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We Cannae Cancel Rabbie Burns

Kaitlin Dryburgh

This week gave us our yearly winter warmer in the form of Burns Night, maybe you raised a glass of whisky, tucked into a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties and belted out Address to a Haggis. Maybe your local primary school spent the day reciting Burn’s poems or this weekend you’re headed to a ceilidh, to be swung about or to swing people about, who knows?

I have fond memories of Burns Night growing up, every year at school we had a poetry reading competition, which I normally placed highly in but a boy in the class spoke in a Doric dialect, so I had no chance of actually winning. Then enjoying some haggis at home while pleading with my mum not to give me neeps (not a fan), and then perhaps the occasional ceilidh over the years.

Rabbie Burns is an internationally celebrated figure, even if not everyone knows who he is. All you have to do is look to the USA at New Years and see them negotiate with the pronunciations of Auld Land Syne to know that he really is international, I would highly recommend watching Mariah Carey’s version if you fancy a wee chuckle. Burns wrote some of the most profound love songs ever, he has the range to make people laugh, cry and gain a sincere sense of pride. He went on to inspire some of the greats and still influences people today 227 years after he died, even Shakespeare doesn’t have a day to celebrate his life and works.

His influence and importance stretches to more than romantic text but his works helps to preserve the Scots language or at least remind us that it does exist. This year it was discovered that his works even inspired some 19th century working class writers from the North of England to write in Scots, after many literary works were unearthed. The figure of Rabbie Burns and his works helps to deepen our culture and adds to our national identity.

To a point you can’t help but think why isn’t Scotland doing more to promote Burns, there’s of course the Burns cottage in Ayr, and a dedicated space tucked away in the Edinburgh based writers museum but it took until 2007 to even establish a centre to study the works of one of the most famous poets in the whole world. Yet it seems that there could maybe be more done to make his works a more celebrated part of Scotland.

However, the national bard of Scotland Rabbie Burns has become a somewhat controversial figure in recent years and perhaps there are people who would rather we remember him differently or in fact not at all. Burns was in no way a perfect figure, who is, perhaps when it comes to his womanising ways we shouldn’t present him as a role model in that area, but I’m not not sure he ever was. He indeed didn’t use his works as an outlet to declare his stance against slavery or of the racism around him, although he never was in favour. Yet can we apply 21st century values and thinking, in a post-me-too environment to a person that lived over 200 years ago, in which we don’t have detailed accounts of exactly what he was thinking or how he acted day to day.

There are several recent examples of modern culture wanting to paint Burns in a different lights and to not only make his flaws a more central focus of life but one of the most important aspects. A play simply named Burns has opened in Edinburgh, I must be upfront and say I myself have not seen it however a close friend has and there are many reviews in which to base an informed opinion from. The concept of the play is that Burns is alive in the 21st century, he’s using social media, immersed in a world of influencers, internet fame, and addiction. What seems apparent is the effort to side-line the very thing that made the man a renowned talent, his words. It’s no longer about the art but how we can compare him to people from reality tv shows, people who are famous for literaly no reason. Is it that we’re living in a age where the art or work someone produces is always overshadowed by the life they live, are we more concerned about this? Will we only see a movie if we agree with all the casting decisions, or go to an art gallery if we agree with the politics of the artists?  

This is a bigger issue than just Robert Burns but yet another issue deriving from cancel culture, funnily enough the word culture was only used in its modern-day sense after Burns had died. Cancel culture is a relatively new phenomenon and has been hard to ignore in recent years, if you are unfamiliar it’s the process of deeming someone’s actions (usually someone in the public eye’s) so heinously offensive or just slightly irritating that we “cancel” them as a person. We disregard all their previous work and banish them to social Siberia, until enough time has passed, everyone’s forgotten and they’ve moved on to someone new. There are so many problems with this process, but I would argue you can never truly cancel anyone in the first place and even if they do turn out to be horrendous and for example come on as a far-right radical, they’ve not been cancelled they’ve just found a new audience, so don’t kid yourself.

Countless celebs have been “cancelled”, however it’s a different kettle of fish when the person it concerns hasn’t been living for several centuries. At the root of cancel culture would be to assess what the person has done and maybe say “I don’t agree with that” or “not really a big fan of that”, and there are some historical figures that on retrospect maybe shouldn’t have been the celebrated figures that they are, but this life is rarely black and white. We have the case of Edward Colston, his statue was toppled in Bristol during the Black Lives Matter protests, he worked as a deputy governor in the UK’s only slave trading company and in latter years as an MP arguing for the expansion of the slave trade. His philanthropic money was derived from this, we can’t whitewash him out of history or forget that he ever existed but we shouldn’t celebrate him.

Then we have a character like Winston Churchill, many have called for his Westminster statue to be taken down, yet perhaps he isn’t as black and white as Mr Colston, can we forget the good he did when we remember the bad, or the dedicated years he gave when he was a posh upper-class aristocrat, even though they all were. Just like Rabbie Burns though you can’t leave out important parts of his life to paint the picture that suits the current narrative, but perhaps we can’t ignore the not-so-good parts, it’s a delicate line.

Liz Lochhead a Scottish poet argued that Burns was a modern-day Harvey Weinstein, in reference to a letter that he wrote to a friend. The evidence is lacking as Professor Kirsteen McCue who heads up the centre for Burns puts it, there is sound evidence suggesting he was a womaniser but not a rapist, (perhaps more of Leonardo DiCaprio than that of a Weinstein). However, comparing someone from 1759 to modern age is not very helpful nor can it ever be accurate as it completely disregards the context in which they existed. Circumstantial evidence is not enough to blow apart the amazing works of Robert Burns, to clumsily tarnish him as sex pest because he isn’t what we expect in a 21st century citizen, if we apply that level of scrutiny we’ll quickly run out of historical figures to celebrate. Does anyone know Mother Theresa’s stance on green policy, did Alexander Graham Bell have an opinion on gender politics or what about Florence Nightingale, did she want to privatise healthcare?

Sometimes it’s best to let the past lie, there are bigger and more important fights. I really do hope that in years to come we’ll still be tucking into our haggis and raising a glass to Mr Burns.

2 thoughts on “We Cannae Cancel Rabbie Burns”

  1. Good article, pity it was let down by a lack of editing… e.g. “Liz Lochhead a Scottish poet argued that Burns was a modern-day Harvey Weinstein”

  2. Gerard Robertson

    Thank you for the ‘We Cannae Cancel Rabbie Burns’ article. There are flaws in everyone, sometimes more exaggerated in people of genius and those who change the world, but context is all. Robert Burns certainly had them and his works show him to have been complex in character, and not always consistent in action. The world is a better place for having his poems, songs, epigrams, and letters, and his human weaknesses are part of the mixture that gave him his humanity.
    However, one issue about your article is worth mentioning; you failed to mention the thriving memorial to Burns that is Dumfries. We have the last house in which he lived and in which he died. We have his remains, and those of his close family in his mausoleum. There is the Robert Burns Centre, Burns’s Statue, the Globe Tavern, and Ellisland Farm. We have the Big Burns Supper, numerous Burns clubs and local school children study his life and works. There is hardly a part of the town and the surrounding county that does not have a Burns connection. Just thought I’d mention them. Slàinte!

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