Kevin Williamson on our radical seditious patriotic Bard

It takes a brave or foolish man to try and step into Robert Burns’s Scotland-size shoes but Bella Caledonia’s Kevin Williamson is doing it for fourteen nights in August.  Here he explains why:

I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of Robert Burns, The Shortbread Tin Man; the ubiquitous Scottish commodity, draped in tartan, and toasted once a year with haggis and whisky. This false construct reeks of tourist dollars with a maudlin disregard for historical reality.

Robert Burns was a radical subversive, damn it, who risked his liberty to speak truth to those in power. Plastering his face on couthy tourist tat, in my book, is akin to the Irish dressing James Connolly in a green leprechaun suit and attaching him to key fobs.  It’s insulting, degrading, and just plain wrong.

Robert Burns, whether folk like it or not, and some don’t, was a radical, subversive political dissident throughout his creative life.  Some of his earliest poems cry out eloquently against oppression, injustice and the treatment of the poor.  But rather than toning it down when he became the toast of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie his headstrong egalitarian streak became more pronounced, and more sophisticated, as the years went by.

Burn often found himself treading on dangerous ground. He sympathised with the republican ideals of the American Revolution of 1776, as well as the French Revolution of 1789, despite his own government declaring war on both republics.

Many of his fans are unaware that some of his best known songs – such as the political anthems Scot’s Wha Hae and A Man’s A Man – were considered so subversive when they were written that government spies sought out information to determine the identity of the author.  Such was the repressive political climate in the 1790s – sometimes referred to as ‘The Scottish Terror’ – Burns could have been jailed or deported if unmasked.

In 1793, the radical young Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir was sentenced in Edinburgh to fourteen years deportation to Botany Bay.  Muir, a leading light of the Scottish Friends of the People, was accused of a number of political crimes. Burns was equally guilty of most of the charges.

Nowadays, given his fame, it should be common knowledge that Burns’s verse was considered too outspoken, too seditious, or, in the case of his erotic poems, too outrageous for him to publicly put his name to.  Yet this isn’t the case. The reality of Burns is still far removed from the public perception of him.

Burns didn’t have “a radical side” which was somehow separate from the tenant farmer, the lover, the poet of nature, and the Exciseman.  This is a common misconception. As a fellow radical, time-served dissident, and ardent Scottish patriot, it seems natural to me that Burns’s idealistic convictions were intrinsic to everything he did and wrote. They were the heart and soul of the man, his moral compass.

The twelve incendiary works I’ve chosen to include in ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ span the last ten years of the poet’s life.  Some are stubbornly patriotic, others rail against injustice, oppression or war, while others are staunchly republican.  A couple are erotically-charged verse from The Merry Muses of Caledonia.

Preceding each poem will be twelve short films created specially for the show by award-winning film maker, Alastair Cook, working with composer Luca Nasciuti.  Getting Luca on board was a masterstroke by Alastair as his approach to film sound is in the tradition of Bresson and Tarkovsky.

Alastair’s twelve films are visually stunning, providing context and a spoken narrative to help the audience follow the twists and turns of the poet’s complicated life. I’ll perform Burns’s work in the chronological order they were written, to help give a sense of story. Hopefully these disparate elements will blend together into a thoughtful, unified and interesting experience for longtime fans of Burns, as well as those curious to discover more about this ubiquitous Scot and enigmatic rebel.

I’m not aware of any other theatrical experiences that have approached Burns’s life and work in this manner. Drawing on the research of respected Burns scholars such as Thomas Crawford, Liam McIlvaney, Gerrard Carruthers, Robert Crawford and Patrick Scott Hogg, I hope to challenge the safe, couthy, tartanised mythology that has surrounded our national poet for over two centuries. Will the show succeed in its objectives? Come along and find out for yourself!

The show is directed by John-Paul McGroarty, former Director of Leith Festival, and a fellow Burnsian. Diary/blog is at http://robertburnsnotinmyname.com, Twitter @robertburnsbard

 ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ opens on Thursday 4th Aug at National Library of Scotland on George 4th Bridge (Venue 147), and starts at 7pm each night.  Runs 4-12 Aug plus 24-28 Aug.  Tickets are priced £8 and £5 concession from the Fringe Box Office. 0131 226 0000.

(Preview in The List)

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  1. Pingback: Patriotic Box
  2. petrichoric says:

    Just before “The Kilmarnock Poems” was published in 1786, Burns was, as I’m sure you know, about to head off to the West Indies to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. So much for his poems “cry[ing] out eloquently against oppression, injustice and the treatment of the poor.” And let’s not get started on his treatment of women! I’m sure that quite a few of them could have told us about “injustice” after Burns knocked them up and then buggered off to write more poems about oppression.

