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Robert Burns Lives!
An article by Dr Carruthers

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

In keeping with the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday, we are honored to welcome imminent Burns scholar Dr. Gerard Carruthers to our pages on the Bard. I met Dr. Carruthers a few years ago in Columbia, South Carolina while attending a symposium at the University of South Carolina honoring Dr. Ross Roy on his 80th birthday. Since then I have followed Gerry’s career through the Scottish press and via several mutual friends both here in the States and in Scotland. Simply put, Dr. Carruthers is one of the top two or three Burns scholars in the world.

Gerry Carruthers is Head of Department in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow where he is also Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. He is General Editor of the new Oxford University Press multi-volume edition of the Works of Robert Burns and author of Scottish Literature, A Critical Guide (2009) and Robert Burns (2006). In addition, Gerry is editor of The Devil to Stage: Five Plays by James Bridie (2007) and Burns: Poems (2007).

He has not limited himself to Burns alone and has served as Research Fellow at the Centre for Walter Scott Studies at the University of Aberdeen. He has taught American, English, and Scottish literatures at the University of Strathclyde as well. During the summer of 2002, Dr. Carruthers was the W. Ormiston Roy Memorial Research Fellow at the University of South Carolina. To me, this last achievement is as impressive as any of his many accomplishments. Robert Crawford, prominent Scottish poet, author and Burns scholar, refers to our guest in his latest book, The Bard, Robert Burns, A Biography, as “the distinguished textual scholar Dr. Gerry Carruthers”. I cannot say it better. Welcome, Gerry!

What Burns Means to Me
Dr. Gerard Carruthers

There is a perennial debate about Robert Burns’s status as Scotland’s ‘national poet’, and his suitability for this role. We might ask, however, ought any writer to be comfortably appropriated for such status? Surely a creative artist worth his or her salt will have a countercultural element that does not sit easily with the imagined officialdom of the nation? Truly, Burns, along with Walter Scott, is one of the two great inventors of the modern iconography of Scotland. However, this has an added complication according to some commentators. For instance, the highlands were re-imagined by both writers in a way that has sometimes led to accusations that they collaborated in the British appropriation of the Gaeltachd in the eighty years following 1745. It does not even matter whether Burns and Scott were consciously engaged in such a process, so one version of the argument goes; living in an age of inexorable British ‘progress’ they could not help themselves and were, according to Edwin Muir, ‘sham bards of a sham nation’.

There is another way of reading Burns, however, which very precisely disregards Muir’s anxiety over the lack of authentic political and cultural independence in eighteenth century Scotland. Rather than being seen as a poet inevitably compromised by a broken national scene and history, Burns might be seen as a man in full command of post-1707, and indeed post-revolutionary modernity (something that would include those huge western mind shocks, the American, French and Agrarian revolutions). In reading objectively-inclined Enlightenment historians Burns was prompted to re-read the Covenanters as proto-democrats looking towards 1789. The poet played his part too in bringing back from the despised margins, the Jacobites. Burns’s promiscuous sympathy also extended to the Highlander. Half-jokingly and perhaps wholly seriously, the great fifteenth century Makar William Dunbar had spoken as a typical lowland poet when he opined that there was no music in Hell – except for the bagpipes. Burns’s great satire ‘Address of Beelzebub’ sees Satan’s right hand man commending the Earl of Breadalbane for exploiting the Gael and suggesting that things be taken further so that highland child-labour ought to be instituted and Gaelic women put to use in Drury Lane as prostitutes. Burns helped bring in from the cold Mary Queen of Scots, Stuart queen previously supposed to be despotic and devious. For Burns, Mary is bright, sensitive and unjustly treated. Coming himself from a Presbyterian background, Burns is remarkable in this act of reappraisal. His own religious background, which he could lampoon when this was warranted, is another element that Burns rehabilitates. In ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and elsewhere the poet did much to counter the sneer of ‘fanaticism’ often heard from metropolitan (both Scottish and British) ‘centres’ of culture towards the Scottish kirk. Unsurprisingly, English Protestant dissenters responded with approval to the poet’s essay in the idea of the dignity in ‘low church’ worship.

We should see Burns, then, as a writer deeply interested in the past but applying its general lesson to the present. Taken in the round, what Burns poems and songs show is that he knew there was no easy or single way of being Scottish. Burns might be said in this, as in other aspects including his profound interest in the song and ballad culture of the folk, to be the first great poet of the democratic age. Approving of American and French revolutions, deeply engaged too with the Scottish past, Burns is a poet remarkably intelligent in his cultural radar. The frequent depiction of Burns restive on his plinth is not really appropriate to a writer actually open to the restlessness of both past and present. Burns is a poet of plurality and possibility rather than fixed identity. He is, indeed, a poet of whom modern Scotland can be proud. (FRS:2.6.09)

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