Category Archives: jessie barr (nee macpherson)

Auckland, Burns and A’ That

In preparing a talk for the recent Robert Burns’ anniversary, I learned a few things about my Scottish born grandparents.

(Burns’ anniversay 25 January, Wikipedia; Guardian 24 Jan 2014 on Burns and Scottish independence).

My mother’s parents were born in Scotland: John Barr (1887-1971, born Glasgow) and Jessie Barr (née MacPherson 1889-1979, born Perthshire) came to live in Auckland, New Zealand in 1913 and 1914 respectively.  For the rest of their lives they remained very enthusiastic about Auckland, its heritage and its development, while also remaining strongly attached to Scottish culture, heritage and literature.

John (aka, Jack) and Jessie both worked in libraries in Scotland.  Jack started working in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow at 13 or 14 years old. Abe Cunningham was also a cadet boy at the Mitchell Library at the same time.  He later moved to Auckland and worked as a cataloguer at Auckland Public Library.

This photo was taken in 1906, in Glasgow in front of a statue donated to Glasgow by John Stewart Kennedy:

barr statue glasgow 3 cropped

Abe Cunningham and John Barr:
The Munro-John Barr Album

John Barr was chief librarian at Auckland Public Library (1913-1952).

John Barr authored various published books, including a couple of histories of Auckland:

The city of Auckland, 1840–1920 (1922) – includes a Maori history of the Auckland Isthmus, by George Grahame

The Ports of Auckland, New Zealand: A History of the Discovery and Development of the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours (1926)

Both books are an accurate historical record and are of their time: they are presented from a European, male perspective, with the main focus on British colonisation, settlement, and municipal development of the area.

John and Jessie had three daughters:  Catriona MacPherson (aka Mac – eldest); Sheila MacPherson (my mother) and Margaret Jean (youngest).  This family photo was taken outside their house in Manukau Road, Auckland – next to the original Epsom Library, sometime around the late 1920s or 1930s.

barrs2 grayscale cropped

Daughters back row: Sheila, Catriona (Mac), Margaret

Both John and Jessie were very active in the Auckland St Andrew’s Society, and both gave many talks or lectures on Scottish topics.  Jack’s specialism was Robert Burns, and Jessie’s main literary interest was Robert Louis Stephenson.  She also gave lectures on Kipling and James Barrie, and was a founding member of the New Zealand Penwomen’s League.

In a review of a John Barr song-lecture, he is reported to have said that Burn’s ‘Scots Wha Hae’ was “one of the greatest poems of liberty ever penned.” (New Zealand Herald 5 Sept 1919. p. 10).

In his typed version* of his address for the 169th Burns’ Anniversary (1928), Jack outlined Burns’ importance: he restored national pride to Scotland at a time when it was needed; Burns provided songs and poems of a quality lacking in other Scots works at that time; Burns’ nationalism was not a narrow patriotism but his humanitarian, liberal and egalitarian values gained international support.

With respect to Burns’ support of “universal brotherhood”, Jack quoted these lines from ‘Scots Wha Hae’:

By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
         But they shall be free!

Following this, he wrote:

That was its commencement, but it rose to the sublime heights of universal freedom in his hopes that there would come a time when

Man to man the world o’er                                                                                     Would brothers be for a’ that.

The last two lines are from Burns’ song and poem, ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, commonly known as ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.

For Burns, poverty is honest: a man’s character and self-respect are his true worth, and not social class or the trappings of wealth; the wealthy can disguise their true worth with fine clothes; honesty and goodness are worth more than aristocratic titles.

This video uses Ian F Benzie‘s version of ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ that’, and various images related to Burns and the content of the song.

*The typed copy of John Barr’s speech is in the Douglas Munro collection: Douglas is grandson of John and Jessie Barr and son of Catriona Munro (née Barr).

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Filed under Auckland, biography, glasgow, heritage, history, jessie barr (nee macpherson), john barr, library, mitchell library