This week we’re delighted to welcome folk musician Steve Byrne to The Scots Curator. Steve recently crowdfunded the money required to purchase an iconic instrument – Roy Williamson’s bouzouki used in The Corries’ first public performance of ‘Flower of Scotland’. The 1968 song has since grown in popularity, especially at sporting events, and is now considered to be Scotland’s national anthem.
Thanks to Steve efforts, the instrument has now been donated to the University of Edinburgh and will go on public display as part of their world-renowned music collection at St Cecilia’s Hall. In this interview, Steve tells us why it was important for the bouzouki to be preserved for the public, and what makes ‘Flower of Scotland’ such an iconic song.
O Flower of Scotland When will we see your like again? That fought and died for Your wee bit Hill and Glen
Why did you feel it was important for this instrument to be preserved for the public?
I think it’s important for aspects of our more recent folk culture – even that which was as popular as The Corries – to be given a place in our historic collections alongside other instruments of national and international importance. I think when Roy Williamson died and much of his estate was sold off at auction, while well meaning and a great fundraiser for charity, it rather dissipated his legacy to a degree. Save for a small exhibition at the Falconer Museum in Forres, there isn’t really anywhere else I can think of where The Corries’ huge cultural impact is visibly celebrated. It can’t be underestimated how much they did to bring traditional songs and singers to the wider public consciousness.
What is it about Flower of Scotland which makes it such an iconic song?
I think the most iconic aspect of Flower of Scotland is how it was adopted almost organically by the public. It’s well noted that Roy didn’t really set out to write an anthem, in fact the legend goes that the song sat in a drawer for a while before being brought out when the lads were seeking new material. It seemed to capture the public imagination in the 1970s on the rugby and football terraces and it has just grown from there – the people made it what it is. There’s no greater accolade for a songwriter.
What does it say about Scottish folk that it can incorporate instruments from a variety of cultures?
I don’t think that it’s something than can be viewed as simply as that. Roy was an inveterate collector of instruments and featured numerous unusual ones in his playing – the Spanish bandurria, the Northumbrian pipes, the English guittar. I think it’s more representative of the wider folk scene’s overall acceptance of a multitude of cultural influences and not something uniquely Scottish. The bouzouki was already being used in the late 1950s by Rory and Alex McEwen, who were real trailblazers for Scottish song on network TV, even before Hall & MacGregor or The Corries. There was also a parallel track of its adoption by Irish musicians in the late 1960s to the point where almost a whole new instrument, the flatbacked Irish bouzouki, has become very common.
On Monday, Historic Environment Scotland announced that extremely rare carvings, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000-years-old, had been discovered inside Dunchraigaig Cairn at Kilmartin Glen. The carvings, which include depictions of two red deer, are the earliest known animal carvings in Scotland, and are being treated as a major historic discovery.
This week, we spoke to Dr Joana Valdez-Tullet, a research assistant at Scotland’s Rock Art Project who went to examine the findings at Kilmartin Glen. As Joana explains in this interview, the discovery changes everything that was known about some of Scotland’s earliest art forms, and also hints at Scotland’s prehistoric connections with mainland Europe.
Just how rare are these newly discovered carvings?
The carvings at Dunchraigaig are the oldest animal representations of animals ever found in Scotland. Prehistoric rock art in Britain and Ireland is mostly based on a carving tradition that we call Atlantic Rock Art. The carved images of Atlantic Rock Art are geometric and abstract, mostly composed of cupmarks (small hollows cut on the rock) surrounded by concentric circles. This tradition is also found in other parts of western Europe, namely Iberia, where animals were also depicted on the rocks. Kilmartin is well known for this type of rock art and has some of the most iconic examples in Scotland.
However, the discovery of animal carvings in this context was very surprising, as these were thought to be absent from Britain and Ireland, despite there being many examples of carved animals of this period in other parts of Europe. After careful analysis we concluded that these animals were probably carved before the stone was used as a cover of the grave, and therefore they pre-date the monument. We estimate that they are 4,000 to 5,000 years old.
There a few examples other examples of animal carvings in Britain, the oldest ones being in Creswell Crags and dating to the Palaeolithic. However, the deer at Dunchraigaig are also the first clear representations of animals of this period, and with so much anatomical detail. We have no parallels for them anywhere else in the country.
What do these carvings tell us about Scotland’s prehistoric links with mainland Europe?
There are several elements that are evidence for prehistoric connections between Scotland, the rest of the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Not only do we find artefacts of different provenances, but ancient DNA and isotope analyses have recently demonstrated that individuals from other parts of Europe reached Scotland during prehistory. The carvings of the stags really reinforce this idea, since all over Europe we see representations of deer in a number of different contexts. Clearly this animal was very special for many societies, including those who were living and dying in Kilmartin Glen at the time. The use of these images in funerary monuments is not unique to Scotland, with other examples being known, for example, in Portugal. There are some aspects of the burial practice that resemble others across Europe, beyond the use of animal carvings.
How did it feel personally to be part of such an exciting project?
The animal carvings were found by Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology and does a lot of 3D modelling in various archaeological sites. He replied to a post that I wrote in Scotland’s Rock Art Project Facebook page, about the absence of Neolithic and Bronze Age animal carvings in Scotland, and shared his find with me. I could hardly believe in what I was seeing! Until then there was absolutely no idea that carvings like this could exist in Scotland.
I worked extensively in Iberian rock art in the past, and I immediately understood the importance of this find! It really changes everything we knew about rock art in Scotland, and we will now have to reassess this and look for other examples, because they must be out there. Ever since I have been researching Dunchraigaig rock art, and it has been a great pleasure to be involved in such a wonderful discovery, learning and thinking about this really fascinating site.
This week we’re delighted to welcome Kenneth McElroy from the Caithness Broch Project to The Scots Curator. In this interview, Kenneth explains why brochs are among the most intriguing structures in Scotland’s history – he tells us what these multi-storey Iron Age towers may have been used for, where we can find them, and also about exciting new plans to create an authentic replica of a broch using traditional building techniques.
First of all, what is a broch? What makes them so interesting?
Brochs are a type of prehistoric structure, and which began to appear on the landscape of Scotland over 2,000 years ago. They don’t appear anywhere else in the world – they are unique to the country!
They are a continuation of the vernacular tradition of constructing buildings using drystone – that is to say, without any bonding agents like lime and mortar; just stones stacked on top of stones, held together by gravity!
Brochs are essentially large towers (the largest surviving example, Mousa, reaches over 40 feet high) with two sets of walls instead of one, with a ‘gallery’ or corridor running through the walls, which often held a staircase so that upper levels of the structure could be accessed. These Iron-Age structures were multi-storeyed, although what occurred on these upper floors is largely conjecture: we simply don’t have enough evidence to understand their use.
Indeed, brochs, despite a wealth of study being applied to their nature for well over 100 years, are still somewhat relatively mysterious structures. It seems, however, that they were dwellings of some sort, although it is likely that a wide range of activities took place here: from grinding grains with quernstones, to the creation of brooches.
What were the advantages of brochs to their inhabitants?
That ‘double-skinned’ wall I mentioned? It may have had an important purpose – acting as a means to protect the inhabitants from the frightful elements. As some people may know, Scotland can be wet and windy. By having two walls, this mitigated the effects of the Scottish weather. The rain permeates the first wall, but fails to reach the second wall, ensuring that those inside are kept warm by the hearth fire.
On a wider, more societal level, brochs were extensions of ego; it is thought that these were statements rather than strategic. Your first impression of a broch may be that they were defensive ‘castles’ of some sort, but in reality they would have been quite useless in a siege context. Simply block up the entrance – brochs usually only have one entrance and no windows – and you could set fire to the structure’s roof, which was likely made from flammable material.
