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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns & Pastoral By Nigel Leask

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I met Nigel Leask in January of this year while attending the one-day conference Burns and Beyond hosted by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. I had heard great things about Nigel’s prize-winning book, and I was pleased to note in the symposium materials that he was to be the keynote speaker. Following the conference, the speakers were invited to dinner at a rather trendy tapas bar in Glasgow called the Café Andaluz. The tables were small and I was lucky enough to sit across from Nigel, so our conversation was for me a night to remember. I found Nigel to be engaging and informative, and he exuded a degree of warmth that left me feeling as if I had known him since school days, and at my age that would have been a long time ago! Below is a review of his book that I have wanted to share with our readers since the conference, but the outpouring of articles from many of the conference speakers has postponed it until now. Here is a tip to those who know their Burns…buy this book to increase your knowledge and you may become what others call you - a Burns scholar.

Robert Burns & Pastoral
By Nigel Leask

No one ever suggested to Nigel Leask that his book on Robert Burns would be one of the world’s least necessary books. If so, they would have been wrong! Neither is it just for “students and scholars of 18th-century and Romantic literature and Scottish studies” as one web site suggests. Some of it may be a bit academic but there is more than enough of Leask’s amazing insight into Burns. The book offers a new perspective on Scotland’s Bard and will remain within arm’s reach of my desk when I work on fresh and modern ideas for speeches or articles!

It is books like Leask’s Robert Burns & Pastoral, Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland that will help remove Burns from the oft held marginalized concept in English studies in America, the United Kingdom and Europe. Robert Burns has been relegated to Scotland and was not considered worthy to be placed along side the mainstream poets of the 18th century by too many academics around the world. But help is on the way with writers like Leask, Robert Crawford, Carole McQuirk, Liam McIlvanney, Murray Pittock, Leith Davis, and Gerard Carruthers (who also is Director of The Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow) as they usher in a new day for Burns. No more will Burns be seen as an out-of-date and incomprehensible poet assigned to a babbling foreign language, unappreciated by many and only understood by few.

In his book, Leask took me on a trip of remembrance of my family who, like Burns, were dirt farmers. The agricultural lessons written in these pages appealed to me and brought back memories of long ago of the smells of barns and chicken coups, that walk behind a plow as a boy where the view never changes, and the purity of the freshly plowed fields under my bare feet. But there too were rewards that are missed today such as the vegetables that were gathered from the garden just moments before being cooked on the wood stove.

Leask’s insight on the Bard becomes a “‘big’ book on Burns” according to Andrew McNeillie at Oxford Press. This marvelous volume takes the reader even farther into the everyday world, chapter by chapter, of New Husbandry, Scots Pastoral, The Making of a Poet, Pastoral Politics, Beasties, Hellfire and Common Sense, The Annals of the Poor, The Deil and the Exciseman, along with Robert Burns and British romanticism. To use an American illustration, Leask approaches each chapter as a home-run hitter who is comfortable in the batter’s box as he hits topic after topic out of the park. Yes, this is good material full of invigorating thought, highly illustrative of a new day for Burns readers.

Nigel Leask, Regius Professor of English Literature, University of Glasgow.

The author began work on this book before his appointment to the University of Glasgow’s Regius Chair in English in 2004. In appreciation of Leask’s talent, the book was joint winner of Scotland’s 2010 Saltire Prize for research book of the year. Martyn Wade, Scotland’s National Librarian said “…the book by Nigel Leask presents a major rethink of Burns, placing him firmly within the Scottish and European Enlightenments and providing a fresh view of all the main poems.”

“I’m over the moon” was Leask’s reaction to being a joint winner of the Saltire Prize, and perhaps that should have been the title of the book! (FRS: 5.3.11)

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