Rabbie Burns – the man, the myth, the legend

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Credit: Alexander Nasmyth

Emily Hay
Books Columnist

“This Burns night there will be an equal number of pieces of downright untrue information circulating about the long dead bard – but will you be able to sort the fact from the fiction?”

It’s January and you’re in Glasgow, which can only mean one thing – it’s time to celebrate Burns night! Whether you’ve lived in Scotland all your life or you’ve just moved here for university you can’t deny the presence of Scotland’s national bard at the University of Glasgow, home of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and the ongoing Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century project. Even beyond Glasgow, Burns Suppers will be taking place all over the world on January 25 by Scottish ex-pats and would-be Scots alike, to mark the anniversary of Burns’ birth and to celebrate his legacy in Scotland and the world at large. Indeed, for many people, the world over Burns night isn’t merely a celebration of the huge range of poetry the bard produced in his short life; it’s a celebration of Scotland and Scottish heritage itself, especially since Burns is almost synonymous with Scotland, much like tartan or shortbread. However, being this famous for this long isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, and Burns’ case is no exception. For every person that gears up in their kilt to thrust their Sgian Dhu into a haggis, this Burns night there will be an equal number of misconceptions and pieces of downright untrue information circulating about the long dead bard – but will you be able to sort the fact from the fiction?

First of all, Burns is Scotland’s national bard because he deserves to be. He wrote a huge amount of extraordinary poetry in the national vernacular (not just “Auld Lang Syne” and “Address to a Haggis”), but from the poet evolved a phenomenon that defied the constraints of truth. So, this January bear with me while I attempt to set the record straight on some of the biggest Burnsian misconceptions and salvage the reputation of the man rather than the myth.

The poor farmer boy and his rags to riches story. Burns was the poet of the people, particularly the working classes. He began life a poor, uneducated ploughman’s son and through his extraordinary natural flair for poetry, gained fame and fortune as Scotland’s national bard, right? It is indeed a lovely story, it’s just a shame that it’s almost completely false. Yes, Burns was born to a low-class Ayrshire farming household, but he grew up far from the illiterate farmer’s son as some would have you believe. His father, William Burnes, was an advocate for the education of children and Burns’ childhood report cards from his tutors depict an aptitude for language and literacy from an early age. He was remarkably well read, even compared to those from much wealthier backgrounds. He had an exacting knowledge of classical and historical figures, famous Scots writers like Robert Fergusson and Allan Ramsay as well as contemporary English poets such as Alexander Pope and the Augustans. Burns undeniably had a way with words, but his poetry shows a remarkable ability to construct and create rather than merely an innate talent. You only have to look at poems like “The Vision” to see his rather impressive repertoire of literary and classical references.

The image of Burns as the ploughman poet actually came about with the early reviews of his Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, his first published collection. Author and critic at the time, Henry Mackenzie was one of the first to review his work and famously dubbed Burns the “heaven-taught ploughman”, suggesting his poetic abilities as a gift from god and ignoring his extensive education. Yet, Burns himself also often played up to this view, styling himself as the humble farmer’s boy in the literary circles he later tried to join in Edinburgh, believing it helped to increase his popularity and his sales. He took to labelling himself as a “simple rhymer” rather than a poet in his work, to fit his humble image – alas, it simply isn’t quite true.

As for his supposed rise to riches from his low birth in a ploughman’s cottage, unfortunately Burns never found financial stability in his writing. He had risen to literary prominence throughout Scotland after the publication of his Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of poetry, yet he never made enough money from these sales and his patrons to support his large family. Instead, in his last years he worked for the government as an exciseman, a kind of tax collector, but he still died in debt and terrified for the future of his young family – a fear which you can quite clearly read in the last letters he writes during his long illness. It is the great tragedy of Robert Burns’ life: that a man who makes millions of pounds for the Scottish economy every year died penniless and fearful for the welfare of his wife and children.

