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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns and ‘Blue Devilism’ By Moira Hansen

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

Introduction by Professor Patrick Scott
University of South Carolina

Moira Hansen, a PhD student in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, came circuitously to Burns research, with a pharmacology BSc from Dundee, and experience in data management for a clinical research company, before doing BA and MA degrees in English from the Open University, a teaching diploma at Aberdeen, teaching high school English and working for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In May 2014, after moving from Aberdeen to Glasgow, and wanting to go further with her interest in science and literature, she attended a symposium at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow on the theme of Burns and Medicine. During the symposium, she heard that Gerry Carruthers and Danny Smith were looking for someone interested in exploring the mental health of Robert Burns. She was initially nominated for the first Shaw Scholarship in Robert Burns Studies, which she ceded to another new graduate student when Glasgow awarded her one of the University-wide Lord Kelvin/Adam Smith scholarships, supporting four years of interdisciplinary PhD research. She gives updates about the Blue Devilism project on Twitter (@bluedevilism) and on the project blog  (

Burns and ‘Blue Devilism’
By Moira Hansen

The health of Robert Burns is something which has always fascinated people. Accounts of the poet as an alcoholic genius who lived fast and died young have dogged his biography almost from the moment of his death in 1796. The picture of Burns given by Dr. James Currie, his first major biographer, was influenced by Currie’s ideas as a practising physician and as author of Medical Reports on the Effects of Water (1797). Writers such as Scott (1809), Lockhart (1828) and Madden (1833) perpetuate Currie’s representation, linking it to the idea of Burns as the tortured Romantic genius, a victim of his own inability to control his impulses and urges. It wasn’t until the 20th century, with the 1926 publication of James Crichton-Browne’s Burns from a New Point of View, that there was any real medical challenge to these perceptions. Now, in the 21st century, we have a far better understanding of Burns’s physical health and the causes of his death. Dr Thorne Winter and Sir Kenneth Calman have both previously written for Robert Burns Lives! about the impact of Burns’s health on his life and his poetry (see RBL! 118 and 114).

There is, however, another side to Burns. He may have been a man who knew how to have a good time, but he was also intermittently afflicted by what he called his ‘blue devilism’ – periods of melancholy which could render him bed-ridden or elicit frighteningly dark contemplations such as that written to Frances Dunlop: ‘I have a hundred times wished that one could resign life as an officer resigns a commission…a miserable soldier…conspicuously wretched’ (Letter 184 in Roy’s 2nd edition). Although offering a tantalizing alternative view of the Bard, this melancholy has been little studied, simply accepted as part of his poetic temperament. In 1993, Kay Redfield Jamison suggested the melancholy may be a sign of something more significant – recurrent depression or bipolar disorder – but gave scant detail on how she reached this conclusion.

And this is where the door opens on my doctoral research, now informally named the Blue Devilism project. Working at the University of Glasgow, I’m looking at the mental health of Robert Burns, scouring his letters, journals and notebooks for evidence of signs and symptoms which supports the theory that, had he been alive today, he would be diagnosed as suffering from depression or bipolar disorder. From there, I’ll be looking at the impact his mental health had on his life and on his creativity.

Because it is an interdisciplinary project, I am working with two research supervisors, Prof. Gerard Carruthers from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and Prof. Daniel Smith, Professor of Psychiatry in the Institute of Health and Wellbeing here at the University of Glasgow. Between them I’m well-covered for both the literary and scientific aspects of the project.

Over the past 200 years, Robert Burns has taken a bit of a pounding for his personal life. There has been some exaggeration and embellishment, but you can’t deny that he did have his faults. The results of this research might go some way to providing an explanation for some of his behaviour (not an excuse though!). It will also provide another piece for a wider research question – there is a fair amount of research published which makes strong links between bipolar disorder and creativity, and this research on Burns could add to that picture.

The first stage of the project has been to get a good understanding of what has already been written about Burns’s behaviour and mental health. As well as Currie and Crichton-Browne, William Findlay’s Robert Burns and the Medical Profession (1898) and more modern studies such as those by Buchanan and Kean, and Beveridge have helped paint a picture of the current understanding of the poet’s mental health. This background has informed the development of my methodology for more rigorous exploration of his condition.

Developing this method has been a challenging process. I wanted to ground it, as far as possible, in modern psychiatric methods, using modern definitions of depression and bipolar disorder. But we can’t speak to Burns or his friends and family the way a psychiatrist would today (wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could?!). Instead, I’ve had to design a way of charting the signs and symptoms of abnormal mood in the poet’s letters, test it, tweak it and then apply it across more than 700 letters. This is not without its problems: some of his letters, especially from his late teens and early twenties, are lost, so the evidence is intermittent.

