I had planned to have this entry posted more than a week ago but, surprisingly, the intended content has given me more to think about than anticipated.
Working in Burns studies is a little different to other academic fields, in terms of the engagement we have with the public. There is a worldwide network of enthusiasts and lay researchers, underpinned by the hundreds of Burns clubs, who are a vital resource for those of us working in the academic setting. The Burns community is, to my newcomer’s eyes, also one where everyone know everyone else. Go along to any event and there are hearty handshakes, friendly greetings and, as we approach January, discussion of who is delivering which toast at the many suppers which will be taking place.
So no-one was more surprised than me when, back in July 2017, I was asked to deliver the Toast to the Immortal Memory for Greenock Burns Club at their 2018 Annual Celebration. Greenock is known as ‘The Mother Club’, being the oldest of all Burns Clubs, founded in 1801 and hosts of the very first Burns supper. The Immortal Memory is intended to be a personal celebration by the speaker of some aspect of Burns’s life or works, and is one of the centrepieces of any supper.
However, not content with conferring the prestige of delivering the memory for the oldest club, Greenock also confer the honour of installing their speaker as honorary president of the club. You only need to take one look at this list of luminaries to realise why my delight quickly turned to terror! There are big names from literature, academia and all areas of Scottish public life – how was I going to write something that would do justice to both the memory of the bard and the people who had come before me, while also being the ‘something different’ that Club President Jamie Donnelly had requested? To my mind, I simply didn’t belong on that list.
But, in that funny way that my mind works sometimes, this idea of belonging became the theme of my memory. It’s something I’ve done a lot of thinking about since I made the decision to return to university – the idea of fitting in as a career-changer, as someone who has a good ten years on many of my fellow PhD students, as someone looking to come into such a tight-knit group as the Burns community – would I be good enough to live up to the expectations of all these various people?
This was, I realised, something that Burns also tussled with. The farm boy from Ayrshire, educated but not in the way a son of the gentry would have been, already castigated by his community and his church for various transgressions, trying to make an entry into the literary circles of Edinburgh – seat of Enlightenment knowledge and learning – and demonstrate that he was deserving of the praise and attention being heaped upon him.
We see him write in various letters about his concern that people had an inflated sense of his poetic talent, that it did not merit the compliments being paid, that it would not meet the expectations of these judges of cultural tastes. He writes about his anxieties of being subjected to the glare of the spotlight that fame would shine on him, that the roughness of his rural manners and the faults of his character would be dragged out for everyone to comment and criticise.
Underpinning all this, however, is a love of what he does and a determination to carry on doing it. He keeps writing poetry, he keeps collecting and editing songs for Johnson and Thomson – anything to allow him to flex his creative muscles and share it with the world.
It’s only with hindsight, something Burns’s early death prevented him from benefiting from, that we see that his anxiety and uncertainty was misplaced, that he does belong on the list on great poets of the Scottish and English languages.
But thinking about Burns and his own sense of belonging has also allowed me to think about my own. Like Burns, I love what I do and love sharing what I do; there will always be critics and detractors but I shouldn’t give up for fear of what they might say. Far more numerous are those who support and are interested in my work, not least those who make up the Burns community. As far as they’re concerned, sharing their love of the man and his work is enough to make me one of them. Just as Edinburgh society took Burns into their midst, faults and foibles and all, so too have Greenock Burns Club taken me into their embrace, risky as it might have been.
And I can’t think of a better embodiment of Burns’s sentiments of universality than that.