Robert Burns: the hidden history of the iconic bard and why the poet remains so important to Scotland
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Millions of people gather every year on 25 January to celebrate the life and works of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. An enduring cultural icon, the poet is known the whole world over for his romantic writing and love letters to the country he resided in, pushing Scotland’s standing abroad to new heights and ringing in a love of the Scots language.
However, parts of his life remain controversial, with an ill-advised offer of work one of the more contentious parts of his short life. But why has his legacy been so enduring - and what can we learn from the lesser-known history of the bard?
‘A remarkable life, but a phenomenal afterlife’
Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire on 25 January, 1759, with ‘Burns Night’ celebrated on the same date every year. In his short 37 years, the poet led a colourful life, from growing up in poverty to taking a job in the Government and making the move to Edinburgh, all of which has accumulated in the legacy we know today.
Dr Pauline Mackay, a lecturer in Robert Burns studies at University of Glasgow and the associate director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, says: “Burns’ short life was remarkable but his afterlife is utterly phenomenal. “Burns’ reputation has been shaped over time by the institution of the Burns Supper, the erection of monuments to Burns all over the world, the production and manufacture of Burns’ souvenirs in the Victorian times, and the manufacturing of Burns branded products.
“This has been really important in shaping and sustaining his legacy, which obviously had economic importance for Scotland as well.” A study led by Professor Murray Pittock of the University of Glasgow titled ‘Robert Burns in the Scottish Economy’ showed that the bard is worth £203 million towards the Scottish economy, with a further £139.5 million contribution to Scotland as a brand overseas.
This includes money brought in from tourism involving events such as the annual Burns suppers, as well as the selling of Burns-branded products across the world. While Robert Burns is no doubt one of Scotland’s best regarded exports, there are parts of his life that remain questionable.
Offer of work in Jamaican plantation
In the late 1780s, Burns found himself in financial trouble and personal strife. He had separated from his partner, Jean Armour, who was pregnant with twins. Burns had planned to marry her but her father was dead set against the then-farmer taking Jean as his wife.
As a result, Jean’s father attempted to annul any union between the two and took a writ out against Burns after sending Jean to live in Paisley.
Burns was forced to constantly move home to avoid the fine and prison, finding himself almost penniless. It was then that he considered an offer of working on a Jamaican sugar plantation as a “book keeper”, also known as an assistant overseer of slaves.
Dr Mackay says: “He was in a very difficult place personally and he made plans to go initially. However, the minute the Kilmarnock Edition [also known as ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’] shows any sign of success, he goes to Edinburgh instead.”
Recently in modern activism, those from centuries long ago who were associated with slave trade and such practices have rightfully borne the brunt of a cultural backlash. During a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in 2020, the statue to Edward Colston, a prominent figure in the Atlantic slave trade, was torn down by protesters and thrown into Bristol Harbour.
In Scotland, there have been calls in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh to remove statues, memorials and in some cases rename streets which honour historical figures involved in the slave trade. While Burns did not end up taking up the offer of work on the plantation, Dr Mackay says it is something that should be addressed.
“It’s something that people are increasingly looking at and addressing, rightfully so, but what do you do when he didn’t actually end up going? We have correspondence from the time which shows that he delayed the trip to the West Indies multiple times, and while we can learn a little about that, it’s impossible to read the mind of someone who lived 250 years ago.”
More attention is being brought to the issue, with some thought-provoking responses. The Centre for Robert Burns Studies recently worked with poet Shara McCallum, who published ‘No Ruined Stone’ - a group of works imagining what it would have been like if Burns had taken the offer and the impact this would have had on his future descendants.
Dr Mackay adds: “There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be addressed. People are scrutinising this part of Burns’ life in different and nuanced ways.”
Burns’ lasting legacy
Burns has remained a cultural phenomenon since his death at the age of 37 in 1796. Not only is he revered in Scotland but across the world, from Burns Night Supper to the traditional singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on Hogmanay.
His legacy is woven into the society of Scotland, with most people residing in the country making more of celebrations on 25 January than St Andrew’s Day on 30 November.
“Celebrating Burns with the traditional Burns supper is really appropriate,” Dr Mackay says. “It’s a convivial, social event to celebrate the life and work of a convivial, social man. “One of the things we are trying to do at the centre is thinking about how we compose Burns’ memory, how we access his legacy in different ways in the 21st century.
“This is one of the things we are doing with a virtual reality artwork exhibition, to help bring it younger audiences and keep Burns’ legacy alive.” The artwork, titled ‘The Flying Haggis’, has collated 350 images of people around the world celebrating Burns Night Supper, many of which had been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Burns’ texts are key to keeping his legacy going, with the raw writing remaining the prevailing love of his fans. “Burns wrote about equality, fraternity, and true human contact and emotion - celebrating Burns is about celebrating genuinely great literature,” Dr Mackay says.
“You could start anywhere with Burns. “If you want to understand Burns as a man and a cultural icon, read To A Haggis. If you want to know how he saw himself, read The Vision. If you want to read about Burns in thoughtful mode, read To A Mouse.
“My personal favourite is To A Mouse, but with Burns there’s something for everyone.”