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Robert Burns Lives!
Poetry Reading and Lecture by Dr. Robert Crawford

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

By way of introduction, I am combining two separate events involving noted Burns academic scholar and Scottish poet, Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews. Crawford has published six collections of poetry along with two dozen other publications. He is also author of The Bard, Robert Burns, A Biography which I proclaimed in February of 2009 to be the definitive biography on Burns - and since then nothing has happened to change my mind. Earlier this year Crawford won The Saltire Award for his biography on Burns as Scotland’s best book of the year, adding a wee bit of support to my proclamation. Last week my wife and I had opportunity to attend a poetry reading by him one evening and were present the following afternoon when he presented a lecture on Robert Burns and the American Declaration of Independence.

Poetry Reading by Robert Crawford


Last Thursday we made our way over to Columbia for the Fall Literary Festival at the University of South Carolina, sponsored by the Department of English and the Thomas Cooper Library. On the four-hour journey we had our usual golden moments of conversation when the “outside world” was left behind and it was just the two of us to chat without interruption. We both agreed that a poetry reading was not common fare for either of us because of our all-too-busy “retired” status. We first met Robert last year while attending a Burns conference at the Library of Congress in Washington. We immediately liked him and enjoyed his speech, so he has been a favorite of ours ever since. After all, he is one of Scotland’s most accomplished poets, professors, and authors.

During our drive that day, I couldn’t help but think of my English teacher at North Charleston (SC) High School with the never to be forgotten message above the building’s entrance for all to see, “Education is a possession of which man cannot be robbed”. Dorothy White gave me the help I needed as I struggled with English. I received my diploma because of her extra efforts in working with me after school, and I think of her often and will forever be grateful. I thought Miss White would be proud to know I was going to a poetry reading.

As we made our way along the various interstate highways to Columbia, I recalled a statement I had made to my wife the previous night as we completed the latest article for Robert Burns Lives!. I remember looking at my watch and remarking that “this time tomorrow we will be in Robert Crawford’s poetry reading presentation, and I can only hope I do not go to sleep.” As usual she had her normal words of encouragement saying it would be better that I thought.

It was! Much better!

I found Crawford’s poetry and presentation of his own work to be exhilarating, upbeat, humorous, exciting, full of wisdom and grace, and fun. I’d like to go to another poetry reading as long as it is Crawford at the podium!

Robert Crawford read poems from his book Full Volume and other unpublished works. He referenced a quote that we would do well to remember:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union

Robert Burns

He opened with the following reading:


When you are faced with two alternatives
Chose both. And should they put you to the test,
Tick every box. Nothing is ever single.
A seed’s a tree’s a ship’s a constellation.
Nail your true colours to this branching mast.

For 45 minutes he enthralled us with other poems, and the one for Kay struck home with me.

for Kay

Since each is shaped
by all its drift,
by every updraft
from high cloud to ground,
in all the history of the world
a snowflake’s double
can’t be found.

Since each is shaped
by all its drift,
by every updraft
from snowflake to ground,
in all the history of the world
a high cloud’s double
can’t be found.

A world of difference flecks each word.
Nature abhors a Henry Ford.

I marvelled at this descriptive poem:


Our lips are sealed.
Our language now is murmured
Nowhere above ground.


The traditional
Gaelic inscription translates,
‘Not enough wild sex’.


All flesh is grass, but
I hope also to become
A yellow iris.


Friend, when you read this,
Bear in mind without a doubt
There can be no faith.


In death as in life
Breathless and isolated
I run with the herd.


I saw it happen.
I could not stop it. Always
I wept through one eye.

Telephone Engineer

I connected up
Wet, remotest villages;
Let their sound carry.

Of particular interest to me was CLAN DONALD’S CALL TO BATTLE AT HARLAW. This presentation by Crawford was his best of the evening for me, but then I probably have a greater interest in this part of Scottish history more so than most present at the poetry reading. Among the 10,000 men fighting with Donald, second Lord of the Isles, at Harlaw 18 miles from Aberdeen in 1411, was James Shaw, son of Shaw Coriachlich, progenitor of Clan Shaw. Unfortunately James was killed in the battle. Donald made his way back to the Isles the next day, having lost hundreds of men. I have often maintained that a body of 10,000 warriors could not help but take back some wives as they made their way through Shaw territory (going to and coming from Harlaw). In talking with those in authority in Edinburgh, there is no documented proof this happened but then they admit there is nothing to say that it did not happen.

