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Robert Burns Lives!
How I Came to Burns By Michael Morris, PhD


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

I do not think I am easily impressed, but if I like you, I like you immediately. I like Michael Morris but I have yet to have the pleasure of talking with him in person. We were on the same conference program this past January at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies but, as is always the case, people come and go and many times there is not time to talk with everyone. Fortunately I have recently met Michael through the avenue of email and I have been impressed! I do not believe I can say it any clearer than that and it does not mean we will always agree on everything concerning Robert Burns.

Michael is a rising Burns star and has the capability of sharing his inner thoughts while so many people around us are much too shy about themselves. He is quite a bright young man and puts both heart and soul into his writings. He was featured in last week’s edition of RBL! regarding his winning the G. Ross Roy Medal for best thesis in Scottish writing while earning his PhD. The award was presented to Michael last week at the Saltire Society’s big annual bash. I’m sure he celebrated some, but I know he went home that night and wrote today’s article for our readers when so many of us, myself included, would have spent the evening raising a few more drams. He has a book being published on his thesis, and I’m sure it will be a best seller. Those who study Robert Burns will certainly want to read what this young man has to say about him - that is, if you’re worth the salt you put on your food!

In a recent email he wrote, “I'm thinking about writing about Burns in my school/home, my postgraduate study, how Burns came into it, and what I hope to contribute to Burns studies.” He does that with absolute clarity and shows his humility by also saying, “I'm very honoured to be the recipient of the G. Ross Roy medal this year.”

Welcome, Michael, we look forward to other Burns articles from you in the future.
(FRS: 11.20.13)

How I Came to Burns
By Michael Morris, PhD


Michael Morris with parents Jock and Marie and the fair Julie Quinn. Picture was taken at the Saltire award ceremony where the medal was presented in the Main Hall of the Mitchell Library.

Burns has of course always been around. I still remember lisping my way through 'To a Mouse' with my classmates at Dunard Street Primary. At home, my parents and their pals were folkies. Teachers by day; guitarists, singers and fiddlers by night. Parties were raucous fun, and always the singing. Dick Gaughan numbers and Bob Marley, Jeannie Robertson and The Band, Hamish Imlach and Bob Dylan. My mum’s ‘John Anderson My Jo’ during Burns nights at our house is great fun, my old man's 'Address to a Haggis' is a sight to behold.

My dad is a socialist and we would stay up late talking about history and politics. He would talk about Burns in relation to the American Revolution, the French revolution, agricultural change, the powdered aristocracy and the poor searching for democracy. It was a political Burns, one surrounded by social change, revolution, war: the big questions of the day.

In 2007, I read James Robertson's historical novel Joseph Knight which was based on the true story of a slave brought from Jamaica to Scotland who took his master to court to win his freedom. I felt a door opening up and a fresh air blowing in; I wanted to walk through that door. Realising this was an important area that deserved more attention, I chose to do a PhD on a cultural history of Scottish-Caribbean relations. At the same time, it was the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire (1807). In Scotland, the story became better known that Burns had been planning to emigrate to Jamaica before the publication of his first book of poems. I became intrigued by the story as it became a focal point -- a hook -- for a growing number of articles and studies that explored Scotland and slavery.

The faculty at the University of Glasgow -- Nigel Leask, Gerry Carruthers, Kirsteen McCue, Alan Riach, Rhona Brown, Murray Pittock, Pauline Mackay, Alex Benchimol -- provided an expert and tremendously supportive environment. Eventually, I devoted a chapter to Burns and his ambiguous relationship to the abolitionist movement that peaked around his ears. I wanted neither to attack Burns for an indiscretion, nor to defend him from modern judgement. I wanted to show that the Caribbean was 'present' in eighteenth century Ayrshire and that slavery is a part of his historical context. I argue that the Caribbean features as a constant threatening underpresence throughout the 'Kilmarnock edition'; it is an omen portending the likely outcome should the best laid plans of this precarious tenant farmer gang aft agley. In turn, it became clear that Burns influenced contemporary abolitionist poets though he himself remained somewhat withdrawn from the official campaign. The final parts of the chapter focus on Burns' 'mobile memory' after his death. His legacy and work have been recruited and re-constructed by a variety of bodies all across the world. It is particularly revealing that he was taken up both by the Ku Klux Klan and the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A research trip to Jamaica, under the kind hospitality of the University of the West Indies and the Caledonian Society of Jamaica, highlighted that as part of the on-going reassessment of Burns' work, we might consider what place his poetry and songs held in slave and post-slavery societies. What I hope to contribute to Burns studies is the recognition of the contested nature of this kind of material, the consideration of Burns within a transnational context, and the honest pursuit of ambiguities even as we celebrate his most profound and enduring work. A version of this chapter will be published in an article in the Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies in 2014.

Given the major role Burns plays in my thinking, it was a great honour to be awarded the G. Ross Roy Medal for 2013. That this is the first year the medal was awarded posthumously makes it particularly poignant. Professor Ross Roy's contribution to Burns studies is widely-known and highly regarded, I hope to build on his tradition and continue the conversation long into the future.


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