So, instead, brochs are statements of power. Significant structures like these require a considerable amount of manpower. And with that, you need to have the resources, co-ordination and control to get these structures built. The bigger the broch, the more power you have obtained and the more resources you have at your disposal. So, brochs reflect a sort of formation of proto-kingdoms at this time, before the early medieval period when groups such as Dal Riata and the Picts started to form.
Where are the best places to see brochs?
Brochs can be found the length and breadth of Scotland, from Unst to Duns. They are largely absent from the Aberdeenshire region, though, where hilltop enclosures and hillforts were more popular. However, the Atlantic ‘fringe’ of Scotland is where most brochs can be found – Shetland, Orkney, Sutherland, Skye, Caithness and the Western Isles all have dozens of brochs. There are more brochs in Caithness than anywhere else – with around 180 – but there are fantastic examples to see in each of these regions, with Shetland having the best surving example of a broch in the shape of Mousa.
Your ultimate goal is to create a broch replica. Could you tell us a wee bit about this project?
Yes! We’re hoping to commemorate the achievements of our Iron Age ancestors by constructing a replica broch – the first full-sized broch to be built in Scotland in over 2,000 years. It’s an exciting and ambitious project, but we think Caithness is the ‘home of the broch’ and so something like this would really make for an unmissable attraction: not only would provide the region with an important tourist attraction – which would aid in the economic sustainability of the region – but it would an incredible, immersive and iconic ‘living history’ experience – a vivid re-imagining of life two millennia ago.
It also means we could revive the dying art of drystone dyking – this would be the biggest drystone dyking project ever, potentially – and so there’s a great opportunity to re-learn and develop practical building skills and techniques. Woodworking, joinery, textiles, farming, pottery and ceramics, blacksmithing, food preparation, leather tanning, thatching … all manner of activities would take place here and so we could lead to a real renaissance in both experimental archaeology and ‘forgotten’ skills.
We’ve made excellent progress over the last year – essentially we are mulling over our options as to where the broch should be built. This is an incredibly important aspect – this impacts on basically everything else behind our project, so we’ve got to take our time and make the ‘right’ decision. But we hope to make that decision in the next few months – and then we can crack on with one of the most exciting experimental archaeology projects in the world!
This week we’re delighted to welcome Jack Capener to The Scots Curator. Jack is a founder of Oor Vyce, an exciting new initiative campaigning for the official recognition of the Scots language. Ahead of the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May, Oor Vyce are calling for candidates to sign up to a Scots Pledge to help promote and protect the language.
In this interview, Jack tells us how social media has led to a new generation of young people engaging with with this important but previously overlooked minority language. He also offers some fantastic advice for anyone wanting to find out more about speaking or writing in Scots.
Oor Vyce appears to be going from strength to strength. Can you tell us why it was set up?
Oor Vyce is all about trying to achieve proper legislative action to recognise, protect, and promote Scots and deliver some form of equity between Scots and Scotland’s other languages. The situation regarding Scots is definitely better than it was a decade ago, but it still suffers from stigmatisation and a patchy approach to language policy. Far too much of what’s keeping the language alive depends on volunteers and enthusiasts, so Oor Vyce is working to link up all these various disparate volunteers and groups to use our voice as a community to call for coordinated, national action. So far, we’ve gotten a huge amount of support, with a membership well into the hundreds and partnerships with Scots organisations across the country. Language rights are human rights, and that’s something a lot of folk can really get behind!
You’ve set up a Scots Pledge ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May. Why did you decide to go down this route?
We launched the #Scotspledge campaign to ask candidates in the coming election to pledge to, if elected in May, recognise Scots as a legitimate living language, raise its profile through their parliamentary work, and call for legislative action to better protect and promote Scots. It’s the second most spoken language in Scotland, yet it’s been strangely absent from our politics – so we want to make sure that the next parliament is a Scots-supporting one, with a big chunk of its MSPs explicitly pledging to support the language. You can ask your candidates to support the pledge on Oor Vyce’s website!
Does it feel like this an exciting time for the Scots language? Is there a new ‘revival’ coming through with the younger generation?
Absolutely. More folk than ever are engaging with Scots, to the extent that what’s happening at the moment has been characterised as a ‘Scots Language Renaissance’. I think the reason for this is quite simple – the more that folk are exposed to Scots, the more they want to engage with it. Social media has definitely played a role in this, by creating a space where Scots-speaking communities can thrive and blether away freely. That’s why it’s so important that Scots is more visible, whether in the media or in education.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to explore the Scots language but may not be sure where to start?
There are some fantastic resources out there. If you’re looking for learning materials, there’s an abundance of resources on the Scots Language Centre website, or if you’re wanting a crash course in the history and social context of the language I can’t recommend Billy Kay’s ‘Scots: the Mither Tongue’ highly enough. But the best piece of advice I can give is to use your Scots! Whether you feel like you have no Scots at all or had some in the past that you’ve lost, start small by dropping wee Scots words into your speech and build it up gradually, only doing as much as you feel comfortable and confident with. The more you engage with Scots through reading or having a blether with other speakers, the more words you’ll pick up, so be patient with it. Then, when you feel more confident, start pushing boundaries – try to use Scots in situations where you might not have done before, like formal situations. The only way we can break stigmas against Scots is by being trailblazers! Haud gaun!
With the Declaration of Arbroath’s 700th anniversary celebrations called off in April 2020, we’ve decided mark the 701st anniversary by putting together a list of all the best resources, including books, films and radio programmes, to help you learn more about this fascinating part of Scotland’s history from home.
Here are 6 great ways to find out more about the Declaration of Arbroath:
1. ‘The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath’ by Andrew Redmond Barr
For 700 years the Declaration of Arbroath has been one of Scotland’s most powerful national symbols. In this book, Scots Curator founder Andrew Redmond Barr celebrates the Declaration as one of the earliest foundation stones of Scottish identity, and explores its profound impact on modern ideas of freedom and democracy. Order your copy of The Illustrated Declaration of Arbroath.
2. ‘Declaration: The Letter of Liberty‘ by Lesley Riddoch& Charlie Stuart
In this film released for the 700th anniversary, broadcaster and journalist Lesley Riddoch joins forces with filmmaker Charlie Stuart to bring us a 30-minute film on the history and legacy of the Declaration. There’s atmospheric filming around Arbroath, in Edinburgh and in Bannockburn House with glimpses of the surviving medieval document at the National Library of Scotland. Watch on Youtube.
3. ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ by Billy Kay
Writer and broadcaster Billy Kay presents a major series on one of the most iconic moments in Scottish and world history. In 3 episodes, first broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, Billy examines the Declaration’s international associations, as well as its relevance to the rise of 20th century Scottish nationalism. Listen to Episode One, Episode Two, and Episode Three.
4. Quick 3-minute explainer by Alistair Heather
In a hurry? Writer and presenter Alistair Heather gives us a brilliant 3-minute Declaration explainer, made in collaboration with Pict Digital.
5. ‘Language and the Declaration o Arbroath’ by Ashley Douglas & Thomas Clark
Ashley Douglas and Thomas Clark translated the Declaration from its original Latin into Scots for the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes project. As they explain in the piece, Latin was the language of international diplomacy, the church, education and record keeping in the 1300s, but Scots would have been the spoken language for most. Find out more.
6. ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ activity booklet by Andrew Redmond Barr
Aimed at primary ages, this pack from Historic Environment Scotland and the National Records of Scotland covers various parts of the curriculum including history, literary and the arts. Learners can find out about the Declaration and use their imaginations to draw, design and create. The illustrated pack is now free to download here.
