Socialist Worker

Reclaiming the radical poetry of Robert Burns

Jock Morris looks at a new book about Robert Burns in the year of the radical poet’s 250th birthday

Issue No. 2140

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

It’s official! The long battle to reclaim the legacy of Robert Burns has been won by the left, at least in the universities.

This new biography, Robert Burns, The Bard by Robert Crawford, proclaims this gleefully, citing new documentary evidence that Burns was part of a clandestine circle of republicans in Dumfries in the 1790s.

He remained a “staunch republican” till his death.

Crawford, a professor of Scottish literature at St Andrews university, says it takes a tin ear and a narrow mind to miss the radicalism in Burns’ poetry.

The attempt to hide the story of Burns’ life – particularly his involvement in the radical and republican movements of the 1790s – allowed his poetry to be sanitised.

Burns was incorporated into service for the empire and as tartan decoration for the tourist and entertainment industries.

We have been taught to believe that the French Revolution was popular in Britain but everyone turned against it as soon as the guillotining started. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1792, the defeat of reform bills in parliament, combined with the victories of the revolutionary French armies, inspired a huge popular rising for reform and a republic.

During this time Tom Paine’s book The Rights Of Man was a bestseller and strikes, demonstrations and riots broke out. People wore liberty caps and sang “Ça Ira”, the French revolutionary anthem.


Troops were mobilised to put down riots and three demonstrators were shot dead in Edinburgh.

A new Scottish section of the Friends Of The People group called a convention in Edinburgh – the radical wing of which saw it as the embryo of a parallel, democratic representative body that would grow to replace parliament.

A seriously scared government responded with a policy of war abroad against France and state terror at home. Republican workers lost their jobs and shopkeepers were boycotted.

The leaders of the convention were arrested and tried for sedition, most prominently Thomas Muir of Huntershill was sentenced to 14 years deportation to Botany Bay in Australia.

By now Burns was already a published and lionised commoner poet. He wrote poems and songs for the movement he supported.

However he was by this time an exciseman – a paid government officer. This was a contradictory position which compromised his freedom of speech and like many others, he was cowed into public silence.

Like many other poets at the time, his most famous political songs could not be published under his name.

“A Man’s a Man for a’ That” and “Scots Wha Hae” were seditious, even traitorous. To hold radical ideas was to be a traitor.

“Scots Wha Hae” was published anonymously to coincide with the trial of Thomas Muir. It uses the historical Scottish Wars of Independence as cover for an assault on tyrants and despots, and to demand liberty – the touchstone language of the American and French Revolutions.


Crawford’s excellent biography covers much more than Burns’ involvement in the politics of his time.

He deals incisively with Burns’ childhood, his patchy but effective education and his passionate involvement in the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Crawford describes Burns’ sharp, angry class consciousness of a born commoner making his living for the benefit of an idle gentry.

He’s thin on Burns’ and the movements’ connections with English radicals and doesn’t deal with the explosive situation in Ireland at the time.

But Crawford rightly acclaims Burns as a poet of the first rank and as still the best poet of democracy.

This book is thoroughly researched, well-written and very readable. Robert Burns, The Bard is a substantial contribution to rediscovering our hidden history.

Robert Burns, The Bard by Robert Crawford, £19.95, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. 020 76371848 »

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 24 Feb 2009, 18:21 GMT
Issue No. 2140
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.