It’s Burns Night soon, but should we celebrate it? Our National Poet is accused of everything from sympathy with slavery to sex crimes. Is it true? Should he be cancelled? Our Writer at Large speaks to Scotland’s leading Burns scholars to find out


HE is a philanderer. A feminist. A racist. A champion of human rights. A tool of empire. A republican. He supported Scottish independence. He backed the union. He writes kitsch doggerel. He’s literary genius up there with Shakespeare. He is a rebel. He is a pillar of the establishment. A sectarian bigot. A man for all people. A symbol of tartanised tourist tat. A global Scottish icon.

Poor old Rabbie Burns. What is he really? Burns is a vehicle for just about every cause and complaint in modern Scotland. He’s endlessly hijacked and appropriated. For Scotland’s national poet, we seem to find little to agree on when it comes to Burns.

With Burns Night just around the corner, The Herald on Sunday met with Scotland’s leading Burns scholars at Glasgow University to separate myth from truth.

Professor Gerry Carruthers founded the university’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies in 2007. Astonishingly, Scotland had no dedicated centre for the study of our greatest poet until then.

Professor Kirsteen McCue became co-director shortly after the centre launched.

They are both on a mission to dispel the disinformation that has grown up around Burns since he died in 1796. Let’s start with the most persistent claim: Burns wasn’t just a “womaniser”, but a predator.

Sex pest?

At the height of the MeToo movement, Scottish poet Liz Lochhead claimed that a letter Burns wrote implied he was a rapist. The letter mentioned Jean Armour, then pregnant and later Burns’s wife. In the letter, to a male friend, Burns bragged of giving his lover a “thundering scalade” – or military attack – which “electrified the very marrow of her bones”. Burns adds he “f****d her until she rejoiced”.

Lochhead called Burns “Weinsteinian”, and a “sex pest”, saying the “disgraceful boast … seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend”. So, was he a male chauvinist pig? Even a predator? Carruthers has plenty to say. “There’s a piece of nonsense that gets trotted out – that he’s just doing what everyone else was doing. No he wasn’t. He was more sexually active because he’d more opportunity. It’s not necessarily easy to defend his behaviour on all occasions. But nonetheless it’s nonsensical presentism comparing him to Weinstein.”

By “presentism” Carruthers means inflicting today’s values onto the past. “Where’s the evidence of rape? In that letter, he says ‘I gave her a damn good seeing to and she cried out with joy’. Are those people who claim that’s rape, saying the rape victim cries out with joy? They need to look at their own sexual politics. Nobody yet has shown any evidence of rape or sexual predatoriness. Yes, he’s promiscuous –there are at least 13 pregnancies with five women – but as far as we know all these partners were willing.

“Without wanting to whitewash him, the case against him is a very generic ‘he’s a man therefore he’s a b*****d’ – because of our idea of the way things should be, we want to go back and insert our views into that historical situation.”

Carruthers thinks it’s “stupid” calling Burns a sex pest. “What’s exactly does that mean? Where do we have the evidence? He chats up women, some go with him, some don’t. Why do we insist on this very presentist vocabulary and sellotaping it on top of Burns?”

Certainly, Burns “genuinely has high regard for the intellect of women” as he sends his manuscripts to women to read.

As a woman, does McCue feel differently? “It’s problematic when you start digging about and don’t know the full story. In the current moment where misogynistic behaviour and issues of equality are so prevalent we should approach Burns in the round – look at a range of interactions with women in his life.”

She doesn’t think “it’s helpful to map [Burns’s life] onto the 21st century”. Burns was a “complicated individual”. Some of his songs “are the most beautiful utterances of love and affection that exist in human language. For someone to create material like that and then on the other hand be regarded as abusive, I find really difficult to add up.”

HeraldScotland: Professor Kirsteen McCue says sometimes 'really complicated discussions' are simplified when addressing behaviour of historical figures like BurnsProfessor Kirsteen McCue says sometimes 'really complicated discussions' are simplified when addressing behaviour of historical figures like Burns (Image: Newsquest)

No living witnesses were there at the time, McCue says. “I didn’t see how he addressed women and conducted himself. I only see what’s in the text and from the pieces of information I have biographically. Not all of it is glossy or beautiful. That’s the case with most humans. But to compare him to someone evidenced as a sexual predator, we don’t have that evidence.”

McCue adds there are “some issues with [Burns’s] bawdy material” – his erotic poems. But she explains: “Sometimes it’s a bit disrespectful but not always. Sometimes we want to simplify these really complicated discussions.”

Slavery

THE other persistent claim is that Burns was racist. Before he made it as a poet, he considered working on a Jamaican slave plantation. It clashes with his image as the egalitarian everyman.

So, what is the truth? “He doesn’t go,” says Carruthers. Burns did, though, “express distaste” for slavery “but it’s fair to say he’d a bit of a blind spot. We’ve all got blind spots to things that are going on.

“That’s not to excuse it – but he’s certainly not a racist. He can imagine the plight of the slave.”

Burns may have written The Slave’s Lament, though its authorship is debated.


