All good things…

…must come to an end, so the saying goes. And, unfortunately, the same is true of Blue Devilism. We’re not there yet but yesterday marked a significant milestone on the road to completing the project – my Year 3 Annual Progress Review.

It was a very positive experience, everyone is happy with the progress I’m making on the project and the results I’m generating, so I’m all signed off to continue into Year 4 (I am forever grateful for the luxury of a 4-year scholarship!)

But it was also bittersweet – I’ve set myself the target of Friday 25th January 2019 for submission of the thesis for examination, so it also means that this was my last APR. The next time I sit in a room with three senior people who’ve read my work in detail, I’ll be facing the grilling that is the thesis defence that marks the end of every PhD.

I’ve always enjoyed APR though – the process makes you reflect on what you’ve achieved in the past year and plan for the coming 12 months

And it’s been a very busy 12 months! I now have half of the thesis in first draft (with the aim of having a full draft by the end of September); I’ve been able to visit several different archives to access new material which adds evidence to the bigger picture of Burns’s mental health; I’ve presented at various conferences including our World Congress in Vancouver back in July; I’ve got another three conference papers in the pipeline, including another international conference (although it’s being hosted in Glasgow this year, so less jet lag involved!); I’ve had a substantial article published in this year’s Burns Chronicle, and I have another in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh due for publication in June; and I’ve been building collaborations with colleagues in other areas, including linguistics, to explore further ways of studying Burns’s life and work in relation to his mental health which we’re hoping to present at conference in France in November as well as publish in an appropriate journal.

So I think I’ve got plenty to be proud of there!

As well as reflection, APR involves submitting a substantial piece of writing for scrutiny.

This year, I submitted Chapter 4 of the thesis which focuses on Burns’s own understanding of his mental health, how he rationalised it in his head, how he felt about his moods, and how he handled the more severe episodes. It’s quite timely that APR fell during this week as it’s also Mental Health Awareness Week. Re-reading the chapter in preparation, I’ve had to think a lot about Burns’s own awareness, renewing my appreciation for the strategies he uses to manage his mental health. Many of his strategies which would not be unfamiliar today – having a particular friend he can turn to in the especially difficult times, using creative writing as an outlet to explore his feelings, getting out into the fresh air for some exercise. Burns is acutely aware of his mental health, especially his tendency towards lowered mood and depression. He restricts himself in who he discusses it with but he does talk about it.

Burns lived in a time where mental health issues were stigmatised. There was a certain fashion about melancholy, associated as it was with intelligence and a better class of person, so some people would put on melancholic airs to fit into this image, but real melancholy, what we would recognise as depression, was much riskier – it could land you in the asylum. (The idea of a thin line between madness and genius is a very old one!) So it’s no surprise that Burns was careful about how open he was – he wasn’t putting anything on and he feared what may happen (to him and his family) if people got the wrong idea about just how serious his condition was.

But that’s the whole point about Mental Health Awareness Week – it’s about getting people talking about the issues generally, even their own specific conditions if they feel comfortable doing so. It’s about bringing them out of the shadows and the shame, recognising them as being as valid as any physical condition that we wouldn’t think twice about discussing. And it’s about showing that mental health issues are only one aspect of any one individual’s character, not the defining feature.

While it’s wrong that Burns’s mental health has been largely ignored, it does mean it hasn’t shaped his public perception in the way it has for other writers. What that means is that he can now become (another) force for good in demonstrating the heights that can be achieved while living with a mental health condition.

If I can get to this point next year, and have people talking openly about Burns’s mental health, and thinking about their own, my job, in some way, will be done.



Tour of the archives

During his life, Burns undertook several tours of different areas of Scotland (even making it across the border to England at one point; his travelling companion reports that Burns promptly turned to face Scotland, fell to his knees and blessed him homeland by reciting the last two verses of ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’).

Not quite following in the bard’s footsteps, I undertook my own wee tour a couple of weeks ago, visiting three different archives that we work with in the course of our Burns research.

This turned into a week-long special feature for the CRBS Facebook page looking at the places I’ve been able to visit for my research relating to this project, and I thought it would be nice to bring them all together here.

So here we go:

Monday: Irvine Burns Club, Wellwood Burns Centre and Museum, Irvine, Ayrshire

Tuesday: National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Wednesday: Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Thursday: Irvin Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina

Friday: Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, Ayrshire

Burns and Mrs Dunlop

I spent Saturday at the always-enjoyable annual Centre for Robert Burns Studies annual conference. The main feature of the day was the launch of Murray Pittock’s two volumes on James Johnson’s Scots’ Musical Museum, the latest instalment of the the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century project, and certain to be valuable resources as I move into looking at Burns’s creative work.

