Clan Carruthers

Clan Carruthers: Robert Burns – World Writer.

Robert Burns 1759-1796, Scotland’s National Bard

As we move to celebrate one of Scotland’s most famous sons on January 5th, it is apt that a blog on his international acclaim and worldwide appreciation is published by us.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Robert Burns was born in 1759, in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, to William and Agnes Brown Burnes. (The Bard used the old version of the family name until April 1786, when it last appears in his signature to a letter. Thereafter he adopted the spelling without the ‘e’). Like his father, Burns was a tenant farmer (which led to him being named the Ploughman Poet during his lifetime). However, toward the end of his life he became an excise collector in Dumfries, where he died in 1796 but remained throughout his life a practising poet.

His poetry recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and although he reputedly held Jacobite sympathies, there is no evidence it seems to support this. Burns is considered the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scots bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song.

The piece below is by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Director of the Robert Burns Centre at Glasgow University which he has submitted to us for publication.

-Robert Burns: World Writer-


Robert Burns (1759-96) is Scotland’s national poet, and may also be Scotland’s national songwriter, though curiously this latter idea has never really been expressed. He authors over 200 poems and writes or edits (often improving pre-existing fragments) around 500 songs. Burns is also an international artist, arguably standing in a select band of ‘world writers’ whose work crosses cultures and continents in significant ways. For instance, Burns has an audience in nineteenth-century Russia which becomes even more pronounced in Soviet Russia. He has also had a long reception in the USA, partly but not exclusively via expatriate Scots.  In both east and west, some of those same qualities underlie the poet’s appeal: writing about harsh, farming conditions, valuing education as a means of raising the mind, the inalienable dignity of the low-born human being. These are themes that currently sees Burns increasingly studied in modern-day China, where a new translation of his work appeared several years ago.

iu-9 copy 7.jpegBurns has been translated into over 40 languages including Latin, Faroese and Esperanto as well as into all the major European kinds, and in the Asian context into Urdu and Bengali as well as Chinese (with a couple of dozen versions of the latter). Famously the tune to Burns’s ‘Auld Lang Syne’ signals the closure of some department stores in Japan and is sometimes a college graduation anthem in South Korea. In America ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was banned for a time during the American Civil War as a tune likely to make the troops homesick, it was thought, and it was struck up to celebrate the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865. In the twentieth century it became the signature tune for Hogmanay (or New Year) after the Guy Lombardo dance band (from Canada) popularised it on radio and in New York hotels, with its subsequent enshrining as a cornerstone of the marking of the new year’s midnight in Times Square.

My love is Like a Red Red Rose a rendition by Rachel Sermanni played along with the RSNO on 25th January, 2014 at the SSE Hydro

Ludwig van Beethoven

Musically, Burns’s work has been set by composers all the way from Beethoven to James Macmillan in the present day, and as well as this classical tradition the Scottish national poet has featured also in folk and even pop music. In the latter case renditions by Paolo Nutini and Eddi Reader have attracted particular attention and a recent Scottish band ‘Hopeland’ is blazing a new trail with Burns material.  In the folk idiom, Emily Smith, Robyn Stapleton, Karine Polwart, Kath Campbell and Dick Gaughan are all wonderful purveyors of ‘the bard’ (for it this is how Burns is denoted in Scotland, where in England this title is used for Shakespeare). Bob Dylan has signalled out Burn’s love song (one of the greatest of all love songs), ‘A Red Rose’ among many of the works by the bard which he admires. The influence of Dylan is longer than his recent pronouncements, and the analyses that rightfully identify the great American songwriter’s immersion in international folk idioms does not notice enough Dylan’s close friendship with another great Burns singer, Jean Redpath and also Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, from whom also Dylan was hearing Burns’s work in the early 1960s.

Robert Burns

American novels such The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men riff on Burns work and a ‘possible’ fun fact is that the Mexican term ‘Gringo’ may be derived from a mishearing of US troops active at the Texan-Mexican border singing another Burns-classic ‘Green Grow the Rushes’. Many groups ‘claim’ Burns, which is probably a mark of his accessibility and greatness, including freemasons (there is a wonderful collection of Burns material in the central freemasonic temple of the Scottish rite in Washington DC. The greatest North American collections though are to be found in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia and at the University of South Carolina. Burns’s work appeared early in the US with editions in Philadelphia and in New York in 1788, two years after his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. These contained most of Burns’s great poems, including ‘To A Mouse’, ‘To A Louse,’ ‘The Twa Dogs’ and others. His long masterpiece in Scots is ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (1790). These poems and his songs can all be accessed via the internet for those new to his work. The American site, ‘Robert Burns Lives’ is a great source of information:

and the University of Glasgow runs a free 3-week MOOC (Massive Open Online Course):

Gerard Carruthers is Francis Hutcheson Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and General Editor of the ongoing collected work of Robert Burns for Oxford University Press. His Robert Burns (Northcote Publishing, 2006) also provides a convenient introduction to Scotland’s national poet.

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