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McCue does not think Burns would have understood the reality of slavery as he hadn’t been to the Caribbean. “We’re still not entirely sure what the job would have involved. The decision to go was tied into personal circumstances. Things weren’t working out in tenant farming, there were personal issues around women in his life. I’m sure other people would have made the same decision to ‘get out of jail’, as it were.”

Many contemporaries went to work in the slave trade. “How many knew what they were doing until they got there?” McCue asks.

Some 18th-century writers were describing slavery’s horrors, but most literature was pro-slavery, Carruthers says. There’s an important academic project to be done on “what Burns was reading and was aware of”. Carruthers says it’s difficult for people today to “grasp that down to the 19th century as far as mainstream white society was concerned ‘blackness’ was an affliction that happened biblically”. Most people in the 18th century saw black people as “lesser human beings. We’ve lost a sense of how difficult it was for generations after Burns to accept black people as fully human beings”.

Empire

HE notes that “within living memory we assumed that the British Empire was benign”. Those wishing to “cancel” Burns should beware, Carruthers adds. In decades to come we will inevitably be judged harshly, including those who have “an absolute certainty that their standards are the right ones forever”. Judge Burns’s work, Carruthers adds. Judging dead writers by contemporary morality is “quite crass”.

McCue feels Burns’s flirtation with slavery, however, “absolutely” underscores Scotland’s failure to address its own role in Empire, colonialism and slavery. Carruthers notes that Burns’s son later worked for the East India Company. “So there’s the perpetuation of Empire.” Scotland has “a blind spot”. It was the arteries of Empire, ironically, which “transported Burns around the world” and saw him become an “anti-colonialist figure” for the Indian Communist Party and Russian revolutionaries.

It is another example of Burns being appropriated by both sides of an argument. He can be seen as simultaneously anti-imperial and pro-empire.

Independence

WHEN it comes to appropriating Burns, “the whole independence referendum is a wonderful example”, says McCue, adding: “Everybody had him and everybody had him ‘legitimately’ because at some point he said something they could happily quote. That’s a fascinating process. If you’re national bard, you’ll be used and abused by politicians and other factions.” However, if a writer “can be used to vocalise the breadth of the political spectrum, then that’s pretty impressive. “Though that doesn’t mean he’s used in the right way all the time,” she points out.

Burns is a slippery character politically. “He’s both radical and unionist,” McCue notes. As a writer, Burns “ventriloquised so many different facets of society that it’s really hard to be sure what his own politics were”.

For McCue, the bottom line is that it’s intellectually ridiculous to claim Burns would have voted Yes or No to Scottish independence.

Carruthers says Burns is “so portable, he’s even used and abused in speeches in the House of Commons”. What we can tell is that Burns was a “patriot”. Also, “he cares about people”.

So for his time, he could even be seen as “woke”.

Revolution

HOWEVER, like anyone, his politics change. Before the French Revolution, he’s pretty conservative. For example, “he doesn’t believe that local congregations should elect their own minister – in other words, he’s in favour of patronage. Where’s your poet of the people at that point? He’s not there. After the French Revolution he’s moving towards something that looks like republicanism but is never completely expressed”.

That’s why Carruthers dreams of finding the lost manuscript of the pro-French Revolution poem The Tree Of Liberty, which may have been written by Burns. A copy in Burns’s hand would “take us to the certainty that he was Republican”.

HeraldScotland: Professor Gerry Carruthers dreams of finding the lost manuscript of a possible Burns poem expressing pro-French Revolution sentimentsProfessor Gerry Carruthers dreams of finding the lost manuscript of a possible Burns poem expressing pro-French Revolution sentiments (Image: Newsquest)

However, Carruthers says: “The same Burns joined the Dumfries militia when he was fearful that the French might invade in 1795.” So, while Burns might have been drawn to revolutionary ideas, he had no desire for France to invade Britain.

“There are points when he describes himself as a Whig [a leading 1700s British political party], and where he describes himself as Jacobite.”

Burns “changes”. Crucially, he’s also a writer who “likes taking the piss, he’s satirical. I’m suspicious of any writer absolutely onside with one party”. Carruthers adds: “One of the objections I’d have to a lot of modern Scottish writers is they line up behind the SNP on every occasion. That’s not a writer’s job. A writer’s job is to be sceptical.”

McCue adds: “And to call out hypocrisy, which is one thing Burns always does no matter what side.”

England

IN terms of his view of England, Burns was alert to “unfair treatment” of Scotland. He’s upset about London gin distillers being advantaged over Scottish whisky producers, Carruthers explains. “He also complains about the fact that, following the Jacobite rebellions, some Scottish places in the House of Lords are given to Irish lords because the Jacobites brought down penalties on the Scots.”

Carruthers says many people today “reach for” the Burns poem “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” which refers to those behind the Act of Union as “bought and sold for English gold”. However, he explains: “This might or might not be Burns’s own view. He’s ventriloquising a character at the time of the union – getting inside that attitude.”

