By Daibhidh Rothach
“Well, I know he wrote something about pomp and ceremony being bad, but how about we celebrate him every year with some pomp and ceremony anyway? We can even wear kilts.” Whatever crossed the mind of those who first sent Robert Burns on his road to national deification, it clearly wasn’t irony. The nineteenth century though, when Burns clubs sprang up worldwide, was a century much given to reinventing cultures for its own ends, and humanity’s reinvention of the past has always been commonplace. In this management of history for personal or national cause, faults are forgotten, misdeeds rewritten, skills of alchemy concocted and attributed as divine, and so cults, and ultimately religions, spring, the passage of time augmenting genuine qualities with those celestial. Thus, each January, Scots and their diaspora embark on the annual pilgrimage to the work of Robert Burns, Ayrshire Buddha, animal-loving humanitarian, would-be plantation owner, and nobility-patronised socialist.
The poet’s status and popularity ensures the establishment of today continues to scramble and fawn over a man who rejected, in poetry at least, the puerile ritual and duplicity of the British state of his own time. In plucking Burns from glaury-kneed working class Ayrshire and laying claim to him, they are – in particular those from the world of media and politics – merely doing what they can to secure their station. As well they know, the patronage of the dead can be more powerful than that of the living. However in doing so, they continue to reject a core element of Burns’ work which cannot be denied or reshaped – his use of the Scots language, and on an occasion when it should be at the forefront of the nation’s conscience, it side sidelined by officialdom.
There is of course no greater vehicle of British soft power, no greater tool for enshrining Standard English as the prestige language of these islands in the psychology of its inhabitants, than the BBC, and the esteemed national broadcaster couldn’t possibly let a year’s propaganda go to waste by giving serious respect to the speech of an uncouth Ayrshire ned by normalising it. And so out trot the usual BBC Scotland grandees for the annual White Heather Club Robbie Barnes Special – a Kay Adams or Jackie Bird, aided by the likes of Jamie MacDougall or Nicola Benedetti who, despite being skilled in their fields (hating the SNP, hating the SNP, opera singing, and playing the fiddle, respectively), can’t speak Scots, and are as far from the working class ethos of Burns’ poetry as the BBC can manage.
If the linguists’ mantra of You speak like who you speak with tells us anything, it is that the working class – by and large the sole remaining inheritor of Burns’ tongue – is utterly alien to BBC Scotland. This is not an issue concerning an ability to host a television program, but rather one of linguistics and class identity and, at a more malevolent level, how the editorial policy of BBC Scotland attempts to control and manage them. To control how a language is perceived by a people is to hold great power, but convincing them that they don’t actually have one is even greater.
Perhaps, though, the BBC could be given the benefit of the doubt: Burns did after all write much of his work in English, and given that Scots has no official status (not the fault of the BBC, but rather the current government), it is possible that their researchers and producers simply lack the understanding and learning to know that it is a language and, just as is the case with Welsh, French or English, for it to work in poem and song it must be pronounced correctly. Whatever the reason, it leads to the loss of simple rhymes, such ‘Johnny/crony’ and ‘road/abroad’ in Tam o’ Shanter, and the title of Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin seems never to have been pronounced correctly by anyone, ever, in the public eye.
The closest the working class get to Burns in any form of official capacity is via Burns clubs themselves, which, despite cultural peregrinations, have at least given Scots a semblance of status. There is however something about them that doesn’t quite fit. Their image is, to this mind’s eye at least, interminably entwined with old school Unionism: guest of honour small-town councillors of blue, and later red, the local Kirk minister, too many men patronising the lassies or, quite incredibly, refusing them entry. Then of course there is the abject gall of toasting the reigning monarch at a republican’s birthday bash, a reinvention of such immense undertaking that it would have made even Jim Murphy baulk.
It must also be questioned whether Burns clubs have contributed to the maintenance of the Scots language itself. Indeed their relationship with it is similar to that of the Royal National Mod – also a product of Victorian Britain – to Gaelic in the last century. Before the extension to Gaels of human rights by the Scottish education system, the Mod was an annual pat on the head for a language murdered on the tongues of Highland children, and whilst bearing links to a legitimate cultural past and being presided over by people with a palpable love for the language, it was, by way of Royal patronage, always under establishment control. Gaelic was then, like Scots now, only to be represented in a way which would not offend its colonial masters, and many Burns clubs seem more concerned with the preservation of internal tradition rather than the broader scope of the Scots language.
By the end of next week, as the establishment’s tartan-clad misappropriation of a poet whose language they won’t acknowledge comes to an end without a hint of shame, his anthologies will be tossed back into classroom cupboards for another year, working class children will be punished for speaking Scots, and those chosen to recite Burns at the school play will return to the polished English of their parents and academic acceptance. This, and many other negative perceptions of Scots and its speakers could, by giving it central place during Burns Nicht, be at least partially alleviated. However with the political will of the government increasingly in the hands of politics graduates who, despite having the best interests of their country at heart, are less in tune with the cultural and linguistic complexities of social advancement than those they have affected, this won’t happen any time soon.
The cult of Burns will easily live on for another year, while thousands more Scots speakers will pass, many of those unaware of the priceless and irreplaceable treasure they take with them. A language culturally adrift, socially unviable, it is now in desperate straits. That Burns’ legacy has been successfully managed and adapted to fit the shirt of those from all walks of life and political hue is perhaps as much a factor in his lasting popularity as is that of his genius itself. However on one count Robert Burns was wrong: to look and laugh isn’t always enough, and if his language is to be saved, his poetry must somehow be removed from the clawing grasp of an establishment which while so desperate to make him their own, has contributed so much to the failure of his culture.