Today we’re delighted to welcome writer, broadcaster and language activist Billy Kay to The Scots Curator. Billy’s award-winning radio programmes on Scottish history, culture and language have been broadcast both at home and abroad, and his books including Scots:The Mither Tongue and The Scottish World have been widely praised for raising Scottish cultural awareness and self-confidence.
In this interview we speak to Billy about writing The Scottish World, first released in 2006, highlighting the extraordinary influence the Scots have had on communities and cultures on almost every continent.
Readers may also be interested to know that Billy’s latest radio series, ‘Scotland & the Low Countries’, celebrating Scotland’s historic links with the Flemish and Dutch people, will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland at 11.30am on April 2nd and April 5th 2021, and will then be available for a month on BBC Sounds.
The Scottish World gives such a wonderfully detailed account of Scotland’s international connections through the ages. Reading it feels like a bit of a revelation – something we don’t often hear enough about. What drove you to write it?
I started hitch hiking in Europe with a friend from school at the age of 15, making a trip to Normandy, Paris and the Rhineland. I was able to speak reasonable French and German by then, so it was easy for me to communicate with the people who helped us. Me and my pal wore the kilt and that was also a great help getting round!
What struck me even that early was the positive reputation the Scots had and that positivity fed into my own national identity and pride in being Scottish. I also began to pick up on Scottish history through those travels.
When I was 16 I went on a Scottish Schools trip to Russia – I did Higher Russian at Kilmarnock Academy, and this was organised for pupils studying the language. In Red Square, Moscow I heard the story of Red Clydeside for the first time, and later in life was thrilled when Nan Milton, the daughter of John McLean came to one of my talks in Linlithgow.
The year after Russia in the summer before university, another friend and I hitch hiked to Italy, and one of the places we visited en route was St Gallen where the people who gave us a lift there took us to the famous library and told us the history of the Schottenkloster – the early Scottish religious establishments in what is now Germany and Switzerland that were so important in taking the Celtic Christian religion and erudition to that part of the world.
It was those kind of stories that alerted me to the fact that I had not been educated as a Scot at home and that made me determined to find out more.
The histories you have written about are quite diverse, and relate to almost every part of the globe. How did you decide which stories to cover? Were you looking for something specific?
The book is mainly about places I have been to myself usually to make radio documentaries on the Scots contribution there. A good example of that was the series ‘Merchants, Pedlars, Mercenaries’ which was about the Scots merchant communities in Baltic ports like Danzig and Königsberg, the pedlars who supplied the merchant’s goods to the Polish peasantry in the hinterland of the ports and as far South as Krakow, and finally the soldiers of fortune who fought for the Poles, Swedes and Russians especially during the 17th Century.
The material I collected through interviews in Gdansk, Poznan and Warsaw then formed the core of the chapter in the book. I was able to do all the research for the programmes, then write it all up for the book. I was also able to use older books from the late 19th and early 20th century such as Steuart’s Papers Relating to the Scots in Poland and T.A. Fischer’s The Scots in Germany and The Scots in Eastern and Western Prussia.
Scotland’s Auld Alliance with France is a particularly striking example of Scotland’s internationalist past – and you identify the wine trade as being its historical ‘bloodstream’. Could you tell us a little about it?
I made two documentaries in 1995 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the signing of the Auld Alliance and got to go to places I had not been to before which had strong Scottish connections like the Chateaux of the Loire, Aubigny sur Nère, and Champagne where the great house of Bollinger has Scottish connections through Madame Lily de Lauriston and John Law of Lauriston who founded the Bank of France and became Comptroleur Génerale during the reign of Louis XV.
My daughter Catriona is now in the wine trade, so it’s great to see the family tradition continue. I’m also Godfather to William Johnston of Bordeaux, whose people left Scotland at the end of the 17th century and became claret merchants in Bordeaux.
The Scottish World first came out in 2006, but has remained very relevant. What has the response been like? Has anything surprised you?
The popular response has always been fantastic. Even on a medium like Twitter, when I tell people stories that illustrate the incredible global impact Scotland has had, there is always a strong reaction and a desire to find out more.
One or two academics have been snooty about it – I had the same with Scots: The Mither Tongue, academics jealous to guard their exclusive knowledge and not realising the imperative need to get such material out there to educate the Scottish people and replace the ‘cringe’ with positivity. Fortunately, that kind of academic negativity was confined to a small handful of people – the rest realised the power of the programmes and the book to engage people in their subject.
This week we’re delighted to welcome Ashley Douglas to The Scots Curator. Ashley is a researcher, writer and translator, specialising in the Scots language. In February 2021, as part of LGBT history month, she published her fascinating research into The Maitland Quarto, a 16th-century East Lothian manuscript containing some of Scotland’s earliest known writing about queer love.
Ashley tells us that Poem 49 of the manuscript, likely written by Marie Maitland, has been ‘hiding in plain sight’, with its lesbian meaning often overlooked by the academic world. As Ashley explains in this interview, the poem is ‘one of the very earliest – if not the earliest – example of Sapphic verse in Europe, in any language, since Sappho herself’ – quite a remarkable claim for both Scots and Scotland.
Ashley’s research was first published last month as part of the Wee Windaes project for the National Library of Scotland.
Could you first of all set the scene for us? Who is writing this poem, and what kind of time were they living in?
The Maitland Quarto manuscript is dated 1586, which places us in the turbulent political and religious climate of late 16th-century Scotland. It is a time of rumbling discontent and reformatory zeal.
We are just two years into the adult rule of King James VI, after a troubled minority period. The trial against his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, begins in 1586 – the year that the manuscript is dated – and she is beheaded the next year.
Scotland, like the rest of Europe, has been swept up in the reformation movement that started with Luther in Germany. The Scottish Parliament formally adopts Protestantism in 1560, but tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism still very much define Scottish society.
The Union of the Crowns, in which James will also inherit the crowns of England and Ireland, is still nearly two decades away. Scots is the official language of the independent Scottish kingdom.
This is the backdrop to the compilation of the Maitland Quarto manuscript, which is put together at Lethington Castle in East Lothian, home of the Maitlands of Lethington - a prominent family at the heart of Scottish politics. The manuscript is dedicated to Sir Richard Maitland (1496-1586), who is Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland under Mary, Queen of Scots.
However, we are interested in one of Sir Richard Maitland’s daughters, Marie Maitland: the likely compiler of the manuscript and the likely author of the anonymous lesbian love poem, Poem 49. Naturally, we know far more about her father and brothers than we do about her or her sisters, as is the typical fate of women throughout history. We do not, to our knowledge, have so much as a portrait of her.
Turning to what we do know, Marie is widely understood to have acted as literary secretary to her father, who suffered from very poor eyesight, which eventually resulted in his turning blind. Her name appears twice on the title page of the manuscript along with the date 1586.
Clearly, she was an elite, educated and literate woman. What’s more, one of the other anonymous poems in the manuscript compares her directly to known female poets, including the historical Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos – famous as a woman poet and (in)famous for her romantic entanglements with other women. This all points to Marie having had a reputation as a female poet – and one in the image of Sappho.
In August 1586, she married Alexander Lauder, son and heir to Sir William Lauder of Hatton. (It is perhaps worth noting that the manuscript, and the poetry in it, date to before her marriage).
Of course, this tells us very little about her sexuality and does not repudiate her having been romantically attracted to other women. Although some historians will point to marriage, and children, as “evidence” of a person’s heterosexuality, this betrays – at best – heteronormative bias and privilege, and a complete lack of understanding of the reality of queer lives, past and present.
