Scots poet ‘amazed’ at reaction to Robert Burns ‘sex pest’ comment

Lochhead, one of Scotland's most popular modern poets, said she was 'amazed' at the reaction to her comments comparing the Ayrshire wordsmith to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Picture: Neil Hanna/JP Licence
Lochhead, one of Scotland's most popular modern poets, said she was 'amazed' at the reaction to her comments comparing the Ayrshire wordsmith to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Picture: Neil Hanna/JP Licence
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Scots poet Liz Lochhead has said she is retiring from giving talks on Robert Burns after landing herself in trouble with fans of the Bard by calling him a “sex pest”.

Miss Lochhead, one of Scotland’s most popular modern poets, said she was “amazed” at the reaction to her comments comparing the Ayrshire wordsmith to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

She has been criticised by Burns fans and scholars who said the comparison was unfair.

READ MORE: Robert Burns was no Harvey Weinstein, says scholar

Miss Lochhead - a former Scots makar - claimed Burns strayed into the territory of a rapist in a 1788 letter about an encounter with love of his life, Jean Armour.

She plans to make the comparison with the Hollywood sex scandal when she gives a talk on Burns and Women at a dinner for the Scottish Hellenic Society in Glasgow later this month.

READ MORE: Robert Burns was ‘sex pest and Weinstein of his age’

The 70-year-old poet said she was reluctant to give the speech and said it would be her last on the Bard as she didn’t want to stir up any more controversy.

In an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, she said: “I’m going to stop doing things that I think I ought to do for duty.

“I am right here and now retiring from Burns suppers and speeches.

“I will do the one this year but I’m not wanting to be in any more bother about saying something not at all controversial.

“I have got to deal with writing this speech which I don’t really want to write about Burns and women. I’ll do it because I’m very interested in the power of relations between men and women.”

Miss Lochhead admitted the ‘rape’ letter may have been Burns showing off to a friend and not a true reflection of what happened but maintained he was a “sex pest”.

She added: “I’m amazed that it’s a surprise that Burns was all kinds of things.

“He was a great, great, love poet. Whether he was a great lover, we have his word for it, not the word of the recipients and also he was probably a sex pest.

“It got him into trouble at various points in his life.

“All I did was say I was going to quote a notorious letter that he wrote which just paints the picture of an absolute cad.

“But I think he may have been letting his pen run away with him and showing off to a friend about something that might have been a tender thing in his own life.”

In it, the poet bragged of jumping on a “destitute and friendless” Armour and giving her a “thundering scalade [military assault]” on a horse manure-strewn floor when she was pregnant with his twins. The couple later married.

Wilson Ogilvie, a past president of the Burns Federation, said Miss Lochhead is wrong to compare Burns to Weinstein.

He added: “There are huge differences in the worlds they lived in, separated between the 18th and the 21st centuries.

“Burns was not lily-white in his attitudes towards women. But at that time, I think a number of people right across the whole spectrum of society could have written a letter like that.

“I think Miss Lochhead has gone a bit over the top.”

Burns scholar Catherine Czerkawska, who wrote a novel about Jean, said: “Any comparisons between the poet and Weinstein are invidious.

“To label as rape the events described in the letter is to oversimplify a relationship of great complexity.”

However, Miss Lochhead received backing from Burns biographer Robert Crawford who said she was “right in saying Burns had his Weinstein moments”.