Move aside Robert Burns, it’s time to celebrate Scotland’s identity with a woman

The half-light of these weary January days has just been lit up by the linguistic thrills of Burns Night. This international celebration of Robert Burns’ timeless poetry will see millions across the world raise a glass to Scotland’s bard on January 25.

Burns is used by Scots as a frame upon which to hang a tremendous amount of weighty national identity. Upon him they place responsibility as the source of their egalitarian spirit, and of their radicalism. Their socialist leanings too, they expect him to inhabit. Their fondness for a good drink is perhaps the easiest burden for his writing to bear.

As Scotland develops and alters, more and more weight is being borne by this one Ayrshire man. Even his ghost must be growing humpbacked under the strain. Academics and fanatics scratch annually through his letters and works, trying to pin him down as a good unionist, socialist, yes man, Tory. Others look to take him out by labelling him a sexual predator or aspirant slave-owner. This Burnsian battleground shows that Scottish identity can no longer be encompassed in one night nor expressed by one man.

The work of national poet Robert Burns presents a fairly masculine perspective of Scotland. Shutterstock

Scotland needs a new symbol that can more easily take on the country’s emergent identities. Environmentalism is a huge new concern, as is a real effort to achieve equal status for women. Perhaps the most current debate is the attempt to redefine Scots’ relationship with the Highlands. These aggressively depopulated regions have inhabited an uncomfortable place in the Scottish psyche, with a romantic, tourist-friendly notion of leaping salmon and noble stags competing with the tragedy of the Clearances, when greedy landlords swept crofters from their land in the 18th and 19th centuries in favour of more profitable sheep.

A woman for the job

By an incredible stroke of luck, we have just such a poetic hero hung up in a cupboard, ready to be pressed into action: the accomplished Aberdonian novelist and poet, Nan Shepherd, who played a vital role in the 20th-century Scottish Renaissance.

Born in Peterculter and raised in Cults, her existence was forever focused on Aberdeen, as seen through her degree at the city’s university and her long career teaching at the college, and her love for the Cairngorm Mountains just inland to the west. From her firm footing in the north-east, she was able to step confidently out into the world both through travel and through addressing universal human questions from a confidently north-east perspective.

Shepherd has already been dusted off and given a relaunch recently. In 2016, the Royal Bank of Scotland used a striking image of the poet wearing a self-made headband, looking proud and confident on its new five-pound note. In 2017, a well-received biography, Into The Mountain, was published, digging down into the life of the woman behind the books.

This foundation has prepared the way for a wide popular embrace. But Scots don’t take someone to their hearts because some well-meaning soul has put out a biography. Nor do they warm to someone purely because they decorate the fivers that glide effortlessly through their fingers.

That’s why alongside Burns, I propose Nan Shepherd Night.

This night would be roughly analogous to Burns’ annual birthday bash in that there would be much discussion of themes and politics and social consequence, well lubricated and studded with readings and song.

A force of nature

Raising Shepherd up to this new prominence would give every new generation the chance to interact with one of the most compelling Scots voices of the 20th century. Her work in both Scots and English produced principally in the 1930s spoke to and of a nation in transition. She also wrote of nature in a way that would be intensely valuable for us all to read. In her poem The Hill Burns, she writes:

Wet with the cold fury of blinding cloud,
Through which the snow-fields loom up, like ghosts from a world of eternal annihilation,
And far below, where the dark waters of Etchachan are wont to glint,
An unfathomable void.
Out of these mountains,
Out of the defiant torment of Plutonic rock,
Out of fire, terror, blackness and upheaval,
Leap the clear burns,
Living water,
Like some pure essence of being,
Invisible in itself,
Seen only by its movement.

Her 12-part essay on time spent walking in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, has been in the spotlight once again since its timely re-release in 2011 by Canongate Books, with a foreword by academic and nature writer Robert MacFarlane. This slow, revelatory examination of a human immersed in nature is a very powerful piece of writing.

Nan Shepherd’s beloved Cairngorms. Shutterstock

The slim volume could be easily dispatched in a single sitting, but like one of the walks that ramble from page to page, glen to glen, it can be revisited time and again, with new revelations being provoked, new vistas glimpsed on each fresh journey. As mentioned, Shepherd breaks us, and Scottish literature generally, out of the old dichotomy where the Scottish landscape could only be viewed in one of two ways.