    Just as the whole “Burns-On-A-Shortbread-Tin”, “lad o’ pairts” thing is a pile of crap, I think it’s dangerous to veer too much in the other direction. I think he was radical, yes, but not as much as you make him out to be, Kevin.

    1. Michael Gardiner says:

      Excuse flagrant self-publicising but I think the best account so far of the Burns/ West Indies relationship, biographical and literary (and drawing on comparisons with Kamau Brathwaite), is by Leith Davis and Kristen Mahlis in my recent co-edited _Scottish Literature and Postcolonial Literature_ (EUP).

      Fwiw I would veer strongly to the side of the radical with Kevin. I think the textual evidence overwhelmingly suggests it.

  3. Ray Bell says:

    The simple fact of the matter is that he *didn’t* go off to work on a slave plantation.

    I once considered joining the Territorial Army. I took it seriously enough at the time to get all the papers through. But I didn’t join it. There’s a world of difference between planning to do something and actually doing it. In my case, it was partly my youthful stupidity. But I decided I couldn’t join the TA in good conscience because of my politics.

    Maybe Burns had second thoughts as well. Maybe he never considered the full impact of the choice to begin with. But like I say, the fact is he never went to work in Jamaica…

    1. Ray Bell says:

      Also… the guy died in 1896. That was around ten years of his life in which he could have changed his mind and chosen to go and work on that slave plantation. But he didn’t, did he?

  4. petrichoric says:

    Ray, it wasn’t his changed mind that influenced his decision not to go to Jamaicia – it was his changed fortunes. As I said above, he didn’t go because his Kilmarnock poems were incredibly successful, and so he no longer needed to go off to Jamaica to earn his living.

    I find that this complicates Kevin’s view that he was this great, highly principled radical, and why is this a bad thing? Why do I have to choose between the sentimentalized “Shortbread Tin” Burns and the view of him as a latter day Socialist icon? At the end of the day, he was a great man, but he had his flaws just like anybody.

    And he died in 1796!

    1. Ray Bell says:

      “it wasn’t his changed mind that influenced his decision not to go to Jamaicia – it was his changed fortunes.”

      Now you’re trying to be a mind reader.

      If we are all condemned for what we nearly did, or thought of doing, we’d all be damned. You included.

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    Petrichoric – Burns was a complex character that cant be denied. And far be it from me to try and paint him as some sort of saint. But if you try to reduce his 37 years of life, actions, political thoughts and creativity to a passing idea he had for a few short weeks at the age of 27 – and which he didn’t even go through with! – this isn’t a serious critique.

    When the anti-slavery movement became increasingly vocal in 1792 (before the clampdown of 1793) that was the same year that Burns wrote ‘The Slave’s Lament’ which empathised with African slaves. This is one of the poems Maya Angelou talks about when she talks about her love for Burns.

    You also say “And let’s not start with his treatment of women!” Why not? He committed adultery. This is well enough documented. Him and (at least) half the married male population do this. As do many married women. Sex is a complicated business. Some of the women he slept with got pregnant. This is fact. Yet Burns’s supposed “treatment” of those women was to pay for the upkeep of ALL of his children.

    And what else did his “treatment” of women consist of? Apart from being a loving father and a husband who was prepared to live a political double life – in dangerous reactionary times – to avoid his wife and children ending up destitute (if he had been outed as a radical and sacked by the Excise).

    It’s also known that Burns was in correspondence with Mary Wollestoncraft – the author of The Rights of Women – right up to the end of this life. Its a real shame all those letters have been lost. They may have shed light on a very different “attitude” Burns was supposed to have towards women.

    The problem with these shallow and superficial criticisms – and its always the same two glib points that get chucked at Burns – is that they detract from a more thorough understanding of an important Scottish radical who risked his own liberty to champion the cause of peace, freedom and equality.

    A proper study of Burns begins with a factual account of the times he lived in, especially a dark period often referred to as The Scottish Terror of 1793-95 when British government spies closed in on Burns and his fellow radicals. This was the very period that Burns wrote Scots Wha Hae. Tree of Liberty, Ode for General Washington’s Birthday and A Man’s a Man.

