Five artists inspired by Robert Burns

LINDSEY Johnstone examines five artists that the Bard has inspired, including the King of Pop and the writer of one of America’s most celebrated novels

A statue of Robert Burns in Ayr. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL
A statue of Robert Burns in Ayr. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL

With more statues dedicated to him around the world than anyone bar Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, and Auld Lang Syne recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language, along with Happy Birthday and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, Robert Burns has had no problem remaining relevant since his death in 1796.

Scotland’s national bard has taken his place in the pop culture pantheon, being the first person to appear on a commemorative bottle of Coca-Cola, in 2009, and having had his work featured in films including It’s a Wonderful Life, When Harry Met Sally and Sex and the City, in which Edinburgh singer Mairi Campbell’s version of the world’s favourite New Year’s Eve ditty can be heard.

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With artists, musicians, writers and designers of modern times continuing to be influenced by the Ploughman Poet, here are just a few of those he has inspired.

JD Salinger

Salinger’s seminal 1951 Bildungsroman The Catcher in the Rye is named for protagonist Holden Caulfield’s misinterpretation of the Burns poemComin’ Thro’ the Rye, which he mentions several times in the novel after hearing a little boy singing it. While the words in the poem are “if a body meet a body, comin’ through the rye”, Holden refers to them as being “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye” and talks about the image they conjure for him of children playing a game in a huge field by a cliff, telling his little sister Phoebe that he would like to have the job of catching anyone who ran too close to the cliff’s edge before they fell over it – symbolising his desire to save the children, and himself, before they fall from innocence, into the adult world. The character’s misinterpretation has further been interpreted as indicative of his wilful refusal to acknowledge the corrupted adult world of sexuality, given that the imagery in Burns’ poetry most certainly alludes to a sexual encounter. Another iconic work of American literature, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, published in 1937, also takes its title from a Burns poem – To a Mouse, which contains the line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

Michael Jackson

The King of Pop was a big Burns fan and in the 1990s recorded an album with producer, and former Mr Liza Minnelli, David Gest of 12 of the bard’s best-known poems set to music, which has evolved into a musical telling Rabbie’s life story that is set to open at a theatre in Aberdeen on Burns Night. Gest was to take a cameo role as Tam O’Shanter in Robert Burns The Musical, but due to clashing commitments audiences will miss out on the spectacle of the former I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here contestant paying tribute to Scotland’s national poet.


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Tommy Hilfiger

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Records show that the grandmother of Hilfiger’s elderly aunt Rose Kirbis was the granddaughter of Burns’ brother Gilbert, making the US fashion designer the great, great, great nephew of Rabbie Burns, although he didn’t discover this until he was in his twenties. As he told Vogue: “It was never discussed in my house, because it was said that Robert Burns was a womaniser and a boozer. They were embarrassed he was related, so we weren’t told.” He has made up for lost time taking inspiration from his heritage since then, being well-known for including plenty of plaid in his all-American clothing, accessories and interiors collections. For the 2013 Met Gala (fashion’s biggest night out of the year), at which the theme was “punk”, Hilfiger dressed himself and his wife in head-to-toe tartan.

Bob Dylan

The twentieth-century troubadour named Robert Burns – and specifically his 1794 song My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose – as his greatest source of inspiration, in a 2008 advertising campaign called My Inspiration for the record store chain HMV. Folk hero Dylan, whose stage name was taken in tribute to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, was the 100th artist to participate in the campaign, after David Bowie, Morrissey, Nick Cave, Paul McCartney and Noel Gallagher, and the only one to cite a poet rather than a fellow musician as his biggest influence.

Robert Montgomery

The Scottish artist, whose situationist-inspired works are part-installation, part-poetry, produces giant neon signs proclaiming messages including “All palaces are temporary palaces”, “The people you love become ghosts inside of you and like this you keep them alive” and “In the silence of your bones and eyes forgotten magic sits and waits for fire”. Montgomery, who is also known for plastering his text-based work over advertising billboards as a medium for the denouncing of that industry, told the magazine Dazed & Confused: “I definitely identify with a certain kind of wistful Celtic Romanticism. I grew up two miles from Robert Burns’ house and I realise that particularly Scottish sense of poetry you get in Burns – halfway between poetry and ballad writing, or in Burns’s case often a reforming of ballads – I realise that the older I get, I maybe identify more than I thought with Burns’ ideas. We’re from the same small unpretentious town in Ayrshire after all, and from not so different backgrounds: his grandparents were farmers, my grandparents were coal miners. My grandmother spoke the exact Lowland Scots dialect that Burns wrote in actually. ‘Laland Scots’ she called it.”


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