05/02/2018
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Robert Burns hid his radical politics in 'plain view' says leading Burns expert

29ed2797-96bf-48e5-a9be-d13785e046ef

Robert Burns hid his radical and progressive political views “in plain view” while working for the Crown during the turbulent years of the late 18th century, a leading expert on Scotland’s national bard will reveal this week.

Professor Gerard Carruthers in his sold-out talk Robert Burns, the Excise Services and Politics in a time of Revolution on 6 February 2018 will also say that the bard’s political leanings were an “open secret” in the Civil Service where he worked.
 
Professor Carruthers, the Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, made his revelations after studying recently unveiled Burns letters.

His talk examines the bard’s place in what would be today’s HM Customs and Excise, just after the French Revolution. He will say: “There are lots of near-conspiracy theories through two centuries [which] have sought to account for Burns’ career in the Excise service.
 
“The common idea in these theories is that the government had Burns where they wanted him: under their control and politically silenced. In fact as the new letters, by contemporaries of Burns, show - he was delighted (and not reluctant) to be given his position. Also, the new material reveals that Burns’ progressive political views were an 'open secret' in the Civil Service.
 
“Indeed, some of those intelligent and educated colleagues with whom he worked shared his views. “
 

Examining the evidence

The two letters were written by John Mitchell, the bard’s Excise boss, to one of the poet’s most important patrons Robert Graham of Fintry. Graham of Fintry, was a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise, who helped to secure Burns’ job as an excise man in late summer of 1788.
 
These new letters have helped to inform the debate on the extent of the Bard’s radicalism. Today we know Burns was an opponent of monarchy and slavery, and a champion of democracy and the rights of man.

But the last four years of Burns’ life coincided with a movement for democratic and parliamentary reform that directly involved ordinary Scots in politics for the first time. Like many other poets at that time, many of his political poems and songs like Scots Wha Hae were published either anonymously or under a pseudonym.
 
As a paid government officer, he seemingly was forced into public silence especially after the French Revolution. He was even questioned by his superiors on his politics after he was accused of being a radical, a claim he refuted at the time and was exonerated.
 
Professor Carruthers said: “And in this 'space' Burns writes some of his most political songs, including ' Scots Wha Hae' and 'A Man's A Man'.
 
“Here in song, where the texts might be read as 'historic' or 'masonic', he was actually commenting on contemporary politics of that time.
 
“In both these songs and surrounded by his like-minded Excise colleagues, he was hiding his politics in plain view.”
 
The significance of the new letters located in the National Records of Scotland came to light as part of the University of Glasgow/Oxford University Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century which is led by Professor Carruthers.
 

See the Burns letters

The free Robert Burns: Radical Exciseman’ exhibition, featuring the John Mitchell letters, is on until 23 February at National Records of Scotland.
 
(Images copyright University of Glasgow)
 

Back to "Burns Night" Category

05/02/2018 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Inventor and engineer James Watt was born - On this day in history

James Watt, inventor of the condensor, which helped make the Industrial Revolution possible, was born on 19 ...


Sir John Pringle died - On this day in Scottish history

Sir John Pringle, President of the Royal Society and physician to King George III, died on 18 January 1782. ...


The Duddingston Curling Society was founded - On this day in history

On 17 January 1795, the Duddingston Curling Society became the first formally organised curling club in the ...


Restored Mary Queen of Scots statue to take pride of place in Linlithgow in time for Month of MQS

A much-loved statue of Mary Queen of Scots has been restored and will be on display at Linlithgow Museum, as ...


Other Articles

Caithness novelist Neil Gunn died - On this day in history

Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn, author of The Silver Darlings, died on 15 January 1973. ...


Greyfriars Bobby died - On this day in history

Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful terrier said to have kept vigil at his master's grave for fourteen years, died ...


New two-year academic research project will explore how the legend of Mary Queen of Scots has impacted society and culture

More than forty international academics and curators are to join a project led by the University of Glasgow, ...


Seven history books we can’t wait to read in 2019

The coming year looks set to be a great one for history publishing. Here, we present seven books we’re ...