The Travels of the Robert Burns Statue of the Fen and Winthrop Square

By William Budde, Historian, Scots’ Charitable Society, Boston, Massachusetts

Winthrop Square
(re-located back to the Fen in 2019)

The Robert Burns statue that graces Winthrop Square in Boston was originally erected in the Back Bay Fen. Burns, who was born on January 25, 1759 and died on July 21, 1796, is often referred to the National Bard of Scotland. A prolific writer, he produced about 300 poems, songs, and ballads that romanticized everyday Scottish life. It helped that he wrote in a vernacular Scottish dialect that was easily understood and pronounced by readers without knowledge of the native Scottish tongue. 

Traditionally, Boston has had a large Scottish population. From about 1870 to 1930, the Scots living in Boston were extremely active, especially in the organizations, events, and celebrations they organized. The oldest charitable society was the Scots’ Charitable Society organized in 1657 to assist needy Scots in the Boston area. Events often attracted 300 attendees, with one report of over 1,000, and honored guests included the mayor of Boston and Governor of Massachusetts, a future United States president, and Andrew Carnegie. 

The Burns Memorial Association was organized in 1899 to plan and erect a suitable memorial to Robert Burns. In 1910, the association announced a competition to design a statue. The winner was Henry Hudson Kitson, an English emigre, and he was awarded the commission in the autumn of 1911. Kitson was a well-known artist living in the Boston area. His list of earlier New England works included the David Farragut statue at Marine Park in South Boston (1881), the Minute Man statue on the Lexington Town Green (1900), and the Roger Conant statue in Salem (1905). Later work in the Boston area included the Henry B. Endicott tablet in Boston (1921), the Pilgrim Maiden statue in Plymouth (1922), and the Richard Saltonsall monument in Watertown (1931).

The original design for the bronze Robert Burns monument included a more elaborate base. The chosen site was in the Caledonian Grove in the Fen along the Charles River, near the memorial to the well-known Irishman John Boyle O’Reilly. Although the commission was awarded in 1911, the statue was not erected until 1919. The delays were probably due in part to fund raising, but a significant delay was the involvement of the United States in World War I. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge (the future U.S. president) dedicated the statue on New Years Day 1920. 

Robert Burns stood in the Fen for 56 years. According to some reports, when developer Ted Raymond renovated the old Hearst Building at Winthrop Square the plans included a small park. The park apparently seemed somewhat empty so a search was started to find a suitable statue of historic import. The first choice, John Winthrop, was not available, so another monument was sought. One source indicates it was the chairman of the Boston Art Commission, Nelson Aldrich, that suggested the Burns statue be moved from the Fenway site to a more prominent location at Winthrop Square about 1974. Burns then settled into a new location in the square in 1975. 

Why was Robert Burns moved? In all likelihood, there were probably several reasons. The first choice, John Winthrop, was not available. To commission a new statue would take years, not to mention the cost that would have been involved. And who can say what influence the Boston Scots had in the decision?