Scotland’s modern-day national poet has transformed Robert Burns into an outspoken proponent of Scottish independence for a new theatre production.
The work by Liz Lochhead, one of 20 writers to contribute short plays inspired by paintings or sculptures at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, will leave audiences in no doubt over her creation’s voting intentions if he was alive today.
The script of her work, to be performed at the gallery, will see Burns warn Scotland will be left “under Tory rule forever” if it votes to stay in the Union.
Dear Scotland is one of several plays being staged by the National Theatre of Scotland in the run-up to the referendum exploring issues of national identity. Just 15 audience members will watch each performance unfold at a time, in the promenade-style show through the gallery, which runs until 3 May.
Other famous paintings to be brought to life by writers and actors in the “pit-stop” monologues include Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Queen, Sir Walter Scott, Jimmy Reid and Chic Murray.
Lanarkshire-born Lochhead, 66, was unveiled as the Scots Makar by First Minister Alex Salmond three years ago and is one of the most high-profile cultural figures in Scotland to back the independence cause.
In Lochhead’s script, Burns will also proclaim that Scotland became part of the Union after it was “bought and sold for English gold” in the wake of the notorious Darien disaster, echoing a famous line in his “Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” poem.
Burns, as envisaged by Lochhead, will ask audiences: “Which kind of country doesn’t want to take responsibility for its own affairs?”
Politicians and historians differ over which side of the independence argument Burns would have been on. Last summer Mr Salmond laid claim to Burns, citing letters he had written to two friends, adding: “From tip to toe, Robert Burns was a 100 per cent Scottish patriot.”
The writers involved in the project were given “free rein” to select a work on show in the gallery and use it to inspire a five-minute story set in modern-day Scotland.
Lochhead added: “I think there’s a huge amount of doubt over what his political affiliation would have been. I’m not really interested in these kind of questions.
“He’s dead. I don’t know. He might have been a completely different person. But the Burns that I’ve written absolutely knows.
“I’m not a historian, I’m a dramatist. But it’s come from my non-academic but very extensive and born-in-the-bone reading of him. It’s cheeky, it’s doggerel, I’ve got no illusions about it, it’s a little doggerel piece, it’s kind of a bit of fun. ”
Last night, Labour MSP Richard Baker, a director of the anti-independence Better Together campaign, suggested it was “too simplistic” to claim the mantle of Burns for either side of the referendum campaign.
He said: “One of the great qualities of Burns is that he supports all of humanity in his works and wrote powerfully for Scotland and Britain.
“It’s far too simplistic to reduce the poetry of Burns to works promoting independence, when he in fact wrote poetry celebrating internationalism, equality and justice.”
SNP MSP John Wilson said Burns would have been a Yes man: “He would have been firmly in favour of a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum.
“Despite that he came under enormous pressure from London, he kept the Scots language alive and insisted to his publishers that his works must remain in the Scots tongue. He therefore protected a vital part of Scottish identity.”
‘Sh*t or get off the pot time’ – an extract
This Januar’ hanselled in a maist auspicious year.
At Suppers cross the land, the sloganeer
And no the poet in me all sought to commandeer
As on their side.
Yup, sh*t-or-get-aff-the-pot-time’s nearly here.
Time nor tide –
As th’ poet said, nae man can tether
(An Christ that poet was me!) -- But ony blether
That tries to sign me up as a better-aff-together
– Get stuffed!
I’ll tell them, in language purpler than the heather,
That ‘parcel o rogues’ in Seventeen-O-Seven
Eftir the Darien disaster (wha’ll ne’er be forgiven)
Had us bought and sold for English gold, bastards driven
By greed and gain.
Taken us till noo (and somehow still by dissent riven)
T’get free again.
‘Sh’d Scotland be an independent country?’ The question
We’ll shairly say Aye! to? They cannae manifest yin
Guid reason why we shouldnae. Yes! the best yin,
The only answer.
So screw yer courage, stick a Saltire in the Yessed yin
On th’voting paper.