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What’s Your Favourite Book on Robert Burns?

It’s Burns Night tonight and many of us will be tucking into our haggis, neeps and perhaps a whisky or two (single malt of course).  There may be speeches, toasts, poetry and song.  As it should be.  But how much does the ordinary Scot really know about Robert Burns, beyond the usual cliches?

There have been one of two decent programmes on the telly recently. I’m thinking especially of Andrew O’Hagan’s documentary screened in January 2009, as well as the Burns episode of Melvyn Bragg’s ‘Literary Travels In Literary Britain’ which was screened in 2008.

In January 2009 Robert Crawford presented a decent programme on BBC Radio Scotland.  But good as they are these are these are still few in number and only skim the surface.  Good movies on Burns?  Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a single one of note.

But books are a different matter.  Books are still the best place to learn about Burns.  On the shelves of Scottish libraries there are probably more books written about, or inspired by, Robert Burns than any other person in Scottish history.  Where to start?

Bella Caledonia asked around to find out which books – from the multitude of biographies, critical works, novels, selected works, essays – folk would recommend.  Some of the responses are below.


The Bard by Robert Crawford is the best book I have read on Burns. The thing I particularly loved about it was the picture it paints of 18th century Ayrshire. It was the opposite of parochial: all these lively small towns with their poets, philosophers, lawyers and radicals. Each one was distinct from the other and seemed to really bristle with cultural activity, personalities, great beauties – and fun too. We hear lots about the boozing and womanizing, but the Batchelor’s club he attended in Tarbolton also had a nightly discussion on ideas from the Scottish enlightenment. Kilmarnock, of course was a metropolis. The fact that the Kilmarnock edition was financed by subscriptions from within 20 miles or so reflects the intellectual vibrancy that existed.  Burns never thought he was living in a backwater. There is a lesson in the book. You can be proud of where you come from, fascinated by its people and patterns of sppech – but still engage with universal debates and perform on a world stage. Never let anyone tell you to be local is to be parochial.  That applies as much to Scotland in the 21st century as it did in the 18th century.

JOAN McALPINE (Journalist & Writer)

I’m going for Andy O’Hagan’s book A Night Out With… as:  1) I like the personal element in it; 2) it brings Burns to a new and contemporary audience in a very novel way, as most of the books I’ve read on him are a bit stuffy and/or preach to the converted.


I love Burns the Radical, by Liam McIlvanney. I’m ashamed to say I actually only bought it because he was my lecturer at Aberdeen University at the time it was published, rather than out of any interest in Burns. This book changed that. It made me reconsider every shortbread-tin cliché and everything my smart-alecky twenty-one year old smug self thought I knew about Burns. McIlvanney  takes a clear-eyed look at the politics coursing through both the poetry and Burns’ life,  placing him in the Scottish radical tradition, and making me fall seriously for the bugger…

KIRSTIN INNES (Writer & Critic)

There are two Burns books which are dear to me for very different reasons. First, The Merry Muses of Caledonia (ed. James Barke). Get a copy of the Merry Muses. Get a guitar. Get your friends round for Burns Night and get singing. It is what the hugely enjoyable songs in this book were made for.

The other is one of the great pop culture images of Burns. It is truly a work of genius. It’s the cover art of this 1969 edition of The Wind Shakes the Barley. I’ve never got beyond this incredible sixties cover. Perhaps I should…


Not necessarily my favourite, but when I was about 18 I read Hugh Douglas’s 1976 biography, and that was my first real introduction to the man behind the verses we had learned in school. For that reason, it retains a prime place in my heart.  Right now, I’m reading Nigel Leask’s excellent ‘Robert Burns & Pastoral’


For an easy reading factual book ‘The Bard’ by Robert Crawford is a  informative yet brilliantly entertaining book.  My favourite book is the novel ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley ‘ by James Barke. I read it in my early teens and it captured my imagination. It is so descriptive and poetic and gives a really good feel of what it was like growing up in Scotland at that time. I went on to read the other books in that collection which follow his life through but could never get my hands on the last one ‘Bonny Jean’ .


