Robert Burns: His Scandal, Genius, and Humanism


Burns is by no means the only patriot and character in Scots public life whose bedroom antics have brought down upon him the scorn of polite society. It isn’t right to laugh off the fast and loose behaviour of those we so desperately want to be our heroes, especially when it comes to toying with the hearts of others. Our Rabbie Burns was and remains a complicated man, but one whose genius and prowess as a word-smith could never be denied. As an Ayrshire laddie myself and a writer (albeit of far less ability) there has always been a special place in my own heart for the Bard.

Back in primary school I represented my school in Kilmarnock at a Burns recitation competition in Ayr. In front of what felt like millions of children and parents and teachers I attempted to recite To a Mouse. I was murder. If memory serves me right, I broke down crying afterwards because I had had an awful bout of stage fright and forgot the words. It must have only been the stage fright for to this day I know each word by heart, and say them often. Like a spiritual text they have nourished me, and remind me – on those occasions when I think on him – of how ahead of his time Burns was.

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Animals and nature have since forever been part of my life, and so too has the Ayrshire dialect of Lowland Scots – a descendant of Burns’ brogue. To me Sleekit and Cow’rin were terms of contempt, describing the very worst qualities in people. Sly and cowardly in a single person falls short of anything approximating a compliment. It struck me as odd that the ploughman would describe the wee mouse he had just made homeless before winter as Sleekit and Cow’rin, but he does.

Maturity has taught me much about people and animals, and indeed I have had the misfortune to encounter sly and cowardly rogues. I have also discovered that my beloved pets are sly and cowering, but I have come to appreciate that these terms do not mean the same when we speak of such beasties. From time to time my wee dug will raid the bin, but never in the way some scoundrel pinched the gel saddle off my bike the other day. “Thou maun live,” wrote the poet. It’s a compliment from the dog. My cooking wasn’t that bad. We have come so close to wrecking the harmony of nature and even in 1785 Burns was calling us back to see the innocents of nature as our companions.


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