Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA
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
Dr. Gerard, At what age was your interest in Burns sparked and what was
it about Burns that caused this?
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
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?
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.
Dr. Gerard,Was there a single event or poem that made you want to learn
more about Robert Burns?
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.
Dr. Gerard, How do you feel about a recent quote from Jeremy Paxman,
calling Burns' poems ''sentimental doggerel"?
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!
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?
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
Dr Gerard, Do you have a favourite Robert Burns poem and why is it your
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.
If you could have written just one poem/song or work of Robert Burns,
which one would you have wanted it be?
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!
How did you come to be involved in the event The Robert Burns
Conspiracies and become one of the panel experts?
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.
What is your theory on whether Robert Burns sent guns to the French
revolutionaries, do you personally believe it?
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.
Dr. Gerard, "In your mind," how do you see Robert Burns Ayrshire muse, "Coila"
fit into this"?
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.
In your opinion will modern poets like Robert Garrioch, Edwin Morgan,
Sydney Goodsir Smith and MacDiamid still be read in 250 years time?
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
When Scotland becomes independent do you think any of Burns' songs will
be used for the official national anthem?
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'
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?
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.
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?
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
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
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.'
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?
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.
Election fever is in the air in the USA. For which current U.K.
political party do you think Burns had an affinity?
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.
Do you have any plans for any Homecoming Scotland 2009 events and are
you getting involved with any Robert Burns Celebrations?
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.
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?
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).
Do you think all the Homecoming Scotland Events will bring more
worldwide attention to Scotland and to Robert Burns?
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
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?
'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.
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?
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!
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