My favourite book is “Robert Burns The Patiot Bard” by Patrick Scott Hogg (see Patrick Scott Hogg interviewed about his book here).  It reveals Burns as a radical, dissenting democratic poet who fought the unionist establishment of his day.  It also gives the lie to those mainly right-wing commentators who even now try to claim Burns as a true Brit loyal to the Hanoverian monarchy.

JOHN McALLION (Politician)

We’ve ‘celebrated’ Burns more times than we’ve had haggis suppers. But I’d recommend For A That:  A Celebration Of Burns above many others.

Rather than glibly trying to analyse the enduring appeal of the national bard, this collection commissioned by the University of Dundee offers striking original work that vividly reflect the spirit of Burns. Here, Janice Galloway sits alongside Kirsty Gunn and Vernon God Little author, DBC Pierre.

Worth the cover price alone is Pierre’s wickedly comic contribution: a ‘fake’ dissertation that places Burns – and by proxy, Scotland – at the centre of key world events from The Last Supper to Mozart’s composition. Brilliantly entertaining stuff.

ELLIE CARR (Dance critic)

Andrew O’Hagan’s A Night OUt With Robert Burns (Canongate, 2008) is the collection I’d recommend to folks, as it’s done in a spirit I think suits Burns well – I was always more comfortable with him as an accessible, human, flawed drinker and songwriter than I was with him as a revered, distant, dry academic figure used as a profitable national advert by anyone who could get their hands on him. O’Hagan’s piece in The Guardian around the same time is a good sample of the tone of that book – very loving, but not fawning. So if you like that you’d probably like the book. If not, steer clear!


With all Burns books, it’s not just which particular edition or selection it is  but how you find it that is the thing that makes it memorable. This was certainly the case for me. The edition I have (or rather had) was a collection called A Night out with Robert Burns  – The Greatest Poems (Canongate), arranged by Andrew O’ Hagan. It came complete with easy to read little introductory sections that an ignoramus like myself found extremely useful. But the thing was where I found it.

It was sitting on the muddy ground of an Iron Age broch in the highlands.

Bloody hell, how did that get here, I said to the missus. She picked it up and looked inside and said, Actually, it’s a gift.

Aye, right. From who? (I’m not a believer in Gods, be they Pagan or other.)

So she explained – it was part of a system called Bookcrossing. Basically – a book sharing organisation, which tracks the movements of shared books round the world. The technology escapes me, but when you want to pass on a book, you put a sticker on it, put it in a plastic bag and leave it somewhere for someone to find.

I loved that book and didn’t want to let go of it. But that seemed against the ethos of how it came into my hands, and of the Bard himself.

That Man to Man the warld o’e

Shall brother be for a’ that.

So, I wrapped it in a plastic bag and sent it on its journey again. On a wintery night as the drunk lassies filled the streets with song and laughter, I left it on a bench at the Buchanan Street Bus Station.


Catherine Carswell’s The Life of Robert Burns (1930) is still the most dynamic and honest of all the biographies of Burns. After Lockhart’s initial paint job on the bard Carswell tells the truth in brilliant glowing prose. Here we have the real poet, in a real time. Chapter One should be required reading for all Scots. No wonder she received a bullet through the post from a Burns Clubber who signed himself ‘Holy Willie’. Today those who profess, annually,  to honour Burns actually hate him for who and what he was. Carswell loved him and said why and for that we should love, and be grateful to, her.


As well as prefering to keep Caledonian Muses in my back pocket, I was going to say the Carswell biography. A great and weird piece of writing. More like a novel.


As for me…?  I’d recommend Rabbie’s Rhymes’ from Itchy Coo Press. It has nice big picture flaps for my one year old to open/rip.  And he loves the drawings of the wee cowering timourous beastie, the chieftain o the puddin race, and the yowes in the knowes.  Perfect.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON (Bella Caledonia)

These titles only scrape the surface of what’s out there.  We’d be interested to find out from our readers which books on Burns you’d especially recommend.  Feel free to tell us.

