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Robert Burns Lives!
Venders, Purchasers, Admirers: Burnsian ‘Men of Action’ from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century By Dr. Corey E. Andrews

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

There is a Scottish review journal you need to know about. I am speaking of the Journal of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, also known as the Scottish Literary Review. My association with the journal comes through Drs. Gerry Carruthers and Rhona Brown, both of the University of Glasgow. Dr. Brown is the Reviews Editor, and I wish to thank her publicly for assistance in my obtaining the journal. Rhona also has several articles on Robert Burns Lives! as does Gerry Carruthers. I will always be indebted to both for their interest in and support of our web site.

While perusing the contents of the Spring/Summer 2010 journal, I ran across an article by good friend Corey Andrews of Youngstown State University that I wanted to share with our readers. It was the first of several articles in the section of the journal entitled Robert Burns in 2009, The 250th Anniversary Celebrations. I immediately contacted Corey to request his help. He quickly agreed and advised he would seek permission from the powers that be at the Scottish Literary Review. Dr. Brown did give permission for us to use the article, just as she had done a few months earlier with Article 120, written by Dr. Kenneth Simpson, on the Robert Burns Lives! web site. It is a pleasure to bring you Corey’s article compliments of the Scottish Literary Review. I think it will fascinate any serious student of Robert Burns.

Not being a learner of Latin, I asked Corey to translate his quote Non omnis mortuus est from Horace. He did so graciously - “not all of him is dead”. In my layman’s terminology it brings another meaning to the phrase I have adopted for this web site, “Robert Burns Lives!

For additional information regarding the work of Corey Andrews, please refer to his academia site here  (FRS: 8.9.11)

Venders, Purchasers, Admirers:
Burnsian ‘Men of Action’ from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century

By Dr. Corey E. Andrews
Youngstown State University

Non omnis mortuus est
(“not all of him is dead”)

- Horace

The promotion of Robert Burns’s ‘genius’ as a ‘national honour’ occurred shortly after the poet’s death in 1796. Donald Low notes that ‘it was in the decade of 1810-1820 that the practice of celebrating the birth of Burns on 25 January became widely established’.i The ritual of the Burns Supper began to coalesce into the fairly uniform process that it remains to this day. Burns received accolades from numerous poets worldwide who sought to pay tribute to the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ who had captivated them. In addition, political figures looked to Burns’s works for homilies and to his legend for pithy moralising. However, not all of Burns’s compatriots bought in to the mythos that surrounded Burns in his posthumous fame. In reaction to the new nationalist obsessiveness with the Ayrshire poet, William Peebles joined a growing chorus of naysayers who sought to repudiate the idealisation of Burns. Peebles had an axe to grind, having been the butt of several of Burns’s satires such as ‘The Twa Herds’, ‘The Holy Fair’, and ‘The Kirk’s Alarm’. Ostensibly a satire on the Greenock Burns Club,ii Peebles’ Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns Considered (1811) attacked the thriving enterprise of poetic and popular commentary on the late poet. While other Scottish and English poets engaged in tributes and testimonials, Peebles was more interested in the cultural phenomenon surrounding the poet itself. This phenomenon, of course, was Burns’s increasing (and incredible) popular appeal to Scots of all classes.

While Burns had always been popular, this new posthumous fame was different. Now, according to Peebles, admirers would:

[as] a tribute just

To the great bard, erect a Bust:
Nor is this all: from age to age,
As for a monarch, hero, sage,
Let anniversaries repeat
His glories, celebrate a fête
Imbibe his spirit, sing his songs,
Extol his name, lament his wrongs,
His death deplore, accuse his fate,
And raise him far above the great.
What call you this? Is it Insania?
I’ll coin a word, ‘tis Burnomania.

Peebles’s lame neologism is fairly accurate; there is no doubt that nineteenth-century Scotland was an age of ‘Burnomania’. To sceptics like Peebles, however, Burns was a suspect icon, to be grouped with other notorious notables who had achieved a measure of fame for all the wrong reasons: ‘A Wilkes, a Pindar, Paine, and Burns, / Have venders, purchasers, inspirers, / Have imitators, friends, admirers’.iv Peebles’ diction in this passage deliberately focuses on the economy of the literary field, where the network of ‘venders’, ‘purchasers’, and ‘admirers’ influence the perception and values attached to literary producers like Wilkes, Pindar, Paine, and Burns. That all of the examples in Burns’s company had notoriety as political agitators indicates quite plainly that Peebles regards the cult of ‘Burnomaniacs’ with some alarm.v

Along with annual Burns Suppers, the ‘Burnomania’ described by William Peebles began most prominently with the founding of Burns Clubs. More than any other public organisation, Burns Clubs (local, national, and international) have promoted an idealised representation of Robert Burns as Scotland’s bard. Along with sustaining annual celebrations and supporting the construction of monuments in the poet’s honour, these clubs have offered members opportunity and occasion to claim ownership of Burns and his body of work. This proprietary function of the Burns Clubs was recognised as early as 1894, when the anonymous writer of ‘Burns in 1894’ from The Glasgow Herald (January 25, 1894) noted that ‘Scotland’s true saint’s day has come round once more; to-night Burns will again be surveyed from the standpoint of the Burns Clubs’.vi Cheekily remarking that ‘it is a moot point whether Burns Clubs or Golf Clubs are springing up with the greater rapidity all over the world’,vii the writer expounds upon the role that members of Burns Clubs have played in commemorating and emulating the Scottish national poet: finding that ‘the great majority of the members of Burns Clubs are neither fools, topers, nor self-advertising egotists’, the writer asserts that ‘they are simply men of action, belonging to all classes’.viii Such ‘men of action’ are naturally drawn to Burns, who provides them with a model for exemplary conduct that is insuperable: ‘Burns, as the poet of men of action, [is] the great preacher of the doctrine that there is nothing in life which is so common or unclean as to fail to lend itself to poetic treatment’.ix

Burnsian ‘men of action’ worked diligently throughout the nineteenth century to promote their national bard in active fashion. In The Burns Almanac (1898), John Dawson records the location of thirty-three statues and busts of Burns, in areas ranging from Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Albany, New York, and Belfast, Ireland.x He also records the presence of twelve Burns Clubs in America, with multiple clubs in such cities as Philadelphia and New York.xi In the fourth volume of Ross’s Burnsiana collection, J. Clark Murray discusses the early founding of Burns Clubs in Paisley:

The early period at which Burns’s countrymen had recognised that his greatness was such as to justify the formation of local clubs for the purpose of cherishing his memory. The poet died July 21st 1796, and the records of the first Burns club in Paisley begin with the commemoration of his birthday on the evening of January 29th, 1805—about eight and a half years after his death.xii

Although the Greenock Burns Club is purportedly the oldest Burns Club in existence,xiii the founding of Burns Clubs in Paisley at such an early date suggests the appeal of social organisations expressly designed to commemorate the poet. The writings produced in these settings offer insight into how (and why) Burns assumed and sustained such importance for general readers and/or enthusiasts.xiv An account of a Burns Supper from January 27, 1816 gives an indication quite early of the club’s raison d’être by unequivocally stating that ‘we rejoice to find that the feelings of admiration universally entertained for the genius of Burns have at length been exhibited in the metropolis of the country which gave him birth in a manner somewhat worthy of that country and of himself’.xv Further, the account claims that ‘it was not until the present commemoration of the Poet that his memory was celebrated in a manner which could be considered as the indication of a general national feeling. We now think that the country at large is fairly enlisted in this tribute to a departed genius’.xvi

In an address delivered before the Barlinnie Burns Club on January 25, 1893, Robert Ford expresses similar sentiments about Burns as a ‘departed genius’. In fact, Ford identifies himself at the beginning of his talk as an ‘ardent worshipper’ of Burns, stating that ‘I will claim this for what is to follow, that it will all be spoken in love; that it will be the genuine utterance of one who has been an ardent worshipper at the shrine of his genius’.xvii Throughout his speech, Ford amplifies the quasi-religious imagery that illustrates the bond tying Burns to his devotees: ‘We claim for Burns [… ] a place among the chosen few who are at once national and universal, moving with absolute mastery the hearts of their countrymen, yet no less touching the whole heart of man’. Not only are Ford and the members of the Barlinnie Burns Club a ‘chosen few’, but so is Burns himself: ‘Robert Burns, even although he framed his song in the dialect speech peculiar to our own little land, takes his seat among the choice of the chosen’.xviii

This leads Ford to a difficult spot for any self-respecting nineteenth-century Burnsian ‘man of action’ to navigate: the abyssal depths of Burns’s life story. As the great Bursiana collector John Dawson Ross himself had averred in The Burns Almanac: ‘It is not the life of Burns his admirers are enthusiastic about, but his high-born, unapproachable, poetic genius’.xix Ford follows suit by diminishing the ‘sins’ and augmenting the ‘suffering’: ‘Much of his brief history is not very pleasant reading. But, if Burns sinned—and he did sin—he suffered severely for it; yea, he sinned egregiously, but never did sinful man repent more bitterly’.xx Thus follows Ford’s rather remarkable cri de coeur for contrition: ‘Although a sinning man he was not a bad man’.xxi After negotiating such difficult terrain, Ford delivers the hyperbolic praise that is common among such addresses to Burns Clubs. Asking his listeners to consider the majesty of Burns’s gifts and value—‘What of Burns? What of the breadth of his humanity? What of the wealth of his genius?’xxii—Ford answers his own questions by reference to ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. Condemned by W.E. Henley as ‘doomed to popularity from the first, being of its essence sentimental, and therefore untrue’,xxiii this poem stands in Ford’s estimation as Burns’s greatest contribution to Scotland:

It stands alone in literature, thoroughly original, profoundly picturesque, exquisitely grand—a work possible only to the most powerful imagination. It was written in the single white heat of an exalted inspiration, and is, next to the battle of Bannockburn, perhaps the best day’s work that was ever performed in Scotland.xxiv

Four years later, in an address delivered before the Ninety Burns Club on January 25, 1897, editor William Wallace endorsed the work of Burns Clubs in keeping interest in Burns alive. Perhaps best seen as the ‘anti-Henley’, Wallace was a noted populist who sought to maintain public interest in Burns’s works as well as to promote his iconic status.xxv In his address to the Ninety Burns Club, Wallace remarks that the recent centenary celebration of Burns’s death was ‘the second most remarkable demonstration of hero-worship that this century, or indeed any century, had witnessed’.xxvi He continues by noting that ‘it was the miracle which, in spite of a centenary year full to overflowing of love and admiration, made Scotsmen all over the world give up that night to the worship of their patron saint, St. Robert, with unabated enthusiasm, with unsated passion’.xxvii As witnessed in Ford’s oration, Wallace uses highly religious imagery without an apparent hint of irony. Burns as an icon for veneration and worship could hardly be more obviously expressed. Above all, Wallace seeks to glorify his audience for their hard work as Burnsian ‘men of action’. Asking ‘what were the most remarkable of the Burns achievements of the century’,xxviii Wallace claims that ‘the most noticeable of these was the existence of that unique propaganda for keeping Burns’s memory green in the heart of the world, and for giving circulation to his ideas, known as Burns Club’.xxix Again, there is little sense of irony in these lines which credit (and identify) the work of Burns Clubs as ‘unique propaganda’. Wallace ends his oration by wholeheartedly endorsing Burns Clubs, this time employing the rhetoric of martial combat witnessed in Ford’s account: ‘The Burns Clubs comprised the big battalions of the sense and worth of Scotland and of Scottish communities of the world’.xxx

This cultural phenomenon was not limited only to Burns Clubs; the nation at large followed suit. The following from The Scotsman (26 January 1859) is representative of the ‘Burnomania’ zeitgeist: ‘Scotland may now, in pride if also somewhat in penitence, stand up before the world and say that she has rendered to her Poet, if not justice, such an homage as no other nation has paid to any similar man’.xxxi Similar to Walter Scott’s brand of antiquarian Scottish nationalism, the Burns Clubs of the nineteenth century offered members an opportunity to experience ‘contemporaneous community’xxxii by means of a highly idealised image of the poet. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg have claimed that during this time, ‘Burns was thus both for a period simultaneously radical scapegoat and sentimental national icon[….] As the political anxieties calmed, the sentimental Burns of corrupt national imagining could occupy centre stage’.xxxiii By omitting mention of his sex life as well as his politics, such Burns clubs in the nineteenth century made the poet (in Jimmy Reid’s words) into ‘a crass, sentimentalised conformist’.xxxiv

As the nineteenth-century glorification of Burns waned, interest in his political views (and potential value) grew among many Scottish groups. Along with discussions of gender in Burns’s work, the significance of politics has assumed a primary role in critical and popular cultural analyses of the poet.xxxv Particularly in the new climate of devolution following the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Burns has assumed different, often competing iconic meanings as various groups have sought to harness the power of his reputation to promote their interests. Nowhere has this process been more evident than in Burns’s relationship to politics; his endorsement or denunciation of radical politics in particular has continued to be a major bone of contention in discussions of his reputation. The major difficulty facing critics in this regard involves Burns’s decidedly ambiguous political stances throughout his life. Liam McIlvanney has characterised Burns’s political attitude as a ‘general noncomformity and contentiousness’,xxxvi while Burns’s most recent biographer Robert Crawford has argued that Burns’s political poetry employs ‘forked-tongue encoding’ to express its radical content: ‘at the very outset of his political verse it deploys a strategy that will repeatedly characterise his later writings: his first political poem [‘When Guilford good’] seems to side with “our law” while actually manifesting sympathy with rebellion’.xxxvii In Crawford’s account, such ‘forked-tongue encoding’ occurs even within the confines of Burns’s life story: ‘the more the bard positioned himself as a figure of regulatory authority, the more rebellious he became’.xxxviii Along similar lines, the controversy over The Canongate Burns, the one-volume annotated compendium of the poet’s complete works published in 2001, attests to the persistent efforts of various groups to reveal the ‘real’ Burns.xxxix Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, the volume’s editors, argue for a ‘radical’ Burns whose political sympathies with the French Revolution were exerted in anonymous contributions to London and Glasgow newspapers.xl They argue that evidence of Burns’s role in 1790s radical political circles has been actively suppressed by critics, editors, friends, and enemies of the poet since his death. For Noble and Hogg, however, it is not only the poet’s radical politics alone but also his ‘genius’ that differentiates him from others in the literary field: ‘his ideas are absolutely in the mainstream of eighteenth-century radicalism; it is not his beliefs but, like John Milton or William Blake, the quality of his poetic genius that makes him exceptional’.xli

Such critical positions about Burns’s politics are hard to definitively support with evidence from his literary remains. Burns proved to be extremely cagey when it came to adopting or endorsing a consistent political stance. For example, in a letter to Robert Graham of Fintry written in December 1789, Burns declared himself to be politically neutral: ‘I am too little a man to have any political attachments; I am deeply indebted to, and have the warmest veneration for, Individuals of both Parties’.xlii Four years later, in a letter to Alexander Cunningham, Burns offered a less diplomatic view of politics in the following catechism: ‘What is Politics? […] Politics is a science wherewith, by means of nefarious cunning, & hypocritical pretence, we govern civil Polities for the emolument of ourselves & our adherents’.xliii In January 1795, in a letter which dissolved his long friendship with Frances Dunlop, Burns revealed yet another side of his political mindset: remarking upon mutual friend Dr John Moore’s review of the events in France, Burns confides that ‘entre nous, you know my Politics; & I cannot approve of the honest Doctor’s whining over the deserved fate of a certain pair of Personages.—What is there in the delivering over a perjured Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute into the hands of the hangman?’xliv

