[In Our Time] Robert Burns

Robert Burns

24/10/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=84865795
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07rx7ss.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work of the man who, in his lifetime, was called The Caledonian Bard and whose fame and influence was to spread around the world. Burns (1759-1796) was born in Ayrshire and his work as a tenant farmer earned him the label The Ploughman Poet, yet it was the quality of his verse that helped his reputation endure and grow. His work inspired other Romantic poets and his personal story and ideas combined with that, giving his poems a broad strength and appeal – sung by revolutionaries and on Mao’s Long March, as well as on New Year’s Eve and at Burns Suppers.


Robert Crawford
Professor of Modern Scottish Literature and Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews

Fiona Stafford
Professor of English at the University of Oxford


Murray Pittock
Bradley Professor of English Literature and Pro Vice Principal at the University of Glasgow

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2020-01-26


  • This episode would be worth it just for the opportunity to listen to the Scottish accents, but there’s so much more.
  • Robert Burns is again one of those things where I know only the references to and parodies of him rather than the source literature. All the Burns references in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and second order references in the Tiffany Aching books.
  • So it was a complete shock to me that Burns was a complete womaniser who got at least four different women pregnant. Is that the theme of 2019 In Our Time? They talked about Rousseau’s illegitimate kids a couple of episodes before this.
  • Also a new discovery and enjoyable to learn: despite being a celebrity and getting lots of money, Burns remained close to poverty all his life because his brother kept sponging off him.
  • And he almost went to Jamaica to work on a (slave-operated) plantation, but kept making excuses to not catch the ship – which is also a very Wodehousian plot, come to that.
  • What intrigued me and got me thinking about reading Burns for myself was the panel talking about how funny he is.
  • What really blew my mind is finding out the level of punning – the poem “To a Louse” makes use of a difference in usage between Southwestern Scottish slang and Northeastern, to make it ambiguous as to whether the narrator is looking at a louse on a woman’s hat or her pubic hair. Good grief.
  • And also wonderful – the panel talking about how influenced Burns was by Adam Smith and The Theory of Moral Sentiments; in both his exhortation and attempt to consider the other person (or mouse)’s point of view.
  • I listened to the description of Tam O’ Shanter – a poem in which a guy gets drunk, rides home through a storm, and then stumbles across a church where he sees the devil and witches holding a coven, leches at all the witches, and then gets caught by them after yelling out his appreciation of their tiny skirts – and thinking ‘This sounds a bit like The Number of the Beast‘. Then I visited the Wikipedia entry and found that the Iron Maiden bassist had written it after a nightmare and inspiration from both Tam O’ Shanter and Omen II.
  • The Auld Lang Syne discussion – as well as the discussion of how Burns had spread into other languages – made me vaguely remember that there was a Japanese New Year’s tradition that used Auld Lang Syne, but not with the original words. I headed over to Wikipedia again, and realised that I had confused two separate things – the Japanese New Year’s Eve tradition is to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and they use the Auld Lang Syne tune with Japanese lyrics at graduation ceremonies. Well, why not?
  • Also a new learning: that revolutionary movements the world over – including The Long March – had adopted Burns’ songs or poems. Which was particularly funny after watching Smile yesterday and hearing Peter Capaldi talk about Scotland demanding independence from every planet it was on. But the discussion also circled back to the Wodehouse reference I knew Burns from – “A Man’s a man for a’ that.”


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