The mortal memory

As the world prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Robert Burns’ death, Orkney-based writer Duncan McLean is preparing to duck. In an exclusive article, he pays tribute to a bard he believes was rightfully overshadowed by his own poems.


‘14 The List 12-25 Jan 1996

t seems at least daft, and maybe sick, to be

celebrating the anniversary of Robert

Burns’ death. The kick-off to the year’s

celebrations will doubtless be on his

birthday on 25 January, but let’s not take

our eyes off the ball the shindigs and biographies, the critical investigations, the grand speechified suppers and the innumerable pithy articles like this one, commissioned, arranged and cooked—up because Robert Burns died 200 years ago.

Is it going too far to say it seems very Scottish to celebrate the death of a notable national figure? I don’t think so. Remember Culloden 1746? What a great defeat and slaughter. Remember George Square 1919‘? What a tremendously unsuccessful revolution.

Remember Argentina 1978? What a world- class sporting humiliation. And remember



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Robert Burns: 200 years dead and golng strong

Robert Burns 1759—96? What a great, dead poet!

Thank Christ he died young. If he’d lived as long as, say, MacDiarmid. we’d have had to wait until 2045 to commemorate him. Think of all the publishers, distillers. academics, haggis- hunters, television producers and tea-towel designers who’d be the poorer for that.

To ensure the continuing health of these industries, it might be a good idea for the Government to establish a policy of ‘Early Death For All Scottish Writers’. The Arts Council could run it. I reckon 40 years old would have to be the cut-off point. Writers would be strenuously promoted during their twenties as Bright Young Things, Angry Young Persons, New Generations, then quietly forgotten about in their thirties, and by 40, encouraged to starve, drink themselves to death, or wither away from self-pity and envy of the next New Generation. A decade later we’d have the rediscovery and re-evaluation, the scholarly edition and the EX—S special: the celebrations could begin in style.

Much better than the dull. decades-long desert we’re stuck in at the moment, without a literary death worth a damn. Come in Naomi.

Thank Christ Burns died young. It he’d lived as long as, say, Macnlarmld, we’d have had to wait until 2045 to commemorate him.

your time is up. Shuffle off Sorley, we want to put you on a shortbread tin. Hey man, Alasdair. let’s see your birth certificate, you bastard.

l’m ranting. but what I’m getting at is that I can’t get too worked up about the umpteenth anniversary of anyone’s death. Even Burns’. Even if it does function as a useful peg to hang a reconsideration of his life on especially if that. To be honest. I don’t give a damn about his life. I enjoy his biographies as well as the next body. and I’ve read several on Burns over the years, from Catherine Carswell’s to Ian Mclntyre’s. And what vital facts have stuck in my mind? These:

1. Burns was raised a vegetarian his younger brother, Gilbert. related how ‘for several years butcher’s meat was a stranger in our house’.

2. In his early days. before he was ever printed, he used to snag manuscript copies of his poems on thorn bushes at the edge of town, so any passer-by could read them like Rebel Ineposting lrvine Welsh and Alison Kermack on the Internet. for any passing surfer to peruse . . .

Such snippets are irrelevant. though. Before I read the biographies, all I had to go on was the poetry. and I reckon . . .

l was about to write: ‘I reckon I understood Burns better, just having read the poems.’ But