From this multiplicity of apparently contradictory political beliefs, Burns refused to take a definitive position publicly; as Marilyn Butler has noted, ‘a creative writer writes for the public and is dependent on fickle public taste, which for general social reasons often veers away from writers who present themselves as abrasive or contentious. Burns had to make very delicate judgements if he was to go on pleasing the educated public’.xlv For Burns’s Scottish audience, this public identity was nationally, regionally, and locally divisive. In fact, it was so divisive that ‘Scotland at the beginning of the century was hard to think of as one country, so deep were the divisions between the partly Gaelic-speaking and Episcopalian or Catholic Highlands and the English-speaking, Presbyterian and commercially active Lowlands’.xlvi Out of this multiplicity of Scottish identities, Burns served as an appealing, unifying and iconic representation with which his reading public could safely identify. This representation resulted from the cultural production initiated by his early readers that continues to exert powerful influence even today upon popular perceptions of Burns.

For a uniform national identity such as Burns’s to be coherent, a counter-identity needs to be constructed as backdrop and opposition. Liam Connell has argued that the concept of ‘English hegemony’ has historically served this purpose, noting that ‘England’s supposed cultural hegemony; [is] a concentration which treats England as an undifferentiated totality and [… implies] an equivalence between English forms of culture and the material advantages of political union’.xlvii Arguing that historically ‘Scots have found it relatively easy to enter into the elite classes in fairly large numbers’, Connell suggests that ‘the marker of exclusion was class rather than nationality’.xlviii Contemporary sociological research in Scotland, however, affirms the ongoing centrality of national identity in the lives of everyday Scots. Based on field research, Richard Kiely, David McCrone, and Frank Bechhofer have found that ‘national identity appears to have grown at the expense of state identity, notably in Scotland’.xlix Using the term ‘British’ to convey ‘state identity’, Kiely, McCrone and Bechhofer discovered through primary research in both England and Scotland that ‘the same term—British—is often construed quite differently, is being made to do quite different identity work’.l

Noting that ‘there are quite different identity registers in Scotland as opposed to England’, they suggest that the concept of ‘Britishness’ has become very problematic for contemporary Scots. For some Scots, they claim, ‘Britishness’ is ‘a synonym for Englishness’, leading them ‘to prioritize their sense of Scottishness over Britishness’. In direct opposition to Connell’s claim about the permeability of ‘British’ culture for Scots, Kiely, McCrone and Bechhofer present evidence that ‘Scottish nationals are keen to stress what they perceive to be very significant differences [my emphasis] between Scottishness and Englishness rather than any shared commonality’. Noting that ‘one can be a Scot […] and not turn it into a statement of political-constitutional aspiration’, they claim that nevertheless, ‘many Scots see more recognisable elements and positive connotations around contemporary representations of Scottishness than they do around what they perceive to be dated and problematic notions of Britishness’.li

This finding is supported by research conducted by Susan Condor and Jackie Abell, who discovered that it was ‘common for respondents in Scotland to warrant personal claims to national pride by drawing on emblematic historical figures, events and narratives’.lii This finding suggests that ‘ideologies of nationalism may be fundamentally reliant upon particular forms of historical consciousness’.liii Adopting Northrop Frye’s notion of romance as ‘a marvelous national adventure, a story of national triumph over adversity, or a Manichean struggle between nation and antagonist’,liv the authors explore how the registers of ‘romantic’ Scotland and ‘tragic’ England influence contemporary Scots in their perceptions of national identity. Based on their interviews of Labour, socialist, and/or SNP respondents, Condor and Abell found there to be ‘an unambiguously critical orientation to British imperialism’ among this group, who likewise maintained ‘a heroic narrative of enduring Scottish national character and history by rhetorically detaching the categories of Scottish and British’.lv

Not only do such findings support the claims of Kiely, McCrone, and Bechhofer, they demonstrate the powerful influence of nationalist narratives upon perceptions of national identity. Such narratives often rely on expressly imagined events that elide or censor unfavourable, messy historical details; remarking upon the beliefs of a respondent named Jenny, Condor and Abell comment that ‘Jenny brackets consideration of Scotland’s imperial involvement in favour of an emphasis on domestic narratives of national genius and triumph over adversity’.lvi Indeed, even in England, Scotland gets a free pass when it comes to the ‘tragedy’ of the British Empire: ‘No respondent born and educated in England accorded Scotland any role in the British Empire save that of passive victim of English colonialism’.lvii Based on this primary research, Condor and Abell suggest that for many contemporary Scots, there is ‘a continuous national history in the context of which Britishness [is] figured as an identifiable, and possibly temporary, moment’.lviii Describing this as ‘a distinctive form of ontological accounting, whereby the category British could be treated as a historically contingent social construct’, Condor and Abell surmise that ‘Union-and-Empire accounts could operate as a form of historical bracketing, such that the loss of Empire and the establishment of a separate Scottish parliament could be seen to have rendered the notion of “British identity” obsolete’.lix

