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Robert Burns Lives!
Interview with Dr. Carruthers


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

A Burns scholar who has endeared himself to the Burns Club of Atlanta over the last few years is Professor Gerard Carruthers from the University of Glasgow. He is a beloved member of this dedicated group consisting of a just under a hundred members and has spoken at our cottage more than any scholar outside the United States over the last ten years. The love for this man by our membership was evident after the passing of honorary member G. Ross Roy, who was revered by all, and the election of Dr. Carruthers in his stead. No greater tribute could be paid to anyone.

The interview below took place several years ago but is as fresh as new churned butter for breakfast in the morning. The questions asked are just as pertinent as the answers given by Gerry. So get a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of freshly buttered toast and enjoy an article I think you might find yourself going back to from time to time. This is the type information that I keep on my credenza within arm’s reach. It is that good and that stack of papers is a little small considering I have been studying Burns almost on a daily basis for 20 years. Those years do not include the one when we studied Robert Burns at Chicora High School in North Charleston, SC. My 1955 text book has markings I made at that early age about what to memorize and learn for an upcoming test! Welcome, Gerry, to our pages again. And my personal thanks to good friend Terry McGuire for sending this interview to me from Scotland.

Editor’s note: I have been unable to find the person(s) responsible for this interview, but Gerry has given me permission to use it. His actual comment was, “kind of you to think it worth using”. I would like to credit the RT Burns Club along with participants Davina, Peigi, Alexandria, Rose, Nicholas, Janet, Beth and any others who assisted. If any of you know more about this program, please let me know and I will see that proper credit is given all the interview participants. In the meantime, many thanks to those listed above. (FRS: 10.27.15)


RT BURNS CLUB INTERVIEWS

INTERVIEW WITH DR. GERARD CARRUTHERS
CENTRE FOR ROBERT BURNS STUDIES - GLASGOW UNIVERSITY

Biography on Dr. Carruthers

Gerard Carruthers was lecturer in the Department of English Studies, University of Strathclyde (1995- 2000), where he taught American, English and Scottish literatures. He served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Glasgow-Strathclyde School of Scottish Studies, and as a member of the UCAS (Scotland) English Panel. Previously he was Research Fellow at the Centre for Walter Scott Studies, University of Aberdeen (1993-5). Gerard Carruthers is a graduate of the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde and of St Andrew's College of Education, Glasgow. His PhD thesis was on 'The Invention of Scottish Literature During the Long Eighteenth Century'. He is currently supervising postgraduate dissertations on Ulster Scots Poetry of the Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries, Eighteenth-Century Literary Rhetoric, and Robert Burns; he has supervised successful PhD theses on Robert Fergusson and Seamus Heaney and successful MPhil theses on Robert Burns, 'Bunkermen & Lasses o' Pairts: Contemporary Scottish Fiction' and on 'Utopian and Dystopian Landscapes in Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature'. He was an external examiner on the BA in Cultural Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute. During the summer of 2002 he was W. Ormiston Roy Memorial Research Fellow at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA. He is a member of the steering committee of the Distributed Burns Collection, of the Abbotsford Library Research Project committee and of the organising group for the Royal Society of Edinburgh Robert Burns Celebrations 2009. He is co-organiser of the Burns International conference held annually at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. He is a frequent contributor to the media.


INTERVIEW - November 2008

We wish to begin by thanking Dr. Gerard for taking time out of his busy schedule and kindly giving us this special interview, it is most appreciated.

Davina
Dr. Gerard, At what age was your interest in Burns sparked and what was it about Burns that caused this?

Dr Gerard
I was taken to Burns's cottage as a five year old boy by my parents, and something about this experience stuck with me, a kind of atmosphere re Burns's life and work though I'm hard put now to define with any precision what it was that a small boy related to. My serious involvement with Burns though came in the late 1980s when I undertook a PhD on Scottish Literature of the long eighteenth century with a chapter in the dissertation on Burns. Working on this, I realized that here we have not only a great poet, but one of the world's greatest songwriters too.

