With Burns Night looming, we ask what makes Rabbie relevant today
Author Allan Wilson and academic Gerard Carruthers discuss the Bard's legacy
The Academic: Gerard Caruthers
Notoriously, Jeremy Paxman claimed that Robert Burns was a writer of doggerel. The Scottish poet may have written the odd bad line or even bad poem, but, at his best, he was a producer of great poetry and arguably his nation’s greatest songwriter.
Pop music comparisons can be trite but sometimes helpful: I have no embarrassment in saying Burns is Scotland’s Lennon and McCartney. The Bard wrote or collected and re-popularised around 400 songs to his 200 poems. Just as The Beatles invented English pop music so Burns invented – what should we call it, Scottish folk music? Perhaps, but there is an equally strong tradition of Burns in classical music. And some of the more recent ‘folk’ interpretations of Burns are marked by the strong influences of post-1960s pop: take Fred Freeman’s excellent collected recordings of all the songs, for instance, or the superb performances of Emily Smith or Karine Polwart.
Burns himself was no purist, open to interpretation and moving with the times.
One suspects that Paxman’s ignorant remarks have more to do with a conception of a fossilised Burns, dusted down for Hogmanay, peddling an obsolete Scots language and a backward-looking Scottish culture generally. In his poetry as in his songs, Burns was a commentator on both the most immediate and most lasting concerns of humankind. His defence of badly treated highlanders (not a typical lowland attitude for the times) or down and outs; his championing of the intellects of women (leaving aside for the moment his undeniable womanising); defending of the peasantry, of American ‘rebels’, of French Revolutionaries, and both Catholic and Protestant minorities make Burns a highly relevant creative and intellectual presence in 21st century Scotland and well beyond.
Gerard Carruthers is General Editor of the new Oxford University Press edition of the Works of Robert Burns.
The Author: Allan Wilson
When we think about Robert Burns it can be quite hard to get past the iconic image. From primary school we’re taught that he’s shortbread and haggis and a handsome guy against a tartan backdrop. We learn his poems by heart and recite them in front of the class.
There’s that one about the wee mouse. How he killed that wee, sleekit mouse.
But like many historical greats, you could argue that Burns has been hijacked. I think he’d laugh at what he’s become. Either that or he’d get steaming and go mental. Either way, at the end of the night, he’d probably go home with a couple of women. I had an English teacher once who introduced him to our class as Scotland’s most rock’n’roll writer. He was trying to show the class that writing was cool – that language, words, stories were as much ours to claim as anyone’s.
And today, I see what he was getting at. Mr Beaton, you win. If you see me in the street then take me aside and issue me with a thousand lines: ‘Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.’
Something important is happening in Scottish literature right now. There’s a movement. It’s fresh and it’s angry. There are writers creating fiction in the same tradition as Burns did over 200 years ago. Check out the YouTube videos of William Letford reciting poetry like his life depends on it. Read Alan Bissett’s blistering attack on sectarianism in his latest novel Pack Men. People are writing about the community they know. The beauty and tragedy that exists in these lives. Burns realised that stories, poems and songs can liberate people, inspire them to question those with power. He shows us that our lives are as valuable in art as anyone’s.
Allan Wilson’s debut collection of writing, Wasted in Love, is out now published by Cargo.