In a town where the Harvard Bridge is closer to M.I.T. than it is to Harvard University and the Battle of Bunker Hill was essentially fought on Breed's Hill, the fact that the centerpiece of a city square named for Puritan titan John Winthrop is a statue of 18th century Romantic Scottish poet Robert Burns is — perhaps — not all that surprising. But that there is a statue of Burns in Boston's Winthrop Square is a little mystifying.
To be fair, when this area was redeveloped in the 1970s, the hope was to grace it with a statue of John Winthrop. But the First Church in Back Bay, which had one, was loath to give it up, said Peter Drummey, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Winthrop was a co-founder of that congregation, and the church and the statue had been through a lot together.
"The statue had been damaged in a catastrophic fire at the church and [had] just been refurbished and made whole again," said Drummey.
With Winthrop out of the running, a search commenced for an alternative.
"There was, forlorn out here in the Fenway, the statue of Robert Burns, which people had been complaining was not in a prominent place," said Drummey.
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The full-sized statue of a caped Robert Burns and his dog had stood in the pastoral Back Bay Fens since 1920. And in what Drummey called a very "1970's Boston moment," with little public discussion or notice, it was relocated.
"Some people thought the statue had been stolen," he said. "It just disappeared from its plinth overnight and reappeared elsewhere in the city. But then the loss of this statue caused a powerful reaction which really has existed to this day."
What was a statue of Scotland’s beloved poet doing in Boston in the first place? Today, Burns' grip on American culture pretty much begins and ends with his song Auld Lang Syne. But at the turn of the 20th century, nearly 100 years after his death, Burns' star still shone brightly.
"At the end of the 19th century, many cities and towns in America put up statues to Robert Burns," said Drummey.
The money for Boston’s Burns statue was raised by the public, including the area’s Scottish community which — while modest — is as old as New England itself, thanks largely to a 17th century pipeline of indentured servants who labored in ironworks on the North Shore to earn their freedom.
The oldest charitable society in the world is the Scottish Charitable Society and that was set up in Boston," said Jason Waddleton, owner of The Haven — a Jamaica Plain restaurant that today serves as a hub for Boston’s Scottish community. "Former indentured servants who would help the next wave of ... immigrants."
Waddleton said it’s hard to measure how much Burns means to the people of Scotland: A writer who elevated the common Scottish dialect, graced a postage stamp in Russia, and influenced everyone from William Wordsworth to John Steinbeck to Bob Dylan.
"It’s a broad-minded body of work," he said. "It’s speaking of love, it’s speaking of politics and liberty and fairness, and it’s egalitarian."
For centuries, Burns’ birthday, January 25, has been an annual celebration of Scottish culture in Scotland and abroad. The holiday, called Burns Night, is observed the world over with something called a Burns Supper. Each supper is unique, but certain features are to be expected: Scottish fare, readings of Burns’ verse, the singing of Scottish songs.
"Obviously, we’ll toast with single malt whisky and we also speak a little bit about Burns’ poetry and what it means to the wider world," said Waddleton.
It all culminates with the main course, that infamous Scottish delicacy, haggis — which is often ceremonially processed in with bagpipes blaring and unveiled to a reading of Burns’ poem, "Address to A Haggis."
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
"That’s the first stanza," said Waddleton. "And it basically just says how haggis is the best food in the word and everything Scottish is much better than anything else. Which — you know — is true."
Waddleton said Burns Night has become more popular in recent years. At the Haven they’ll hold four Burns Suppers this weekend. As for that statue of the man who will be feted, with Boston’s Winthrop Square Tower now rising nearby, it is poised to once again go a-rovin’.
"The move is afoot to move it back to the Fenway area where it was, and that might happen for 2020, which would be the 100th anniversary of its initial placement there," said Waddleton.
He also offered two alternative ideas. The Franklin Park golf course, laid out by a Scotsman, and a 12-sided Jamaica Plain home on the National Register of Historic Places, built by two Scottish brothers. The fact that both of those spots are in walking distance from The Haven, he assured me, is pure coincidence.