In the summer of 2009, Susan and I took a trip the two of us had dreamed about for years. Along with grandchildren Ian and Stirling, then 9 and 7 years of age respectively, and their parents, son Scott and his wife Denise, we made our way to Scotland and to the Isle of Jura, less than a mile from Islay, home of the Lord of the Isles. We went to visit the home of our ancestors, so no wonder this poem was of interest to me.

A Lecture by Robert Crawford

Robert Burns and the American Declaration of Independence

Robert Crawford during lecture at the University of South Carolina. Picture provided by Dr. Patrick Scott

The following day Crawford delivered the W. Ormiston Roy Memorial Lecture commemorating the grandfather of Dr. G. Ross Roy. Previous Roy lectures were presented by Berkeley’s Ian Duncan in 2009 and Glasgow’s Ted Cowan in 2010. It was Professor Ross Roy’s grandfather who introduced him to Burns and Scotland during their visit together when Ross was a mere lad of nine years old. Today the University of South Carolina houses over 20,000 Scottish books and nearly 5,000 on Robert Burns, making it the largest collection outside of Scotland, thanks to Professor Roy’s vision.

Like his speech in Washington last year, the lecture by Crawford was interesting, well presented, and full of information anyone would enjoy, Burnsian or not. To begin, Crawford called attention to the founding of Columbia, South Carolina in 1786, the year Burns published his book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Burns is acknowledged and universally acclaimed as Scotland’s Bard. He was an accomplished poet and his poems and songs have, through the years, become masterpieces. He quoted from and borrowed from many poets over his 37 years. It is remarkable that book has remained in print every year since he died in 1796.

Robert Crawford during lecture at the University of South Carolina. Picture provided by Dr. Patrick Scott

Crawford quoted the Ode to George Washington where America is called “Columbia”: “Thy harp, Columbia, let me take.” The lecture reflected the impression America and Washington made in the life of Burns. Crawford does not hesitate to state that Burns became the poet of America before he became the poet of Scotland. Frederick Douglas, John Muir, and Abraham Lincoln came into play, particularly the visit of Douglas to Scotland and the impact of Burns on Lincoln who throughout his life quoted and referenced Burns. Crawford then drew us To A Mouse which he stated “can be read as one of Burns’s cuddliest poems, but it is not” – it is much more, as the Bard of Liberty’s use of the words independence and interdependence are paramount.

Robert Crawford is a brilliant man, and just as importantly, a man of humility. He is at home with fellow Burnsians, poets, academics, and lay- people like me. In less than 24 hours, Susan and I heard him at his best with his poetry and his presentation on Robert Burns. We will remember this whirlwind trip for a lifetime.

A tip of the hat to Dr. Patrick Scott, Director of Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of South Carolina Libraries, for his help in supplying pictures and comments on Crawford’s lecture. Dr. Scott once again is to be congratulated for planning and executing another outstanding Scottish program. It was a marvelous meeting, and I only wish more of my family and friends could have been present.

Later, back home at Waverley, I found myself going to a book shelf and pulling down The Poetry of Robert Burns edited by W. E. Henley and T. F. Henderson, an oft consulted set of books. I found a quote from Burns I must leave with you:

(L-R)  Professors Ross Roy and Patrick Scott at reception following lecture

“I am just going to trouble your critical patience with the sketch of a stanza I have been framing as I paced along the road. The subject is Liberty: you know, my honoured friend, how dear the theme is to me. I design it as an irregular ode for George Washington’s Birthday. (R. B. to Mrs. Dunlop, 24th June 1794).” Hail Columbia and George Washington, and I extend my deepest thanks to Robert Crawford for this excellent double-feature presentation! (FRS: 11.18.10)

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