Perhaps one of the more thought-provoking papers, however, was a re-examination of the nature of Burns’s relationship with Mary Campbell, more often known as ‘Highland Mary’. While the core of the paper was interesting in itself, what really caught my attention was the speaker’s somewhat negative take on the potential role of Frances Dunlop in a far-reaching and entangled web of Campbell conspiracy, and her relationship with Burns.

Having spent several months similarly exploring a re-framing of the friendship between Mrs Dunlop and the poet, I realised that my take was very different. As we approach Burns night, with thousands of suppers due to take place around the world, I’ve come to realised that among all the Addresses to the Lassies that will be delivered, Frances Dunlop will likely be largely neglected as one of those lasses. And yet, there’s an argument to be made for her being one of the most influential individuals in Burns’s life.

The friendship between Burn and Dunlop is, to my mind, unlike any other he maintained. She was nearly 30 years older than he, a widowed mother of 13 by the time they became acquainted, and of a different generation with very clear ideas about propriety. What they did share, though, was the painful experiences of melancholy.

Following her husband’s death, and loss of family lands due to her son’s financial mismanagement, Frances fell into a deep depression in the summer of 1786. As she emerged, she was gifted a copy of Burns’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Among the lines printed there, she found solace and encouragement; she particularly took comfort in ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, being so much moved that she wrote to Burns to express her admiration and order further copies of his volume to gift to friends.

From this letter grew a friendship that would survive until Burns’s death, ten years later, spanning more than two hundred letters and several visits by the bard to Dunlop’s home. As the formality softens across the first few letters, what becomes evident that the glue in their friendship is the shared experience of melancholy.

At the time, melancholy was a somewhat fashionable condition – being melancholic signalled you as a sensitive individual, marked you as intelligent, something special – so it was not uncommon for melancholic symptoms to be feigned. But in the same way that we might talk about feeling depressed now, it is often without a real understanding of what it means to be affected by the condition. In Dunlop, Burns had found someone who did understand.

Consequently, Burns writes to Dunlop more often than any other individual during times of abnormal mood. Over the course of their letters, we see them comfort and counsel each other through difficult times and episodes of melancholy (some of which we would now consider true clinical depression). As one critic puts it, Dunlop becomes Burns’s ‘‘friend, confidante, correspondent, critic, advocate and surrogate mother’. She offers support and guidance, she helps him come to terms with the nature of his disordered moods and their role in his creativity, she even offers some critical advice on new poetic compositions (not that he always takes her advice!).

Frances Dunlop is truly a fascinating woman, her relationship with Burns pivotal in his development as a person and a poet. And yet, she remains largely ignored in comparison to the other women in Burns’s life, probably because there’s no possibility of romance or scandal in their relationship.

Certainly a comment on where the focus of years of Burns studies has lain. Perhaps also a commentary of how society judges the value of a woman?

A fuller exploration of the Burns-Dunlop relationship with a focus on their mental health can be found here.

How time flies!

I realised on Friday that it’s been six months since I last posted anything to the blog. It came as a surprise that it had been so long but that probably gives you an idea of just how busy I’ve been that it’s taken me this long to notice.

So, here’s a quick round-up of progress with the project and what I’ve been up to for the past six months.


Research project

Having completed the huge undertaking of analysing Burns’s writing for the diagnostic phase of the project, I’ve been making in-roads into the examination of the impact of Burns’s moods in his life. This has particularly focused on exploring how Burns viewed and developed his understanding of his tempestuous moods. Probably the most interesting aspect of this has been exploring Burns’s friendship with Frances Dunlop. Almost 30 years older than Burns, what started as her admiration of the poet became a close and confidential friendship through the last ten years of Burns’s life. A key aspect of this is that it was to Dunlop that Burns wrote more than any other person when he was experiencing abnormal moods; in turn, she became a motherly counsellor for the poet, recognising his difficulties as she was affected by severe melancholy herself. Through their letters, you seen the older and more experienced Dunlop guide Burns in coming to terms with his own melancholy, helping him understand its place within his life (particularly in relation to his crerativity) and giving him a vocabulary with which he could better express his feelings. This use of language is something I’m going to be looking at more closely, helped by a friend who works in corpus linguistics, so we can take more analytical approach to the type of language Burns uses to talk about his moods.

Burns and Dunlop is a complex and fascinating relationship, so I’ll put together a post focusing specifically on that over the next couple of weeks.

Having looked at the ‘internal’ aspects of the impact of Burns’s moods, I’m now starting to look at the ‘external’ impacts – what role might they have played in affecting his behaviour and his decision-making? Is it possible to identify any potential connections between episodes of abnormal moods and key events in the poet’s life? How did those who knew him in life report his behaviour? Do their character sketches and accounts tell us anything more about how Burns’s observable actions might have related to (or contrasted with) the privately expressed mood states in his letters?

