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Robert Burns Lives!
Starkey Staring Mad by Clark McGinn

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

Here we go again! What is it about some English people and would-be Scots who cannot help shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to Robert Burns and Scotland? Now comes the next in line, David Starkey, pronouncing Scotland as a “feeble little nation” with “a romantic 19th-century style of nationalism” and Burns as “a deeply boring provincial poet” and, for whatever the reason, evidently does not like bagpipes either. What’s with these people? What did Scotland, Robert Burns or the bagpipe ever do to them? Seems this historian had ugly things to say about all three on BBC’s “Famous Question Time”.

Let me digress for a moment. I grew up in a small South Carolina town where you were looked down on if you came from a certain part of town or if your dad did not own a store, a business, was not a doctor or a lawyer, or your family did not have money - make that old money. I know what it is like to live so close to a railroad track that the only thing separating one corner of our house and the track was a ditch.  And, even though this was a spur track, you always knew when the train came by. Since my father hauled wood with a mule and wagon, and we were the only family in my grammar school classes not to own a car, I am used to people who like say catty things, think they are better than you, or who look down on you.  Like I said, you always know when the train or a condescending bully comes by.

And, as you can see below, that is exactly what the good doctor is – a bully!  Mom always tried to teach my nine siblings and me to say only good things about people. However, Mom never met Starkey! He tries to beat you up with words, not fists.  He gets off on putting you down with his intellect. He may know his history, but he is rude. I had my share of run-ins with fisticuff bullies as a boy and won about as many as I lost. As an adult, I’ve had my run-ins with bullies like Starkey who want to assault you with words. I have found that most of them, sooner or later, get around to opening their mouth only to change their feet. Usually, as in this case, it is sooner.

Some say people like Starkey should be ignored and go unchallenged since they have a right to their opinion. I agree with the latter part, but I also have a right to my own opinion. Robert Burns does not need me or anyone else to defend him and neither does the Auld Country or the bagpipe, but letting those like Starkey know my feelings makes me feel a lot better. It comes down to one of those scenarios where you do it your way and I’ll do it my way.

But I get ahead of myself and am happy to bring you a rebuttal to Dr. David Starkey by Clark McGinn who has appeared in these pages before.  The Scotsman asked Clark to respond to the professor, and McGinn’s op-ed piece appeared in the newspaper Monday, April 27, 2009. Welcome, Clark, you are welcome anytime! (Check out this site:  (FRS: 5.10.09)

Starkey Staring Mad
By Clark McGinn

Dr David Starkey had made his name (and a good deal of money) by being the face of the great English dynasty, the Tudors. So when on last week’s Question Time, he railed against ‘that feeble nation’ Scotland, we should be grateful he visited only insults on our heads, unlike his current TV subject Henry VIII whose ‘rough wooing’ devastated the Borders centuries ago. Times change – no longer does the chief man of England look to come North of the Border to joust with the Leader of Scotland (or maybe seeing Brown vs. Salmond, maybe it still does!) so I am relieved that Starkey’s fiery words will burn no abbeys while his sharp tongue will fell no flowers in our forest.

There’s always a gleeful irony hearing someone whose trade is in the precision of words speak glibly and to watch an historian who tries to teach an understanding of Henry VIII without the clichés resort to playground insult. Perhaps he regrets the passing of the Tudor throne into Scottish hands, or carries some Cumbrian border feud deep in his psyche, but calling Scotland a feeble country? To reply to Macduff’s s question ‘Stands Scotland where it did?’ we Scots, like all nations large and small have our challenges – the arc of prosperity has been replaced by the lifeboat for our once proud banks – but there’s a great deal of honest pride in our country and its people and the growth of that consciousness over the last decade is far from feeble.

Just as I think of Fat King Henry in cartoon terms of porcine greed for wives and chicken legs (both carelessly tossed over his shoulder when done with), Dr Starkey sees us as boorish Burnsian bagpipers, no doubt clinging for life on the top of a craggy ben with nothing but a few yards of tartan round our blue painted bums to keep the rain off.  By that intellectual standard, all England would be as polite as London cabbies, as gentle as Met policemen, with the Sassenach populace enjoying warm beer as John Major cycles between Morris dancers on his way to Evensong. You’d think that a Cambridge man would be clever enough to come up with some new stereotype to bash us about with. And for a Tudor historian to mock us using the word ‘feeble’ we should cast back at him Good Queen Bess’s vaunted words  – you may think us ‘feeble’ but it’s not your prejudices that define us – it’s the heart we carry that makes our character.

Scotland is wider and deeper that his imaginings (or his easy pot shots) – but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be proud of the facets he criticises.

What about the bagpipes? Not everyone is Scotland is a fan (certainly many find the music retreating into the distance as more enjoyable than standing up beside them) so it’s an easy assault but they’re certainly hardly a ‘feeble’ image.  In the mopping up after Culloden the English judges (in a harsher judgement than Starkey’s) famously ruled that the pipes were an instrument of war as much as the broadsword (thus literally cutting short a few piping careers) and we remember that thousands of brave men have offered their lives for freedom while marching behind their piper.  What of Pipers Findlater, Laidlaw and Richardson each a VC winner, or the evocative music of the Royal Scots Greys CD ‘Spirit of the Glen’ recorded while on service in Helmand? Call that ‘feeble’ Dr Starkey?

And calling Burns ‘provincial’ is about as intellectual as describing Wordsworth as the PR man for the florists’ trade.  Starkey believes that Burns is ‘boring’ – everyone is entitled to an opinion – I suppose after decades of poring over Tudor documents the vitality of Tam o’Shanter or the Jolly Beggars leaves him cold, but it excites and stimulates many folk which is why these ‘boring’ poems have been continuously in print since July 1786. But who can you define Burns as ‘provincial’ – how ill informed in his 250th anniversary year when over nine million people joined in Burns Supper celebrations from Dumfries, Galloway to Dumfries, Maryland; from Kirkintilloch to Kolkata; from Edinburgh to Dunedin, from Ayr it seems to eternity. I don’t want to sound like the triumphalist Scot who after the opening night of the (now forgotten) tragedy ‘Douglas’ written by one of our countrymen called out ‘an’ whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ but there is nothing ‘provincial’ in the way that the poetry of Robert Burns reaches out to such a range of people of ages, colours, religions and nationalities. Stand in Tokyo listening to the department stores playing Auld Lang Syne to flag the end of the shopping day, or watch the Chinese dragons dance to bagpipe music at Gung Haggis Fat Choy in Vancouver and tell me that this was inspired by a boring provincial poetaster from Scotland. 

Like Shakespeare, Burns is the essence of his homeland but the property of the world.

‘A King can mak a belted knight’ said Burns and writing about a Tudor king can make you a celebrity. But it obviously doesn’t open your mind. Now that, Dr Starkey, is what I call feeble and provincial.

[Clark McGinn writes on Scottish subjects and speaks across the world at Burns Suppers. His latest book is ‘The Ultimate Guide to Being Scottish’ (Luath Press £8.99)

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