This post is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Scottish Banner – January, 2012.
Aside from statues of William Wallace and Walter Scott in Ballarat, eight statues of Robert Burns were erected in Australia between 1883 and 1935: in Camperdown (1883), Ballarat (1887), Adelaide (1894), Melbourne (1904), Sydney (1905), Brisbane (1929), and Canberra (1935), while Bendigo has a bust (1911). In other areas of Scottish settlement, the United States has sixteen Burns statues, Canada has nine, and New Zealand has four. There exists a vast and eclectic variety of portrayals of the bard. Burns has been depicted, among other things, as peasant, ploughman, poet, philosopher, and dog-lover. In Australia, Burns was often portrayed and received as an embodiment of romanticised nineteenth-century Scottish middle-class individualism and liberalism; a model of self-help, thrift, diligence, independence, and anti-aristocratic sentiment.
The Burns statue on the corner of Sturt and Lydiard Streets in Victoria’s famous goldmining town, Ballarat, was the earliest statue of the poet commissioned in Australia. It was unveiled on April 21, 1887 before a crowd of 15,000. A centenary history of Ballarat from 1935 reads: “On a site where had grown a large willow tree about which the idlers of the City congregated, the Scottish citizens erected a fine statue of their poet, Robert Burns, at a cost of £1000, but this was not handed over to the City Council till 1897 because the donors had not chosen the quotations for the panels on the base of the pedestal.”
Ballarat’s botanic gardens are also home to the only statue of William Wallace in Australia. James Russell Thomson, a Scottish miner who arrived on the Ballarat diggings in 1852 and made his fortune from goldmining, bequeathed the statue to the city when he died. A nearby gold city, Bendigo is also home to a bust of Burns in its art gallery.
Adelaide’s Burns statue was presented to the city by the South Australian Caledonian Society and unveiled on May 5, 1894. The statue was originally situated on the west corner of North Terrace and Kintore Avenue, but was subsequently moved to the Art Gallery in May 1930 and then relocated in front of the State Library in 1940. After extensive restoration in 2001, part of a major initiative by the Adelaide City Council to preserve Adelaide’s collection of public monuments, Burns was again moved in 2003 to the renovated forecourt of the State Library of South Australia, where he currently stands.
Sculptor George Anderson Lawson’s best-known work is a statue of Robert Burns that stands at Ayr, in Scotland. A replica of this statue was cast in London for the City of Melbourne, and was erected in 1904 at a cost of around £1000 with the support of the Caledonian Society. It is claimed that nearly every Scot in Melbourne contributed towards funding the memorial.
The Burns statue in Melbourne is described as an “imposing, larger than life-size figure depicted in tails and breeches, his posture and countenance suggesting a powerful spirit.” It was originally located on the west side of St Kilda Road, where it was unveiled on January 23, 1904, just in time for Burns Night. The statue was moved to its current site at the Treasury Gardens along Spring Street in Melbourne in 1970, and remains a popular attraction for the Victorian Scottish community.
One year after Melbourne, Sydney erected its own memorial. Outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands a 2.9-metre bronze statue by Frederick Pomeroy depicting Robert Burns resting against a ploughshare. He stands on a stone pedestal of mostly rough Melbourne granite, with one polished course in the centre. Three trachyte steps form a base. The statue was erected in 1905 by the Burns Memorial Committee and is appropriately located near the Speakers’ Corner area of the Domain. It was refurbished in 2008.
The Brisbane Burns Club and the Queensland Scottish Association first raised the idea of a Burns statue for Brisbane in 1888. It was not until 1932 that the statue by Ward Willis was finally erected in Centenary Place and was dedicated to Brisbane by the Burns Club. The bronze statue shows “Scotland’s Immortal Bard” leaning on a plough with his faithful dog at his feet, wearing a hat and waistcoat, looking relaxed on the carved sandstone plinth. Bronze plaques decorate each side of the plinth and depict scenes from his poems. Rededicated in 1989, the statue stands at Centenary Park near Wickham and Ann Streets.
In April 1927 the Canberra Highland Society and Burns Club proposed building a much-needed memorial hall and adding a statue of Burns. The Burns Memorial in Canberra was erected in 1935, on the corner of Canberra Avenue and National Circuit. It is the second oldest public sculpture in Canberra, and the first to have a permanent location. It is the eighth and last Burns memorial erected in Australia.
The Canberra memorial was designed by Sydney architects, J. Shedden Adam and depicts a contemplative Burns in front of a pink granite wall, on which are four panels showing scenes and a verse from the bard’s poems. It borrows heavily from the Scottish-American War Memorial in Edinburgh, which was erected 1927 and shows seated Scottish soldier with a rifle on his lap in front of a low wall. The Canberra statue and panels were cast in Italy in 1934.
The oldest and most significant Burns statue in Australia and perhaps the world is located in regional Victoria, nestled in Camperdown’s Botanic Gardens. William Taylor commissioned John Greenshields to sculpt the life-sized statue at Edinburgh in 1830. Taylor’s son brought the statue, which also features the bard’s beloved dog, to Australia in 1882 and donated it to the Camperdown public park in 1883. The statue sat on a two-metre high solid base in the centre of the Botanic Gardens.
Historians believe the statue in Camperdown is the oldest outdoor statue of Burns in the world and the oldest full-body statue in a public place in Australia. Controversially, in 2009 a local former MP suggested that the 125-year-old statue should be displayed in Scotland, before taking a permanent place in Melbourne. It currently remains in Camperdown under the care of the Corangamite Shire, where it is undergoing an intricate restoration.
Australia’s Scottish community has clearly been active in the public creation of ‘Scottish sites’ and no exceptions are made with regard to the pantheon of Scottish national heroes, in which Robert Burns reigns supreme.
- For a general overview, see Chapter 4, ‘Imagining Home: Scottish Culture in Australia’, in my book, The Scots in Australia 1788-1938.
- To find out more on the statues of Burns and Wallace in Ballarat, see Ben Wilkie, ‘Scottish identity in stone: statues of Robert Burns and William Wallace in 19th century Ballarat, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 84, No. 2, November 2013.
- On the Sydney statue, and how it compares with Ballarat’s statue, see Malcolm Prentis and Ben Wilkie, ‘”Coming lonely to the land”, or “crawlers round the bardie’s name”: memorials to Robert Burns in Australia’, conference paper, Australian Historical Association conference, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, 2012.