Centenary Lecture Series: ‘Robert Burns & The Rise of Scottish Studies’

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On 26th September 2013, the Centre was delighted to welcome Professor Gerard Carruthers who continued the Centenary Lecture Series, celebrating 100 years of the People’s Chair for Scottish History and Literature at the University of Glasgow. Prof. Carruthers discussed ‘Robert Burns & The Rise of Scottish Studies’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Professor Carruthers aimed to chart the rise of Scottish Studies at the University of Glasgow, while investigating its inextricable link with Robert Burns. For many years, Robert Burns was deemed ‘unusable’ in the wider project of Scottish Studies. Particularly following the publication of ‘Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush’, the ‘couthy’ parochialism of Burns was attacked, with fierce criticism from the Scottish literature Renaissance spearheaded by Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s.

The Scots culture found in Burns poetry was regarded as a subset of wider Britishness and even British Imperialism. In 1896, Lord Rosebery declared Burns the ‘champion of democracy’ and an individual who harbours ‘the essential quality of man’. Rosebery goes on to pronounce that Burns’ birthday is celebrated more ‘universally than that of any human being’, and his popularity is a testament to the endurance of the British Empire as a force for moral good. Professor Carruthers noted that a modern audience immediately notices the dissonance between being a ‘champion of democracy’ and a ‘poster-boy’ for the British Empire.

Hugh MacDiarmid, writing in 1923, reacted to the false romanticism of Burns by claiming the poet was only widely celebrated in ‘non-literary circles’, and even then a Burns Dinner was merely an excuse for frivolity, rather than a true celebration of Burns’ talent. This viewpoint is linked to the idea that Burns was only of interest to amateurs or gentleman scholars, rather than academics. Professor Carruthers (fairly) described MacDiarmid’s view as ‘snobbish’ and ‘elitist’, yet his viewpoint prevailed for much of that century and made the study of Burns in Scottish Studies anathema to many academics.

There was a turning point linked to the enduring popularity of Burns biographies. Among the most famous of these was written by John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854). Lockhart used the biography as a vehicle for his own conservative political views and he frequently criticises Burns’ ‘rash’ and ‘radical’ politics. Unlike Sir Walter Scott, Burns was irrational and hot-headed, and very much ‘not a gentleman’. This biography was a best-seller, until a new work was released in 1930, written by Catherine Carswell. Carsewell presents Burns as a Byron-esque dandy, and placed sex at the fore of Burns’ life. Burns was oppressed by the Calvinist culture of Scotland and a censored victim of British brutality. Despite fierce criticism from left-wingers and sticklers for historical accuracy, Carswell’s biography remained popular even until now. Professor Carruthers added that the popularity of this biography did contribute significantly to the increased ‘usability’ of Burns around this time.

In truth, the reality of Burns is not so black-and-white, and no one viewpoint can ever be considered ‘definitive’. In recent years, academic study has returned nuance and subtlety to the study of Burns’ life and work. Professor Carruthers was also keen to emphasise the international element of Burns’ work: he was a poet of the wider Romantic period, not just a parochial bard. In terms of worldwide influence, his only possible rival is James Thompson.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

The Centenary Lecture Series will conclude on 24 October 2013 with Dr Irene Maver’s ‘Lord Provosts: Local Leadership and Glasgow’s Changing History since the Nineteenth Century’. This will again be held at the Mitchell Library at 6pm.

The Centre’s own weekly seminar series begins next week, 1 October, with Dr. Anne MacLeod’s ‘Hidden Detail? The human element in visual responses to the Highland landscape c.1750-1850’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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