Last Bad Language

Jack continues with a final look at Burns and Language –

Robert Burns as previously explained was a complex character, and we tend to see him from a modern point of view. He died aged 38 which isn’t terribly unusual for the 1700s, plus his medical treatment was completely inappropriate for what he likely suffered from (rheumatoid arthritis).

During his brief life he gained quite a reputation beyond his songs and poems. He was definitely a romantic and fathered a number of children by different women and his wife Jean Armour took on some of them. This was also not unusual then. However many of his songs show a real empathy for the situation of women in general, and despite contemplating taking a job on a plantation in Jamaica he also wrote a great song from the point of view of a newly arrived slave in Virginia. Yes – complicated!

He wrote songs and poems in support of the French and American revolutions, but ended up working for the British government as a customs officer. This led to his reputation as a drinker –

Back then if you apprehended a boat smuggling alcohol and you were in charge you could keep a share of the cargo, so it’s hardly surprising –

I think despite all his human failings he is loved and respected for a number of reasons:

  • He epitomized humanity including its failings.
  • He demonstrated empathy for all living things – women, slaves – mice and men.
  • His writings influenced important folk in Russia and in America during their significant growing pains.
  • He made people around the world curious about the Scots language and helped keep it alive.
  • He kept the notion of ‘Scottishness’ alive when it was in great danger of being subsumed into Englishness or even Britishness.
  • Almost everyone knows books and movies that borrow his words – ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ etc.
  • Every year at midnight on December 31st all around the world people of all countries sing the song he collected and added to.

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