Books, Burns Night, Burns Supper, Children's fiction, Drink, Edinburgh, Fred MacAuley, Freemasons, History, James Hogg, Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight Scotland, Peasant, Princes Street, Pub, Rabbie Burns, Robert Burns, Scottish Literature, Tam O Shanter
Whilst Robert Burns is famed throughout the world as Scotland’s most distinguished tax collector, few people are aware that he actually wrote poetry as well. Many Scots, however, remember Burns from a gap in their national-curriculum reading between “When Daddy Fell into the Pond” and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. As with the novels of J. K. Rowling, middle aged Scots often take a loud pleasure in reading Burns’ poetry when they really ought to know better. Burns’ poems are hardly adult literature, and as children’s poetry they are inferior to the verses of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Although one cannot fail to smile at poems such as “To a Mouse” and “Address to a Haggis,” one is dismayed by the smug anti-intellectualism of the Burns cult, which still persists in the fantasy that Burns was not an educated petit-bourgeois public official but a bonny “peasant” who penned verses over his plough. The Burns cult, in this respect, serves a politically conservative assumption that the peasant lifestyle is authentic and idyllic, whereas one of Scotland’s best “peasant” writers, James Hogg (1770-1835), often observed the fears familiar to Lowland peasants, and he used this dread to colour some of Scottish Literature’s most striking and original horror fiction.
Burns wrote a handful of lively poems (my favourite is “Cock Up Your Beaver,” some rousing lines about putting on a beaver hat), a lot of poems which are rather better as songs than as poems, and many more poems which are not very good at all. Yet the magic wand of nationalist propaganda has been waved over Burns’ poems, transforming them from pretty but often inconsequential verses into great blasts of patriotism, mythology, and political radicalism. “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” has become a sort of hymn to the democratic spirit, although it is an unspectacular statement of the obvious, the Bible is full of similar and rather better put lines, and the poem contains several allusions to Freemasonry. Burns owed a lot of his worldly success to Masonic patronage, and whilst the Masons celebrated equality and fraternity, the point of their organisation was rather to keep out the riff-raff. True to Masonic principles, Burns’ idea of equality did not include women, who to his mind were supposed to stay at home and raise the legions of children which he had sired. With a heavy heart, one also notes that for all Burns’ Scottish equality and democracy, he at one stage aspired to leave Scotland and work as a bookkeeper on a Jamaican slave plantation.
Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman famously called Burns the “king of sentimental doggerel” and perhaps Thursday’s Burns-themed edition of Scotland’s own wanabee-Westminster-village show, Newsnight Scotland aimed to taunt the big man downstairs. The programme unfortunately highlighted the more industrial side of the Burns industry by dedicating its first fifteen minutes to the fortunes of Homecoming Scotland, a tourist campaign intended to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s birth. Before scarcely a line of Burns’ work had been sung, the reporter Kenneth McDonald was explaining how “The Pound may have weakened too late to affect many Americans’ travel plans, but the strong Euro may attract more late bookings from closer to home…” It eventually transpired that Homecoming Scotland is forecast to raise only about £40 million in additional tourist revenues, which in the present financial meltdown is about as significant as a mouse’s nest in a housing crisis. Yet in “Burns the Brand” an amusing and revealing programme broadcast yesterday on Radio 4, the comedian Fred MacAulay calculated that Burns today earns the Scottish economy £159 million a year.
Tychy has an entirely costless suggestion for commemorating Rabbie Burns. I was traipsing down Princes Street last week when my eye was caught by the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in front of Register House. The Iron Duke poses upon a gigantic and somewhat demented-looking horse, apparently ordering Princes Street shoppers to charge on Argos. Although this is an arresting statue, the city does not particularly need to remember this right-wing old tosspot, and a single snip to the tail would transform the Duke of Wellington into Tam O’ Shanter. For those unfamiliar with Burns’ greatest poem, Tam O’Shanter recounts its hero’s encounter with witches on his way back from the pub. Tam is mounted on his nag Meg, the pair are chased by witches, they manage to reach a running stream (which witches, of course, cannot cross), but as Tam leaps the stream, a witch rips off Meg’s tail. All great literature contains the seeds of a universal, archetypal truth, and in this respect Tam O’ Shanter refers to adventures which befall drunken men trying to get home from the pub. The night is indeed wild:
The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d;
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow’d:
That night, a child might understand,
The deil had business on his hand.
I have always assumed that Tam’s illicit peep at the witches was a metaphor for homebound misadventure: pissing against lampposts, thieving road signs, or whatever the equivalents were in eighteenth century Ayrshire. In accordance with the spirit of Tam O’ Shanter, the Iron Duke’s tail should not be snipped ceremonially – by the Queen and a procession of MSPs – but by a drunken student who has climbed up on to the statue on his way home from the pub. Tychy appeals to some publicly-minded citizen and lover of literature to perform this office. “Wi tippenny, we fear nae evil; Wi usquabae, we’ll face the Devil!”