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Robert Burns may have had bipolar disorder, new research suggests


Researchers at the University of Glasgow suggest Robert Burns may have had bipolar disorder, according to a paper published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

More than 800 letters and journals have helped the academics to analyse the mental state of Robert Burns. The project also looked beyond Scotland’s national bard’s correspondence, to his relationships and day-to-day life in a bid to establish if he had a psychiatric disorder.

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Now the Glasgow academics carrying out the four-year project, which started in 2015, say they have some evidence to suggest that Burns may have suffered from bipolar disorder, with the Bard’s moods cycling between depression and hypomania.This might explain the writer’s periods of intense creativity, temperamental personality and unstable love life.

The research looked at blocks of letters across four separate time frames over nine years from 1786 to 1795, testing the use of the poet’s letters as a source of evidence relating to his mental health.

Mood disorder

The findings – Mood disorder in the personal correspondence of Robert Burns: Testing a novel inter-disciplinary approach - are published in The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

The first block of letters covered a three-month period centred on December 1793, specifically chosen as it was a known period of melancholia or depression identified by Burns in his writing. 

At this time Burns’s letters show him feeling “altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy…my soul flouncing & fluttering”. 

This sample acted as a base to show symptoms of lowered mood, mild depression and melancholia with two of the letters meeting the criteria for clinical depression. 

There were also gaps, over two weeks between 3-15 December 1793, where the poet appeared to have written no letters, which could indicate some social withdrawal.

The other three blocks of letters acted as further pilot tests of the methodology – with an individual not connected to the study randomly selecting three different starting points for each of the samples. This blind sample had a total of 104 letters assessed.

Life mood map

Further analysis will be carried out by the project which will allow the construction of a “life mood map” to chart the variations of Burns’s mood over his lifetime offering a fuller understanding of Scotland’s national bard. 

The authors of the report are:

  • Moira Hansen, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith PhD student based at the University’s College of Arts
  • Professor Daniel Smith, Professor of Psychiatry at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing
  • Professor Gerard Carruthers, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies

Moira Hansen, the principal researcher on the project, said: “Blue devilism was the term Burns used to describe periods of depression which he suffered, periods which affected his life and his work – not something you would automatically expect of someone with a worldwide reputation for knowing how to enjoy himself – and something that our project is properly studying for the first time.

“During his lifetime and since his death, Burns has often been viewed as a tortured poetic genius which helped to explain his reputation as a lover of life, women and drink. But it is only in the last two decades that it has been mooted he may have suffered from a mood disorder.”

She added: “This project is using modern day methods to track and categorise the bard’s moods and work patterns. 

“The work published in this article shows that we can used Burns’s letters as a source of evidence, in place of having the face-to-face interviews a psychiatrist would normally have. 

ReadThe Bronte sisters, Scotland and Robert Burns

“We have pinpointed evidence which showed bouts of increased energy and hyperactivity, and periods of depression and a withdrawal from day-to-day life. Further work to take account of the conventions of letter writing in the 18th century, who Burns was addressing his letters to and the different activities he was involved in at the various stages of his life is still being carried out. But we now believe Burns may have had what we would recognised today as bipolar disorder. We will carry out further in-depth analysis to create a mood map of his life to chart these highs and lows linking it to what was happening both in his private and public life to judge how it impacted on his writing.”

A 'more accurate picture' of Burns

Professor Gerard Carruthers, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, said: “Robert Burns was a complicated man, with an amazing catalogue of work produced in a short lifetime before he died at 37. Today he holds a fascination not just for Scots but a worldwide audience. 

“The fact that Scotland’s national bard may have had bipolar disorder is part of the telling and understanding of all aspects of the bard’s story to reveal a more accurate picture of the real Robert Burns. 

“I am delighted to be involved in such important cross-disciplinary research which I hope will help to inform today’s debate on mental health illness.”

Read the full paper in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

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