Burns’s role as an emblematic figure in such ‘romantic’ nationalist narratives described by Condor and Abell has been prominent since his death; he has been seen as an exemplar of national genius as well as heroic saviour of native Scottish values. Noting that Burns’s nationalism has ‘conservative, rather than individualistic origins’, Butler claims that the poet did not ‘invent Scottish nationalism. But the key to understanding his career, and its political impact, is to grasp how he relates to post-Jacobite nationalism and substantially influences its course’.lx Burns’s success in this endeavour has been quite extraordinary, as has been noted in the popular cultural appreciation of the poet. Crawford has described Burns’s ‘bardic’ mission as an ‘urge to be a poet of his whole country: to re-collect Scotland as a literary nation’.lxi This mission has been quite successful, especially if one takes the remarkable discussion of Burns’s legacy in the Scottish Parliament on January 25, 2001 into account. Two years into its reinstatement, the Parliament devoted approximately fifty minutes of its time to debating the following motion:

That the Parliament recognises the immeasurable contribution to which the life and works of Robert Burns have made to the history and culture of Scotland [… and] that the Scottish Executive should do all it can to ensure that the maximum educational, cultural and economic, particularly tourism, benefits are gained by the people of Scotland from Robert Burns’s legacy.lxii

As MSP David Mundell noted at the start of the session, ‘I have been flicking through my Burns tome to see whether he had some suitable words for what has happened today, but even he would be at a loss for words for the preceding events’.lxiii

However, Michael Billig describes how such events as the above may serve to reinforce nationalist ideology: ‘a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices must […] be reproduced. Moreover, this complex must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times’.lxiv The image of Burns that emerges in the parliamentary discussion indeed partakes of the banal and mundane. Over the course of the debate, an assortment of MSPs offer reminiscences of the Scottish bard in order to assert that ‘he is a man who should be at the heart of our culture’.lxv Perhaps the most unusual display came from MSP Fergus Ewing, who sought to respond to the question ‘whether Burns was a nationalist’ by breaking into a rousing rendition of this chorus:

Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
Fareweel our ancient glory;
Fareweel even to the Scottish name,
Sae fam’ed in martial story!

After which Ewing blithely remarked, ‘members will know the rest of the words; they are available on the SNP CD, which is now remaindered, but still available’.lxvii Such pre-prandial aggrandising is not unusual in halls of power, and is perhaps even commendable on a celebratory night like January 25, 2001; it was, after all, Burns Night. The convivial mood of the proceedings, however, does not fully conceal the genuine regional and national motivation for recognising the ‘global significance of the name Robert Burns’.lxviii In Mundell’s words again, ‘As Scots, we should be proud of that inheritance, but we must not be so proud that we do not take advantage of it’.lxix As the exhilaration faded near the end of ‘the best debate in the Parliament to date’ (according to MSP Allan Wilson), the members resolved to follow through on their marketing strategy for Robert Burns; in Wilson’s words, ‘the new tourism action plan for Scottish Enterprise Ayrshire identified Burns as a brand icon that should be developed’.lxx He continued to state that ‘our commitment will not be ephemeral. It will not be here today and gone tomorrow, but will be part of a determined process to recognise the bard’s unique contribution not only to our cultural heritage but to the contemporary economy’.lxxi

This Parliamentary debate of 2001 underscores the continuing ambiguity of Burns’s role as a Scottish national icon. For Stuart Kelly, in a Scotland on Sunday article in 2009, Burns acts as a common denominator for all Scots, whether conservative, socialist, royalist, republican, nationalist, or unionist. However, as Robert Crawford remarks in The Bard, ‘there is a danger that in the twenty-first century we will forget that Scotland’s greatest poet belongs to the art form of poetry, not as an adjunct to or excuse for tourism, “creative industries”, rock concerts or marketeers’ gigs’.lxxii It is important to examine exactly what Burns represents to Scotland’s national heritage industry. Pierre Bourdieu claims that the work of ‘cultural producers’ can be transformative, stating that ‘cultural producers are able to use the power conferred on them, especially in periods of crisis, by their capacity to put forward a critical definition of the social world, to mobilize the potential strength of the dominated classes and subvert the order prevailing in the field of power’.lxxiii For Burns, such a capacity for intervention appears to be an impossibility, for his reputation has been so manipulated by various groups that it often has little resemblance to his actual life and body of work.

A last look at the Minutes of the Parliamentary debate of 2001 is instructive in this respect. Outside of tourism, the question of Burns’s politics is the only other serious topic of discussion. Elaine Murray, MSP for Dumfries, Annandale and Eskdale, offered that ‘all politicians like to believe that Burns, had he been alive, would have been a supporter of their particular political party’. She then proposed her theory that ‘I find much in his later works … to support my notion that he was a socialist’.lxxiv MSP Cathy Peattie agreed with Murray that Burns was a socialist, but also found him to be an internationalist.lxxv Fergus Ewing described Burns as an egalitarian, an internationalist, and a nationalist; as to the last point, he emphatically remarked, ‘in response to the question whether Burns was a nationalist, there is only one answer—obviously, patently, demonstrably, and incontrovertibly yes’.lxxvi Fergus Ewing’s over-determined rhetoric was then challenged by MSP Phil Gallie, who conceded that Burns ‘meant all things to all men’ but also sought to rebut Ewing by pointing to Burns’s participation in the Dumfries Volunteers as evidence of the poet’s loyalty to the Union of 1707.lxxvii In Gallie’s words, ‘that example undoubtedly shows Burns stressing his unionist interests. Furthermore, Burns supported a Tory candidate in Dumfries in a local council by-election’.lxxviii Gallie ended his harangue with a bit of sage council: ‘many members would quite rightly highlight Burns’s socialist credentials. However, one of the things about Burns that we can be proud of is that he means something different to each and every one of us’.lxxix