    There is a body of circumstantial evidence – esp research by Patrick Scott Hogg – which suggests that Burns may have been an active member of the Dumfries branch of the Friends of the People. He was certainly part of their circle. This important proto-democratic organisation, formed in1792, was the first in Scottish history to campaign for the vote for men of all classes. The Friends of the People were eventually crushed in 1794 and its spokesperson, Thomas Muir, was given 14 years for his part in it. Other members were hunted down and jailed or faced other forms of repression. For Burns to have been involved IMO puts him on a par with the Chartists and Suffragettes. Even more so since his involvement in the democracy movement predates them in a time of even greater political repression.

    Burns for his part consistently supported the ideals of both the French and American revolutions right to the end of his life. A Man’s A Man even takes its inspiration and some of its ideas directly from Thomas Paine’s banned book The Rights of Man.

    To try and diminish Burns’s life as an important Scottish political radical is doing a disservice to both Burns and to the historical evidence we have available. Sure, Burns had flaws. As did Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr or John McLean But did you ever stop to wonder why every debate on these guys doesn’t start with “He had his flaws.”

    Kevin W.

    1. Very well put, Kevin. These shallow attacks on Burns are common. Since when does having consentual sex with a woman mean supporting oppression of them and many of us have considered doing something (and not doing it) which we later regret having even considered.

      Burns was certainly no saint, but he would not have been better for being one. Instead he was all too human and well aware of the tremendous risks he took in writing about the need for human equality.

      JR

    2. Petrichoric says:

      Kevin, I think you’re misunderstanding me. When did I say that I wanted to “diminish Burns’s life as an important Scottish political radical”?! And, more to the point, why would I want to?! I grew up in Mauchline, and walked past the man’s house many a time, so I would genuinely be interested in finding out more about Burns than the pitiful amount my primary school ever taught me.

      Also, I’m not morally outraged that he committed adultery although you seem to think I am. I am just not convinced that his treatment of women was as impeccable as you make it out to be. Unless he left behind a blank cheque and a forwarding address for each woman he slept with, how can you really be sure that he paid for all of his illegitimate children? At best, he might have paid for all the ones he knew about. And don’t forget that his wife, Jean Armour, even helped him look after his illegitimate children since she took at least one of them in, and raised it as her own.

      You seem to think that my focus on Burns’s flaws means that I don’t consider the flaws of other great men, but how do you know that? I also wonder what you were implying when you wrote that discussions about “Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr or John McLean” don’t start off with “he had his flaws”. It’s a shame that they don’t, to be honest. Scorsese’s Christ has always been far more interesting to me than anything I heard about Jesus whenever I was forced to go to Church.

      Look, I think what you’re doing is great, Kevin. As I said, I didn’t get taught much about Scottish history in school, so I think your work on Burns is really important. Call me a contrarian, but your effusive praise of Burns just makes me to want to look under the surface a little. That’s all I was trying to do with my first comment – it certainly wasn’t my intention to cast doubt on his radical credentials. I just find flawed heroes more interesting.

      Maybe once you’re done with Burns, you can get started on Isobel Pagan – her poems are nowhere near as good as Burns, but in her own way she was pretty radical: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Pagan

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        P – Your response to my article on Burns’s radicalism was to hold up – as counterpoint – his much-commented upon (non) trip to Jamaica, and his supposed “treatment” of woman. So I can only respond to what you actually wrote!

        Of course, I totally accept that your thoughts on Burns are a lot deeper and more complex than a few lines on this website. As are mine. I guess we’re all trying to look under the surface of someone who has become such a pivotal figure in our country’s history.

        This is like a dance. The poet’s radicalism is constantly played down, diminished, or even ignored in the dominant narrative. Then if someone like myself, or more accomplished writers such as Patrick Scott Hogg, try to redress the balance with some primary-sourced historical realities, we’re immediately pounced on for supposedly trying to gloss over inconsistencies or complexity, or being plain old reductionist. And so it goes. Of course, there’s an unstated agenda going on, which doesn’t even need spelled out here as readers of this blog will immediately know what I’m referring to. Let’s just say “struggles not quite so ancient” come into play.

        Burns and his many lovers, Burns and the non-trip to Jamaica, Burns and the Dumfries Volunteers – these are all aspects of the Burns story that are important. IMO That Dumfries Volunteers poem is probably the most misunderstood and misinterpreted poem Burns ever wrote. Yet the keys to unlocking it are right there in the verse and, crucially, in the context of when it was written.

        NB Agree, Isabel Pagan was indeed a fascinating character! Would like to find out much more about her.

  6. Scottish republic says:

    I love Burns.

    He is a poet for all mankind, ‘the Bard of Humanity’.

    His song ‘For a’ that’ should be the Scottish national anthem.