Even where there are more letters, there’s going to be a lot of interpretation, looking for clues in the language Burns used, in his subject matter, in his sentence structure and flow of ideas. Sometimes it’s more straightforward, for example, when Burns directly describes how ‘fatigue, and a load of Care almost too heavy for my shoulders, have in some degree actually fever’d me’ (Letter 228). At other times, the signs are more subtle and need careful assessment – when Burns explains to Sir John Whitefoord ‘It is not easy to imagine a more helpless state than his, whose poetic fancy unfits him for the world’ (Letter 61): is this a show being put on for a social superior, is it the exaggerated grandiose language that might indicate an abnormally elevated mood, or is it a sign of the introspection that Burns was prone to during an episode of melancholy?

The whole thing is a bit like trying to assemble a jigsaw with no box – you’re not sure all the pieces are there and you have only a rough idea of what the picture might look like when you’re done!

Nevertheless, this past year developing methodology and examining the letters has been time well spent. In what feels like the first really big milestone of the project, I’ve been able to generate the first solid data relating to evidence of mood disorder in Burns’s letters.

As an example, this graph shows the variations in Burns’s mood during the period of November 1786 through January 1787 – the time of his first visit to Edinburgh. The peaks show points where there are indications of abnormally elevated mood while the troughs are indicators of abnormally depressed mood. Of particular note is the trough between 13th and 20th December – this coincides with an acknowledged period of melancholy, suggesting this was an episode of what would now be recognised as clinical depression.

This is only a suggestion! The modern clinical description of depression requires a minimum duration for diagnosis, with symptoms continuing for at least two weeks. The current data can’t document this, because we don’t have letters from Burns frequently enough, and certainly not every day. Future work will look for additional evidence, perhaps from Burns, perhaps from his family and friends, which may add to this picture and give us more confidence in identifying these, and other such points in Burns’s timeline, as episodes of abnormal mood.

In talking about the work of the project recently, I was asked if we were running the risk of medicalising Burns’s behaviour by exploring it from the perspective of modern psychiatry. Yet, no-one has ever questioned using modern medical knowledge to develop a better understanding of the physical causes of Burns’s premature death. Mental health is often stigmatized because people don’t see it as a ‘real’ medical concern, something as serious as cancer or diabetes or a broken leg. Instead it becomes something to be ashamed of, not to be discussed. However, someone with mental illness does have a medical condition. Something is not functioning within medically-accepted normal parameters. The condition will almost certainly be life-altering in some way; it will become life-threatening for too many. I’m not making any grand claims about the project solving the problem of stigmatisation. But I do hope this project adds something to the on-going dialogue that is improving public understanding of mental health disorders and how they can affect people’s lives.

Ultimately, it is this unexplored aspect of Burns’s biography that is the focus of the project. In exploring the poet’s moods and how these might connect with modern psychiatric medicine, I hope to add to our collected understanding of Burns as an individual, the motivations and influences underpinning some of his behaviours and life choices and creativity. And in doing so, we should develop a new layer of appreciation which brings us even closer to the man and his poetry.

Anderson, H.B. (1928) in Annals of Medical History, 10 (March 1928), 47-58; revised as Robert Burns, his medical friends, attendants and biographer, New York: Paul B. Hoeber

Beveridge, A. (2014) ‘”Groaning under the miseries of a diseased nervous System”: Robert Burns and Melancholy’, in Scottish Medicine and Culture, ed. David Shuttleton and Megan Coyer, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 145-171

Buchanan, W.; Kean, W. (1982, 1991) ‘Robert Burns’s illness revisited’, Scottish Medical Journal, 27:1, January 1982, 75-88; revised as ‘Robert Burns final illness revisited’, Burns Chronicle, 1991, 60-71

Buchanan, W. (1996) ‘Robert Burns’ Rheumatology’, Burns Chronicle, 237-243
Calman, Kenneth (2011) ‘Remember Tam O’Shanter’s Mare, A Study of Burns and Health’, Robert Burns Lives!, Chapter 114

Crichton-Browne, J. (1926) Burns from a New Point of View, London: Hodder and Stoughton; 2nd ed, London: Hodge, 1937

Findlay, William (1898) Robert Burns and the Medical Profession, Paisley: Gardner

Jamison, Kay Redfield (1993) Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, New York: Simon & Schuster

Purves-Stewart, J. (1935) The Immortal Memory of Burns: A Medical Aspect, London: for the Author

Roy, G. Ross; Ferguson, J. DeLancey (1985) The Letters of Robert Burns, 2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon

Winter, Thorne (2011) ‘Robert Burns – His Life, Illness and Death: 18th Century Medicine in Scotland’, Robert Burns Lives!, Chapter 118

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