Nat Edwards: Burns endures because he continues to be relevant
THE tradition of questioning the cult of Robert Burns is almost as old as the tradition of holding Burns Suppers itself.
An early journalist complained of “much cockneyfication” in homage to the poet and, over the years, various writers have been called upon to provide an edgy or contemporary critique of Burnsianism as something archaic or uncool.
Sometimes they have a point – I’ve endured some terrible Burns Suppers. But I’ve also had a ball – in all sorts of places and all shapes and sizes. From quiet, intimate remembrance of Burns to chaotic celebrations of his libertine love of life, the party rumbles on.
The critics may have their points – about perpetuating stereotypes and myths of Scottish exceptionalism – but how exceptionally Scottish does it appear to moan about folk having a party?
Burns endures because he continues to be relevant. He is relevant because his writing and his skill as an artist helps him to connect with people. Deeper still, Burns’ relevance is rooted in his understanding of human nature. For Burns, there were two types of good. One was the established authority of “The Unco Guid”, where moral behaviour was codified into all sorts of rules (habitually manipulated by those in power).
The other was a natural goodness within people that could be liberated through removing the divisions between them. Burns believed fervently that “Man is good by Nature”. This is why I think Burns’s version of Auld Lang Syne is so important. He took an old song, which for centuries had been a lament about the frailties of human nature, and with a few strokes of the pen reworked it into an anthem celebrating the capacity of humanity to re-connect, despite everything that has fallen between us.
In the simple act of holding hands with a stranger, Burns’ song reiterates a powerful faith in the capacity of people both to do good and trust others to do good with us. It’s a powerful message that flies in the face of modern neo-liberalism – and it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and strangers’ hands, then we all still have a chance.
l Nat Edwards is director of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. More information about Robert Burns can be found at www.scotland.org/burns-night.
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