What does one make of such remarkably divergent interpretations of a national historical figure? Given Burns’s preeminent place in Scottish literature, it is understandable that politicians want to possess the cachet of the Burns ‘brand icon’. As Randal Johnson remarks, ‘in the cultural (e.g. literary) field, competition often concerns the authority inherent in recognition, consecration, and prestige’.lxxx Burns has certainly made his mark in the literary field and vanquished all rivals; consequently, his appeal to Scots of all stripes has been historically undeniable and politically advantageous, reflecting the privilege inherent in the processes of recognition and consecration. However, as has been noted, Burns was quite capable of adapting and transforming his political appeals to suit particular audiences, whether local, regional, or national. This has made his work apparently reflective of every possible political position (nationalist, unionist, socialist, etc.), according to the quotation selected. Burns, to put it plainly, has become the property of his venders, purchasers, and admirers, with little to no regard for the veracity of his historical existence.

The multiplicity of these positions is quite apparent in the contemporary use made of Burns’s iconic image. The source of his national iconicity can be found in the political terrain of post-Union Scotland, which fostered the need and creation of an icon such as Burns. After 1707 the demand for an iconic figure that could appeal to Scots of all classes became paramount. As seen in the research of Condor and Abell, the appeal of a ‘romantic’ Scottish history is still fundamental for how many contemporary Scots view their national identity. Burns plays a major role in such romantic narratives of the nation by serving as a defiant ‘Scottish’ genius who ‘saved’ Scottish literature single-handedly. Indeed, it is not entirely necessary or even interesting to continue to debate whether Burns was ‘really’ a socialist, nationalist, unionist, or internationalist. Given the spectrum of selective evidence and texts, it is quite possible to manufacture the ‘Burns brand icon’ to fit an array of political persuasions. The more intriguing question to answer is how such a state of affairs came to be, how and why a labouring-class Scottish poet of the late eighteenth century came to be such an iconic figure in post-Union Scotland.

The answer involves not only Burns’s immediate historical context but clearly his linguistic choices as well. Michael Billig remarks that ‘the battle for hegemony, which accompanies the creation of states, is reflected in the power to define language [….] This power resides not merely in the imposition of certain words and phrases, but also in the claim of languages to be languages’.lxxxi In fact, Billig suggests that ‘the achievement of national hegemony is well-illustrated by the triumph of official national languages and the suppression of rivals’.lxxxii The concept of dialect is a pressing concern in this struggle for hegemonic control: Billig notes that ‘the idea of a dialect had little use before nation-states started establishing official ways of speaking and writing. Differences between languages and dialect, then, became hotly contested political issues’.lxxxiii In this light, even the very term ‘dialect’ has an expressly political connotation; it is ‘a term which almost invariably carries a pejorative meaning’. One can state it even more strongly: ‘a “dialect” is frequently a language which did not succeed politically’.lxxxiv In post-Union Scotland, Burns’s linguistic choice of Scots was decidedly calculated to respond to such charges and provoke nationalist responses from readers. For many Scots, nationalist sentiment has been (and always will be) associated with literature in Scots, a language choice that has been historically tied to pre-Union Scottish national identity.lxxxv Although such a formulation is not technically accurate (especially given the volume of seventeenth-century Scottish verse in English), the equation of Scots with pre-Union ‘Scottishness’ has been long maintained in critical and literary histories of the period.lxxxvi

The traditional trajectory of eighteenth-century Scottish verse—the triumvirate theory of Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns—has been upheld on the basis of such linguistic assumptions. Given this paradigm, Burns’s works in Scots evoke Scottish nationalist continuity, based primarily on poetic transmission. From the medieval Scots Makars to anonymous bards, Burns’s poetic universe is peopled with cross-generational icons whose work sustains national identity, including the figure of the national bard. It is an expressly imagined world of martial valor, inflamed passions, and militant rhetoric, often communicated in a Scots argot that connotes membership and community to insiders. In an article in The Scotsman in 2009 entitled ‘We celebrate Burns yearly, but what about his native language?’, Paul H. Scott claims that ‘Lallans, or Scots, has been under pressure from English since the Union’.lxxxvii Complaining that ‘even in Ulster, the Scots language has more government financial support than it has in Scotland’,lxxxviii Scott argues that appreciation of Burns should be coupled with appreciation and promotion of Scots as the linguistic expression of Scottish national identity. For Scott, the linguistic suppression of Scots mirrors the political suppression of the Scottish people: ‘there is a suspicion that this has been because Conservative and Labour governments were afraid that stimulation of the Scots language in Scotland might give the Scottish people more self-confidence and raise their expectations, and who knows where that might lead?’lxxxix In such equations of speech and national identity, Burns as a Scots poet resisting English forces of assimilation serves as the paramount iconic representation.xc