Burns was a radical. This is another favourite judgement thrown around about the bard: People seem to love the image of the poet as a politically radical, rabble-rousing, rampant Scottish nationalist. Unfortunately, there is a whole host of reasons why that isn’t quite an accurate representation of Burns. A lot of his work is taken today as evidence for his radical, anti-monarchy or nationalist sentiments – famous songs like “A Man’s a Man” and “Scots Wha Hae” are favourites for showcasing the bard’s supposed political leanings. It is true that Burns wrote a lot of politically motivated poetry and song. However, it would be wrong to conflate views he wrote about in his poetry – a largely fictional genre – and his own personal views and actions. There’s a big difference between writing poetry about politics, and being actively involved in physically fighting for those same political values. Yet, let’s suppose you do believe what he writes as his own personal political views: even then, Burns didn’t practice what he preached. His image as a radical is monumentally scuppered when you find out that he swore not one, but two oaths of loyalty to the British crown in his lifetime. Once upon joining the Dumfries Volunteers – an organisation vowing to protect Britain from a Republican attack from France – and once upon taking up his government job as an exciseman. Notably, the latter of these was another reason that Burns was unable to outwardly expose himself as a political radical. His income depended on the government and the crown, so it wouldn’t have been prudent to then go around biting the hand which fed him. This, along with sedition and censoring laws at the time, pretty much assured that Burns’ publicly printed poetry didn’t actually say anything too radical. Burns was first and foremost concerned with looking after himself, and a stint in a prison cell on sedition charges would have run quite counter to those self-interests. Labeling Burns a “radical” and a “nationalist” by our own modern understandings of those words is far too simplistic a statement. A romantic idea, but one which doesn’t quite ring true.

Burns died an alcoholic. I’ve saved the biggest shock until last, because this is without a doubt the most prolific, enduring rumour out there about the bard. Take any random member of the Scottish public and ask them the question “how did Robert Burns die?” and undoubtedly, the most common answer you’ll receive will be “he died of alcoholism”. Many other common opinions and statements about Burns require nuance and careful study, but this one is simply blatantly untrue.

Firstly, at no point was Burns an alcoholic; he would never have been able to produce the sheer amount of poetry he did in his short life had he been. In fact, Burns seemed to actively dislike taking part in excessive drinking at all. He complained of his inability to keep up with the drinking of the higher-class Edinburgh literati on his move to the capital and the terrible hangovers which then followed. On top of this, we know Burns had to work alongside his poetry to make a living – as a ploughman and later an exciseman – both of which required early starts and a decent amount of labour on his part. He just wouldn’t have been able to get up for work in the mornings if he was constantly hungover or drunk.

He suffered from periods of ill health throughout his life, which were beyond his own control or personal choices, including stomach complaints brought on by periods of severe melancholy – depression as we understand it today. He died on 21 July 1796 of bacterial endocarditis, a heart condition which he developed as a complication of his recurring rheumatic illness. He was 37 years old when he died, and considering his mother Agnes Broun outlived him by some 24 years, he should have lived almost double the life he did. It was a tragedy, but not the one you think.

The myths of his alcoholism can, for a large part, be attributed to early biographies of his life, namely James Currie’s The Works of Robert Burns published in 1801. Rather than an honest, unbiased account of the bard’s life, Currie presented his own judgement on what he perceived as Burns’ personal failings. He took issue with Burns’ morals, and as a qualified physician at the time, immortalised the notion that the poet was “perpetually stimulated by alkohol”. He simply laid down his unsubstantiated diagnosis of death by drinking – a piece of character assassination which modern Burns scholars are, to this day, still working to mend.

Since his death over 200 years ago, Burns-mania has gripped Scotland and the world at large, but it came at a cost. We became so obsessed with the phenomenon, the Burns legend, that we forgot about the man behind the paper and ink. I hope this article has cleared up some of your thoughts about our national bard – separating the man from the myth, so to speak. Now go forth and judge him by his poetry, not his false reputation.