Creative responses by women to the life and work of Robert Burns
For Burns Night, we commissioned Janette Ayachi, Victoria McNulty, Susi Briggs and Morag Anderson to write new poems reflecting on Robert Burns. We did not provide them with a specific brief for the commissions, although initial discussions touched on why Scotland continues to celebrate the bard, and how the writers felt about his legacy.
Below, you can watch a film of the poets reading their work in the library, and resulting conversations about what their research uncovered, and their reactions to one another’s poems . Susi was self-isolating, so she beamed in through the wonder of virtual technology.
The poets live in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfriesshire and Perthshire.
Victoria and Susi write and perform mainly in Scots language. Victoria was recognised as Scots Language Writer of the Year in 2021. Susi’s writing for children’s collections has been shortlisted for Scots Language Awards.
Janette and Morag write primarily in English. Janette was awarded Scotland’s Poetry Book of the Year in 2019 for her collection Hand Over Mouth Music (Pavilion: Liverpool University Press). Morag’s debut pamphlet, Sin Is Due To Open In A Room Above Kitty’s (Fly on the Wall), was met with critical acclaim.
The voices – and absence of voices in particular – of the women in the bard’s life, poems and ballads became a common thread in the commission responses, for example:
Jean Armour: ‘Hunger for a Fruited Thorn’ by Morag Anderson
Agnes Wilson: ‘The Unheard Testimony of Agnes Wilson’ by Morag Anderson
Agnes MacIlhose: ‘A Love Letter From One of Burns Women’ by Janette Ayachi
Muirland Meg: ‘Atween the Lines o Muirland Meg’ by Susi Briggs
Mary Campbell (‘Highland Mary’): ‘The Full Tenderness of Parting’ by Morag Anderson
Tibbie Dunbar: ‘O Rabbie, I hae seen the day’ by Susi Briggs
Other themes that are touched on by the poets include:
Burns’ ambition to go to Jamaica, ‘Flit’ by Victoria McNulty
Burns’ absence as a father and the resilience of mothers, ‘Hame‘ by Victoria McNulty
The robbery of Burns’ skull by phrenologists, ‘The Night Burns Skull Went for A Walk’ by Janette Ayachi
Burns’ poem ‘The Yellow Yellow Yorlin’ viewed by Susi Briggs as a rape fantasy in ‘My Yellow Yorlin’
Burns’ use of Standard Habbie in preserving the Scots language form in ‘Robert Burns in Scottish Stanza’ by Janette Ayachi
The Trysting Thorns were asked to reflect on the commissions. They replied as follows:
SUSI BRIGGS The more I delved into the works of Robert Burns, the more my lifelong perception of him became challenged. There is a deep incongruence between his poem The Rights of Woman and the other poems he wrote that I felt compelled to creatively react to in the Trystin Thorns project. Songs and poems such as Muirland Meg, The Yellow Yellow Yorlin and O Tibbie I Hae Seen The Day reflect something that I had not looked deeply at before in Burns' work. Here we have three women he wrote about in a way that was not at all flattering or equal to men. The women are depicted as too promiscuous or too prudish or too proud. Many would argue that these attitudes are of their time but the reality is, it is not. Here we are in the 21st century and women are still experiencing misogynistic responses from some men who feel they are entitled to their affections. I believe that Robert Burns the man and his poetic works are very hard to separate. After all, poetry and the self are very intertwined. There is such a deep love for Burns that it would be wrong for me to demand that that changes. I have not lost affection for him in any way myself but then I have never exclusively glamourised him. I grew up and still reside in Dumfries and Galloway where he spent most of his life. My childhood centred around learning his more romantic poems and songs in school. However, a lot of people in my community have often described him as a guid poet but an awfy man for the women. So, I was under no illusion that there was more to Burns than what was being packaged in a tartan ribbon for the masses.
MORAG ANDERSON In fulfilling the commission, I found it impossible to separate Burns the man from Burns the poet. It would have been dishonest to write in a way that did not reflect my disappointment in both. I chose to write in the voices of three women who featured in Burns' life and poetry - Mary Campbell (Highland Mary), Agnes Wilson, and Jean Armour. I wrote Hunger For A Fruited Thorn last, by which time I had tired of disappointment so decided to give Jean a stronger foothold in her courtship with Robert. I am glad that I did.
I struggle to understand the ongoing appetite for Robert Burns – he is more myth than man. I have had many conversations about Burns with friends and strangers since being commissioned to write about him and, almost without fail, he is regarded as a cheeky-chappy-who-liked-the-ladies. These conversations revealed the superficial nature of our relationship with Burns. I would like Scotland to remove the tartan blinkers and take an honest look at Robert Burns: celebrate that which is worthy of celebration but attend to the misogyny and abuse which is rife throughout his work.
VICTORIA McNULTY I gained a lot creatively. It's the first time I've been given brief that I could really play with. Engaging with work outside my comfort zone was really fun but also brilliant for my confidence as a writer. I think we should acknowledge what his work represents historically, value too intimate insight his writings give to his experiences and the world at the time. But to be honest, there are aspects of Burns' life and his personal behaviours that I'm uncomfortable celebrating. And equally uncomfortable brushing under the carpet. We should take lessons from his mistakes. Despite all my reservations about his work and his legacy I was surprised how connected I became to the humanity in his writing. He articulates things about the human condition we can all relate to.
Research is one of my favourite past times, I love learning new things so from this project I discovered that there was an alternate perspective to the way we as a people traditionally view the poet and his work, Robert Burns. And after filming together with the other female writers, having deeper discussion and sharing our findings and feelings, the roots of my research grew into a great tree. I may, one day, be inspired to plant a garden. I also trained myself to write in a new form, well old considering when it was last in fashion!, to mimic the style of our continuously celebrated bard and play around with the facets of language.
I love the fact that Scotland is the only country in the world that annually holds a holiday to pay homage to a poet, a festivity that also carries to other continents, I wish that never ever ceases to circle. But, maybe it’s time for another poet to take the throne, someone equally as talented; as genius, as revolutionary, as vocal and as passionate that we can send out as our reigning literary Alba representative! Despite Burns’ themes being universal, and his roots historical, with each generation there are upgrades and change to way we think outside of societal norms. The thing about popular culture is that it tends to the majority, the sheer number makes it mainstream, but the minority thinkers that swim the side streams should be allowed to colour in and showcase their ideals too.
ACCESSING THE POEMS
You can read and watch the individual poems at the following links:
The Gallant Weaver – read by Victoria McNulty