Robert Burns's Legacy from an American Perspective
Few other figures in Scottish history have been put into national service as dramatically as Robert Burns, whose influence since his death has been constant in Scottish culture. His image gracing book covers, shortbread tins, plates, ties, and tea-towels, Burns continues to serve as an icon for generations of Scots. His legacy is literary and commercial, national and international; for much of the world beyond Scotland, he continues to evoke "Scottishness," for good or ill. However, much of the current debate over Burns's legacy within contemporary Scotland has centered on the preservation of his birthplace, a cottage in Ayrshire which has faced (in the words of Toby McDonald) both a "watery threat" and a "cash crisis" (Scotland on Sunday 20 Jan 2002). Discussion of Robert Burns's legacy in the pages of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday over the last four years has been almost exclusively focused on this "cottage crisis."
Scotland's poor stewardship of Burns's birthplace has provoked numerous indignant responses, particularly concerning the damage of key items (such as the family Bible) from damp and mould. Conditions in the eighteenth-century cottage have been less than ideal for the preservation of manuscripts in particular, and several important texts (including "Scots Wha Hae" and "Tam O'Shanter") have been removed. The Burns National Heritage Park, which manages the cottage and adjacent properties, attributed the neglect partly to a ten-percent drop in visitors (which in the words of director Nat Edwards, "really hammered us"), as well as to a dire need for more extensive funding and renovation: again, in the words of Nat Edwards, "Unless we can raise... money [for renovation], I seriously think we will have to question the viability of our stewardship of this very important piece of heritage" (Scotland on Sunday 20 Jan 2002).
For many commentators, the condition of the Burns Cottage mirrors Scotland's shabby treatment of its national poet. In a long piece entitled "Our heritage in ruins," Richard Gray makes this point abundantly clear in his subtitle alone—"The failure of the £7m Burns Cottage project has cast a spotlight on how Scotland's apathy and indifference is shamefully squandering the legacy of our greatest poet" (Scotland on Sunday 26 Dec 2004). Echoing Gray's sentiment is again Nat Edwards, director of the Burns Cottage, who states that "Burns is a national poet and a national treasure, and we are neglecting it. Now we are paying for that neglect" (Scotland on Sunday 20 Jan 2002). Perhaps, one should say not paying for the neglect, a theme of many arguments. Many of Scotland's most noted national artists have appealed for the restoration of the cottage; Scots Makar Edwin Morgan observed that "the responsibility falls on those who have power, like the Executive," wryly adding that "Burns is by no means a peripheral figure who has little significance" (Scotsman 26 Dec 2004). Insofar as Burns has significance for contemporary Scots, he appears to have become the synecdoche of his own cottage—the part no longer stands for the whole, but the other way around.
As an American scholar primarily interested in Burns, I am rather perplexed at this chapter in the afterlife of a celebrated poet. How did the poet's physical birthplace, memorably described by Burns as "an auld clay biggin," assume such importance in the poet's legacy? Why does its present condition reflect so strongly on Burns's role in Scottish national heritage? These simple questions are actually rather difficult to answer, but a good place to begin is (as always) with money. In the early twenty-first century, Burns represents a major financial asset that generates considerable revenue; as stated by Angus Howarth, "Robert Burns is contributing £3m a week to the Scottish economy more than 200 years after his death" (Scotsman 21 May 2005). In fact, despite a "brand value" of £157m a year, a report by the Moffat Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University concluded that "Robert Burns has yet to be embraced by a population who remain distant from their national literary figure" (Scotsman 21 May 2005).
Andrew Borthwick appears to confirm the Moffat Centre's finding, claiming that Burns has been "lost on a generation" who don't see the reason for celebrating Burns Night. Noting that it could be "easier to repackage and market Burns night" by inviting Scottish celebrities to perform at events sponsored by drinks brands, Borthwick admits that "apparently there is something off-putting about Burns" (Scotsman 25 Jan 2005). The cottage crisis is merely the most visible symbol of Scots' failure to "embrace" Burns's legacy, itself perceived as a symptom of nationalist indifference and malaise. In a memorial for the 2005 Burns Night edition of Scotsman.com entitled "Scotland's national bard," Diane MacLean began by quoting J.S. Blackie: "When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland" (26 Jan 2005). I think the type of forgetting meant by Blackie is shared by contemporary commentators: that is, Burns's posthumous celebrity must be prolonged to remind Scots of their "true Scottishness." Never mind that Burns himself was unclear on this question himself: witness the continuing debate about his identity in The Scotsman as "a complex and in many ways sophisticated man," a far cry from his image as a "heaven-taught" ploughman (21 Jan 2006).
Certainly no one can accuse Scots of ignoring Burns (after all, his works have been constantly in print since his death in 1796), and the poet's iconic status was without doubt formed shortly after his death. His life, works, and image have been promoted and literally used for over two hundred years by nationalists, socialists, conservatives, radicals, Christians, ad infinitum. This is a quality shared by Burns's only major British competitor in the popular cultural sphere, Shakespeare; like the Bard of Avon, the Scottish Bard invites never-ending speculation and controversy from scores of readers. Burns's afterlife has been as fractious in many ways as his last decade, the 1790s; invoking Robert Burns means staking a claim and defending territory. As Kenneth Simpson remarked, "everyone has a handle on Burns. The problem is when people then say, 'My Burns is the only Burns,' whether they're freemasons, radicals, socialists" (Scotsman 21 Jan 2006).
To return to the cottage: how does the continuing debate over Burns's legacy relate to his birthplace exactly? I think at heart the controversy involves revitalizing the Burns "brand value" by fostering enthusiasm and funding for a "heritage trail" similar to those in England. With the 2009 Year of the Homecoming approaching rapidly, plans for Scottish tourism centered on Burns are understandably focused on destination sites for Burns-specific visitors. The funding issue at the Burns Heritage Park should indeed be addressed at the governmental level; prior to the debate, the park received no government funding. It is now in line to receive a £10m make-over on a "very tight timetable" (Scotland on Sunday 7 May 2006). Another key feature of the current revitalization plan has focused on the need for a national body to coordinate various Burns-related sites, in order to counter "the piecemeal approach to the legacy of one of Scotland's greatest cultural icons" (Scotland on Sunday 15 Oct 2006). Both aspects of the revitalization plan are commendable and necessary to promote tourism and in turn, produce future funding.
What might the ultimate goals and outcomes of the "cottage crisis," if the current plan is in fact successfully applied? Organizers have not been particularly shy about their model; the actual plans for the renovation of the Burns Cottage are based on Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home in the Lake District. The renovation of Dove Cottage, described as a "massively successful revamp," has yielded impressive results: annual visitor numbers of 70,000 and the opening of a £3m research center (Scotland on Sunday 3 Jul 2005). The attractiveness of the Lake District has certainly aided the success of Dove Cottage, but Wordsworth's literary legacy is also capably safeguarded for visitors, with climate-controlled holdings of 59,000 Wordsworth-related items (Scotland on Sunday 3 Jul 2005). A comparable design for the Burns Cottage would not only enhance its tourist potential, but more importantly, allow for his literary legacy to be securely protected and preserved. The debate over Burns's role in Scotland may be irresolvable, but his heritage must be tended carefully for all future readers of Burns, Scottish or otherwise. If it takes a heritage trail to lead us to this conclusion, so be it; let us hope the "auld clay biggin" can continue to house the legacy of Burns.
Corey E. Andrews