It overlooks entirely the fact that women and men, across social classes, had little choice but to follow rigid heterosexual norms in centuries past, not least due to the real dangers attached to being gay, let alone openly so and leaving records of this. Indeed, we would do well to reflect on the fact that it is only in the past decade that equal marriage has been legal in 21st-century Scotland. And there are still many living examples today of people who have entered into heterosexual relationships or marriages, and had children, only to come out later as gay.
To return to the 16th-century context, similarly, just because James VI was married to Queen Anne, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t – to use modern terminology – gay or, at the very least, bisexual, given his well-attested romantic and sexual interest in and relations with several other men.
At worst, of course, we encounter not just heteronormative bias in our study of the past, but outright homophobia, in the form of barely disguised revulsion at the notion of, and active aversion to accepting, the reality of queer lives in history. We must be wary of this heteronormativity at best, homophobia at worst, masquerading as historical objectivity – which serves only to erase and undermine queer history.
You’ve said that writing was mostly the preserve of men at this time – so the fact that the writer is a woman is interesting enough, but she also talks about same-sex love. How did you feel coming across something so rare and unusual?
It was hugely exciting – because you are absolutely right that it is doubly radical. Even if it had been a poem just about female friendship, it would still have been way ahead of its time and worth getting excited about, because only male friendship was written about and only men were thought capable of forming meaningful friendships – women not being emotionally developed enough for that, of course.
So, the fact that it’s not just about female friendship (radical in itself) but also lesbian love is really off-the-scale remarkable for its 16th-century context. Poem 49 in the Maitland Quarto manuscript is one of the very earliest – if not the earliest – example of Sapphic verse in Europe, in any language, since Sappho herself. A pretty cool claim to fame for both Scots and Scotland, I’d say!
On a more personal note, finding out about the poem was also really moving and inspiring for me, as a gay woman. There is somehow real comfort and validation to be found in knowing that women who love women have always existed – to see yourself represented like that in the past.
At the same time, however, I was also surprised that the poem wasn’t already better known or celebrated. The poem’s existence has long been acknowledged in academic circles – this was by no means a brand new discovery – but its significance as a very early lesbian poem almost definitely written by a woman has been utterly undersung.
What commentary there is on it is largely lukewarm and equivocal. For example, some have been reluctant even to accept female authorship of a lesbian poem, let alone to accept Marie Maitland as the most obvious candidate for its author, despite the substantial evidence for both – and the fact that, quite frankly, it is by far the most simple explanation, rather than conjuring up anonymous male poets or whatever else.
It is the “gal pals” approach to history, if you will, which we can now, charitably, find humorous, but which is really deeply disturbing. The (straight, white and male)18th-century editor of the manuscript, John Pinkerton, did not even print Poem 49, dismissing it as “a song of friendship from one lady to another of sufficient insipidity” - a solid “gal pals” take of an obviously lesbian situation if ever there was one!
At its most extreme, of course, resistance to anything queer in history takes the form of destroying or hiding the inconvenient evidence of queer lives. For example, consider how the diaries of Anne Lister, the iconic lesbian who lived between 1791 and 1840, were very nearly burned because of their lesbian content; in the event, Lister’s ancestors opted to simply hide them instead. They now form part of the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, but how much else has been lost to history as a result of past homophobia? How much else is currently hidden, behind walls or behind secret codes, waiting to be discovered or deciphered?
Where we do have evidence of queer history, resistance to it takes the form of either simply ignoring or, more subtly, undermining it. We firstly see this in the insistence on seeking out heternormative or at least non-queer solutions – however ludicrous they may be. When Anne Lister’s diaries were finally published in the late 20th century, some thought them too sexually graphic to be anything but a hoax; likewise, Poem 49 has been explained away by some academics as nothing more than a male-authored experiment in the lesbian voice. We also see it in the demanding of unattainably high levels of evidence – what often feel like far higher standards than are required elsewhere in historical scholarship – instead of simply accepting that, if something looks queer and sounds queer, it in all likelihood is queer.
As they say, the most obvious answer (in this case, Marie Maitland’s authorship of a lesbian poem) is usually the correct one, and if there is a reluctance to accept the obvious answer, we must interrogate why that is.
This seemingly heteronormative academic resistance to reading the poem for what it truly is has been an important, if regrettable, part of its story. It was therefore a real privilege for me to write about and celebrate this amazing lesbian poem in the way that it deserves, and to share it with a much wider audience. And it felt especially appropriate to do so in LGBT+ History Month 2021 – which, of course, we only need to have at all because of the homophobia that has plagued our study of the past, resulting in the neglect of queer lives and queer history, for too long.
Listen to Ashley Douglas reading from Poem 49:
Just how courageous was this poem? Was even writing it down privately a brave or radical thing to do?
That’s a very interesting question. My immediate response is to say, absolutely yes, when you consider that we are talking about a time during which social, moral and religious orthodoxy – which was far more uniform and oppressive then than these things are now – permitted only opposite-sex attraction and relations.
Even if female same-sex activity was not formally criminalised in the same way as male same-sex activity (in Scotland the crime of sodomy was, until 1889, punishable by the death penalty; same-sex relations between men were not fully decriminalised until 1981), it is clear that deviation from norms was not well tolerated, and so it nonetheless appears incredibly brave for the poet to articulate such clearly romantic and sexual desire for another woman.
However, although wildly radical and ahead of its time in many respects, the poem is simultaneously, ultimately, conformist. The female poet expresses her desire to marry the female object of her desire, but ultimately resigns herself to its impossibility – because of fate, “nature”, and the institution of marriage; in this sense, she accepts and defers to the heteronormative limitations of her day.
Equally, on a formal level, the poem articulates their female-female love using well-established poetic tropes in a well-established poetic friendship tradition. Even though it subverts these forms for unique ends, you can see how, on first glance, it could look like a standard friendship poem. In both form and content, it is therefore both conformist and radical, both challenging and accepting of contemporary norms.
Perhaps the poet calculated that the superficial commonplaceness and perceived insipidity of her “friendship poem” would avoid attracting too much attention or censure?
It is almost as if the poet has consciously and cleverly concealed the poem’s true meaning in plain sight. Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, this is exactly how 18th-century Pinkerton read it: as “a song of friendship from one lady to another of sufficient insipidity”. This offers us a solid example of how a heteronormative male mindset would read the poem, and that was a whole two centuries later.
Ironically, therefore, perhaps the fact that it has been so easily dismissed is what has allowed it to “sneak through” the historical record to us today? So, I guess the poet is nonetheless very brave in committing her lesbian love to writing, but does so in as safe and self-protecting a way as possible?
As a final reflection on this, although the poem is anonymous, the private, family-and-friends nature of the manuscript hints that those who would have been reading it at the time, some of whom likely contributed other of its poems, may well have known that Marie Maitland was its author. This is suggested not least by the presence of another poem praising her poetic skills and comparing her to Sappho.
They may well even have known the identity of the woman to whom the poem is addressed as well. Perhaps Marie felt safe and able to express herself in that private circle of family and friends, with the ultimate anonymity of the poem, and limited circulation of the manuscript, protecting her from wider societal scrutiny or censure? This can only be conjecture, however.
This question of how brave the poet was being is a great one to ponder! It’s a shame that we can’t really know how she felt or whether she was at all uneasy or worried what the consequences of its penning might be.
What does this tell us about gay history in Scotland more broadly?
The poem tells us something that we already know, but which it is often extremely difficult to find evidence for in the historical record – that gay people in Scotland have always existed, just as they have always existed elsewhere. Of course, people in earlier centuries did not have the same vocabulary or conceptions of sexuality that we do now. But what’s irrefutable, and what’s important, is that it shows us that there have always been people who experience romantic and sexual attractions to those of the same-sex – whatever they called, or didn’t call that, and whatever their identities might or might not have been.
