Burns Week Celebrates the Scots Poet

Read a profile of the artist by Burns expert John Gray

After many years of gently fading from Ulster's view, Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite bard is back with a vengeance. Burns night suppers have for long featured the ‘Ode to the Haggis’ and other rituals. It remains to be seen whether this new impetus can make Burns a poet for our times.

Robert Burns burst onto the literary scene in 1784. Here was a new and distinct voice speaking in the Scots vernacular; a poet of the ordinary people and one of lyrical talent and of passion, a caustic enemy of hypocrisy, and a siren call for all those restless in an age of reform and revolution.

As ‘a simple plough boy’ he took on the romantic guise of the ‘noble savage’, though actually a well-read if struggling Ayshire tenant farmer and later a customs man. His talent and the apparent romance of his origins won him the fleeting attention of the Edinburgh elite, until he became too hot to handle.

Burns was embraced with special enthusiasm in Ulster. His appeal was one of language and of politics. His sympathy for the American and French revolutions, and his excoriating contempt for aristocracy struck a particular chord. He was first published outside Scotland in the Belfast News-letter, and five Belfast editions of his poems were published by 1800.

Burns was a source of inspiration to Ulster’s own weaver poets. When Samuel Thomson, ‘The Bard of Carngranny’ published his Poems in 1793 the work was ‘printed so as to match Burns’s poems’.

Thomson was one of at least four individuals from Ulster who visited Burns, and both the United Irish Northern Star, and the now more conservative Belfast News-letter tried to enlist his support, without success.

Burns never visited Ulster, and wrote no significant poems about Ireland, though he set a variety of his songs to Irish tunes. Yet his Scottish poems could be potent weapons in an Ulster context, thus the publication of ‘Bruce’s address… at Bannockburn’ in the Star in 1796 was read here as a call to arms.

As late as 1794, Burns made satirical fun of attempts to form a pro-government militia in Dumfries, yet by late 1795 he had joined the Volunteers and his last poem, ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’, was a loyal ballad. It was a death-bed conversion that provoked Samuel Thomson into a bitter satirical attack on his former idol. Had Burns repented of his earlier enthusiasms, or, in terminal ill-health, and fearing for his customs job, chosen to swim with the pro-government tide?

These are contradictions that fuel continued healthy debate in a Scottish context about how ‘radical’ Burns was, and enable Ulster audiences to pick and choose which Burns they wish to follow. This was not just a matter of politics.

The Belfast News–Letter had no difficulty in being first publisher of the inoffensive ‘Ode to the Toothache’. It was another matter with ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’: the editor condemned how Burns had ‘sported so freely with the sacred pages’. Burns’s incandescent bawdy verse and the complexities of his love life were equally beyond the pale for the good living.

In the 19th century the popularity of Burns, often stripped of his rougher parts, grew apace. By the 1820s he had been translated into Russian and international popularity followed. At home Burns rested alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and the Bible on the bookshelves of aspirant families, and Burns was the most popular of them all.

In Belfast there was a Robert Burns singing saloon, and an early steamer to Glasgow was named after him. The centenary of his birth in 1859 was marked by a literary competition in Belfast, though by then the weaver poets who had had the closest affinity with him were a dying breed.

The centenary of his birth in 1896 was a high point in the era of veneration, and was marked here in Ulster by a major exhibition at the Central Library. Following on from this, Andrew Gibson’s major Burns collection was purchased with the help of a public appeal and presented to the Linen Hall Library in 1901. It remains one of the largest outside Scotland.

Burns fell from fashion in the 20th century. Even in Scotland there were those who questioned the stultifying nature of the annual commemorations, and notably the radical, Hugh MacDiarmid, who spoke of the need ‘to throw off all the canting humbug in our midst’.

By the bicentenary in 1996 new debate was flourishing, and it seemed apt that the new Scottish Parliament opened with a rendition of Burns’s democratic anthem ‘A Man’s a Man for ‘a That’ (listen to this poem in full in the podcast above).

Scottish debate largely passed Northern Ireland by and it was not until 2010 that Andrew Holmes and Frank Ferguson published Revising Robert Burns, suggesting that new discussion was possible here. Certainly the memory of Burns deserves more than the simplicities of mere commemoration.