A few weeks back I went along to Glasgow University to the Robert Burns Centre to meet Gerry Carruthers, or Dr Gerard Carruthers, Reader in Scottish Literature and Head of the Department of Scottish Literature. A Clydebank lad, I've known Gerry for a very long time, as we did a lot of work together in the mid 80s promoting the local music scene with the Clydebank Bands Promotion Group, and he's also a long-standing friend of the Byrne family.
Every so often our paths have crossed over the years - usually at weddings and other social gatherings and for a long time Gerry has been on my list of possible candidates to join our local characters with regard to his distinguished academic career. It now seemed a very appropriate time to pin him down with with this being the Homecoming Year, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Scotland's national poet so I popped along to his base at University Gardens to hear all about his work.
I was keen to know why Gerry was fascinated by Burns in particular, and he gave me many reasons. Firstly, pointing out that it was his opinion that "Burns was the greatest songwriter that Scotland ever produced". His interest in Burns grew when he carried out research for his Ph.D (?The Invention of Scottish Literature During the Long Eighteenth Century?)at the University of Strathclyde in the 80's, when he became enthralled by Burns' poetry, his songwriting, the reasons for his popularity, the man, his views and his academic ability. He spoke about the universal popularity of Burns' work, how it was "approvingly received' throughout the world in places as diverse as the deep south of USA and St Petersburg in Russia. However, he explained that his respect was not only for Burns' poetry and songs and that his fascination with Burns was also as "a great sympathiser to humanity".
Gerry is, of course, an expert on the work of Burns and he supervises PhD. students carrying out research into various aspects of the poet's work. He introduced me to one of his Ph.D students, Pauline, who had chosen for the subject of her thesis 'Burns and Bawdry'. Plenty of material for Pauline to sink her teeth into there as this was certainly an element of his work. I am no Burns' scholar but we had a wee chat about 'Tam O'Shanter', which is a poem I love, and we all agreed that the poem in a very comedic fashion was successful in 'taking the piss out of men'. However, Gerry, pointed out that simultaneously Burns created very sympathetic characters.
We also talked a bit about the amazing appeal of the song 'Auld Lang Syne' and both Gerry and Pauline were familiar with Rod Paterson, the Scottish singer, whom I had recently heard performing the song at Partick Folk Club. Rod's rendition of Auld Lang Syne with its universal appeal was really pretty breathtaking. The event in Partick was quite a contrast to another celebration we attended at The Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow, where there was a Jamaican Burns Supper with Sly and Robbie and Edward 7th performing Burns numbers reggae style.
A few weeks later at another gig Dave Arcari gave a rendition of Burns' song 'Parcel of Rogues in a Nation' in his guitar-driven alt blues style. You feel that no matter where you go that there is a chance that Burns'songs and poetry are might crop up. He certainly inspires many 21st century musicians but his influence doesn't stop there and the work of artists, sculptors and architects can also be linked to Burns. (See Fickle Man: Robert Buyrns in the 21st Century. Editors: Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers.
There is no doubt that his impact has been immense and people are familiar with Burns the world over; he is romaticised, criticised as a womaniser and is surrounded by many myths and controversy. He is also viewed as a man of the people, however, as Gerry is very keen to point out, he was also a most unique and gifted man, very worthy of academic attention.
I certainly learned a lot about him; that in his work, and through his connections, Burns demonstrates that "there is more than one way to be Scottish". His voice may be believed to be that of the people and Gerry agrees that in some ways this is true but he emphasises that "first and foremost Burns is a literary writer". He also points out that: "his biography is as interesting as his work". Burns' interest in the world about him was intense and his views unfettered by popular opinion and prejudice. He pokes fun at Calvinism, he was an admired of Adam Smith and sympathetic to the French Revolution and the Jacobites. He was a man open to ideas, who "did not care where people came from". In one of his articles 'Robert Burns Lives', Gerry presents the view that "Burns is a poet remarkably intelligent in his cultural radar" http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives35.htm. "It's astonishing to remember that this was a man who never had the vote".
I could have stayed at the Burns Centre all day hearing Gerry's views of the Bard and in my short visit I learned a lot. I was thrilled to be allowed to hold a beautiful goblet that was owned by Burns and gifted to the University. Another recent donation to the Burns Centre was a copy of the 'Kilmarnock Edition' (1976), one of only 70 copies, it originally cost three shillings - recently a copy was auctioned in America for 84,000 dollars.
I could have stayed all day but a trail of people came to the door while I was there and the demands of work are high. Gerry has just finished the proofs for a collection of essays, The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Burns (collection of essays by various hands published by Edinburgh University Press, to appear in August). He has started a book on 18th century Scottish Poetry and "work is seriously under way on the Burns edition", The multi-volume Oxford University Press Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, of which he is General Editor.
The whole discussion with Gerry was fascinating and I loved my visit to the Burns Centre, which I believe that under the direction of Gerry Carruthers, can only go from strength to strength.
I wholeheartedly agree with his view that there is "no easy or single way of being Scottish" but it had never occured to me that Burns poetry and songs illustrated this so well.
I was a fan of Burns before but now I am really hooked. If I wasn't so busy I'd be signing up for some of his courses.
Pat Byrne, April, 2009