Writer uncovers how Robbie got to the Octagon

Donald Gordon and Dunedin's Robbie Burns statue. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Donald Gordon and Dunedin's Robbie Burns statue. Photo by Jane Dawber.
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 surrounded it.

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 Scotland.

Until she landed the job, the woman thought Robert Burns was a New Zealander who had founded the chain of Robbie Burns liquor stores.

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 Scottish poet.

(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 funds.

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 bagpipes."

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."