2007 - 2021

Not Burns


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.

Comments (13)

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  1. bellacaledonia says:

    Great article Dougie and you’re spot on about Brownsbank Cottage. Its scandalous, shameful even, what has been allowed to happen to both the cottage and the fellowship. Without MacDiarmid where would Scotland be now?

    I’d take issue with any diminishing of Burns though. Burns deserves his place and his prominence in our hearts and minds. But his memory has been hijacked by the tourist industry and officialdom everywhere. He would turn in his grave if he saw what was being said and done in his name.

    The living breathing Burns was a subversive, a political radical and a lifelong revolutionary. He was a genuine champion of liberty, independence and equality who, like Chris Grieve, spoke truth to power. Can we ask anymore of our writers?

    Kevin W

  2. David Park says:

    The poetry has been neutered by the fetishizing of Burns the man. The power of his vision has been contained by the suffocating embrace of a deeply conservative Scottish establishment.
    If you can, get hold of ‘Burns Today’ for MacDiarmid’s view of the Burns industry.

  3. Keith Roberts says:

    Valid points and well made.
    However, Brownsbank is not completely dead yet. The latest Bulletin arrived yesterday and it seems that there is hope yet of a seasonal retreat facility. Whilst community benefits will diminish, if not disappear, we could have a facility for writers, not dissimilar to that on Jura, though for only four months annually.
    Thus the cottage will remain in good care, and in use, and we should be grateful to Andrew McCallum and his colleagues for that.
    PS Andrew is looking for help with a spring clean of the cottage and can be contacted on [email protected] or on 01899221743

  4. Dougie Strang says:

    You’re right of course, Kevin and David, the problems not Burns; it’s the ‘Cult of Burns’ that obscures his best work and obstructs a wider appreciation of the achievement of our poets. There’s a degenerative monotheism on the Scottish Parnassus, and that’s what I lament. Alexander Scott sums it up well in ‘Scotched’, his series of short satirical poems:

    ‘Scotch Poets’

    1. Vronsky says:


      Hmm – I know what he means. Burns is what I can remember being educated to understand as an ‘institutionalised revolution’ . Dangerous man, so better get him inside the tent, pissing out. Voila, the Burns Supper appears. I can remember hearing a recitation of ‘Welcome to a love begotten child’ and realising then that the teeth were being pulled – Burns’s title was the passionately defiant ‘Welcome tae a bastart wean’ and in title and in sentiment it’s still ahead of its time.

      On a cheerier note, I seem to have become piper in residence to one of the local primary schools. They have a ‘Burns Lunch’ – Irn Bru (your other national drink) and haggis. The kids spill Glaswegian verbal energy till you feel you’re wading through puddles of the stuff – not just Burns – anything Scots, anything defiantly concrete – fields of nodding daffodils it ain’t. It’s a privilege to play the bagpipes for them. I feel we have our own little mini-conspiracy. What’s that strapline of yours about the laughter of our children?

      But Wha’s t’ither? What an uneducated question – the list of ‘ithers’ is long. At some point we’ll need to start telling our kids about Henryson, Dunbar, Blin Harry – there is a long and fascinating list.

      Funny that in spite of this astonishing inheritance our present officially appointed ‘makar’ is a writer of rather dull prose. Nevermind – Tom Leonard is still skulking about out there, fulminating about everything. Buy his ‘outside the narrative’. I wonder if you should make it a rule that every post to Bella Caledonia should include a book recommendation?

  5. George Mackin says:

    A great article.

    No fault of Burns, but the beauty of Burns is in the eye of the beholder. When we look at ourselves through the poetry of Burns I think what we see is a man of sentiment and not much more. Henry Mackenzie of the modern times. Egalitarian lite so to speak and perhaps like the china cups of old he is only time our Scotticisms are to be brought out and indulged in rather than as with Davie Hume extirpated. Middle Class guilt must play a part in this surely. Tourism’s gain is always at poetry’s expense my friends.

    I see there is a film of the making of ‘Howl’ as yet not seen but I wonder if MacDiarmid could be rewarded with a similar treatment.

  6. R Bell says:

    IMHO, the title should be “bard” not “makar”, since that would reflect both of our traditions.

  7. R Bell says:

    p.s. Regarding Brownsbank, I gather that it was run by Biggar Museum Trust. That was a volunteer organisation, and I doubt they had massive sums of money. Brian Lambie was the moving spirit behind BMT, but I suspect he’s retired by now.

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Money for the Brownsbank Fellowship came jointly from South Lanarkshire Council and Creative Scotland: approx. £10,000 a year each. As I understand it, it’s the Council who have pulled their part of the funding and Creative Scotland are not prepared to take it on alone.

      This is separate to the upkeep of the cottage which, as you say, is overseen by Biggar Museum Trust.

      1. R Bell says:

        Alright I didn’t know that. Creative Scotland is undergoing massive cuts right now, and South Lanarkshire Council is run by a bunch of Labour monkeys… ‘Nuff said. 🙁

  8. Fergie says:

    Creative Scotland aren’t undergoing massive cuts…infact I think they have come out pretty well for the next financial year. Local Authorities are though so expect more of this type of decision unfortunately. It’s a scandal that schools teach so little about Scottish literature, and history, so time for a big push to change that. Creative writing is also lacking in most schools, the content of SQA exams has a lot to do with both problems. There’s nothing wrong with Burns if you learn him in the context of others…..

    1. Ray Bell says:

      “Creative Scotland aren’t undergoing massive cuts”

      I was wrong about the tense. The big cut came when the Scottish Arts Cooncil and Creative Scotland were merged.

  9. MacNaughton says:

    I agree with every line of this article, Dougie, absolutely spot on.

    Burns blocks out the sun on so many of Soctland’s other poets. The Burns cult even blocks out the sun on Burns the poet. In terms of Scotland today, MacDairmid is faaaaaar more important. There should be a statue to MacDairmid in every town in Scotland (warts and all). And Sorley MacLain too, the other truly great twentieth century Scottish poet.

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