Let’s be honest, Burns Night is terribly sentimental and garish. The pipes, the haggis, the emotional recitations and reflections, the kilts, the flags — all these things are an evocation of an invented Scottish tradition, one which isn’t apparent in the ordinary lives of most of us Scots. It is also deeply ahistorical. Robert Burns, one of the world’s finest poets, is reduced to a collection of kitsch rituals. He is sentimentalised and unmoored from historical reality.
And yet, is it not wonderful to have a national holiday celebrating a poet? It’s not very common to celebrate writers in this way. Such rituals allow for kitsch nonsense of course, but there is still something to be distilled from Burns Night — the central idea that an exceptional national poet is worth going to a lot of trouble for. And I admit the kitsch is fun and Burns Nights aren’t as absurd as my above exaggeration suggests. But my main point is that much Burns Night tradition is unhistorical and I think we should keep the celebration, ditch the kitsch (well most of it the ‘Address to the Haggis’ is good fun) and instead swill whisky, gobble haggis, neeps, and tatties while reflecting on Burns and Scotland as historical reality demands we do.
Take, for example, Burns’s ambivalence about the Union between Scotland and England. He’s known for writing poetry scathingly critical of it but was also loyal to the Glorious Revolution and the British constitution, though he thought it could do with a dose of purifying reform. So, neither team in our never-ending independence debate can claim him entirely — history doesn’t take sides.
Burns did have some sympathies with the American and French Revolutions and radical politics, however. He wrote an ‘Ode For General Washington’s Birthday’ in 1794 in tribute to the first American president and revolutionary. This poem lamented Scotland’s loss of freedom at the hands of England while celebrating America’s triumph against her. The poem was not published in his lifetime, it was too radical. Indeed, one of Burns’s close friends, a Mrs. Dunlop, cut ties with him due to his fervour for the French Revolution.
Mention of Washington inevitably brings up the question of slavery. Burns was an opponent of slavery — his 1792 poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ directly attacked the institution — yet he accepted a job as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation in Jamaica before finding success as a poet. This isn’t as hypocritical as American revolutionaries holding slaves, and Burns was in a difficult financial spot at the time, but it’s still lamentable. It also means we must treat him as an historical figure, with all the ambiguities that entails, rather than as a sentimentalised hero.
As I mentioned, Burns was also ambiguous on the Union question. His ‘Ode’ attacked English domination. This raises the question of Scotland and empire. Was Scotland colonised by England? Are we under the English boot? Many see history this way, but it is simply not true. Scots reconciled themselves to the Union fairly quickly and were at the forefront of the British Empire. We made money through imperialism backed by violent military force and Scots were disproportionately represented in the ranks of the East India Company. Highland regiments became the ‘shock troops’ of empire, according to the eminent historian T.M. Devine. Once more, history tells a more complex story than our simplistic imaginings suggest.
So, Burns Night, what is to be done? I suggest we celebrate Burns — a great poet — and use the opportunity to reflect on Scottish and global history. Don’t reduce Burns to a kitsch caricature. Respect historical complexity and use his legacy accurately.
I’m inclined to emphasise Burns’s radical politics, as it conforms to my own views, but it would be wrong to disregard contrary aspects of his life and career. Use the Ploughman Poet carefully, the real history is more ambiguous as well as more interesting than we might think. Nonetheless I think it’s fair to say that Robert Burns the opponent of slavery, the enemy of tyrants and lyrical genius is a man worth celebrating.
Image: Alexander Nysmth via Wikimedia Commons