‘I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade [a military assault] that electrified the very marrow of her bones.”
With these uncaring and boastful words, Robert Burns described having sex with the heavily pregnant Jean Armour. In a letter to a friend, he wrote he had first insisted she should never “attempt any claim on me as a husband”, something his future wife agreed to “like a good girl”. The twins she was carrying died a few weeks later.
After Liz Lochhead, the modern-day poet, suggested this “disgraceful sexual boast … seemed very like rape”, admirers of Scotland’s national bard expressed such outrage that she has now said she will no longer give speeches about him.
Burns was a wonderful poet whose finer sentiments, such as in A Man’s a Man for A’ That, inspired people like the US civil rights activist and feminist Maya Angelou. His letter may have simply been “locker room talk” – to quote Donald Trump – but in shutting down any criticism we risk treating Burns as a secular saint rather than a man who had his flaws, as most people do.