Either Scotland was a misty, ancient place of few people and many romantic notions, or it was a bleakly bare northern extremity from which humans had first scoured clean of the trees then scoured clean of their own ramshackle dwellings and cultures.

Shepherd offers us a third way, a way of approaching the landscape that allows a natural and unmediated relationship to be created between human and landscape, between the two living things.

Taking her rightful place

Raising Shepherd up to the height of national figure would at long last put a woman among the pantheon of Scottish greats. Burns, ScottStevensonGrassic GibbonGunn: they all have their place, but they are all men and can only inspire so many of us, and only in so many directions.

A strong, confident female voice being celebrated, read and enjoyed at events around the country with predominantly female speakers would be a welcome antidote to the heavily masculine Burns Night with its conspicuous array of male worthies. Balancing this out would be to the enrichment of both men and women.

Finally, raising Shepherd’s status would undoubtedly also bring the north-east back into focus as one of the cultural heartlands of Scotland. The deep-rooted culture of Scotland’s geographical cold shoulder has often been neglected by those in the central belt. But while Edinburgh softened itself through Anglicisation, Aberdeen retained its sense of self.

The Living Mountain. Aberdeen University Press

In the north-east, there is a special mentality of hard-headedness and a dark passion for enduring hardship with stoicism – locals proudly call it being “thrawn”. There is the linguistic richness of the local Scots dialect that extends across all classes. There are the rich traditions of fiddle music, ballads and bothy ballads, folktales and legends, high literature and street literature, that inform an ongoing strength of identity and creativity here. Nan Shepherd’s work beautifully illustrates this, and for Scotland’s identity builders in the central belt, a better understanding of Shepherd’s work could act as a bridge to the rich kist of tradition and culture in the north-east.

Shepherd skilfully brings the reader to points of transition and contrast – between hills and sky, modernity and tradition, Scots and English, male and female – walking us through the revelatory landscape, examining it, learning from it. By looking at issues such as class, gender, nature and what it means to be fully alive, Shepherd’s illuminating works equip us to deal with change. In the current climate, that’s not a bad skill to have.


Nan Shepherd was a vital player in the Scots Renaissance of the 20th century, and helped secure Scots’ place as a literary language. As a great makar (poet) in her own right, who used Scots regularly in her work, she also acted as a vital motivator and organiser of others in the movement. Now we are in the midst of another Scots renaissance, and during Scots Language Week, it is only fitting that an article championing Shepherd should be written in Scots as well as English.


Comments (14)

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  1. David Millar says:

    ‘But while Edinburgh softened itself through Anglicisation,’

    You make that sound as if Edinburgh had some choice in the matter; she didn’t, it was imposed.

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    I wholeheartedly back this idea, Alistair, and agree with you about Nan Shepherd. I’m all for Nan.

    It’s much more fruitful to promote underrated writers, like Nan Shepherd, than it is to trash Burns, which I do not agree with at all…

    I think Liz Lochhead should quit as the national makar of Scotland if her time is to be spent bashing Burns.

    How trivial, how conceited, how intellectually impoverished is it to describe Burns as “the Weinstein of his day”? Harvey Weinstein is a millionaire with a lot of power, who we know serially abused women….

    Burns was a poet who lived most of his life in poverty…. he abused no position of power, because he never held one. There is nothing to suggest that Burns was ever at all like Harvey Weinstein.

    It’s frankly shocking that Scotland’s national makar would make such a completely glib and facile comparison…

    I’m all for more Nan and for less of Burns, but I cannot help but take umbrage at Lochhead’s facile and frivolous attack on Burns… the man is not here to answer the charges for one thing.

      1. Redgauntlet says:

        Hi Bella:

        Yeah, okay, so Liz is the former Makar of Scotland. I think I am right about that.