We should also take a wee step back here and reflect that, even in times when it was incomprehensibly difficult and dangerous to do so, queer people have always been compelled to immortalise their romantic and sexual connections in writing – a profound testimony to the truth and power of queer love across the millennia.
As mentioned above, we actually have another striking and much more high-profile example of Scotland’s queer history during this era in the form of King James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) and I of England (1603-1625). Although we will never know how a hypothetical modern liberated James would identify (whether as gay, bisexual, queer or any other way) a mountain of evidence attests to his sexual interest in and relations with several men throughout his life – from his teenage romance with Esmé Stuart to his later favourites, prime among them Robert Carr and George Villiers.
It’s interesting to note that James called Villiers his “wife” in a letter to him, an inversion of what we see in our 16th-century lesbian poem, where the female poet conceptualises herself as her female beloved’s husband. These two examples show that, even when subverting heterosexual norms, these 16th-century individuals were sorely confined by heteronormative language and concepts.
Of course, it’s also notable that these two examples both stem from the very upper echelons of early modern Scottish society; from literally the very top, in the case of King James, and from not too far below, in the case of Marie Maitland and her circle of family and friends, who were very much the landed elite. There is a point to be made here how about the status and security – social and financial – of the upper classes, not to mention of the King himself, can be seen as having allowed for greater risk taking.
When you have status and power, your societal scope for non-conformity is far greater than that of the lower classes. As is, of course, your practical scope for expressing yourself; the lower classes would not have had the luxuries of learning and literacy, and of leisure time, that allowed upper-class individuals to be writing poetry. (Anne Lister is another case in point, as a rich upper-class woman, several centuries later.)
There can be no doubt that there will have been same-sex attraction among the lower classes of Scottish society as well, but it is extremely difficult to find any traces of this in the historical record. We are far more likely to know about the richer classes, which applies as much to their sexuality as it does to everything else. That is not to detract from the courage it must nonetheless have taken to give voice to lesbian love in the 16th century, but all of these issues of intersectionality – as well as the general undermining and erasure of queer history – need to be taken into account when studying the past today.
Absence of queer evidence is not evidence of queer absence. But where we do find queer evidence – such as, I would say, Poem 49 of the Maitland Quarto manuscript – we need to highlight and celebrate it all the more.
In December 2019 we heard the news that one of Scotland’s best-loved writers and artists, Alasdair Gray, had passed away at the age of 85. Since then, Sorcha Dallas has been working hard to establish the Alasdair Gray Archive, with the aim of preserving Gray’s collections and celebrating his prolific life work.
In this interview we speak to Sorcha about her personal connection with Alasdair, her exciting plans for the Alasdair Gray Archive, plus a new initiative to celebrate ‘Gray Day’ (the original publication date of Gray’s famous novel Lanark) alongside Canongate Books on the 25th of February.
As Sorcha explains, the new Archive will be established at a physical studio space in Glasgow, fitted out with Gray’s books, paintings and sketches, and replicating the feeling of Alasdair’s own workspace. Altogether, the new Archive will ensure that Alasdair Gray’s legacy continues to continue to inspire – from exhibitions, loans to public galleries and museums, as well as supporting the work of new artists.
Could you start by telling us a bit about your own background and your connection with Alasdair Gray?
I graduated from the painting department at Glasgow School of Art in 1998. Between 1999-2004 I co-founded and curated the moving gallery Switchspace, which delivered a programme of exhibitions showcasing Glasgow based artists, at varying stages in their careers, in ever-changing unused spaces throughout Glasgow.
The support and interest Switchspace generated evolved into the establishment of my permanent gallery space, Sorcha Dallas, to offer a sustainable support structure for a new generation of emerging artists based in the city which I ran from 2002-2011. My working relationship with Alasdair goes back to 2008 when I was running my commercial gallery, however my interest began many years before whilst studying at GSA and reading Lanark.
I was also aware of how Alasdair’s work permeated through the West End of Glasgow, an area in which I have lived most of my adult life. I had encountered his murals in The Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and bar, within the auditorium of Oran Mor, found his carefully designed books in the former Byres Road booksellers John Smith’s, and had snatched glimpses of his distinctively styled paintings through tenement windows. So from the start I was aware of his expansive practice and how this had never been formally accessioned.
I was prompted to start to look at this in relation to his visual archive as he was working on A Life in Pictures with Canongate. I helped him collate and locate details of works he wanted to feature and created a system which detailed further information on them such as year, medium and owner. This then became a starting point to try to map his wider works, beginning with the ones he had at home and then expanding to take into account works in public and private collections.
This was invaluable to work from when planning The Alasdair Gray Season, a city wide series of exhibitions and events that I devised for Glasgow Museums in 2014/15, the central show being the retrospective ‘From the Personal to the Universal’ at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
An archive for Alasdair’s work seems like such a wonderful and necessary idea. How did the idea for the project come about?
When I started working with Alasdair he was in his 70s so I was very much aware of his legacy and recording his thoughts for how best to preserve this posthumously. Over the years we formalised this by way of a Foundation, and we secured charitable status with one aim being the creation of an archive for future generations.
We applied for funding to help support and digitise his archive but had limited success. I continued to work on this voluntarily (after I closed my gallery in 2011) but was limited in what I was able to achieve. Since his accident in 2015, Alasdair had been severely restricted in what he was able to create visually. He was in a wheelchair, which affected his ability to paint and draw at any large scale. He was desk bound and his output became focused on his translations of Dante and accompanying illustrations (which he had started before his fall).
After Alasdair’s passing there was an urgency in getting his affects secured as we had a three month window in which to do so and vacate his property. I had to move quickly to organise and secure partners, with the support of Alasdair’s family.
Elements of the archive were taken into temporary store by several institutional partners which we hope will secure them longer term. The Scottish Government stepped in to support the premises for the Archive at The Whisky Bond in Glasgow, and the safe installation of Gray’s materials there. The week before lockdown saw the final packing and removal of Alasdair’s works into the space.
It was a strange time, the feeling of a collective breath being held and unsure, once exhaled, what the world would look like on the other side. It felt very much like the end of things and it was very difficult to say a final goodbye to Alasdair’s flat and a space I had the privilege of being in so many times.
But in the midst of all this uncertainty it was reassuring to have the anchor of Alasdair and his work. It has been a great source of comfort and inspiration in such a challenging year and I have been grateful for the hope it has offered at such an uncertain time.
The Archive will seek to generate opportunities from Alasdair’s work – this could be new, interpretative or critical interpretations and commissions. A central aspect is audience development, with a focus on education. Alasdair would often talk about the formative cultural experiences he had as a child and it seems key to create this for others in Alasdair’s name.
The Archive’s hopes are very much in the spirit of all things Gray – to create democratic, questioning and equitable opportunities and foster the idea of community and kindness. It will be exciting to see how these develop moving forward as there is so much scope with the scale and breadth of what Alasdair has left behind. I feel very fortunate to be the custodian of such a rich resource and am hopeful for what it can help us learn in the future.
On the archive site you talk about using Alasdair’s work to explore Scotland’s collective identity. Could you tell us more about that idea?
Alasdair Gray was a true polymath with his unique vision spanning multiple mediums. He made poems, plays, short stories, novels, political essays, marginalia, typeset and designed his books and those of others, created murals, paintings, drawings and prints.
He taught creative writing and visual art whilst actively championing those around him. He was a proud supporter of socialism, believing in a fair and equitable society. He lived by these principles, paying assistants at the same rate of pay as himself and valuing the ability for everyone to have the right to the freedom of thought that culture provides. This was most notable in his support of libraries and the belief in the transformative power of literature and the arts. As a child he would use books to travel and experience different worlds and cultures from his bedroom in Riddrie.
