbie Burns statue. Photo by
It's a bit embarrassing that Dunedin's best-known
monument is a statue of a man who never set foot in the place.
That's according to Donald Gordon, author of Robbie, the
story of Dunedin's Burns statue.
Gordon would like to think we have some "homegrown hero"
worthy of a statue.
But he is happy for his book to shed light on the subject of
our most famous one, and to look at the controversy that
The Rev Thomas Burns is remembered as the founding father of
the Otago settlement but Robert Burns, his uncle, is less
well known, he says, recalling a radio interview he heard
with a New Zealander who worked at the Burns Museum in
Until she landed the job, the woman thought Robert Burns was
a New Zealander who had founded the chain of Robbie Burns
Gordon was surprised to find it was James Gordon Stuart
Grant, one of Dunedin's most colourful and "conceited"
characters, who had proposed the city have a statue of the
(He also predicted there would be a statue of himself in
Dunedin by 1984, saying the city would never again see a man
of his calibre).
Grant had come to Dunedin thinking he would be the first
rector of the high school but was engaged to run a school
called the Dunedin Academy.
As a sideline, he took to giving public lectures and sermons.
A sceptic who didn't believe in the miracles and resurrection
of Jesus, he was quickly branded a heretic and forced to
close his school.
Later, he produced abusive pamphlets and climbed "on
soap-boxes ranting away and standing for political office all
the time and hardly ever getting any votes", Gordon says.
"Everyone hated him and he didn't have a good word to say
about anyone much, except for Burns."
In a letter which appeared in Dunedin's Saturday Advertiser
on November 29, 1879, Grant wrote that Burns' "genius" had
cast its spell, not only over his own land, but every country
where a Scotsman was to be found.
Statues of him had been unveiled in Kilmarnock, New York,
Dumfries, Edinburgh, Ayr and Glasgow and he asked why there
should not be one in Dunedin: "It would raise our souls from
the sod, and waken the slumbering fires of genius in some
unborn bosom yet".
In 1881, the Aryshire Association of Dunedin convened a
public meeting to discuss the proposal and soon concerts and
subscriptions were being organised to raise the necessary
Behind it all were some of the city's most influential men,
including the first minister of Knox Church, Dr D.M. Stuart,
charismatic Presbyterian minister, the Rev Rutherford
Waddell, Dunedin's youngest mayor, Keith Ramsay, wealthy
businessman Robert Wilson and a member of the House of
Representatives, William Downie Stewart.
An intemperate man who is said to have fathered at least a
dozen children by several different mothers, Burns was
nevertheless a hero to his countrymen.
Part of that was to do with the period in which he was
living, Gordon says.
" It was not long after [the 1746 battle of] Culloden where
the Scots had been humiliated.
"They had been forbidden to bear arms, wear tartan or play
The Scots were led to believe that their culture, customs and
dialect were inferior to those of the English.
"Then Burns came along and he raised morale."