Peigi
Dr. Gerard, Has Burns been over-analyzed in Academia? Would he himself approve of how his works have been dissected? Or would he still believe that a ''spark o' Nature's fire," is learning enough?

Dr Gerard
I suppose I'm a typical academic, I believe that you can't have too much analysis. I wary about speaking for Burns, but I suspect he'd be proud that he has both great 'popular' and 'academic' appeal over two centuries later. Also, I think the idea of the 'spark o' Nature's fire' was something he believed in – up to a point. Natural ability/genius is an important thing. However, Burns was well-read and well-educated, and to a standard at least as high as the typical university student of his age. I've just edited The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns (out in summer 2009), and there are two very interesting essays in there by my American colleagues, Dr Corey Andrews on Burns as a critic, and Dr Steve McKenna on Burns's reading of Virgil. What Corey and Steve both show is that Burns takes literary criticism, indeed he practices this, very thoughtfully and seriously.

Alexandria
Dr. Gerard,Was there a single event or poem that made you want to learn more about Robert Burns?

Dr. Gerard
I used to perform in a band that played, variously, folk and rock music around the pubs. I was already doing Burns as part of my PhD as I've said, but I had to learn 'Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation' for performance in 1988. And this song just blew me away and cemented my fascination with Burns. Also, I grew up in Clydebank in the west of Scotland and my father was part of a very active trade union movement. We were a Catholic family and so my father wouldn't join the Communist party. He was a staunch Labour Party man, though he had a number of friends who were Communists, and through the years I increasingly came into contact with a whole swathe of Communists and Socialists who venerated Burns. I grew up, then, aware of the great humanitarian significance of Burns who stood for that 'can do from a humble background' and 'a man's a man for a' that' attitudes.

Rose
Dr. Gerard, How do you feel about a recent quote from Jeremy Paxman, calling Burns' poems ''sentimental doggerel"?

Dr. Gerard
Actually, Jeremy Paxman remains one of my favorite television news and current affairs interviewers. I think, however, he is entering into grumpy middle age. I have no problem with him finding Burns to be not his cup of tea, but he shouldn't spout nonsense about 'doggerel'. Burns is a poet of unquestionable technical panache whose rhythms and rhymes are usually highly accomplished. I found myself in the position of 'opponent in chief' to Paxman when he made his comments, and I was quoted extensively in the British and international media. Some people were agitating for Jeremy to have a discussion with me on Burns on the Newsnight programme, but he (or his producer seemed not to be keen). Another thing he should not have been doing was venting his spleen with these comments in the introduction to Chambers Biographical Dictionary. And an irony is that Robert Chambers, one of the founders of this publication was a very distinguished Burns scholar!

Davina
Would you like to have lived in the years of the Enlightenment and rubbed shoulders with Burns, Scott and Dr. Blacklock to name just three?

Dr. Gerard
In a word: no. I'm too fond of our 21st century home comforts such as central heating and a shower whenever I want one! I would love to travel back in time for a day however, to see Burns and, a bit before this David Hume. I'm also a huge Scott fan. There is, as I call it, a 'bampot' version of Scottish cultural history which sees Burns as poet of the people and Scott as snobbish patrician. They were very different kinds of people, but they did have some similarities in that both are great pioneers and broadcasters of Scottish popular culture and Scottish history. Burns and Scott together, great imaginers that they are, together largely invent modern Scotland, as I'm fond of telling my students.

Nicholas
Dr Gerard, Do you have a favourite Robert Burns poem and why is it your favourite?

Dr. Gerard
My favourite Burns poem without a doubt is 'A Poet's Welcome to his Love Begotten Daughter' about the illegitimate child he fathered to Betsy Paton. It is both tender and defiant, saying I don't care what people say about the circumstances of her birth, I love my child and that's all that counts. It is, if I may use the phrase, 'pro-life' in a very beautiful way. We can't always defend Burns's behavior where women are concerned (though some bardolators attempt a whitewash), but here we have Burns at his best defending both his lover and their child.