This had a profound effect on Gray and is a cornerstone of the aims and objectives of the Archive. To offer that space to others, to learn about themselves and others, and to travel back inspired by what they have learnt and to explore our collective identity through this process.
So many people seem to have their own memorable stories from meeting Alasdair – is that something you’d like to collect as part of the archive?
Absolutely. The fact that Alasdair meant so much to so many is essential to capture. He was well known for backing up a book signing by doing personal dedications and drawings, as well as sketching and giving away portraits to folk he encountered. This generosity and interest in connecting with others means there is a rich resource of personal memories to now capture.
I am developing ways of doing this digitally via the Archive website and also through physical visits to the space (when it is safe to offically open). One way I am starting to capture this now is via the podcast, Gray Matters and Wee Gray Matters (aimed at children).
I am working on these with Ali Braidwood from Scots Wha Hae who has been integral to faciliating these programs and making them happen. They will initially look at Lanark (to coincide with anniversary plans for 2021/2022) but the hope is to extend them beyond this and to explore Gray’s wider extended practice. We will be launching these on Gray Day!
Will Gray Day become an annual event? How should people celebrate?
I would love it to become an annual event! People can change their avatar on the day to the Gray Day logo, they can share memories, photos, stories and clips using the tagging #GrayDay, The Archive and Canongate so we can spread the word, celebrate and share. There will be content released on the day itself and in the lead up so please sign up and follow www.grayday.info.
You’ve just announced a very exciting studio space people can visit and get a feel for Alasdair’s old workspace. Why did you think this aspect of Alasdair’s process needed to be preserved, rather than just his finished books and artwork?
Alasdair was a true polymath, creating work across space and form. Anyone who visited him at home will remember what a unique working and living space he occupied. Shelves were crammed full of books, paintings displayed on every wall, sketched boards stacked on the floor and layered on ledges, rows upon rows of potted pens and pencils, shells covering fireplaces, sculptures and artworks of others arranged, works in process being tippexed and altered on desks and easels.
I vividly remember the first time I visited his flat and how I had to almost catch my breath at what I encountered. His space gives a unique insight into his expansive working practice and it was essential to capture, record and recreate this for others to experience and learn from.
The Archive holds the collection of original visual artworks, sketches and drawings bequeathed to Gray’s son Andrew and held there for research and learning purposes. It also houses all Gray’s original prints, a restaging of his working studio set up, a section of his personal library, all Gray publications (including those he designed for others) as well as a section of literary papers, photographs and correspondence. When it is safe to do so the new space will be open to the public for bookable visits and through the developing website.
This extensive collection will allow the Archive to present Gray’s work in the future in a number of different contexts; through exhibitions, long term loans to public galleries and museums as well as acting as a catalyst for new commissions. The Archive will also hope to act as a centre for research, allowing a unique, unparalleled opportunity for students, academics and the wider public to gleam a fuller understanding of the expansive nature of Gray’s practice and the invaluable contribution he made to 20th century culture. A core aim will be to support others by means of a series of tiered awards and to create new audiences through engagement and commissioning opportunities.
As Charlotte explains in this interview, Shepherd was one of the best-known writers of 1930s Scotland, then faded into literary obscurity. Then, in 1977, came the work for which she is most famous, The Living Mountain – a short but powerful reflection of Shepherd’s experiences walking in the Cairngorms.
With increasing interest in her work over the last few years, and even with her image appearing on the £5 banknote, Charlotte tells us how the world has finally caught up with the wonderful life and legacy of Nan Shepherd.
What first sparked your interest in Nan Shepherd?
It was Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways, which I read in 2014. Until then, I’d never heard of Nan Shepherd or The Living Mountain. Intrigued by Macfarlane’s descriptions of her book, I promptly went out and bought it. Then I read it and re-read it.
Because it’s the kind of book that bears re-reading. Every time you open it, you find something surprising, a new insight, or shift in perspective. But I also found myself growing more and more curious about its author.
Who was this woman, wandering around the Cairngorms, often alone, in the late 1920s and 30s? This woman who turned herself upside down to see the earth as it must see itself, who bathed naked in tarns, walked barefoot on heather and slept out on the plateau on summer nights?
I did some digging, but biographical information about Shepherd was scant. What little I did find, raised more questions than it answered.
In the 1930s Shepherd was one of Scotland’s best-known writers. Between 1928 and 1934 she published three novels and a volume of poetry. Hailed as a writer of genius, she was declared Scotland’s answer to Virginia Woolf.
And then? Nothing. Shepherd didn’t produce another major work until The Living Mountain in 1977. In the meantime, her books went out of print and she appeared to have slipped into literary obscurity.
Why the forty-year literary silence, I wondered. And, why did the manuscript of The Living Mountain lie unpublished in a drawer for over three decades?
There were mysteries, too, in Shepherd’s personal life. Who, for example, was the subject of the sonnets in her poetry collection, In the Cairngorms? Shepherd never said. But as I soon discovered, Nan Shepherd was as reticent about herself as she was about her writing.
There seems to have been a revival of interest in The Living Mountain over the last few years. Why now?
Back in the 1940s when Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain, the only person who read the manuscript was her friend, the novelist Neil Gunn. ‘And that he should like it was not strange,’ she says in her foreword to the book ‘because our minds met in just such experiences as I was striving to describe’.
Both writers were aware that their work was ahead of its time. ‘I can see, Nan, that the world doesn’t want the well-water,’ Gunn wrote to Shepherd in 1946. ‘It doesn’t know that it needs it’.
When The Living Mountain did eventually appear in print in 1977, it was moderately successful. But many simply didn’t get it.
So why now? I think it’s simple really. The world has finally caught up. It knows it needs the well-water.
Nan Shepherd is often associated with the Scottish Literary Renaissance. Did Shepherd think of herself as being part of a cultural movement?
She was definitely engaged with the issues concerning the Scottish literary revivalists. You only have to read her correspondence with Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Helen Cruickshank and Hugh MacDiarmid to see that.
Also, given the timing, and that she said she only wrote when she felt there was ‘something that simply must be written’, you could read her novels as a response to the literary renaissance movement. Certainly, all three of them show characteristics associated with it. Not least, her experimental, narrative technique.
But I don’t think Shepherd would care to be categorised. She hated the idea of movements, rules, and schools being applied to art.
‘All categories are absurd where art is concerned,’ she said in an interview in 1931. ‘Mental inertia makes one flick a book into a category and then suppose that is all there is to it. Whereas what there is to it is an individual mind, a mode of experience, a whole universe, one unique vision of truth. Or should be’.
Shepherd is best known for The Living Mountain, but could you also tell us a little about her fiction? What would you recommend to readers?
If you’ve read The Living Mountain and you’re looking for more of Shepherd’s lyricism, her novels won’t disappoint. Her fiction is as sensory as her non-fiction. Her imagery, rooted in the Scottish landscape, can be as condensed and compact as poetry. And like The Living Mountain, The Weatherhouse, in particular, offers endlessly shifting perspectives.
Unsentimental portraits of rural communities, Shepherd’s novels are shot through with her trademark wry humour. But she’s not without compassion for her characters and has an acute grasp of the pleasure and toughness of rural life.
She’s deft at conjuring a character, too — sometimes in no more than a couple of brush strokes. There’s Bawbie Paterson ‘with her goat’s beard, her rough hairy tweed like the pelt of an animal’ in The Weatherhouse. And the brassy Bella Cassie in A Pass in the Grampians, with ‘her impudent copper hair puffed out in front’, carrying ‘her curves like a Queen’.
If you’re new to Shepherd’s fiction, I’d start with The Quarry Wood. It was her first book, published in 1928 and as well as being heavily autobiographical — as first novels often are —it’s also her most accessible.