Burns is “ventriloquising” street balladeers “protesting very emotionally against the union, and Burns thinks that’s worth expressing creatively, but there are also points where Burns signs himself ‘A Briton’. There are times when he says ‘I’m loyal to the constitution of 1688’ which brings in moderate monarchy and Westminster rule, but there are also points in the 1790s when he genuinely believes Britain is bad”.

“Does that mean he believes a separate Scotland would be superior or a reformed Britain would be superior? Clearly, at least the latter. It’s difficult to pin him down,” adds Carruthers.

However, as McCue notes, these are just a “very small number of the pieces he writes, it’s not as if this is his key theme and he’s banging that drum the whole time. At certain times he reflects on that through one lens or another, or one personality or another”.

Sectarian

CONFUSION also swirls around Burns and religion. He’s a “moderate Presbyterian, against hardline Calvinists”, says Carruthers, “who then partly gets into Jacobitism and likes the figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie”. So this showed tolerance of Catholicism. For a “boy from Ayrshire, these aren’t natural things in the 1780s … He’ll sympathise with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic Stuart Queen, or the Covenanters at the other end of the spectrum. He knows there’s more ways than one of being Scottish”.

Nevertheless, Burns’s presbyterian/freemason background has created “hostility”. Carruthers adds: “As someone from a Catholic background, I’m very aware of that.”


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Burns was a sophisticated networker, McCue explains. Freemasonry gave Burns connections to Edinburgh’s establishment, helping him succeed in the ruthless world of 18th-century publishing. The bottom line was that Burns was hugely ambitious. He set out to become Scotland’s “national bard” and achieved that through sheer talent and force of personality.

Snobbery

THERE’S an absurd snobbishness around Burns, both academics feel. He’s been part of the tourist industry since the 1840s. Scotland should celebrate that Burns brings around £200 million to the economy yearly. It’s something “we should be completely unashamed about”, says Carruthers. If Burns was better promoted – the fact there was no dedicated academic centre devoted to his work shows just how badly he’s been neglected – he could bring in much more money.

“He’s got huge global reach,” McCue points out. You need go no further than Auld Lang Syne to see how Burns is known across the planet. “He’s associated with characteristics we Scots like to think we have – justice, empathy, equality. He represents characteristics any nation would be happy to have.”

He is now – thanks to the work of academics like Carruthers and McCue

– ranked among the world’s great romantic poets, but for years was overshadowed by Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Shelley.

“He’s as bright a star as any of those writers,” McCue says.

People reference him without even knowing they’re doing so, in phrases like “the best laid schemes of mice and men”.

Scots language

CARRUTHERS says he isn’t trying to pursue a “grievance narrative” but Burns – and Walter Scott – fell out of fashion “because of the Scots language”. He adds: “There was a perception it was difficult whereas meantime Burns was being read and appreciated in Scots everywhere from Russia to India, China to North America.” Amid Scotland’s culture wars, an anti-Scots language sentiment persists around Burns. However, he’s now “at the centre of canonical romantic literature”.

McCue notes that some of the best Burns poetry “is actually in English”. On the flip side, it’s wrong to see Burns as overshadowing other Scottish writers of the time. That’s not a view held on Shakespeare, for instance, regarding other Elizabethan writers. Burns, says Carruthers, is simply “in the first rank, with guys like Walter Scott – there aren’t actually that many who come close in terms of influence and ability”. McCue adds that Scotland should see itself as “blessed to have a writer like Burns”.

Secrets

AS Burns studies took such a long time to really take off, there are still so many secrets academics are uncovering about him, particularly through newly-found letters. The centre recently discovered documents relating to his Ellisland Farm near Dumfries, which shows exactly how it was built. The find will be used to create a virtual reality reconstruction.

The “Holy Grail” for McCue would be discovering musical manuscripts by Burns which would “evidence whether he could or couldn’t write music”. More and more material is turning up, forgotten in library archives.


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There’s one line in the sand for both Carruthers and McCue, and that is anyone denigrating Burns’s poetry. They are both still clearly irritated by Jeremy Paxman’s reference to “doggerel”. Carruthers says: “Paxman is entitled 100% not to like Burns, what he’s not entitled to do is speak crap. Burns doesn’t write doggerel. That’s demonstrably the case.” McCue adds: “It’s just factually incorrect.”

She can’t understand why some Scots say they’re embarrassed by symbols of the nation like Burns, or tartan or shortbread. “There are many small nations that would love to have what Scotland has. We’ve a diverse and rich cultural heritage. What more does a country want?”

Cringe

IT’S tied up with the infamous “Scottish cringe”, she feels. These symbols are “cultural glue”, McCue adds. “To have a writer of the quality of Burns as part of that cultural glue is something to be celebrated.” Who cares if Burns Night is slightly kitsch, or we cash in on him. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” says McCue. Burns Night is about food, drink and fun.

The rest of the world isn’t hung up on whether Burns is politically correct or nationalist or unionist. As Carruthers points out, there is even a Burns Supper at a Blackpool swingers club this year. “Though I’m not sure how they’re going to address the haggis,” he adds.