        Let me tell you something about Harvey Weinstein, cause I know a few things about Harvey Weinstein which Liz Lochhead obviously doesn’t know….why would she know anything about film? She’s Scottish. The Scots don’t do film… when do the Scots ever, ever, ever, talk about film? It’s poetry and haggis for the Scots… MY AIN FOLK? Nobody in Scotland has even seen it…

        Weinstein killed pictures. Weinstein bought films and put them in the vault to take them off the international market. He bought screenplays, and killed them, deliberately, because they were screenplays similar to ones he was developing. He killed James Jarmusch’s superb DEAD MAN because Jarmusch wouldn’t give him final cut…

        He has been alleged to have sexually assaulted dozens of women. He ran a regime of terror over his employees, I know that, because I knew some of them…

        All those pale, very pale, very harassed executives of his I used to meet at the Cannes Festival or in Berlin or in Milan? And now, I know why they were so pale and sad…

        To compare Burns with Weinstein is just wrong.

        There is no evidence – and I’ve read two biographies of Burns: Dachies and Crawford – to suggest Burns was a serial abuser of women like Weinstein. Nothing like that at all comes out of a reading of his life story.

        He was no angel.

        But nor was he an utter cunt which is what Weinstein is. An utter, despicable, fucking cunt of the first water…

  3. Andy Donaldson says:

    Nan Shepherd was our next door neighbour in Cults, Aberdeen when I was little. A benign, mysterious, but quite stern old lady, with a small and very disappointing collection of Lego. All this recent attention and wider appreciation is long overdue 🙂

    1. Ally says:

      That’s gey interesting Andy. Did she hae a bit of local celebrity, or wad that no be the Cults way? I ken its meant tae be a reserved sort o place.

  4. Gordon says:

    Funny thing is in the wider world I would say. more people know Scotland due to Mary queen of Scots rather than burns.

  5. Rab Pollock says:

    There is a statue to Burns in New York City’s central park – I’ve yet to find the Queen Mary one…

  6. Fay Kennedy says:

    It’s interesting to hear the different perspectives on Burns. I don’t think Liz Lochhead does her reputation any favours. And I say that as a woman of similar vintage who has walked in marches probably more times than Liz has had three course dinners. Nan Shepard is a treasure of course but her life was very privilaged in comparison with Burns. And to compare his behaviour with Harvey Weinstein has no merit. The campaign of me too is limited because it fails to take on the mantle of the misery of most women’s lives on this planet. Do any of them even know the word class I am tempted to think not. For it’s like the elephant in the room excluded in most public discourse and when it is in public display it’s usually to demonise those who have no voice. As an expat and one of the one eyed I find it very challenging to hear Scots in the diaspora either not interested or respond with a glib he was a drinker and a womaniser. No idea he was working like a man at 15years old and so much hardship in his very short life. That he was a mere mortal is hard for some to understand being such models of perfection themselves.Every musician involved in the Folk genre music culture and Scots in general should be forever grateful to him and all the poor people who took his words to other places found solace in those songs.
    When it comes to the marginalisation of women’s work in the arts that is another conversation and needs to be in the forefront of the discussion for a better Scotland where hopefully there will be much broader and deeper public discourse on what really matters to make a decent and fair country.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      Beautifully and roundly put. Thank you Fay Kennedy.

  7. Redgauntlet says:

    I mean, I am really grieved, really grieved by the lack of a film culture in Scotland.

    I cannot believe, I simply cannot believe that the SNP cannot see the importance of film to our national culture., and their own cause…

    You know, I’ve worked in film for twenty years, always in Spain, and it was a Spaniard who told me about Bill Douglas and MY AIN FOLK. It was a Spaniard, a cinephile, who told me that Bill Douglas even existed…. How many of you in Scotland have seen MY AIN FOLK?

    I lived in Scotland until I was 24 and I had never heard of MY AIN FOLK… can you imagine how embarrassing that was for me? In Scotland, a national film culture simply does not exist. Scotland is a stage-set, it’s a scenery…. OUTLANDER, BRAVEHEART….complete bullshit…

    If the SNP gave the Scottish film industry 10 or 15 million pounds a year – without Creative Scotland in the middle – and you set a medium budget of 500, 000 pounds per picture, you might actually transform Scottish culture…. the whole culture.

    Film is the art of modernity, you can’t not have a film industry and expect to win independence…

    You know in Spain, right now we have this terrible government who are Franquistas. The only reason they haven’t issued a coup d’Etat is because of the EU.

