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For Burns Night: debunking the conspiracies that surround Robert Burns

Tonight is Burns Night, when the world honours Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. Ahead of this celebration, Gerard Carruthers, lead educator on our free Robert Burns course and professor at the University of Glasgow, debunks the conspiracy theories that have haunted his legacy. 

A portrait of Burns by Alexander Nasmyth.
Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth.

Robert Burns has a rather myth-eaten corpse. After his death all kinds of weird and wonderful claims, rumours and conspiracy theories emerged. We’ve been told sensational tales by different biographers and editors that are often dubious to say the least. On Burns Night, it’s only right we put a few rumours to bed:

Robert Burns the alcoholic

Some have claimed Burns liked to hit the bottle, but for someone supposed to be addicted to booze he was remarkably efficient in his duties as an exciseman, farmer and militia volunteer.

Robert Burns the sexually diseased

It has been claimed in one book that Burns was ridden with an STD. As compelling as this might seem, the author has yet to provide any convincing evidence.

Robert Burns the victim of the British government

According to some, the British government set out to destroy Burns. In fact this myth seems to originate from the lurid, entertaining novel, The Clarinda Conspiracy (1989). It purports that the main government politician in Scotland, Henry Dundas, was jealous of Burns and wanted the writer dead.

To this end, the novel (subsequently believed by many to be an accurate account of things) suggests that Burns’s employment as a taxman was contrived by Dundas and his cronies. Why? So that the poet might be worked to death on his arduous tax auditing and collecting rounds (which he did by horse, often in filthy weather).

In fact, had the authorities wanted to ruin Burns, they simply wouldn’t have employed him in the first place, forcing Burns and his family into poverty. Although a work of fiction, The Clarinda Conspiracy makes some readers believe it is new research or even that it uncovers earlier, hidden history.

Robert Burns and the American rescue

Apparently Burns had friends in high places. The story goes that George Washington planned to send a ship to Scotland to rescue the poet at some point around 1795. This myth of Washington whisking away Burns emerges from at least the 1840s and there are probably a few reasons why it arises.

In general it seems to be a borrowing from the life of Burns’s contemporary, Thomas Muir. In 1793, Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation – after a trumped up trial on charges of sedition in Edinburgh, he ended up in Botany Bay, Australia. A year and a half or so later, Muir escaped aboard an American commercial vessel.

One might suggest that Muir’s story has been appropriated by ‘bardolators’ (excessive worshippers of a ‘bard’, in this case Burns), with the aim of amplifying Burns’s political status. The poet was most certainly in favour of the French Revolution and wanted more democracy in the British Isles. However, Burns was, as mentioned above, a volunteer in his local militia in Dumfries at a time when invasion by the French was very likely.

Robert Burns the great writer

The work of Robert Burns, and indeed his life, is interesting enough without those who want to overegg his status either as moral villain or radical hero. Our free online course, Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy, seeks to establish a sound – and we hope fascinating – foundation for those who want to explore Burns with an open mind. As with any great writer, there is also plenty of space for sensible debate and speculation.

Happy Burns Night!

If you want to discover more about Scotland’s bard, join the free online course Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy now.

Or get a sneak peak of what’s on the course: learn about the history of Burns suppers, find out how to address a haggis, or discover what Burns has to do with New Year’s celebrations.

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