Saturday, January 24, 2009

25 January: Burns Day

With all the excitement of National Pie Day (23 Jan.) still fresh in their minds, average Americans could be excused for forgetting that other cultures have important holidays of their own.

Today is Burns Day:  the great day of celebration for Scotland's great literary icon. And it's a special one:  the 250th birth anniversary.

This year, however, controversy stalks the poet.

Historian Michael Fry questioned Burns's fitness as a role model, while some replied that a cultural role model did not require emulation of all aspects of his life, and others in effect just said: "lighten up!"
"Burns was a drunk, misogynistic, racist philanderer," he said. "Perhaps he was not untypical of Scots, but we have to wonder whether this is the right image for the modern Scotland. By all means, let us celebrate the poetry according to its merits. But, in the same critical spirit, let us deal honestly with the man who wrote that poetry."

Describing modern Scots acting like Burns, Mr Fry said: "We could repeatedly get drunk. In this condition, the males among us could 'lay' one woman after another, following discussion of their respective merits in dirty talk with our drouthie cronies.

"Needless to say, this would be unprotected sex performed in a spirit of utter indifference to potential pregnancies, amang the rigs o'barley perhaps. Irksome consequences would be the females' own silly fault."

He said: "It is only right to mark Burns' 250th anniversary in a literary sense. But in 2009, his example, in a practical sense, could well send Scotland straight down the tubes.

"Are there not, at the very least, other heroes preferable for a period of adversity? It is difficult to see Burns as an inspiration for testing times."

Peter Westwood, director of the Robert Burns World Federation and editor of the Burns Chronicle, dismissed Mr Fry's criticism and said the poet was a good role model. "There was no way he could have produced the great work that his did during his 37 years if he was always drunk and chasing women," he said.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Robert Burns is an international cultural icon and one of Scotland's favourite sons. He was both a man of his time and of all time. He wouldn't have been human without flaws, and his egalitarian ideals have helped cement his universal and timeless appeal."

The Reverend Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, said: "Rabbie Burns used his educational opportunities to the best possible effect, and was an inspiration for creativity. These are good attributes for any role model to have. All of us have human frailties and none of us are perfect."

Playwright Liz Lochhead said the poet should be celebrated for his work, not life-style. "This is complete rubbish," she said. "It's not relevant to his poetry, it's not the point. We don't look at him for a way to live our lives. We should enjoy Burns as a great poet whose work means a lot to a lot of people.

"Burns' poetry spoke about the wealth of human experience. Of course, I wouldn't look to him as a feminist role model, but he's not a role model, he's a great poet."  (full article)

The BBC treats Burns better, and BBC Radio Scotland has launched an evolving archive that will hold recordings of all of Burns's works by Scottish actors.   Maddeningly, however, if one actually tries to listen, one gets the message, "not available in your area" (a regular topic of frustration regarding other pages, too). Fortunately, one can already download several podcasts.

Here's a backgrounder on the genesis and execution of the project.

No matter what the year, however, the day should be marked with a proper Burns Night dinner.  

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