Robert Burns – The Scottish Bard.

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Fiona Macdonald (2011)  Robert Burns. A Very Peculiar History.

This is a children’s book or a primer. ‘With the Bards own rhymes’. That suits me. I was once a child, and I’m always ready to be primed. Ignorance is a great motivation. I once shared a desk with the august figure of Professor Gerry Carruthers, Director of the Robert Burns Centre, University of Glasgow. I don’t remember him as being particularly smart, or brainy, as we used to call it. His recollections of me would I guess be as an eejit, best avoided. I suppose it should be Professor Carruther’s book on Burns I should read. But I can’t really be bothered. If he reads my book I’ll read his.

As Hugh MacDiarmid, nationalist, and poet (A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle) says of Burns: ‘Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name – than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ’.

This is easy for me, because I’ll just follow the Futureshock course questions and that’s a bit like copying someone else’s answers, even though they are your own.

What does Robert Burns mean to you?

What little I’ve read of Burns what struck me most is his humility in search of a muse, and a good drink, of course. And his anger at the way some people are looked down on by those lucky few who have inherited a bob or two.

Here’s what Gerry Carruthers says (and he should know).

‘Even the idea of the ‘native language’, Scots, is here far from straightforward, since from 1784, Burns had been reading the Scots poetry of two earlier eighteenth-century writers in particular, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. The really clever trick that Burns pulled off was in bringing Scots poetry back into vogue within the west of Scotland, including not only the Scots language but the ‘Habbie Simson’ stanza that we see, for instance, in ‘To a Mouse’ (

From his mother and other female relatives, Robert Burns imbibed a love of Scots song, and just as he disinterred the Scots poetry of Ramsay and Fergusson, so too he became an avid collector and editor of older Scots songs, as well as writing many new ones himself.


‘It is perhaps in the songs more than the poetry that Burns’s colourful set of identities explodes. His song ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ ( looks back with regret on the union of parliaments in 1707 and ‘Scots Wha Hae’ (

celebrates his hero William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish leader, against the attempted colonization of Scotland by England. This text though – like ‘Is there for Honest Poverty’ (‘A Man’s a Man For ‘a That’) –(


‘Less open to interpretation, perhaps, is Burns’s status as a lover. Here we have a man who, on the most conservative estimate, made at least five women pregnant on at least thirteen occasions and who sired at least twelve children.


‘Out of a clearly turbulent biography, however, emerged some of the finest love songs ever: ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, (



‘A Red Rose’ (

and many others (

‘In the final analysis, what we are left with are Burns’s writings, and among these, perhaps, the songs about love are the least ambiguous and the most passionate.

‘Burns was a writer born in 1759 and dead by July 1796, at the early age of 37. He was also a farmer in two different periods of his life, and an Exciseman – a salaried government employee – through the 1790s (

Ignorance and poverty, Burns writes in 1787. ‘We lived very poorly…A novel writer might have viewed those scenes with some satisfaction, but so did not I; my indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrants [landlord’s factor who wrote threatening eviction when William Burns (Robert’s father) was unable to pay the rent] threatening epistles, which used to set us all in tears’.

Here’s a secret, Burns did not look like a young Scottish Elvis. He looked like he was a Scottish farmer, with a ba’ face. Not that it matter, his words and songs live on. (