Corpora and chronicles

As we approach the Christmas break, I’m busy getting a chunk of writing completed. I’m hopeful that within the next week it’ll be ready to submit for review, taking my total writing past the magic 50,000 words. This is a real milestone for me as it represented that halfway point for the thesis, the final version of which has to come in at a maximum of 100,000 words.

I had hoped to have this writing finished a fortnight ago but I got caught up in a little side project. It’s not uncommon for PhD students…we find something else we absolutely *MUST* do but really it’s an excuse for putting off what we *SHOULD* be doing…but this was an interesting angle on the project and it’s opened up some potential lines of enquiry and future work.

Over the summer, while I was working on exploring how Burns discusses his mental health in his letters, aiming to get a better understanding of how he viewed his disordered moods, I realised there were certain images and themes that kept popping up, in particular language relating to nature and the seasons. I wanted to look at this more objectively – is this just something I think I’m seeing or is there really a pattern here?

One way to explore this is through something called corpus linguistics. This uses a database (a corpus; pl. corpora) of all the words that appear in given text, allowing you do many things like count how many times a particular word is used or explore the text for several words relating to a given theme.

I know (or knew) nothing about corpus linguistics. Fortunately, I have a friend who does.

It is official – Natalie Finlayson has the patience of a saint! She’s spent countless hours over the past fortnight giving me a crash course in corpus linguistics and working with me to test my ideas.

This all came together yesterday when we presented our findings at the Corpus Linguistics in Scotland workshop in Glasgow. We focused on Burns’s use of references to the wind and to the seasons. Both of them showed strong associations with his discussion of mental health, particularly his episodes of lowered mood. He seems to be using language familiar to him from his farming background as a way of making sense of his moods and how they affect him.

It’s made us realise there’s lots more to be explored here, several different categories of words which could be examined more closely to give us a more detailed picture. We’re definitely going to follow some of this up in the coming year so watch this space!


The other excitement this week has been the publication of the 2018 edition of the Burns Chronicle. The Chronicle is the annual volume produced by the Robert Burns World Federation containing a wonderful mix of articles from all over the world, combining the work of those working in academia with that of the many, many non-academic enthusiasts who explore various aspects of the Bard’s life and works. A copy is Chronicle is sent to the whole of the Federation membership so it really does have an international reach.


Among  this year’s offerings, I ‘m proud to say, is my first print article. It’s a re-working of the paper I presented at the CRBS Annual Conference back in January which shares some of the findings of the first phase of the project which explored the evidence for Burns being affected by a mood disorder.


It’s lovely to see it in print and to know that it’s going to be read so widely. I hope it generates interest and debate around this fascinating area, increasing new awareness of some of the challenges Burns faced in his life.

And I hope it’s the first of many publications!