Bard in the hand: Trust accused of hiding Burns' mental illness

HE IS the Scottish national bard and a romantic figure who wrote some of the world's most famous poetry and songs.

But a new analysis of Robert Burns' handwriting to mark the Year of the Homecoming pointed towards a conclusion that proved just too embarrassing for culture chiefs: it suggested the Ayrshire poet suffered from manic depression.

Joan Charles, an intuitive analyst, was asked by the National Trust for Scotland to examine a selection of Burns' letters and writings. She and NTS staff concluded that the 18th-century writer experienced extremes of mood that might today be classified as bipolar disorder.

However, although the word bipolar was included in a report submitted to senior Trust officials, it was later removed. The romanticised image of the bard is a central part of the Scottish Government's Homecoming Year theme aimed at attracting thousands of tourists to Scotland in 2009.

Instead, the Trust issued a watered-down version of Charles' observations which made no mention of extreme moods, even though Burns biographer Robert Crawford suggested earlier this year the poet suffered from a mild form of manic depression and Burns himself referred to it as episodes of "blue devilism".

Last night, a mental health group now accused the Trust of "editing history" for not allowing the findings to be published in full.

The Trust said the word bipolar was taken out because the evidence was not sufficient to support such a diagnosis. David Hopes, the NTS curator of the new Robert Burns Memorial Museum project in Alloway, said: "There were handwritten notes that used the word bipolar and a press release was going to be issued by a public relations company. But in the meantime the NTS intervened. There was real concern that we were painting this picture of a lunatic Burns, which we weren't trying to do at all."

Hopes, who worked with Charles on the project, said the findings did nevertheless cast new light on the bard's mental state. "There is a suggestion that Burns was bipolar, which may have influenced his writings" he said. "It's normally accepted that Burns wrote because he was inspired by nature, or love or his political views.

"This suggests he was writing as a defence mechanism or as a release. It reveals an edgier Burns, writing, as Joan says, to fill a void in his life. The condition could have been a psychological motivation for his writing."

Charles, who is employed by a range of companies to provide personal development programmes based on intuition, says she had no prior in-depth knowledge of Burns' life or his works before starting the project.

The documents included letters he sent to friends, relatives and potential lovers as well as famous manuscripts such as Scots Wha Hae and Such A Parcel O' Rogues In A Nation. Her method involves analysing documents for emotional tone rather than picking up on handwriting characteristics.

She found a range of emotional highs and lows within the documents that she agreed could be consistent with manic depressive episodes. In the manuscript of Song On Miss W.A. (The Bonnie Lass O' Ballochmyle), written in 1986, she reports: "This is an upbeat song. Burns is sexually excited and in good humour when writing this piece."

But in the manuscript of A Winter Night, written the same year, she observes: "Burns was feeling very low and was in a deep, dark place when writing this. He had a tender heart that was misunderstood and this is crying out with hurt from within." Charles added: "If you were to look at Burns' writing, you could term that a bit bipolar. But the Trust thought that was a negative connotation."

Charles said she had not used the word bipolar when discussing the findings with the Trust's PR agency. "I said he was a bit erratic, and up and down. I was asked 'like bipolar?' I said, 'yes', but if you want to use the word bipolar that's your connotation. It was put in there at some stage, but I was told the Trust didn't want to use that."

Previous studies of bipolar disorder have shown a clear link between creativity and manic depressive illnesses.

O'Donnell said the full finding should have been publicised. He said: "It is always helpful to talk about these things. Bipolar disorder is associated with drink disorders and sexually risk taking behaviour which Burns obviously ticks the box for these. People with this also mix in a whole range of social situations in the up phase in an uninhibited way even though they may be from a lowly background. Again Burns ticks the box."

He added: "Some of it might have shown up in his work in that you have poems of great elation and emotional intensity and others that are quite morbid and depressive."

A diagnosis would not have been available in Burns' day, nor treatments such as medication or behavioural therapy. "Then, alcohol was often used to self-medicate," O'Donnell added.

Nigel Henderson, spokesperson for 'see me', Scotland's national campaign to end stigma and discrimination around mental ill-health, said: "We regret the NTS's decision to remove the reference to Burns' experience of bipolar disorder.

"It seems a shame that, in this day and age, we can't talk about people's experiences in full, and if the evidence suggests Burns did indeed suffer from bipolar disorder, to remove such a reference is effectively editing history.

"Part of what shaped Burns as a person and a poet would've been his experience of bipolar disorder, which undoubtedly will have contributed to inspiring his creativity."

Condition can be crippling or creative

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

It is a condition in which people experience abnormally elevated and abnormally depressed mental states.

The abnormally elevated mood differs between sufferers, with some experiencing a mood clinically referred to as mania and others hypomania, a milder form.

The current term "bipolar disorder" is relatively new although the diagnosis can be traced back to the 1850s.

Some sufferers find their illness devastating while for others it has been associated with creativity and outstanding achievement. Around 4 per cent of people are thought to have some form of bipolar episode at some point in their lives, with late adolescence and early adulthood the peak times for the onset of the condition. A combination of genetic and lifestyle factors are thought to play a role. Sufferers can use self-help, psychotherapy or medication to alleviate symptoms.

Varying degrees of bipolar disorder had been associated with some of the most creative individuals in history including Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff, Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Dickens. Other sufferers include the comedian Stephen Fry, who attempted suicide in 1995.