The sense of ownership conveyed by this sentiment is a major feature of Scotland’s relationship to Burns. As MSP Winnie Ewing had stated in the 2001 Parliamentary debate, ‘we have a phenomenon that belongs to us’.xci It is unquestionable that the Burns ‘brand icon’ will continue to be a valuable commodity in post-post-Union Scotland. Scots have a proprietary interest in the poet: he remains ‘a phenomenon that belongs to us’. However, serving only in the posthumous capacity of a national icon diminishes the scope and relevance of Burns’s achievements. His carefully created poetic personae allowed for a multi-faceted performance to diverse audiences, from local to international. Instead of seeing such multiplicity as an admission of free game for claiming the ‘real’ Robert Burns, Burns’s ambiguity should be interpreted as a sign of his changing attitudes and feelings about the Scotland of his time. Burns’s literary and cultural self-presentation was much more sophisticated and nuanced than has been generally accepted. By recognising the process of reputation-building that has gone into the production of Burns as a national icon, his place in the literary field can be better understood and appreciated. Indeed, the poet’s ‘venders, purchasers, and admirers’ may even find a much richer and more complex national icon than they had previously imagined.


i Donald A. Low, ed. Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p.34.

ii Low, 1974, p.34.

iii Low, 1974, pp.250-251.

iv Ibid, p.249.

v Grouping Burns with John Wilkes, ‘Peter Pindar’ (John Wolcot), and Thomas Paine gives some incidental support for the perception of Burns as a political ‘radical’.

vi John Dawson Ross, ed. Burnsiana. Vols 4-6 (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1894), vol 5, p.28.

vii Ibid, p.29.

viii Ibid, Emphasis mine.

ix Ibid.

x John Dawson Ross, ed. Burns Almanac (New York: Raeburn, 1898), p.114.

xi Ross, 1898, p. 113. Philadelphia alone has three Burns Clubs in Ross’s list.

xii Ross, Burnsiana, 1894, vol 4 p.47.

xiii The club’s first official minutes begin on July 21, 1801; see ‘The Oldest Burns Club in the World’, in Ross, 1894, vol 5, p.33.

xiv See Corey E. Andrews, Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2004), pp.228-68 for discussion of Burns’s appeal for Scottish clubs of all varieties.

xv Low, 1974, p.274.

xvi Ibid.

xvii Ross, 1894, vol 4, p.85. Emphasis mine.

xviii Ibid. Emphasis mine.

xix Ross, 1898, p.135.

xx Ross, 1894, vol 4, p.86.

xxi Ibid.

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Ross, Henley and Burns; or, the Critic Censured (Stirling: Eneas Mackay, 1901), p.29.

xxiv Ross, 1894, vol 4, p.87.

xxv Along with having the namesake of a Scottish icon, Wallace edited a popular edition of Burns’s works in the late nineteenth century; for more on Wallace, see G. Ross Roy, ‘Editing Robert Burns in the Nineteenth Century’ in Kenneth Simpson, ed., Burns Now (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994), pp.129-149.

xxvi Ross, ed., The Memory of Burns (Glasgow: William Hodge, 1899), p.58.

xxvii Ibid.

xxviii Ibid, p.59.

xxix Ibid, p.58. Emphasis mine.

xxx Ibid, p.58. Emphasis mine.

xxxi Quoted in Nicholas Roe, ‘Authenticating Robert Burns’, Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism 46.3 (1996): 195-218 (p.195).

xxxii See Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), p. 145.

xxxiii Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, eds. The Canongate Burns (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001), p.lxxii.

xxxiv Jimmy Reid, ‘Besmirching the Spirit of Robert Burns’, The Scotsman, Jan 21, 2002.

xxxv On the topic of Burns and gender, see Robert Crawford, ‘Burns’s Sister’, in Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, eds. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp.91-102, Leith Davis, ‘Gender and the Nation in the Work of Robert Burns and Janet Little’, SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38.4 (1998), 621-45, and Margery Palmer McCulloch, ‘Sexual Politics or the Poetry of Desire: Catherine Carswell’s Life of Robert Burns’, in Kenneth Simpson, ed., Love and Liberty: Robert Burns, A Bicentenary Celebration (East Linton: Tuckwell, 1997), pp.289-98. On Burns and politics, see Marilyn Butler, ‘Burns and Politics’, in Robert Crawford, ed., Robert Burns and Cultural Authority (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp.86-112, William Donaldson, ‘The Glencairn Connection: Robert Burns and Scottish Politics’, Studies in Scottish Literature 16 (1981), 61-79, Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell, 2002), pp.1-11, Norman Elrod, ‘Robert Burns and Thomas Paine: Two Proponents of Human Rights’, Studies in Scottish Literature 30 (1998), 117-28, and Jeffrey Skoblow, ‘Resisting the Powers of Calculation: A Bard’s Politics’, in Carol McGuirk, ed., Critical Essays on Robert Burns (London: Prentice Hall, 1998), pp.17-31. For more general accounts of Scottish politics at the time, see Bob Harris, Scotland in the Age of the French Revolution (Edinburgh: J. Donald, 2005).

xxxvi McIlvanney, 2002, p.10.

xxxvii Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (London: Jonathan Cape. 2009), p.150. Also (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.150.

xxxviii Crawford, 2009, p.351.

xxxix For media accounts of this controversy, see Tom Curtis, ‘Burns feuding hits new low’, Scotland on Sunday, Mar 9, 2003., and Fiona Gray, ‘Bitter spat between feuding Burns scholars threatens to overshadow Year of Homecoming’, Scotland on Sunday, Jan 4, 2009. For academic discussion of this debate, see Gerard Carruthers, ‘Alexander Geddes and the Burns ‘Lost Poems’ Controversy’, Studies in Scottish Literature 31 (1999), 81-85, Carruthers, ‘The New Bardolatry’, Burns Chronicle (2002), 9-15, Carruthers, ‘The Problem of Pseudonyms in the Burns “Lost Poems”’, Studies in Scottish Literature 33-34 (2004), 97-106, and Carruthers, ROSC + date. See also Crawford, The Bard, p.10.

