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My Bard is in the Highlands

Burns 2009 and a National Scottish Literature

It will be well nigh impossible for anyone with their ear to the Scottish ground in 2009 to miss the fact that it is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Whatever opinion one holds of his life or poetry, and whatever his own original intentions or reservations, Burns has become a Scottish institution with textual, ritual, and culinary components. Not only is he the subject of several academic conferences this year, Burns is one of the five themes chosen for the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations officially sponsored and promoted by the Scottish Government to attract the descendants of the 'Scottish Diaspora'.

It is commonly observed that what we choose to forget is at least as important as what we commemorate. Reinforcing the claim that Burns is Scotland's national poet as a marketing strategy obscures fundamental distinctions between linguistic and literary traditions in Scotland's past. Just as the iconography of Highlandism has tended to muddy the distinctions between Gaelic and Scots communities in terms of clothing and material culture, the Burns cult has often displaced Gaelic literature in the very places where it was meant to be celebrated. Although protests over the kitsch of Highlandism register clearly in public discourse (the absence of tartan, kilts, and bagpipes in the themes chosen for Homecoming Scotland 2009 is conspicuous), equivalent charges of Lowlandism tended to be muted or absent altogether.

Admittedly, even during Burns' own lifetime there was a complex relationship between Lowland and Highland culture and literature, with many points of contact and borrowings in both directions. Burns himself made extensive use of Highland airs whose Gaelic titles are scattered throughout his work. Gaelic had only died as a spoken language in Ayrshire shortly before his birth, leaving a trail of words and idioms in Ayrshire Scots that appears in Burns' poetry, although it is not likely that he was conscious of their origins. Highland people and places appear as subjects of some of his poems. Burns' use of the Gaelic term duan (denoting a song-poem in Gaelic) to demarcate sections of his poem 'The Vision' and the choice of the name Luath for one of the dogs of 'The Twa Dogs' indicate his familiarity with aspects of Gaelic literature, if only via Macpherson's Ossian.

Nonetheless, however much sympathy Burns may have had for Highlanders, and however free he felt in finding amongst them materials to inspire his own work, there is little reason to doubt that he saw them as a people apart from his own. A journal entry during his Highland tour in 1787 states, 'I write this on my tour through a country where savage streams tumble over savage mountains, thinly overspread with savage flocks, which starvingly support as savage inhabitants.' In such passages the common perception of the Otherness of the Gaels is stated clearly.

Many mutual distinctions, suspicions, and animosities between Lowlanders and Highlanders in Scotland survived well into the twentieth century. It may be somewhat tautological to observe that Highland immigrant groups in North America maintained distinctions from speakers of Scots for as long as their language and literary traditions endured. Often the very effort to maintain Gaelic against hostile Anglophone institutions in the 'New World' recalled the struggles they had faced in Scotland against the ill-will of the Goill ('non-Gaels', Lowlanders in particular). Only late in the nineteenth century did the synthetic pan-Scottish 'identikit' begin to filter through imaginative literature and social organisations, coincident with the weakening of Gaelic traditions.

Scottish societies in North America, especially in urban centres, tended to be connected closely with similar organisations in Scotland and to accept innovations from the 'motherland' without many objections. One of these developments was the rising star of Robert Burns. Themes in the poetry of Burns, especially those of liberty and egalitarianism, had obvious appeal in North America. By reference to them, Scottish immigrants could claim a set of 'primordial ideals' which were in harmony with, and even anticipated, those of their adopted home. Sharing roots with the English language, Burns' Scots was sufficiently intelligible to North American Anglophones, exotic but not entirely alien, 'British' but not English. Such cultural capital was a valuable asset in the quest for mainstream respectability. The Burns' Society of New York was established in 1871, with Andrew Carnegie as its most famous president. Such advocates helped to spread the Burns cult in North America as it was making similar headway in Scotland.

Highlanders were not immune to these developments and some wished to claim a share in this new-found cachet. Alexander Carmichael, ever the champion of respectability for the Gaels, gleaned Gaelic Argyllshire tradition in order to find (or synthesise) a Gaelic pedigree for Robert Burns in an article in The Evergreen in 1895. While such ancestral connections are possible, this tells us more about the desire of urban nineteenth-century Gaeldom's desire to claim some small stake in Burns' fame than it does about genealogy. Gaelic translations of the poetry of Burns began to appear in Scottish periodicals by the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Scotland, and, as was often the case with printed texts, these translations appeared with a minimal time lag in North American periodicals catering to an immigrant Scottish audience. Before long, North American Gaels were translating Burns into Gaelic and composing original Gaelic odes of their own. By the 1890s, the accomplished Gaelic scholar of Nova Scotia, Alexander MacLean Sinclair, was engaged in such work. To commemorate Burns' birthday in 1901 Angus MacLeod, the official poet of the Scottish Gaelic Society of New York, recited an original Gaelic poem about Burns to a society gathering. [...]

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