Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Our great country and western poet

In 1996, Dumfries "celebrated" the 200th anniversary of Robert Burns's death by re-enacting his funeral: a first for the heritage industry. I was out of town at the time, but I returned to streets bedecked with black and white bunting. I was told that the procession had been a thin and sombre affair. Funeral II seemed the apogee of the Burns cult, that stiffness of response that has precluded many of us from making a natural approach to the poet's works. I appreciated the lighter touch of the singing gynaecologist, Hank Wangford, who, at a Dumfries gig, had referred to "Robert Burns, that great country and western poet".

At the time it seemed a pretty acute critical comment to me - a poet of strong emotion, writing about the affairs of the heart without a great deal of subtlety; a man with a roving eye and a cast of interchangeable lassies. But there had to be more and so, some years ago, when Burns became an option in Higher English, I welcomed the opportunity to explore his work with my pupils. It is the kind of teaching I like best: I walk ahead into the darkness striking matches and we discover together what's written on the walls.

To begin with, I invited Wilson Ogilvie, a past president of the International Burns Federation, to address the pupils about Burns's life and the life of the cult that followed his death. It was Ogilvie who suggested I contact local Burnsians with particular specialisms. The first of these to accept an invitation was a reciter of Tam O'Shanter, a considerable feat of memory. The gentleman was, it transpired, custodian of the farm at Ellisland, six miles from Dumfries, where Burns had written the poem, as tradition has it, in one fevered afternoon pacing by the River Nith. We were told that there was still something about the place that inspired peopIe.

The custodian himself had even felt impelled to pen a few lines. That he was moved by Burns's narrative masterpiece was clear to us all; quite why, beyond declaring Burns a great poet, he could not exactly say - nor felt much need to ponder.

Our next guest had taken an early lunch from the council planning department. As he described the exact historical and social circumstances from which came Holy Willie's Prayer, he removed his suit jacket and drew over himself the requisite nightshirt and nightcap and lit a candle. What gave his performance a delicious edge, and was in fact animating our whole study, was the serendipitous, floundering hypocrisy of John Major's "back to basics" campaign. Next to Timothy Yeo's evasions and self-serving statements of loyalty, we were reading "A Poet's Welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter":

Welcome my bonie, sweet, wee dochtor!
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin I hae fought for
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for -
That I shall swear!

In fact we were warming to Burns so much that when Jo Miller, then a musician in residence in the region, came to discuss Burns's songs with us, she easily persuaded the class and its teacher to join in. But, fittingly, it was a fellow poet and Ayrshire man, William Neill, makar in Scotland's three languages and passionate Scotophile, who brought our studies to a conclusion. Why read Burns? Because, he declaimed, fists sweeping through the air, Burns is rooted in our culture, a poet of immense range and skill, whose poems espouse enduring, universal values.

But perhaps you will have noted that "we were warming to Burns". Part of the alchemy that occurs during an extended study of Burns's works is that the man begins to form before you. In contradiction to all good textual practice, it becomes almost impossible to confine Burns to his texts. (To that extent, it should not be Keats who is bracketed with Bob Dylan, but Burns.) And it was here that I came up against one of the aspects of Burns-lovers that I had always found so off-putting: their seeming ability to envisage themselves in the man's company. But now I, too, saw myself in that small back room of the Globe Inn, raising glasses with him in the dim light. And what are we like in Burns's company? We are more generous, more compassionate, more free, more open to life's possibilities.

Burns teaches us, in the words of Cormac McCarthy in his novel Cities of the Plain ( a country and western?), that to a large extent, in spite of the constraints upon us, "each man is the bard of his own existence".

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands