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Poetry in Motion: The Legacy of Robert Burns

On Monday 25th January, Scotland celebrated Burns Night. Haggis was cooked, Buckfast was poured and the ephemeral words of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, were recited.

Each year, on the anniversary of his birth, the self-evident national bard is commemorated over tatties and neeps, paired with the reading of his iconic works. Having been the favourite poet of Abraham Lincoln, Burns has been recognised across the globe for his contributions to literature. Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison lauded his poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’, while Bob Dylan stated that Burns’ ‘A Red Red Rose’ had a greater influence on his work than any other lyric.

It is in his home country that Burns is commended most. No national poet can claim to have had such an impact upon culture in their homeland. For all their eminence, the likes of Yeats and Goethe cannot lay claim to the same degree of status as Burns, who gives his name to an unofficial Scottish national holiday. Each year the people of Scotland celebrate how Burns’ work summoned the soul of Scotland. Throughout his career Burns remained dedicated to his heritage, declaring his desire to be known as the Scots Bard.

In his role as the people’s poet, Burns’ work appealed to the common man, highlighting issues of class struggle and social inequality. He demonstrated a skilful ability to portray the human condition through unwavering honesty, delivering frank depictions of sexuality and drinking. Given his iconic reputation, it is unsurprising that accounts of his life have become the stuff of apocryphal legend. Son of a tenant farmer, Burns was praised for his character as well as his poetic output; exalted as having been a ‘heaven- taught ploughman’ on account of his upbringing.

Yet, despite contemporary praise from the people of Scotland, he was often shunned from accounts of the romantic period which praised the works of Wordsworth and Shelley. As a result, he came to occupy a unique position as the final bastion of traditional Scots verse. By the time Burns began writing, a shift towards the English vernacular seemed a forgone conclusion. Barring a few rural regions, the English language had begun to dominate and the Scottish dialect became less intelligible to the common reader. There were fears that Scotland was to become ‘a bland, cultural satellite of English Elite culture’. Thus, Burns is praised as a saviour of the Scottish language. As Patrick Hogg notes, Burns stood in opposition to the ‘sophisticated, elitist anglicisation of Scotland’.

Upon his arrival in Edinburgh in 1786, Burns was advised by acquaintances to drop his style in favour of the English dialect, but he refused. In his poetry a unique Scottish character survived through Scots verse, and thus Burns became a focal point of Scottish identity. Despite his undeniable influence, the annual Burns’ Night celebration of Scottish literature should not be limited to the work of the national poet. Recognition should be given to those that have preserved the tradition of Scots literature beyond Burns.

The work of Hugh McDiarmid, a key figure of the Scottish Renaissance, built upon Burns’ use of Scots. McDiarmid developed the technique of “synthetic Scots”, which blended traditional dialect with English. The Scottish Renaissance sought to preserve the declining Scottish dialects by championing folk influences into modernist literature. In the present day, poet and playwright Liz Lochhead carries this on, weaving the Scots patois into works of historical fiction such as ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ which depict the development of Scottish identity.

Not only has Burns’ use of Scots been sustained overtime, but his defence of oppressed groups is shared by many contemporary Scottish authors. William McIlvanney, the so-called ‘Scottish Camus’ was strongly opposed to Thatcherism, and delivered vivid depictions of a miner’s life during the depression. Similarly the raw depictions of Scottish life in the work of Irvine Welsh saw Scots catapulted to the silver screen through Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of ‘Trainspotting’.

Burns’ legacy is by no means limited to poetry. In the later years of his life he pursued music, penning the renowned ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The greatest reflection of Burn’s legacy in music is likely the singer-songwriter Eddie Reader. In 2003, accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the three-time Brit Award winner recorded an album of material written by Burns. Following this, Reader performed ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the reopening of the new Scottish Parliament.

Such is indicative of the influence of Burns. The prevalence of the Scottish vernacular has continued to diminish over time, but Burns’ legacy continues to preside over the modern Scottish literary canon. The success he found in utilising his Scottish voice has kept the dialect alive in the present day. While Scottish writers may recount their work in the English language, its identity remains unique to Scotland. As the saying goes; ‘think in English, feel in Scots’.

Image shows a portrait of Scottish writer Liz Lochhead

Image: Shetland Arts via Flickr