Rose
If you could have written just one poem/song or work of Robert Burns, which one would you have wanted it be?

Dr. Gerard
It's would have to be 'Tam o' Shanter' for its sheer psychological brilliance (laughing at the stupidity of the male psyche, I'd argue) as well as for its comedy. Also, my goodness, that man can brilliantly sustain narrative sense and entertainment across over 100 couplets. Jeremy Paxman read and wonder!

Alexandria
How did you come to be involved in the event The Robert Burns Conspiracies and become one of the panel experts?

Dr. Gerard
Burns has attracted frauds, forgers and fanatics, sometimes pushing dubious lines in good faith at other points trying to con people because they have a particular political or cultural agenda. You find suggestions that the British government effectively murdered him (which the historical facts do not support as an idea). If it doesn't seem too much like advertising my wares, might I point you towards a book I've produced with my co-editor Johnny Rodger which will be out in January 2009 from Sandstone Press. Among other things, this book, Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century deals with some of the conspiracies and strange legends surrounding Burns. I've used the 'Burns conspiracies' idea in high schools as something that really hooks kids.

Nicholas
What is your theory on whether Robert Burns sent guns to the French revolutionaries, do you personally believe it?

Dr. Gerard
I think it unlikely that the poet sent guns to the French revolutionaries (when he'd have got more canons for his money just by sending them cash – they did have such guns in France!). I'm on the Abbotsford Library Research Committee, and apparently there were documents there pertaining to the story of Burns and the guns. Some of these are now apparently missing and I'm currently trying to investigate the situation. My own hunch is that Walter Scott was suspicious of the story (which first appeared in the biography of the poet by Scott's son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart). Jennie Orr, one of my graduate students and I have written a bit about this in Fickle Man mentioned above, but in future I want to carry out a fuller study of Scott's investigation of the affair. What you have to remember is that Lockhart was more or less looking for stories that proved Burns was a bit impulsive, less than a complete gentleman! The guns to France story, I think was one such episode, a rather right-wing inspired legend (Lockhart was a Tory) which elements of the left among Burns's fans later adopt as part of the poet's radical credentials but history and common sense suggest the story to be unlikely.

Janet
Dr. Gerard, "In your mind," how do you see Robert Burns Ayrshire muse, "Coila" fit into this"?

Dr. Gerard
In one sense, Coila is not to be taken all that seriously. Her appearance in 'The Vision' is part of Burns's comical self-mockery. On the other hand, she is a device to allow him to set out his stall as a bard of Ayrshire, a regional bard. At bottom, she helps him say, 'poetry can happen in eighteenth-century Ayrshire.' But I don't think she even qualifies as serious imaginary friend.

Davina
In your opinion will modern poets like Robert Garrioch, Edwin Morgan, Sydney Goodsir Smith and MacDiamid still be read in 250 years time?

Dr. Gerard
Difficult to say. Eddie Morgan, I think, is the best of the poets you mention. Smith and Garioch are good but, frankly, minor in the grand scheme of things. MacDiarmid writes lots of rubbish, though I think that his early lyrics such as 'The Bonnie Broukit Bairn' are beautiful. He is also the most important Scottish cultural activist of the 20th century. I've edited Scottish Poems for Everyman and Alfred A. Knopf which will be published in the US in January 2009. I've tried to represent what I think are the most important poetic currents in Scotland through history. Morgan and MacDiarmid are included but not Smith and Garioch. Morgan is a great love poet and a great observer of human life, along with Iain Crichton Smith the closest thing to Burns Scotland has produced in the 20th century. I think these two, and maybe Sorley MacLean of all Scotland's twentieth century poets will be read in 250 years.

Peigi
When Scotland becomes independent do you think any of Burns' songs will be used for the official national anthem?