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  1. Lorna J. Waite says:

    Twa books spring tae mind when reflectin oan ma favourite writin oan Burns. Catherine Carswell’s biography ‘The Life of Robert Burns’ engenders the poet wi an active, unashamed sexuality an retrieves him fae the represssed Calvinists o his time, it is a woman’s rendering o the poet an allows him tae escape fae the male only Burns Club iconography.

    ‘The National Burns’ edited by Rev. George Gilfinnan, represents to me the democratic intellect in print. It includes the airs of all the songs, a biography of Burns, correspondence and is a work of popular art in itself with its extensive etchings and prints. It was serialised and could be collected and bound into two volumes. It is a fine example of visual thinking and popular education. I found the section of Burns’ notes for Johnson’s Musical Museum of particular educational importance.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Lorna, never seen it – sounds amazing!

  2. For an alternative look at Burns’ life and work you could do worse than get a copy of ‘Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century’ which was published in 2009 by Sandstone Press. It has chapters entitled ‘Burns and Ireland’, ‘Burns and Slavery’ ‘Sex and Social Commentary’ and ‘Robert Burns and the Stimulant Regime’, so something for everyone. It also considers Burns’ relationship to the Enlightenment, Adam Smith, architecture, and even film.

    The contributors include Burns experts Gerard Carruthers, Nigel Leask, Pauline Anne Gray and Ken Simpson, but there are also refreshing takes on Burns from writers who are not steeped in ‘Burnsian’ mythology, and who apply Burns to their area of expertise. It won’t be for everyone but if you like interesting and challenging points of view (and it’s my experience that many devotees of the Bard don’t), which are well written and argued, then this is highly recommended.

    1. Kevin says:

      I’d agree Alistair. There’s stuff in that book that doesnt stand up to critical examination – not least the title – but ideas need to be challenged to stay fresh or develop.

      Incidentally, when I downloaded my Collected Works of Burns iphone app this week – free courtesy of the Scottish government – one Burns poem waa conspicuous by its absence: The Tree Of Liberty. Got me wondering if Gerard Carruthers was involved with the iphone app selections.

  3. “A Celebration Of The Life And Work Of Robert Burns 1759-1786
    An Independent Revolutionary Radical”
    By James D. Young
    Reader Emeritus at the University Of Stirling

    Clydeside Press
    37 High Street
    Glasgow G1 1LX

    The major implication of the “immortal memory” is that Burns’s radical poetry and politics were completely dead after 1796 and irrelevant to today’s world. The message Burns communicated in his own time was the relevance of a radical remenbrancer linking past, future and present.
    Beside memory was never immortal.
    Those who wish to honour Burns should be in the forefront of the resistance against the new “global” capitalism and all it’s works since it still obstructs the road to a world of international socialism.
    Burns still has much to teach us about the past as well as the world we live in , the Scottish and universal culture of the modern world to which he contributed so much , whilst the new capitalism is not just creating greater poverty than ever before but also destroying the great culture achievements of centuries gone.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks – great shout for the JD Young. No-one up for Don Paterson’s Selected Poems? Good on the actual poetry!

  4. Rob Marrs says:

    Not as literary or, indeed, as literate as most of the esteemed posters here but I very much enjoyed Clark McGinn’s book ”The Ultimate Burns Supper Book”. It is light, humorous and a great introduction to those with no real knowledge of the Bard. Clark gets the balance right between fun and knowledge, what you need to know and little asides. A great introduction.

    Clark, of course, is one of the finest speakers on the subject in the world.

    Incidentally, I recently got my godson the Complete Works because, I trust, as he grows up he’ll be a man of independent mind.

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    Thanks Rob

  6. R Bell says:

    I’d like to put in a plug for Norrie Paton’s “Song O’ Liberty, the Politics of Robert Burns”. It is difficult to get hold of unfortunately, and the last person I lent it to, managed to return it mildewed and bent with damp!

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