When Bernie met Rabbie Burns

Ever popular amongst Scottish parliamentary colleagues, Burns night in 1998 saw Bernie Grant invited to give the Immortal Memory speech on two successive evenings, in the West Lothian constituency of veteran MP Tam Dalyell, and then in the constituency of Dennis Canavan MP, Falkirk West.

Both evenings were clearly a great success, by virtue of the speeches being delivered with great humour – but not at the expense of historical accuracy about Burns. As his handwritten speech notes in the archive show, Bernie had researched the speech and discovered a link between Burns and the exploitation of enslaved Africans in Jamaica, hitherto not widely appreciated.

Quotes from Burns are attached at the end of the speech notes, and inserted at numbered points in the speech. As well as making some contemporary political points about the Labour Party under Tony Blair, Grant showed how Burns prospective forced departure from his beloved Scotland, led him to identify with the plight of enslaved Africans, forcibly transported across a perilous ocean.

His speech ended with a rousing chorus of “Ye Banks and Braes”. (He was known to enjoy a good sing song!)

Burns speech notes

The programme for the Milngarvie Burns supper is also included in the collection, as are local press cuttings which record the occasion.

Burns Supper Programme BG Cutting 2 BG Cutting 1

The West Lothian event is fondly recalled at some length by Tam Dalyell in his autobiography.

I invited Grant and he was outstanding. His theme was Burns and slavery. The chairman, Allister Mackie, a considerable and erudite Burns scholar and enthusiast, acknowledged that everything Grant said about Burns – who had very nearly gone to Jamaica and dabbled in the slave trade – was true. Grant held the audience in the palm of his hand and concluded, ‘My name is Grant. Some of you are probably called Grant.’ Indeed they were. ‘The difference between us is that your grandfathers were slave owners and my grandfather and great-grandfather were slaves in the sugar plantations, along the Demerara River in British Guyana. You see there was a system by which the slave owner bestowed his own name on the slave.’ The Bathgate audience gulped. ‘And,’ continued Bernie Grant. ‘My mother’s maiden name was Blair, where the same system applied.’ The audience, mostly dyed-in-the-wool socialists who were not enamoured by New Labour policies and Tony Blair, chuckled with delight and exploded with merriment when Grant put his hand to his beard and said, dead-pan, ‘Come to think of it, I should get a DNA test done to see what relation I am to the Prime Minister!’

From Tam Dalyell, The Importance of Being Awkward: the autobiography of Tam Dalyell

Bernie’s links with Scotland were several, and he often pointed out the origins of his own name lay in the  Scottish plantation owners under slavery  in his native Guyana. He went to Herriot Watt University where he studied Mining Engineering as a young man, and later visited regularly as a Member of Parliament. The attached photo from the archive was taken on a visit to the Western Isles in Stornaway. Also in the archive are details of his attempts to return artefacts in Scottish museums looted from Africa.


At his funeral at Alexandra Palace in 2000, the procession was led by a Highland piper in recognition of his connections and love of Scotland.


Inventory of the Bernie Grant Archive