Dr. Gerard
I think Scotland may well become independent, especially if the Conservatives were to form the next British government. Popular opinion would possibly be more behind 'Flower of Scotland' or even 'Scotland the Brave' as a Scottish national anthem, and I think it is quite likely that a new anthem would be composed possibly by someone like James Macmillan. My own vote for a Burns national anthem would be 'Bruce's Address at Bannockburn'

Davina
Considering that more and more Burns Suppers are now dual gender affairs, do you think that they have a valid place in bringing a better understanding of Burns to a wider audience?

Dr. Gerard
There are still all male Burns suppers, an idea that makes me uncomfortable. Happily, however, there are fewer and fewer of these. I think Burns suppers are about social enjoyment and that's fine. With a good speaker and performer or two, yes, indeed: people will learn about Burns in an unforced way. Already there are many so-called 'amateurs' and enthusiasts as well as professional academics who know huge amounts about Burns and who have a great interest. No other poet, I think, can rival Burns in this regard and I'm immensely grateful that this interest is out there and is so big and wide.

Davina
There has to be more to an Immortal Memory than just going over Burns life. Who have you heard who has delivered the best Immortal Memory and what aspect did it take?

Dr. Gerard
Gosh, that is difficult. I've heard a number but two pals, Ken Simpson and Willie McIlvanney (one of Scotland's greatest fiction writers) stand out. Ken is great at describing the sheer human sympathy and wryness to be found in Burns's work. Willie is wonderful at imagining and describing the compromises Burns had to make as a man to earn a living. What both dwell on is the sheer power of Burns's imagination. Recently, I've been very interested to read Lord Roseberry's late nineteenth century 'addresses' on Burns at various public occasions these are well worth a look. Clark McGinn is a tremendously witty Burns speaker (precisely because he has a deep understanding of the life and work). I'd recommend Clark's Ultimate Burns Supper book to anyone who does not know it.

Alexandria
Why do you think that the name Robert Burns is always surrounded by controversial issues and it is sometimes forgotten how most of his poems are masterpieces?

Dr. Gerard
Again, there are many things one could say, and I think this is a big issue where we need more scholarly investigation. Burns's life was not without controversy (especially sexually) and for reasons which have never been entirely explained the poet has become a cipher for all kinds of people of all shades of ideological belief who think he speaks for them. Part of the answer is that Burns does speak in voices, not because he is insincere, but because he has huge sympathy with different kinds of people, different kinds of mentality. He is also a romantic figure and so attracts glory-hunting charlatans as well as the sincerely deluded! To say nothing of the majority of people with an interest who simply find his life fascinating and his work great. I think there is growing appreciation of the greatness of Burns's poetry. He is increasingly taught in universities throughout the world. I've recently been appointed General Editor of the multi-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Works of Robert Burns and I and my colleagues in a very large time are all mindful that over the next ten to fifteen years that we want to produce an edition that says more than anything, 'Burns is a great writer, a great artist.'

Rose
Do you think it is about time a truly wonderful film was made on the life of Robert Burns to celebrate the 250th Anniversary and have you an opinion as to who might make a great Robert Burns?

Dr. Gerard
Yes, that would be good and I suppose I daren't not mention Gerard Butler! He would make a good Burns, I believe. The one American actor, in my admittedly limited knowledge, who I think could carry it off would be Johnny Depp. There seems to be a curse though where Burns film are concerned. I had a long chat with Vadim Jean the director who had Gerard Butler lined up to play Burns. But this was seven years ago and I've no idea why nothing seems to be in any advanced state of production. I fear 2009 will pass and no film will appear – a missed opportunity.

Davina
Election fever is in the air in the USA. For which current U.K. political party do you think Burns had an affinity?

Dr. Gerard
In the British context, Burns would be rightly satirical towards them all. He'd have some affinity with the many good people in both the Labour and the Scottish National parties, but even these two nowadays are somewhat slickly institutional and I don't think Burns would be a member of any political party. My guess is that a Burns living in the 21st century would be a bit too independent-minded for that.

