Scottish Export Legends Past, Present and Future

Out of all the Scotsmen that have had an impact globally, there are only a few that continually surprise people by virtue of their weight of humility.

Thomas Blake Glover, a man from Aberdeen moved to Japan and made his wealth selling arms to rival Japanese Shogun clans. He did however become friends with Yataro Iwasaki and both founded a company that would for a while be the largest in the world – Mitsubishi. So influential was Glover in Japan that his home was the basis for ‘Madam Butterfly’ and the Emperor in 1908 gave him the Order of the Rising Sun.

David Dunbar Buick – an inventor from Arbroath who moved to America and invented the lawn sprinkler. He then invented white enamel to coat cast iron baths. But it was his interest in the internal combustion engine that led him to launch the Buick Motor Company, which is now the oldest active car company in North America.

But lets focus on Robert Burns (for obvious reasons this month), the impact of whom globally is rarely fully appreciated, but none the less quite astonishing. 

Often derided outside of Scotland, indeed Dr David Starkey the English Historian labeled Burns as a ‘boring provincial poet’.

However we should celebrate and respect the man who died aged 37 with £1 to his name, as he has the modern export distinction of:

  • Being the only non-Russian to appear on a Russian coin
  • The first person to appear on a bottle of Coca Cola
  • Tommy Hilfiger claims he is a direct descendant of Burns.

More importantly however is Burns’ ongoing impact on global culture:

  • When put to Bob Dylan  “who or what was you greatest source of inspiration” Dylan replied Robert Burns and in particular ‘A Red Red Rose’.
  • JD Salinger wrote ‘Catcher in the Rye’ after reading ‘Comin Thro the Rye’ & John Steinbeck in 1937 based ‘Of Mice & Men’ on a line in a Burn poem ‘The best laid plan’s of mice & men often go wrong’.
  • Abraham Lincoln recited Burns works in White House functions on a regular basis and in response to being questioned on abolishing slavery quoted Burns poem ‘A Mans a Man for all that’ which in Lincoln’s view reinforced that slavery was wrong and something should be done. 
  • With the exception of Christopher Columbus, there are more statues of Robert Burns around the world than any other non-religious figure and apart from Happy Birthday, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is the most sung-song in the world.  
  • Oh, and Michael Jackson apparently recorded a whole album based on Burns poems just before his death, which has yet to be released. 

Robert Burns didn’t set out to be a poet. If he had done he would have engaged with a publisher and actually made money from his talent.  Burns’ profession was as a tax collector in both Scotland & Jamaica.  Writing poetry and songs in his native language did not sit well outwith Scotland especially the establishment in London where the ‘great and good’ all congregated. He was largely ignored, & where known was labelled as a drunk womaniser (which of course he did excel in, fathering 12 children). 

Poetry for Burns was a route to a free meal and a bed (see the poem still visible today above the fireplace in the Kenmore Hotel – Loch Tay) or he used his writing to seduce and settle debts.

Burns for all his natural talent with a pen and being a tax collector, obviously had numerical skills, but not recognising the value of his work he never sought out the proper advice on how to best promote his work. It was only after his death that his work began to be published and others significantly profited from his efforts.

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Understanding your “value” and “worth” to others is a common challenge that many companies grapple with when considering taking a new product or existing concept to market.

The irony of Burns saying “The best laid plans of mice & men often go wrong” is that he was referring to others, he had no appreciation of his own worth.

In business ‘the best laid plans often go wrong’ but you can minimise the risk of failure by engaging with experts.

At Genoa Black we engage with clients as partners, developing strong, impactful and successful Value Propositions to best enable them get to markets foreign and domestic thus realising their true value.

We salute Burns this month and his incredible exporting impact for Scotland. Just imagine however how much bigger this could have been had he not so underplayed and undersold his true worth.