By Dougie Strang
Last month the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was officially opened by the First Minister and by Liz Lochhead, our new Scots Makar. Earlier, it had opened to the public on the 1st of December 2010. There’s a hard irony in noting that this was the same month that Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar, closed it’s doors.
Brownsbank is the farm cottage where the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and his wife Valda, lived for 25 years until his death in 1978. MacDiarmid’s two-room home has been preserved as a museum celebrating his life and work. More than that, for nearly 20 years it has also provided a residency and a stipend for Scottish writers through the Brownsbank Fellowship. A living memorial, which has helped writers such as James Robertson, Linda Cracknell, Aonghas MacNeacail, and Carl MacDougall.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, cost £21 million to build; £8.6 million of which came directly from Scottish Government funding. In contrast, for want of around £10,000 a year, funding for the Brownsbank Fellowship has now ended and the cottage itself has been mothballed.
This is how we celebrate MacDiarmid, a poet who, more than any other in the modern era, has contributed to the “ensoulment” of our nation. A poet who T S Eliot described as writing with “the belief that Scotland still has something to say to the imagination of mankind… and can say only in her native tongue.” A poet who even the Scotsman defined thus:
For fifty years this man’s hot and angry integrity radiated throughout Scotland… There is very little written, acted, composed, surmised or demanded in Scotland which does not in some strand descend from the new beginning he made.
Poetry matters, and as a nation we seem more disposed than most towards the poetic. It’s complex and fascinating trying to tease out the reasowhy. There’s no space here to explore in detail but, briefly: there’s the topography – no matter how disconnected, our psyche is still part-hewn from the land; there’s the history – need I say more; there’s the benign influence of Gaelic culture and its retention of a bardic tradition into the modern era; there’s the persistent cross-over between folk and so-called ‘high’ culture (I bristle at the definition), as exemplified by the enduring influence of the Scottish Ballads on the work of so many of our writers and artists; and of course, there’s the debt we owe to such figures as MacDiarmid and Burns.
Whatever the reasons, poetry remains tightly woven into the fabric of both our intellectual and civic culture. No MSP will be allowed to forget, for example, Edwin Morgan’s wonderful poem ‘For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament’ and its charge, on behalf of the people: “A nest of fearties is what they do not want.” Again, more recently, and on this website, Alastair McIntosh’s passionate flyting of Donald Trump strengthens and elevates the resistance against Trump’s landgrab. And finally, it’s there not just in our formal poetry, but in the heightened use of language that informs the best of our rhetoric. I’m thinking, for example, of Alasdair Gray’s use of the well known and still inspiring quote: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” I’m thinking of Donald Dewar’s simple, but oh so deeply poetic, epigraph: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament.”
Poetry matters. It reveals what’s possible. I recently attended a School ‘Scots Day Celebration’. There was the usual pastiche: kilts and ‘jimmy wigs’; pictures of Burns on the wall; a sword dance and a Jacobite tune played on the penny whistle; a couple of ‘wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beasties’. The older pupils had learnt by heart the opening section of Tam O’ Shanter. It was all well meant, the children had fun, the parents cheered, and yet my heart was breaking. It’s bad enough that we present such a caricature to the world, but that we also teach it to our children feels like the twist of the knife. Too harsh? Over sensitive? Yet how can we continue to mature as a nation when this is the mirror that we hold to ourselves?
Being there made me wonder whether, perhaps, it’s time to put the Bard to bed for a while. Perhaps, though he may be blameless, we need to look to those who are not undermined by a cult of sentimentality; who will help us grow into this new difficult century, rather than hold us back. I’m weary of the way that Burns so dominates the cultural landscape. He wrote some wonderful poems, and even better songs, but the Star O’ Rabbie Burns has become a black hole in Scottish culture, collapsing in on itself and pulling too much light away from others. I’m bound to be damned for this, but in a country which honours poetry, surely we can hold up as a pinnacle of the craft, work which aims higher than Tam O’ Shanter. After all, for all its colour and dexterity, it’s really not much more than a paean to going out on the piss wi’ your pals.
In the 1920s when he kicked off what’s now known as the Scottish Literary Renaissance, Hugh MacDiarmid used as a rallying cry “Not Burns – Dunbar!” I think we should refine the sentiment. I think the cry should be: “Not Burns – MacDiarmid!” Or even better, in a welcoming pluralism that has learnt the danger of too much focus on the individual, let’s call MacGill-eain to his side, and Morgan, and Muir; and Mitchison, Ransford, Robertson, Jamie, Burnside; and the new, young voices…
We need them all. But maybe not Burns, not right now.