Alexandria
Do you have any plans for any Homecoming Scotland 2009 events and are you getting involved with any Robert Burns Celebrations?

Dr. Gerard
I'll be speaking in Glasgow, Oxford, St Andrews, Prague, Vancouver, South Carolina and other places in 2009. I'll also be giving a talk at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh on 'Burns and his Biographers'. This will have Homecoming endorsement. I also advised on the Burns exhibition, 'Zig Zag, the Paths of Robert Burns' which will tour Scotland as a Homecoming backed project during 2009. It is already opened, however, at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. It has been quite brilliantly put together by Kenneth Dunn, Imogen Gibbs and Robert Betteridge.

Beth
Dr. Gerard, Will there be a Homecoming Scotland 2009 event(s) that are aimed at sparking the interest of children towards Robert Burns? I work as a teacher-aide (children 9-15 in NY). I wish more academic time was spent on classical writings, including of course, Robert Burns. However, with state testing, so much of the exciting educational topics are whittled down or non-existent. As I understand, Robert Burns loved children. Are there presently, or will there be, any websites created about Robert Burns that are geared towards children 9-15?

Dr. Gerard
At our Glasgow three day conference in January we're having a panel and a competition re Burns and children's writing in association with 'Itchycoo' (check out what they're doing for kids, including a brilliant new publication). Also, the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh is putting together some great modern material of relevance to teaching younger age groups. Check out both Itchycoo and SPL websites for more details (as well as that of our own Burns Centre).

Alexandria
Do you think all the Homecoming Scotland Events will bring more worldwide attention to Scotland and to Robert Burns?

Dr. Gerard
I hope so. It is like anything really. If things are well done and inspiring then an appropriate stir will be caused. Watch that space! The 'Zig Zag' exhibition I've just mentioned portends well, and fingers crossed!

Beth
If someone attending Homecoming Scotland 2009 was just becoming acquainted with Robert Burns' writings, aside from his more famous pieces, what other not-so-well known piece(s) would you recommend to them to delve into?

Dr. Gerard
'A Poet's Welcome', as I've mentioned. I'd suggest though they should start the likes of 'Tam o' Shanter', 'To a Louse' and so on. I'd also suggest a good way in would be to listen to the complete songs recorded for Linn records under the production of Fred Freeman. I'd maybe direct a bit of initial attention too to the less 'Scottish' pieces such as 'A Winter Night', which I think is very finely meditative and although increasingly better known I'd like to see people reading 'Address of Beelzebub' when they begin with Burns – a brilliant satire and a fine example of Burns as one of the first modern lowland Scottish writers to speak up for the highlands.

Rose
Can you please tell us what is being planned at The Centre For Robert Burns Studies and Glasgow University for the celebrations and what do you hope to achieve by the end of 2009?

Dr. Gerard
At Glasgow we're having a three day conference (over seventy academic papers and some excellent performance as well), from 15th-17th January. If interested, please check out our website for the Centre for Robert Burns Studies which I direct at Glasgow University. There will be a premiere of a new setting of Burns's 'Lament of Mary, Queen of Scots' by James Macmillan and a performance of The Merry Muses by Sheena Wellington among other things. We'll properly launch the Oxford University Press edition which I've mentioned already as well as the book, Fickle Man and a limited facsimile edition of Walter Scott's book edition (1823) of Burns's The Fornicators' Court, a project undertaken by the Faculty of Advocates and the Abbotsford Library Research Committee. This book will be finely produced and has an introduction written by my graduate student Pauline Gray (who is doing a PhD on Burns and Bawdry) and by me. Only 1,000 copies will be available so if you want one of these get in quick!

Thank you all for your questions and your kind interest and I wish you all a great Burns year in 2009!

END

We wish to once again thank Dr. Gerard for his informative and interesting answers and to our members who sent us some great questions.

More information can be found on Dr Gerard and The Centre For Robert Burns Studies on this link below, with a link to The Homecoming website too:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/robertburnsstudies/ 

http://www.homecomingscotland2009.com/default.html


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