    That said, at the end of his life he became a member of the Dumfries fencibles (basically a Brit nat Dad’s army) and wrote some poetry and song that favourited the British state to a degree.

    How can I look at that : either as a sell out or as a man with a family to care for who would have left them destitute if he hadn’t at least convinced the Brit nats (even convinced himself for that matter) that he was with them. After all that he did for Scotland and the voice of the common man he deserves the benefit of the doubt and I don’t believe he should be charged with being a ‘turncoat’ ; I do think he deserves the benefit of the doubt and the undying thanks of all Scotland for his ‘original genius’ (Wordsworth).

    Burns will live for as long as men have hearts to stir and women hearts to win.

    1. Michael Gardiner says:

      Better to stick to the texts and the effects they’ve had in the world than to try to diagnose or psychologise the man, I think. When you think about it, there is really no point in the second of these.

  7. bellacaledonia says:

    The most principled of political activists will put their family and friends before the causes they support. To do otherwise shows dangerous signs of delusional self-importance and grandiosity.

    KW

    1. Scottish republic says:

      I agree.

    2. clom says:

      Beautifully put.

  8. Scottish republic says:

    What’s the view here to ‘For a’ that’ as the Scottish national anthem?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I’ve always been a “Flower of Scotland” man. Now swinging towards A Man’s A Man. But still, just, with the former at this stage.

      KW

  9. Michael Gardiner says:

    Very positive.

    Was sang at the opening of Parliament as everyone here doubtless already knows:

  10. Scottish republic says:

    “For a’ that, and a’ that”.

    1.
    Is there for honest poverty
    That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
    The coward slave, we pass him by —
    We dare be poor for a’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,
    The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
    The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

    2.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
    The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
    Is king o’ men for a’ that.

    5.
    Then let us pray that come it may
    (As come it will for a’ that)
    That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth
    Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    It’s comin yet for a’ that,
    That man to man the world o’er
    Shall brithers be for a’ that.

    This is a shortened version that I think would be singable and not be too long.

    Rousing in the right way and harps towards a positive view of the future and not back to conflicts of the past. I believe the English living in Scotland would be very happy to sing along to it and the last verse would encourage the world to sing along.

    It’s got the sentiments Salmond wisely wished to invoke with ‘Scotland Will Flourish’ but this is better and actually quite singable and written by the bard.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      You cant take out verse 3!!! It has some of the best lines. Incidentally, A Man’s A Man was originally a 4 verse song. Verse 4 of the finished song, possibly the weakest verse, was added by Burns later.

  11. Scottish republic says:

    five hand reel for a’ that

  12. Scottish republic says:

  13. Scottish republic says:

    1.
    Is there for honest poverty
    That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
    The coward slave, we pass him by —
    We dare be poor for a’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that,
    The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
    The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

    2.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that,
    The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
    Is king o’ men for a’ that.

    3.
    Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord,’
    Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    He’s but a cuif for a’ that.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
    The man o’ independent mind,
    He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

    4.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
    The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
    Are higher rank than a’ that.

    5.
    Then let us pray that come it may
    (As come it will for a’ that)
    That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth
    Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that!
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    It’s comin yet for a’ that,
    That man to man the world o’er
    Shall brithers be for a’ that.

    Maybe this would be better but as anational anthem it has to be short really.

  14. Scottish republic says:

    Och, a dinnae ken whit’s best man.

    I still think this is the song.

  15. MacNaughton says:

    Really looking forward to seeing this.

    Few nations have traduced a national poet as thoroughly as Burns has been done over by conservative Scottish society – and still is as KW rightly says to this day, potrayed as a sentimentalist, a drunk, as a womaniser, as a potential slave owner…..anything at all but the radical, rational thinker, the true heir to the Scottish enlightenment that he was.

    The scholars behind ‘The Canongate Bruns’ deserve great credit for their work, and this theatrical production sounds like one of the most promising offerings of the summer. Cannae wait…

  16. petrichoric says:

    The sentiment behind it is great – obviously – but, personally, I’m not thrilled about the idea of having a national anthem which doesn’t mention the female experience at all. Of course, I know that the word “man” can be extended to both men and women, and that the tone of the poem is egalitarian, but, try though I might, I just can’t get excited about this as a national anthem. Of course, I’m sure that plenty of you will come on here dying to tell me how uptight I’m being, but, well, I’m sorry, this is just the reaction I have to this poem. It’s not an intellectual reaction at all; it’s a genuinely emotional reaction of not feeling included. I also don’t like the melody. It’s pretty forgettable. “Flower of Scotland” is far more rousing.

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