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A Highlander and his Books
A Chat with
Eileen Doris Bremner

Compiler of
The English Poetry of Robert Burns
(1759 - 1796)

By Frank R. Shaw, Atlanta, GA, USA, email:

Q: The word “English” in your book title intrigues me as I’m sure it will others who study Burns. What made you decide to publish this wee book of his poems that were entirely in English?

A:  My attention was drawn specifically to Burns’ English poetry by a radio programme, not a Scottish programme. The broadcast was to the whole of the U.K. It was January and close to the poet’s anniversary. The English presenter mentioned this and spoke very pleasingly about our Bard. “But,” he said, “what a pity we can’t easily understand his poetry as he wrote it all in the Scots dialect.” This made me prick up my ears because I knew that there were some poems in English. I decided to investigate, and to my surprise, I found over 100 poems written entirely in English. Then I decided to make a selection of these gems and put them into a little gift book. This is the first ever compilation of his English work.

Q:  The Kilmarnock edition of Burns’ poetry in 1786 made him an instant celebrity in his homeland. The title is Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Why do you think he insisted on writing his poetry for the book in the Scottish dialect rather than in English alone?

A:  Robert Burns had a fierce love of Scotland and the Scottish tongue. It was the language that he spoke, and so the poems came naturally in that dialect.

Q:  Many readers will be surprised to learn that Burns wrote over 100 poems in English. Having insisted on writing in the Scottish dialect while being encouraged by others to leave that language behind (Dr. Moore comes to mind) and write in English, why do you then think Burns eventually wrote so many poems in English?

A:  I think people encouraged him to write some poems in English because they recognized the genius of the man and wanted that genius to be appreciated by non-Scots. “The Lounger” magazine, the 18th century weekly, wrote in Burns’ own lifetime, “In English (his poetry) cannot be read at all without much constant reference to a glossary, as nearly to destroy that pleasure.” Burns was not too happy about being asked to write in English. I truly think that when he did write in English, it just came out that way. I don’t think that when taking up his quill he thought, “I’ll do this one in English”. Some of his earliest poems are in English, long before he visited Edinburgh where he was advised to do this.

Q: Even after studying Burns for a few years now, I personally keep The Concise Scots Dictionary close at hand while reading or writing articles on him. I noticed that you printed these poems in English “exactly as he wrote them” and that “no verses have been omitted”. Do you feel more people will read the English poems rather than those he wrote in the Scottish dialect, of which he was so passionate? If so, please explain.

A:  I hope that this little book will make available to a whole new readership the beauty and wisdom of Burns’ words. There will always be a number of non-Scots people who enjoy reading poetry but who could not be bothered looking up the meaning of every other Scot word. This is bound to delay the flow of the poetry. Perhaps having read the English poems, they may then be enticed to try the Scottish ones.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done differently in publishing your book on Burns? Will future editions contain more English poems?

A:  I have published this book myself. I did try a few publishers but none accepted. As I had a gut feeling that this book would sell, I took the gamble (not really like me!) and had it printed myself. I have not thought yet of doing a second book with different English poems. I need to sell more of these first. One the whole, I’m quite pleased with how it has turned out. People have been very complimentary about it.

Q:  I really appreciate your categorizing the poems in your book by topics such as nature, women and love, advice, religious nature, autobiographical, and death. Why did you specifically select these topics?

A:  The selection gives a good cross-section of the poet’s work and it makes the sock “tidy”. I chose this way rather than listing the poems alphabetically. I do wish there could have been a category for “humorous poems”. I was disappointed that there are no English poems showcasing this side of Burns. As you know, many of his Scottish poems display his brilliant humour, fun and mischief. There is only one short stanza - one of his mock epitaphs which he wrote about people who were still alive! – “Epitaph for Mr. Walter Riddell”. However, “The Belles of Mauchline” has a gentle humour to it.

Q: You have selected more poems about “Women/Love” and “Death” than other topics. In fact, these poems make up almost one-third of your book. Why is this, and I must ask humorously, of course, if there is a correlation between the two topics?

A:  As you know, Burns was a legendary lover. A very large number of his poems are about love and, therefore, that is why there is a higher ratio of poems in that category in the book. Hopefully there is not a correlation between women/love and death! Like many artistic people, Burns fell victim to some very gloomy moods. He had a deep religious connection - quite unconnected to the kirk. He wrote to Mrs. Dunlop, “A mathematician without religion is a probable character; an irreligious poet is a monster”. He brooded terribly at times and wrote a lot about death. He also had a peculiar preoccupation with winter - Scottish winters, of course - and wrote a great deal about that, usually during his gloomy moods. No English work on this subject, however.

Q:  How is your book selling and how can readers buy a copy, perhaps by email? I understand a lady from Idaho bought 24 copies while visiting Scotland recently? Please give us an address, as well as the cost for the book plus shipping to America.

A:  I’m glad to say it is selling well. The first thousand have gone, and I’ve just had another thousand printed. It is rather costly to do this, and so I just included the poems I liked best. Also I wanted to keep the retail price down. At 3.50 pounds, it is an attractive price and makes a nice little gift or keepsake for tourists to take home. It sells well at National Trust properties, garden centers and, of course, at the Burns venues. Yes, a lady from Idaho bought 24 copies via her visit to Glamis Castle gift shop. Also, 40 have gone to Russia, given as gifts to Russian visitors on a trip to the Burns country from St. Petersburg. The overseas convener of the Burns Federation wanted them to give one to each of these visitors.

Books can be bought directly from me at my home address (Thornton House, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire AB51 0JX, Scotland). No email just yet, but soon!

Each book costs 3.50 pounds sterling. The 24 sent to Idaho cost 9 pounds by sea or 18 pounds by air. One book goes airmail at 2 pounds. All these prices include packaging.

Q:  Ken Simpson, one of the foremost Burns scholars in the world, referred you to me. I now see that you are listed as a speaker at his 2007 annual conference in Glasgow. How do you know Ken Simpson?

A:  I have only spoken so far to Ken Simpson on the telephone. I look forward to meeting him at the January conference. West Kilbride in Ayrshire, where he lives, is very near Largs in Ayrshire where I was brought up. My late father was mayor of Largs. I was born in Ayr - proud to share my place of birth with Robert Burns! Dad was a keen Burnsian, so I was brought up with a love of Burns’ work. I plan to move back to Largs in a few years time.

Q:  Will there be another book coming from your pen sometime in the future? If so, do you care to comment on its subject?

A:  Not planned at the moment. All my life I worked in television, the last 15 years as a producer. I compiled a 7-part mini-series “A Letter from Robert Burns” which was transmitted each evening of Burns week. This was a long time ago. His letters - now there’s another whole subject - and all in English. But lots have been done about them.

Q:  In a recent letter to me, you stated you had “advanced from quill to fountain pen”.  Do you think you will advance from pen to computer and email?

A:  I have just acquired a computer. So the answer is a definite “yes”. I’m so sorry that my not being on email yet has caused so much trouble to your good and patient self.

 Q:  Thank you for your promptness and courtesies in both our phone conversations and written communications. Is there a last word that you would like to share with our readers?

A:  Just to give them my good wishes. The fact that they are reading this article means we have all something in common – the love of Robert Burns’ work. I hope that my little book will add to this readership and spread appreciation of his words. Hidden away in a corner of the treasure chest of his precious Scottish poems lies a jewel box containing the gems he wrote in English. I have opened this box and by so doing shown what a craftsman Burns was with the English language as well as with the Scots. 

(FRS: 12-22-06)

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