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19th August 2011: 'Robert Burns: Shortbread Tin Icon, or Radical Subversive?' by Kevin Williamson

Kevin Williamson

During the Edinburgh International Festival of August 2012 twenty two talks were given at Leith on the Fringe at the Out of the Blue venue.  They were free and open to everyone

Name of speaker and subject:

Kevin Williamson on Robert Burns

Title of talk:

Robert Burns: Shortbread Tin Icon, or Radical Subversive?

Bullet points of what you would like to cover:

  • The Framing of Robert Burns
  • Robert Burns:  Not In My Name
  • The Scottish Terror
  • A Fickle Man?

Suggested you-tube links, websites and / or texts where

further information may be found:

Wikipedia: Kevin Williamson

Free Librivox Audiobooks: Robert Burns 250th Anniversary Collection

Burns Country Archive

Wikipedia: Robert Burns

A few words about you and your passion:

When asked ‘What is it you do?’ I’m usually stumped.  I don’t have a one-size label that fits.  I write and perform poetry.  My first published collection was ‘In A Room Darkened’ (in 2007). I have edited and published for many decades.  (Rebel Inc was one of my babies.  My current publishing project is Bella Caledonia.)  I have long campaigned for reform of the drug laws, and in 1997 published a book on the subject, Drugs & The Party Line.  In 2004 I helped open Scotland’s first cannabis cafe. Although not aligned to any political party these days, I was a founding member of the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998 and their national Drugs Spokesperson up to 2004.

Currently I am co-organiser and film curator of a monthly animation and poetry night in Edinburgh called Neu! Reekie!  And, for my sins, am currently elected National Secretary of the cross-party Scottish Independence Convention.  It’s an eclectic CV but there are common threads running through it.  These are invisible threads which, I believe, can also be discerned running through the life and work of Robert Burns, so essentially these are my credentials for engaging with The Radical Burns: first and foremost as an admirer of his work, of course, but also as a fellow poet and Scots radical.

The poetry and songs of Robert Burns have been with me, and around me, for as long as I can remember.  Like most folks my first encounter with Burns was as a child, after the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay.  This is when friends and strangers, all across the world, hold hands and sing his famed anthem to friendship, ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  After this initial encounter he became the ubiquitous tartan clad face on tourist gifts and short bread tins.  A background figure.

But as I grew more interested in Scots poetry and radical politics I became increasingly aware that something important was being left out of the picture.  The Robert Burns who is celebrated annually on the 25th January is often a mere wraith of the real life human being who once loved and celebrated without restraint, who wrote so poetically, and with such passion, who spoke out against injustice and war, and who died in 1796, at the tragically young age of just 37.

I see Robert Burns as an important Scottish dissident voice, a prototype democrat, an idealistic patriot, as well as poet and maker of songs.  From the language he used to the ideas he tried to communicate, it is difficult to over-estimate his impact on myself and on so many other Scottish writers and radicals.  It is the rock on which so much has been built.  I would like to see the radical democratic spirit become inseparable from the familiar image of the man; just as the two constructs are forged together in our collective memory of other radical Scottish poets such as Lord Byron, Hugh MacDairmid, or Edwin Morgan.

A few lines about the history of your subject:

The life of Burns was one of high drama, this can’t be underestimated, but the backdrop to his life was even more so.  It was an age of Empire and War, Revolution, Industrialisation, and Enlightenment.  Scotland, surprisingly, for so small a nation, was rocked and shaped, and itself helped shape, all of these.

Yet few Scots know much about the radical subversive aspect to Burns’ life and work.  Nor indeed the times he lived through, including a time of great hope followed by great repression near the end of Burns’ life.  It is this aspect of Burns that I’d like to speak about.

Anything else you may want to say

I am also trying to engage with Burns’s radical verse – through performance – in ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ which is on in August at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Interpreting Robert Burns’ radical 18thC verse to perform to a 21stC audience has been a challenge in itself. I’ll speak about this.  And perhaps perform some verse!

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