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ROBERT Burns, the legacy

"What do we think of when we think of Robert Burns? Is one simple definition such as 'heaven taught ploughman' enough to describe him?"

... Or does the complexity of his being unwrap depending on where in the world you live and what your exposure has been? Have we been affected by what we have read, what we have been told, if and how we were taught? Is this definition an insult to his education?


We need look no further than Burns himself to begin to understand the man and the reputation he desired. A patchwork of clues was left through some of his more autobiographical works, his private letters and fragments from his commonplace books.


His works provide a snapshot of his mind with some pieces or lines seemingly representative of him. However given the nature of his often character driven writing it is not always possible to tell fact from fiction so, alone, they don't give a reliable autobiographical source.


His commonplace books also add weight. In the first of these he self fashions as the humble ploughman and almost as an object of fascination. In his second the focus switches to character sketching, perhaps partially to invite the same of him, in turn building a reputation formed from those he admired.


Many of his private letters also provide detail including the last batch he was able to send in an attempt to care for his family beyond the grave and also possibly the biggest statement of all, his autobiographical story letter sent to Dr John Moore in 1787, a man of letters whom he considered a kindred spirit.


Burns liked to control his own image and through these channels did so. Therefore in addition to the 600 works that he left behind, he also left behind his own trail that would indeed go on to form part of his own reputation. You can imagine how Burns might have been on social media were he around today!


But beyond the grave Burns could no longer self fashion, leaving others to take up this mantle. Early biographers included Maria Riddell’s intimate portrayal (written in an attempt to stop less favourable reports circulating), James Currie’s polite account and Catherine Carswell’s The Life of Robert Burns, provoking in some a depth of feeling towards the poet.


Biographers were not the only group seeking ownership of the bard. Burns was booming in the Victorian great anniversaries period of 1859 - 1896 and everyone wanted a bit of him. There was clamouring for relic ware from locks of his hair to snuff boxes made from thorns where he rested. (In more recent years material culture became merchandise and pop art.)


Artists and manufacturers embellished the trend creating mementoes to suit. One area of demand was the assumed love story with Highland Mary. The facts were low but demand for romance was high. A statue depicting his love for her was unveiled in New York in 1880 on Literary Walk and a range of connected materials were sought after.


It seemed 19th century Burns could do no wrong. Monuments and statues cropped up from New York to Sydney. Burns with over 60 statues worldwide was third after Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria in the number of statues of non religious people. His reputation within critical, biographical and popular culture was also riding high.


But a change was afoot in the 20th century. Following Winston Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ Burns was to fall out of favour amongst a sector of education and academia.


There was no question of his quality. He was instrumental in the transition of style from 18th to 19th century. His theory, practice, poetic diction and technique all bore scrutiny. He was seen by many as a major predecessor of Romantic poetry but yet he was being ignored by critics and teachers of literature. It seems that once again Burns did not - fit the brand!


Burns use of Scots language precluded his inclusion as part of a British canon and as such he was suddenly not considered a British tradition. Raymond Bentman’s 1972 article ‘Robert Burns Declining Fame’ concludes that ‘The current trend, which insists that Burns is not a transition poet, denies him his rightful position as one of the great innovators in British poetry.’


Murray Pittock’s ‘A Long Farewell to All My Greatness’ describes how English literature was becoming more English than before and the rise of Great Britain as a world power led to a narrowing in focus of literary study. Both Burns and Sir Walter Scott had disappeared in English school and university curriculum by the 1970s due to their perceived national quality. Burns had ceased to exist other than in a Scottish literary framework.


However whilst his reputation suffered neglect in Anglo academic settings and the Penguin Guide to English Literature banished him to a separate chapter, the treatment of Burns by the public was undeterred. Our consumers continued to consume. By purchasing copies of his standalone works it proved how unique and popular Burns was. As Pittock stated ‘Can there be a poet born a quarter of a millennium ago more widely celebrated by readers and more steadfastly ignored by educators’.


His treatment from our International community also rarely wavered and Pittock describes him as a ’colossus' in international terms. In Russia, Samuel Marshak’s translations of his work sold over 600,000 copies depicting him as a progressive poet presenting the possibility of the peasantry having advanced ideas. Burns Nights were even held in The Kremlin. A similar role was fulfilled in China’s Revolution and fusion Burns events are held in many other countries across the globe.


Famous people have also desired to align themselves with the identity of Burns. From Abraham Lincoln performing To A Mouse in 1865 to Maya Angelou at age 8 being inspired by his themes of freedom, love and justice. Kofi Annan’s 2004 Robert Burns Memorial lecture delivered at the UN headquarters called for brotherhood, tolerance and coexistence among all peoples.


His acceptance within the literati was proven once and for all with his reputation as the Scottish Shakespeare being reinforced in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey where a marble bust of him sits close to Shakespeare’s memorial.


His works are referenced by JD Salinger, John Steinbeck and 2016 Nobel Literary Prize Winner Bob Dylan cites ‘A Red Red Rose’ as a creative inspiration. Interestingly Keats, a Romantic poet who followed in his footsteps composed ‘On Visiting the Tomb of Burns’.


Everyone hits their peaks and troughs and it would be fair to say that periods of blandness have been associated with Burns. Burns Clubs sometimes had a stuffy male dominated reputation, events and suppers around Burns at times were a little stale. For many years visitors to his birthplace of Alloway would have been disappointed by the lack of vibrance that met them.


But many aspects were to change with a renewed political energy and direction. This summary timeline shows some of the recent highlights.


2007 - Glasgow University’s The Centre for Robert Burns opens

2009 - Scotland’s Year of Homecoming places Burns theme at forefront, 250 yrs since birth

2010 - Robert Burns Birthplace Museum opened enveloping Alloway site landmarks

2011 - Centre for RB Studies flagship project ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’

2019 - Centre for RB Studies publish ‘Robert Burns and the Scottish Economy’


Scotland’s Year of Homecoming 2009 in itself produced a range of Burns events and mapped 3,600 Burns Suppers the world over.


Auld Lang Syne is a standalone phenomenon viewed 700,000 times on YouTube in this year and sung simultaneously in over 40 languages on St. Andrews Day creating a world record. This song alone has set itself a place in cinematic history and unites the world each Hogmanay.


It is the unique identity that has been formed of the bard that sees a festive weary population return to cheer each January by sitting down and enjoying the same meal. Who else can claim that fame? People pay £250 each to be part of those doing so at Burns Cottage where it all began and another classic ‘Address to the Haggis’ both provides a theatrical climax and catapults this lowly food to an iconic global status.


Popular culture has not forgotten him. The Edinburgh Fringe every year features Burns. Films, podcasts and contemporary musical tributes pop up and he was voted the National Trust’s Greatest Scot in 2016 securing more than double the votes of his nearest competitor.


Norwegian Airlines adorned Burns on a plane wing ‘The Rabbie Burns Dreamliner’, his face appeared on banknotes and he became the first person ever to feature on a Coca Cola bottle.


So from his funeral worthy of an opening film sequence showing thousands throng the streets as Jean Armour gives birth to his final son, to a centenary of up to 17,500 celebrations across the globe, statues unveiling to around 30,000 attenders and a value of £203M annually assessed to the Scottish economy, Burns is the gift that keeps on giving.


Nowadays academics, creatives of all kinds, influencers, governments, famous people, tourism practitioners and the general public are all the biographers of Burns. As we create, post, fund, share, collaborate, design and celebrate we also extend, promote, protect and enhance the reputation of our man, our poet, our legacy Robert Burns.

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