Her best novel, I think, is The Weatherhouse. It’s my favourite of the three and perhaps the hardest to get into. But it’s all the more rewarding for it.
I’m also a big fan of Descent from the Cross. A long, short story at 10,000 words, you’ll find it in Wild Geese, along with a selection of Shepherd’s other prose writing and some previously unpublished poetry.
What does Shepherd’s fiction tell us about Scotland (or at least her corner of it) at the time – particularly about women’s lives?
All Shepherd’s novels are set in rural communities of Scotland’s North-East. It was a landscape and people Shepherd knew well. She lived in Aberdeenshire all her life, much of it in the same house. And, all of her novels explore women’s identity and position in early twentieth century society.
It was a period when opportunities for women were expanding after all, what with the right to vote and access to higher education and into the professions. Aberdonian society, however, was slow to change and in the 1920s it was still heavily patriarchal.
What’s more, societal expectations were not just down to male attitudes. As Shepherd’s novels reveal, paradoxically, it was often women who upheld these patriarchal prejudices. Women like the conservative Leggatt aunts, the epitome of middle-class, staid respectability, whom Shepherd so deliciously satirises in The Quarry Wood.
Shepherd’s heroines are all educated young women, living in tight-knit rural communities in the early decades of the twentieth-century. Realising there must be something more for them in life than the roles allocated to them, each one grapples with her social situation, trying to strike a balance between challenge and acquiescence. It was a struggle Shepherd understood; it mirrored her own.
Your biography paints a picture of an ‘elusive’ writer. Could you say a little more about this? Did anything about her life surprise you?
Enigmatic and elusive are the adjectives most used about Nan Shepherd. Time and again journalists remarked on how taciturn she was on the subject her writing. Of course, for an Aberdonian, ‘self-praise is nae recommendation. But it wasn’t just about her writing she was reticent.
Shepherd was an intensely private person. A listener, not a talker, she had a talent for ‘untroubling silences’. The day Jessie Kesson first met her on the train, for example, Kesson says they ‘tired the sun with talking’. Yet during their entire conversation, the only information Shepherd volunteered about herself was that she was off to walk in the hills.
She left no journals and much of her correspondence was pitched out. In some instances, the letters extant in her archives are carefully censored. Lines are scored through, pages snipped into and sometimes completely torn out. Even in her commonplace books, into which she copied extracts of writers’ work she admired, there is rarely any personal comment.
I think there was a very good reason for Shepherd’s reticence: fear of censure. A few months before she died in 1981, she wrote to a friend who’d apparently suggested she write her memoirs: ‘As for writing about my experiences,’ she said, ‘if I did that recognisably, I’d be for it’.
In 1920s bohemian London, the Bloomsbury crowd lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles. They made no secret of their unconventional attitudes. But prim and proper Aberdeen could not have been further from Bloomsbury in its outlook and relished gossip. If Aberdonians loved in triangles, they kept it to themselves.
Nan Shepherd could not afford a whiff of scandal. It would have affected her family as well as her career. It was vital she at least appeared to conform to the role of respectable, modest, middle-class woman foisted on her by society.
It took some unravelling, but when I finally worked out the identity of the man she was in love with for many years, I wasn’t surprised she had kept it secret. The only thing about Nan Shepherd that really surprised me, was that she never learned to drive.
For our first feature we’re delighted to be joined by ‘French laddie and Scots poet’ Dr Paul Malgrati. Since February 2020, Paul has been part of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, and in the same year he was also awarded the Ross Roy medal for his PhD thesis on ‘Robert Burns in Scottish politics (1914-2014)’.
Outside of scholarship, Paul also writes and publishes poetry in both Scots and French. In 2020, his poetry manuscript, Poèmes Ecossais, was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award. Recently he released a French adaptation of the Burns poem ‘To a Haggis’.
In this interview we talk to Paul about the legacy of Robert Burns, and how the significance of Scotland’s national bard has shifted through the ages. Ultimately, though, Paul argues that Burns belongs to the universal — ‘to humanity in its infinite shapes and shades’.
Burns’s poetry has been admired by people of many different backgrounds and beliefs. What is it about his work that makes it so universal?
This is a vast question — one which any decent “Immortal Memory” speech should aim to answer at a Burns Supper! A keyword that often comes to mind when considering Burns is ‘protean’. Certainly, Burns was a remarkably versatile poet. His works straddle two languages, English and Scots as well as many genres, tones, and themes. From gothic tales, folk songs, and sentimental lyrics to rousing political anthems, scathing satires, bawdry, and moral verse, Burns’s polyvalent verse makes for his broad, far-reaching appeal. Yet this also complicates the (vain) task of assigning Scotland’s bard to any particular side, creed, or movement.
Burns’s ambiguous lyrics, especially when they are taken out of their eighteenth-century context, lend themselves to all kinds of persuasions: from egalitarian socialism to root-and-branch nationalism and conservative unionism. Today, for instance, Burns’s song, ‘Scots wha hae’, might sound unambiguously nationalist — some unionist politicians even rejected it as a ‘Yes’ song back in 2014. However, during the First World War, it was used alongside Burns’s ode to the ‘Dumfries Volunteers’ (his most explicitly unionist piece) to justify Scotsmen’s enrolment for King and Country.
In other words, Burns does not fall into simplistic categories and, although countless groups have tried to appropriate him since the time of his death, I would agree with you to stress that Burns’s oeuvre, when taken in its entirety, belongs only to the universal — to humanity in its infinite shapes and shades.
Your research looks at Burns’s legacy from 1914 – 2014. Has there been one overarching shift in how Burns is remembered?
In Scotland and politically speaking, yes: my thesis argues that Burns’s memory, who often served as a strong symbol of Union and Empire during the Victorian era, is now completely entwined with the issue of Scottish self-government. Such a change was by no means linear, however, and my work pays particular attention to the great variety of political standpoints about Burns.
All parties have used Burns since the time of his death: from unionists, liberals, conservatives, and fascists to socialists, communists, antiracists, feminists, and Scottish nationalists. Nevertheless, through a close analysis of the poet’s reception in Burns Clubs, in the press, in literature, in political propaganda, in academia, and, more recently, on television and on social media, it is possible to describe shifts in the way Burns is remembered.
Interestingly, a key element in the development of Burns’s reception, from the ‘banal unionism’ of the nineteenth century to the increasingly banal nationalism of the twenty-first century, was neither unionist nor nationalist politics but, rather, Labour politics. Indeed, the rise of Labour in the mid-twentieth century encouraged the egalitarian reading of Burns as a poet of the ‘common man’, caring for the poor, and yearning for international solidarity. Such an approach to Burns, whilst embraced in similar terms by 1820-30s Scottish weavers and Chartists, had remained mostly marginal during the nineteenth century when more conservative and liberal interpretations of the bard, as a pious and/or thrifty ‘lad o’ pairt’, prevailed.
By contrast, 1940 – 50s Scottish politics saw Burns’s radical, egalitarian version enter the mainstream, as a sort of poetic mirror to the nascent Welfare State. It was not before the 1980s, however, with the combined effects of decolonisation and Thatcherism, that Burns’s proletarian qualities began to be claimed as specifically Scottish and, as such, in need of political representation. Despite devolution in 1999, this shift of emphasis still very much defines Burns’s reception today, at a time when the Scottish Government blends Labour’s old egalitarian reading of Burns with constitutional demands. We are now miles away from the once dominant, unionist, and liberal-conservative approach to Burns.
Did the poet Hugh MacDiarmid have a point when he criticised the ‘tartanry’ of traditional Burns Suppers? Does it obscure the more meaningful messages of Burns’s work?
