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Robert Burns Lives!
"Fickle Man", Robert Burns in the 21st Century
Edited by Johnny Rodger & Gerard Carruthers

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

Fickle Man is a book any serious Burnsian, scholar or layman should acquire. More importantly, it needs to be read, maybe twice, it’s that good! I found it to be both challenging and rewarding, and it will enlarge your Burns horizon. The book is edited by two men who are imminently qualified in Burns scholarship, Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers. Rodger lectures at Glasgow School of Art and is co-editor of The Drouth. Carruthers, noted international Burns scholar, is Head of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. In addition, they have brought together some of the best minds in the world on the subject of Robert Burns.

Right off the bat the two authors say “…Burns is not a phony, he is a great artist and as true a writer as any other. We celebrate here the 250th birth anniversary of the poet by publishing a collection of essays of his life and work.” Fickle Man is written by men and women who are not afraid to unlock doors to new topics on Burns and neither are they afraid to provoke “the Burns Police”, a term I picked up from popular Scottish singer and Burns vocalist Eddi Reader. Who are the Burns Police? They are so labeled because they insist on their way or no way when it comes to Burns. This usually happens when the Burns pot is stirred with a hard question about Burns or when a new view is espoused vis-à-vis the Bard. Burns Police cannot tolerate their  “ownership” of Burns being challenged. Neither do they tolerate their beliefs concerning Burns being threatened.

Welcome to a book of 18 articles that present a 21st century portrait of Robert Burns! From beginning to end, Fickle Man is told with today’s readers in mind. The essays follow in the solid tradition of other Burns scholars I am familiar with who were not afraid to rock the boat when it would have been easier not to have done so: Carol McGuirk’s Critical Essays on Robert Burns (1998), Robert Crawford in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority (1997), Kenneth Simpson’s Burns Now (1994) and his Love and Liberty (1997), as well as Donald Low in his Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (1974).  I would be derelict if I did not mention G. Ross Roy’s Studies in Scottish Literature (1998), Volume XXX, Robert Burns, the bicentenary conference papers at the University of South Carolina. To me, there was a common goal in mind - expressed or not - to demythologize Robert Burns, but no one did a better job than Rodger and Carruthers with Fickle Man. 

Many of the articles have appeared in “Scotland’s Only Literary Arts Quarterly”, The Drouth, a periodical that should have your address label on each new issue. The Drouth is on the cutting edge of Scottish poetry and prose. The editors, Johnny Rodger and Mitchell Miller, usually have an article on Burns in each edition. Look for a review of The Drouth in an upcoming article on this site. I’m that impressed with it!

As a sidebar, if you do not know of Burns contemporary John Kay, you are in for a real treat. His etchings of the very people Burns knew in Edinburgh are used liberally throughout this publication. If it were not for Kay, there would be no surviving portrait of the economist, Adam Smith. If you Google John Kay, you will find that some of his satirical etchings were bought by his subjects in order to destroy them! Kay was once prosecuted, unsuccessfully I might add, and on another occasion someone took a cudgel to him. Evidently he did not please everyone.

During a recent visit to the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, I was privileged to peruse two volumes of Kay’s works, A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings from 1872. I would like to thank Dr. Patrick Scott for his able assistance at the library and for providing me with further information since my visit on Kay from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. “Kay etched in all nearly 900 plates and drew almost every ‘notable Scotsman of his time, with the exception of Burns’…” This is ironic since Kay worked in Edinburgh at the time Burns was the toast of the city. Why is this? Some speculate that politics played a part in Kay’s decision.

Fickle Man has too many topics to list all of them here, but there is something for any serious student of Burns! However, in Fickle Man you’ll find information on memorials, movies, Ireland, slavery (you do not want to miss this one), education, the laboring class poets, as a revolutionary, The Tree of Liberty, sex (naturally), and fickle men. There is no way you can read this book and not learn more about Burns as a man, stripped of mythology.

This book is available at  It can also be found on or may be ordered from Waterstones. When all else fails, just Google Fickle Man (ISBN: 978-1-905207-27-5). Cost £23.99 plus shipping and handling.  (FRS: 5.20.09)

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