    But we also have a tremendously vibrant film culture, which is the only reason I live here. Because I can’t live in Scotland and work in film.

    And we have the Goya Awards coming up (like the BAFTAS), and we have – in Spain – five pictures in four different languages – Basque, Catalán, English and Spanish – and two of them are directed by women.

    We have Carla Simon’s very brave, very interesting “The Summer of 1993” (in Catalan) which is her personal story of childhood survival as an AIDS survivor after her biological parents died and her complicated integration into a new family. It’s a small picture but a very, very brave picture, and very well done. Carla is a star. A total star…

    And we have Isabel Coixet’s “The Bookshop”, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

    You know, if you want to change the paradigm, give women the camera. Stop going on about Burns, and establish a film a policy which lets young Scottish men and women shoot pictures. Working class men and women…

    That’s how you do it, not by going on about Burns..

    And Liz Lochhead, by the way, I love the woman, okay?

    1. John S Warren says:

      ” if you want to change the paradigm, give women the camera.”

      If you want to change the paradigm, make women the subject. What subject? I might suggest Jane Haining; or perhaps Mary Barbour; or Elsie Inglis. All of them would make distinctive, difficult, challenging, illuminating, and even timely subjects.

      Actually I would like to see the life of Dr Elizabeth Ness McBean Ross projected on the big, or even the small screen. Elizabeth Ross’s life was short, dedicated, dangerous and extraordinary. She died in 1915 fighting Typhus in a hopelessly over-run Serbian military fever hospital. She is remembered and commemmorated as a hero in Serbia (on the anniversary of her death in February) to this day.

      Yet she spent only a few weeks in Serbia. She worked as a doctor, alone (no part of a missionary or medical institution) principally in revolutionary Iran (Persia), before WWI. Surprisingly, perhaps this rather enigmatic, determined woman made oblique references to poetry in her correspondence/writings, that provide almost the only insight we have of her deeper motivation. Her poet of choice was perhaps even more surprising: Robert Service.

  8. Pogliaghi says:

    It’s “nice” that this was e-mailed off without repeating Liz Lochead’s fashionable lazy slander du jour as per Guardian F1 Key lifestyle editorials that Burns was “a rapist” (I mean: in spirit if not in deed) because “he was a Weinsteinian” (ie., a red blooded heterosexual).

    Burns, or at least, the reading of him as folk bard of jockish 2D humanist sentimentality is a bit old hat anyway. I mean it’s certainly not subversive, interesting or in any way new, so no need to defend the man or the tedious post-kitsch haggis’n’whiskey’n”kilts cult which *absolutely no real people in Scotland celebrate*. Ever. Still, if anyone was actually thinking within the modern feminist subculture it would be quite obvious how reductive is this zero sum game language about a male icon “having to move over” for a female one. *As if there wasn’t space for two cultural icons* in the Scottish cultural pantheon (which, let’s be brutally honest, isn’t exactly overflowing is it?). But why pass up the opportunity for a bit of self serving fashionable, confrontational sounding, but ultimately completely vacuous language? It’s like, come on guys, we’re doing big cultural business here. If I attack teh menz, I might get a grant from Creative Scotland.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Until recently I was not aware of Burn’s collection and preservation work in Scottish culture, where he apparently collaborated on with editors James Johnson (Scots Musical Museum) and George Thomson (Select Collection of Scottish Airs). He may have modified works he encountered. This puts him in a bracket above simple poet and songwriter: he played an important role in preserving and publishing Scottish cultural artefacts.

    I don’t know enough about Nan Shepherd, but from the small sample of poems from the indicated link I would not make the link between romantic landscape poetry (with Graeco-Roman mythological references) and environmentalism, which latter deals far more with the underlying systems of nature, not the aesthetic sensory surface that produces a raw emotional response in some humans.

    I don’t think that finding a Great Woman is the antidote to Great Man theories, and believe we are culturally too prone to celebrate (lionise) the individual rather than the work, and like Isaac Newton these poets are standing on gigantic shoulders. Perhaps we could rotate and refresh selections of Scottish poetry every Burns Night? If he acted as a lens and guide to others’ work during life, could that be his ghost’s function once a year?

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