IT'S coming yet for a' that.
I refer, of course, to Burns Night, that annual orgy of neep-bashing, haggis- stabbing and whisky-soaking, all of which are essential ingredients in what is known as bardolatry.
Many people regard the hoop-la surrounding Burns's birthday as insulting to his memory, taking their lead from Hugh MacDiarmid, that flame-thrower of a polemicist, who called for the cult that had grown like a mushroom cloud since the poet's early death in 1796 to be killed stone dead.
I have much sympathy with this point of view. Burns, he felt, was remembered more for his variegated love life than his poetry. More importantly, his spirit had been usurped, in particular in regard to the failure of successive generations of Scots to champion Scottish politics, literature and language. Scotland, MacDiarmid concluded, did not deserve Burns.
There are times when it is easy to believe this to be the case. As news reached us of the death at 89 of Janet Elsie-May Coom, Burns's great-great-great-granddaughter, an eloquent admirer of her illustrious forebear, one wonders what MacDiarmid's take on Burns and his fans would currently be.
No-one knew better than he the danger inherent in opining about Burns. A close friend, Catherine Carswell, was sent a bullet through the post by someone who signed himself "Holy Willie" after she published an irreverent biography of the "heaven-taught ploughman" in 1930.
Not that much has changed since then. Robert Crawford, in the introduction to The Bard, published two years ago, wrote that the 21st-century Burns biographer "requires an instinct for self-defence, and, ideally, a Kevlar vest".
Crawford himself was not averse to lobbing a few grenades, denouncing rivals and laying into the editors of an ambitious two-volume edition of Burns's poetry, whose hearts, he reflected, may have been in the right place, but "their heads were most definitely not".
Fans of Burns would not have been surprised by such scholarly feuding which has, after all, been flaring up periodically since he expired. Love of him and his poetry seems to presuppose loathing of others who want a slice of the cake. Where Burns is concerned, a sense of ownership goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted desire to do down those who, wittingly or unwittingly, may have strayed on to a patch that had hitherto been claimed by another.
All of which would be the stuff of an arcane comedy were the consequences not so serious. Personally, I know people whose careers were stunted and their reputations trashed by fellow Burnsians, invariably to the detriment of their mental health.
But such rivalrous behaviour extends beyond academe. On a recent trip around Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway to places associated with Burns I was told on several occasions that it's not unusual for staff at one visitor attraction to feign ignorance of another and decline to offer phone numbers or directions. There is no Burns trail, no one source to which you can go to plan your itinerary. Loyalty, it would appear, lies with the parent organisation rather than our national poet.
And what is true for Burns's bricks and mortar legacy is true, too, of his work. More than two centuries after his death, the most revered – if not infallible – edition of his poems and songs remains a three-volume collection, edited by James Kinsey, which appeared in 1968 and has long been out of print. Similarly, there is no comprehensive collection of his letters. Nor is there, for all the best efforts of Robert Crawford and others, a totally reliable biography of a man whose short life was lived so much in the public glare.
That Scotland, which trades so wantonly on his name, has allowed this to happen ought to be a national scandal, but is symptomatic of our attitude not only to Burns but also to poetry and literature in general. How many of those, for example, charged with giving Immortal Memories in the coming weeks could name a modern poet let alone recite one of his or her poems? No wonder it drove MacDiarmid potty.
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