xl They point to Lucyle Werkmeister’s research to support this claim; see Werkmeister, “Robert Burns and the London Daily Press,” Modern Philology 63.4 (1966), 322-35.

xli Noble and Hogg, 2003, p.xxxv.

xlii J. DeLancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, eds. The Letters of Robert Burns. 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), vol. 1 p.455.

xliii Ferguson and Roy, 1985, vol. 2 p.182.

xliv Ibid, p.334.

xlv Butler, 1997, p.88.

xlvi Ibid, p.104.

xlvii Connell, ‘Scottish Nationalism and the Colonial Vision of Scotland’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 6.2 (2004), 252-63 (p.255).

xlviii Ibid, p. 255.

xlix Richard Kiely, David McCrone and Frank Bechhofer, ‘Whither Britishness? English and Scottish People in Scotland’, Nations and Nationalism 11.1 (2005), 65-82 (p. 66).

l Ibid, p.67.

li Ibid, pp.67, 69, 72, 76, 73.

lii Susan Condor and Jackie Abell, ‘Romantic Scotland, Tragic England, Ambiguous Britain: Constructions of ‘The Empire’ in Post-Devolution National Accounting’, Nations and Nationalism 12.3 (2006), 453-72 (p. 457).

liii Ibid, p.453.

liv Ibid, p.457. The authors refer to Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963).

lv Ibid, p.458.

lvi Ibid.

lvii Ibid, p.461.

lviii Ibid, p.467. Emphasis mine.

lix Condor and Abell, 2006, pp.467, 466. Emphasis mine.

lx Butler, 1997, pp.103, 104.

lxi Crawford, 2009, p.266.

lxii ‘Robert Burns and the Federation Debated in the Scottish Parliament’, 25 January 2001, The G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, p.1.

lxiii Robert Burns and the Federation, 2001, p.1.

lxiv Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995), p.6.

lxv Robert Burns and the Federation, 2001, p.1.

lxvi Ibid, p.3.

lxvii Ibid.

lxviii Ibid, p.1.

lxix Ibid.

lxx Ibid, pp.8, 9. Emphasis mine.

lxxi Ibid, p. 9.

lxxii Stuart Kelly, ‘Robbing Burns’, Scotland on Sunday, 25 January 2009.; Crawford, 2009, p.406.

lxxiii Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Literary Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p.44.

lxxiv Robert Burns and the Federation, 2001, p.6.

lxxv See Ibid, p.7.

lxxvi Ibid, p.3.

lxxvii See Ibid, p.4.

lxxviii Ibid.

lxxix Ibid. Emphasis mine.

lxxx Randal Johnson, ‘Editor’s Introduction: Pierre Bourdieu on Art, Literature, and Culture’, in The Field of Literary Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 1-28 (p. 7).

lxxxi Billig, 1995, p.32.

lxxxii Billig, 1995, p.27.

lxxxiii Billig, 1995, p.32.

lxxxiv Billig, 1995, p.32.

lxxxv For discussion of this view, see F.W. Freeman, ‘The Intellectual Background of the Vernacular Revival before Burns’, Studies in Scottish Literature 16 (1981), 160-187, R.D.S. Jack, ‘Which Vernacular Revival? Burns and the Makars’, Studies in Scottish Literature 30 (1998), 9-17, Andrew Noble, ‘Burns and Scottish Nationalism’, in Simpson, ed., Burns Now (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994), 167-92. and Paul H. Scott, ‘The Eighteenth Century Revival and the Nature of Scottish Nationalism’, Scottish Studies Review 3.2 (2002), 9-19.

lxxxvi See Corey E. Andrews, ‘“Almost the Same, but Not Quite”: English Poetry by Eighteenth-Century Scots’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 47.1 (2007), 59-79 for a discussion of this paradigm.

lxxxvii Paul H. Scott, ‘We celebrate Burns yearly, but what about his native language?’ The Scotsman, Feb 10, 2009. For discussion of Burns’s role as an avatar of ‘Scottishness’, see Donald Low, ‘1786 and 1996: Ideals, Prejudices and Burns the Writer’, Studies in Scottish Literature 30 (1998), 181-86.

lxxxviii Scott, 2009.

lxxxix Scott, 2009.

xc This debate swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. In a recent article (‘Food fight over Scots language in supermarkets’, Scotland on Sunday, June 21, 2009., Eddie Barnes reports that ‘the battle for independence has moved into the fruit and veg aisles. A Nationalist politician has written to supermarkets demanding that they translate the English names of fresh produce into their Scots equivalents, such as “tatties”, “neeps” and “brambles”’. The campaign, initiated by Bill Wilson, the MSP for the West of Scotland, seeks to affirm national identity through equivalent treatment for the Scots language; he is quoted in the article as saying, ‘why don’t we, in the year of Homecoming, recognise that there are other languages?’ In response to Wilson’s campaign, Richard Dodd, of Scottish Retail Consortium, stated that ‘Product labelling is there to provide the maximum clarity to the biggest number of people, and that is why the correct and most widely understood words are the ones used’.

xci Robert Burns and the Federation, 2001, p.7.

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