Re-Evaluating Rabbie: The Scottish Poets Wrestling With Robert Burns’ Legacy

Scottish Poets: Robert Burns is somehow invincible. In recent years a slew of critics have attempted to shoggle the Ayrshire Bard off his pedestal: Liz Lochhead has called him “very Weinsteinian”, Stuart Kelly has argued that he may have been a rapist, and his links to enslavement have come under the spotlight, leading to accusations of racism. His status, meanwhile, has barely changed.

For every article drawing attention to Burns’s flaws, another three articles pop up across the aisle protesting outrage at any attempt to judge an 18th-century poet against 21st-century standards.

Scottish Poets, There is, however, one arena in which Burns’s reputation seems to be shifting: contemporary Scottish poetry. Over the past few years, a number of Scotland-based poets have been re-evaluating Burns, writing poems responding to the troublesome aspects of this complicated figure.

Picking up on Burns’s reputation as a dipsomaniacal womaniser, Janette Ayachi writes of the poet’s “diet of women, wine & song”, and his habit to “breed as wide as a turtle dove”. Such libidinous behaviour has its consequences, as Ayachi goes on to make clear, with her version of Burns proclaiming: “I’ve left my brood my legacy / Many women mourning after me / It’s no wonder I’m not left in peace / Long after rot.”

Re-Evaluating Rabbie: The Scottish Poets Wrestling With Robert Burns’ Legacy

Scottish Poets

Scottish Poets, Burns Cottage at the Ellisland Farm

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Scottish Poets, A less direct engagement with Burns’s attitude towards women can be found in Gill Shaw’s Ode tae a Tunnock’s Teacake – a poem whose “wee gildit temptress” is a clear throwback to the “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie” of Burns’s To a Mouse. Shaw’s poem leans into an extended sexual double entendre, culminating in the statement that “ah’ll dip ma tongue in – she’ll taste splendit / sweet an sticky, saft”. The poem is about a Tunnock’s Teacake, remember?

Such ribaldry fits neatly into the Burnsian tradition, although it might not seem it to readers only familiar with the best known of Burns’s works. Listen to Nine Inch Will Please a Lady, a song commonly attributed to Burns, if you’re in any doubt.

Shaw takes great care, however, to avoid the dubious sexual dynamics which have troubled contemporary engagements with Burns, with the second line of her poem noting how its eponymous Teacake will “let me help her undress”. By building consent and agency into her poem, Shaw avoids any of the ethical ambiguity that has recently clouded Burns and his work.

Scottish Poets, Harry Josephine Giles has also tapped into the vein of explicit sexuality present in Burns’s work: their parodic poem, Tae a Sex-Toy, opens: “Wee sleekit, tirlin, purpie buttplug!” Giles is one of contemporary poetry’s most delightfully subversive voices, whose work constantly troubles structures of dominance and authority;

Their irreverent approach in this poem works to destabilise Burns’s masculine domination of Scottish poetry. It helps that they do so with such humour, and with a focus on the pleasures, rather than pitfalls, of a liberated sexuality (declaring “O buttplug, whan ye’re in ma rectum / A’m plucked as true as string by plectrum”).

Scottish Poets

Scottish Poets, Other poets have been doing essential work in recent years regarding Burns’s links to enslavement. We know, because he wrote as much in a 1787 letter to Dr John Moore, that Burns made plans to travel to Jamaica, where he was to be an overseer of enslaved people. (In the end, he never went.)

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In a 2020 documentary, the then-makar Jackie Kay said: “I can’t really reconcile the Burns that I have, my protean version of Burns, in my head, with a man that would’ve comfortably been an overseer.”

Scottish Poets, Kay has also written a poem about Burns’s links to enslavement, which will be published this April in her forthcoming collection, May Day. Attempting to come to terms with this aspect of Burns’s biography, she asks: “Had he overseen slaves’ toil on the sugarcane […] who might he be?” Her answer (and the poem’s final line): “Not Rabbie.”

Jeda Pearl, a Scottish Jamaican writer living in Edinburgh, shares Kay’s concerns. In a challenge to Burns in her poem Ma Scotland Is, Pearl asks, “does [Burns’s] poetry deserve ma tongue”? Her poem goes on to confront “how we […] imagine oor Rabbie campaignin / for reparations” – a seeming dig at defenders of Burns who have suggested the poet would have become a staunch abolitionist had he witnessed enslavement in Jamaica.

Scottish Poets, In a 1959 essay, the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid wrote: “No criticisms of Burns as a poet, or complaint about his inadequate and outdated ‘philosophy of life,’ or his glaring political inconsistencies really affect his place as ‘Scotland’s National Bard’ at all.” Sixty five years later, little has changed, with Burns’s dominance still tending to eclipse his fellow Scottish poets, past and present.

This Burns Night, then, here’s an idea: read some of Burns’s immortal poetry, if you wish, but why not pick up some contemporary Scottish poetry, too? You might find in it a fitting challenge to Rabbie’s cultural dominion – and learn something new about the Bard along the way.

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