You are right to mention Hugh MacDiarmid, figurehead of the interwar Scottish ‘Renaissance’ movement and nemesis of the ‘Burns Cult’. It is important to realise that MacDiarmid was by no means alone in his denunciation of Burns Suppers; in fact, he was part of a much wider movement, whose ranks of early Scottish socialists, nationalists, feminists, and avant-garde writers reacted against the overly couthie, sentimental, and often middle-class traits of the Burns movement inherited from the nineteenth century. These people thought it was possible to separate Burns — the genius, the radical, the flamboyant patriot — from his embarrassing, mawkish, and bourgeois admirers.
MacDiarmid was certainly the most vehement critic of what he called ‘The Burns Cult’ and some of his lines in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) are the most scathing and uncomfortable ever written on that topic. This is not where MacDiarmid truly innovated, however. Hostility to Burns clubs and Burns suppers was already commonplace in both the radical left and nationalist circles. What MacDiarmid brought to the table, on the other hand, was his realisation, a few months after the publication of A Drunk Man, that Burns could not be so readily separated from his ‘cult’. After all, sentimentalism, nostalgia, and a degree of traditionalism also pertain to Burns’s works.
MacDiarmid’s yearning for purity —the purity of socialism, of nationhood, and of the Scots language — led him to realise that Burns, the protean poet, was fundamentally impure. This is the meaning of MacDiarmid’s famous slogan, ‘Not Burns —Dunbar’ (1927): a mixture of medievalism and nihilism, which he reiterated the following year, demanding that Burns be forgotten for ‘at least one hundred years’.
For my part, I enjoy Burns’s versatile verse — and ‘Haggis, Neeps & Tatties’ — far too much to follow MacDiarmid to such extremes. Nevertheless, and more importantly, I think MacDiarmid deserves the recognition of contemporary Burns scholars. His critical approach to Burns’s legacy paved the way for steely-eyed and more rigorous examinations of his lifework, which, from Catherine Carswell’s Life of Robert Burns (1930) to John Delancey Ferguson’s Letters of Robert Burns (1931) and David Daiches’s Robert Burns (1950), are the origins of our modern Burns studies.
Did you find there were any key moments in the way Burns is remembered — such as the singing of ‘A Man’s A Man’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999?
Yes, the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament was a climactic moment in Burns’s afterlife. The merging of Burns’s egalitarian vision, popularised by Labour throughout the twentieth century, with the politics of Home Rule, developed in the wake of decolonisation and Thatcherism, was never made clearer than on that day. ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, Burns’s revolutionary, universalist anthem calling for the day ‘That Man to Man, the warld o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that’ served to illustrate Scotland’s partially recovered sovereignty as a nation.
The 1999 ceremony is fascinating to study. It was full of productive ambiguities which still very much define the state of Scotland in the early 2020s. As most people will remember, the Queen was present that day; she had personally approved the choice of Burns’s song put forward by the Scottish Parliament. According to the order of ceremony, Burns — through the singer Sheena Wellington — only resonated in the wake of Elizabeth II’s address to Parliament.
In other words, Burns’s words were deemed sovereign, not merely as a declaration on behalf of the Scottish people, but also as an authorised response to the Queen. In other words, the ambivalence of the message could not be more complete. Did Burns express the identity and project of the Scottish people, independently from the Queen, who had authorised his song, or, instead, did he acknowledge the precedence of the overarching monarch, and state? Scotland and Britain are yet to give a clear answer to that question.
Was there anything particularly striking about the way Burns emerged into the independence debate in 2014?
The 2014 referendum campaign offered a chance to re-articulate Burns’s memory in newer, firmer terms. Yet this opportunity was not taken. Burns did feature in the referendum debate but uses of his legacy often boiled down to watchwords and caricatures. The ‘Yes’ side merely recycled Labour’s 1990s line bringing together Burns’s radicalism and demands for self-determination. This was made evident, in September 2013, on Calton Hill, at one of the biggest pro-independence rallies of the campaign, when Sheena Wellington re-enacted her performance of ‘A Man’s a Man’.
Whilst poignant, this moment also blurred the boundaries between the status quo of devolution and the meaning of independence. Certainly, uses of Burns on the ‘No’ side was even more caricatural, with few references to Burns beyond his ode to the ‘Dumfries Volunteers’ and its hackneyed quote: ‘Be Britain still to Britain true, / Amang oursels united; / For never but by British hands / Must British wrongs be righted!’ This painfully contrasts with the more sophisticated, unionist approach to Burns which prevailed until the First World War.
On a more positive note, however, and regardless of the quality of interventions, Burns’s presence during the referendum campaign testifies to the importance of literature in contemporary Scottish politics. Against the dominant narrative on indyref, claiming that economy was the only serious topic of the campaign, uses of Burns reveal the cultural gusto of 2014. References to Burns were made throughout classes and generations of Scottish society.
Burns featured at rallies, in political speeches, in the literature, in the press, on flags, on t-shirts, on Twitter, and on memes. In the last few months of the campaign, YouTube views of Burns’s key political songs, ‘Scots wha hae’, ‘A Man’s a Man’, and ‘Ye Jacobites by Name’, increased by hundreds of thousands. This might point towards a certain poetic appetite in the Scottish people.
Whilst European countries have witnessed many referenda since the start of the century, I cannot think of any poet or writer which featured as prominently in these as Burns did in Scotland. This should inspire Scottish politicians to overcome sloganeering and draw bolder inspiration from literature (although I’m aware this is probably wishful thinking).
What do you think the future holds for how Burns is remembered? Does his Scottish internationalism make him a poet for our times?
Analysts of the past often make for terrible prophets so I would avoid venturing too far ahead. Nevertheless, it is perhaps safe to say that Burns, as a national icon, will remain a key reference in twenty-first century Scottish politics, at least until a solution is found to Scotland’s constitutional crisis with which the poet’s fate is now entwined. I ignore how well Burns would perform in a future, independent Scotland. Culturally, he might thrive although, politically, he might also lose his relevance.
Burns’s contradictions are those of post-Union Scotland; his political quandary between ‘the tide of Scottish prejudice’ that ‘the story of Wallace had poured in his vein’ and his attachment to the ‘British constitution’ whose ‘original principles, and experience had proved to be every way fitted for our happiness in society’ is still ours today. This is why the memory of Burns, a poet who wrote in both English and Scots, fits so well in the present constitution.
Devolution, that ambiguous state of affairs, leaning towards Home Rule and breaking away from unionist culture whilst maintaining ties with Britain, is a very Burnsian, polyvalent, and torn situation. To separate Burns’s honest patriotism from his tormented, unionist context would only impoverish the bard’s myth — something which MacDiarmid had perfectly understood when he rejected Burns as irrevocably compromised by Scotland’s eighteenth-century turpitudes. Such a dilemma is relevant to us — now perhaps more than ever — but could it still move a new generation of independent Scots? I shouldn’t venture further.
What’s next for you and your work? Will your research on Burns become available?
Yes, I hope that my thesis can be turned into a book. I will soon send a proposal to an editor, crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. In the meantime, I shall enjoy another year of an incredibly enriching post as research assistant within the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (University of Glasgow). This year, we’re releasing an interactive world map of Burns Suppers, inventorying more than 2,500 suppers held in recent years across more than 150 countries. This map — which might give us a picture of MacDiarmid’s wildest nightmare— is the most comprehensive record of Burns Night activities ever made and I am rather excited to see how it will be received.
Beyond my current contract, however, I believe my fate is in the hands of academia’s ever-shrinking job market. If I were given the opportunity, my dream, as a Frenchman, would be to write a history of Scotland’s literary relationship with France. I’ll do my best to make this happen.