There’s a good 4 or 5 months work in that so I’m hoping to have it completed and written up by Easter.

Overall, however, the project is really starting to come together. I’ve been reading around some of the issues relating to retrospective diagnosis of historical figures, and around 18th century attitudes to melancholy and mental health more broadly, all of which feed into placing the project within the wider academic landscape as I write my thesis.



As well as the research work, I’ve been taking the opportunity to share it with both the academic community and the wider public. June saw me travel to Vancouver for the International Association for Studies in Scottish Literature’s World Congress (via New York to visit the Morgan Library which holds Frances Dunlop’s letters to Burns). I presented a paper on the relationship between Burns and Dunlop within the context of their mental health, as part of a panel of papers which all focused on aspects of the mind. It was well-received and gave me the chance to make some new academic friends, including one which has become a proposal for a panel for next year’s Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society’s international conference.

A few weeks later, I presented an expanded version of the paper for the Greenock Burns Club‘s research seminar. Founded in 1801, Greenock is the oldest of the Burns clubs, and a good friend to the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, so it’s always good to have a chance to share our work with them.

It was a beautiful day in Greenock so the wonderful setting of the Old West Kirk wasn’t too chilly for the great turnout of visitors from Greenock and other Burns clubs, as well as members of the general public who came along for the event. Special thanks have to go to the ladies who provided us with a very generous lunch spread, including some excellent home baking, and ensuring the tea and coffee was flowing as freely as the conversation.

My paper was very well received by the audience, with some great questions afterwards. Even more exciting, however, is that afterwards the President of the club asked me to deliver the Immortal Memory at their 2018 Supper. It’s a huge honour and somewhat daunting, but I’ve already got some ideas forming and I’m very much looking forward to the evening when it comes.

A couple of weeks ago, CRBS hosted a morning of talks for a group of very special visitors. A group of students who have all won prizes in Burns competitions journeyed, with teachers, all the way from St Petersburg in Russia. The visit was co-ordinated by the Glasgow and District Burns Association, allowing them to travel to several sites of Burns significance during their stay. Part of that included a visit to Glasgow University where they enjoyed a series of talks about the work of CRBS, including yours truly, a tour of the campus and lunch with the staff. It was a great morning, and it was lovely to have the chance to speak to teenagers again.


Other stuff

Alongside all this, I’ve got various side projects going on which take up some time but all work towards developing my research skills. I think the most exciting of these has been my involvement with the MOOC – massive, open, online course – a 3-week course which explores the life, work and legacy of Burns. I’ve been facilitating the discussions with the learners who come from a wide range of backgrounds and geographical locations; while it’s always good to have a chance to share my passion for Burns with others, it is genuinely good fun to interact with so many different people at once and to get outside the academic bubble. There will be another run in January and I’d love to see some of you join me there.


So there we have it – time has flown over the past six months but there’s been plenty to fill it. It’s cliched but I’m having a huge amount of fun with all the various tasks and responsibilities I now have.

But I do have to make the blog a more regular feature on that list.

Post-conference update

I am about three weeks later than promised with this post! I can only apologise and blame it on the busyness of the height of Burns season (lesson learned – promise nothing in January!)

Anyway, following on from my last post, the team were delighted by the pick-up of our Sunday Herald article printed on the 8th January (link goes to a PDF copy for those who can’t access the Herald online). The article was further picked up and re-printed online by The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun and the Evening Times newspapers, as well as websites in India and the USA. As a result, we received letters, emails and tweets from around the world. In a surprise turn of events, Monday afternoon saw me heading over to the BBC Radio Scotland studios at Pacific Quay for a live interview with Mhairi Stuart on that day’s NewsDrive show. (I’m waiting on a copy of the sound file but I will post it once it’s available).

Danny Smith then recorded a follow-up interview with Ricky Ross which was broadcast on Ricky’s Sunday morning show on the 15th January. You can listen to Danny talking about the project, mental health and creativity, and mental health awareness here.

The main event though, was the delivery of the full paper at the annual Centre for Robert Burns Studies conference on the 14th January. Again, the conference was wonderfully hosted by the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, although no snow this year!

I will admit to having been anxious about speaking. I was worried about getting my message across clearly, about the hype the media coverage may have generated, about the potential upset that may have arisen around tackling such a controversial aspect of the bard’s life.

CRBS Annual Conference 2017. The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!
CRBS Annual Conference 2017.
The sun was glorious but right in my eyes for the first 10 minutes!

But I shouldn’t have been. The paper was incredibly well received. I had some lovely comments from colleagues and delegates about my delivery and the clarity of the story I told. I had some powerful messages of support from people who are affected in some way by mental health issues, both in the resonance that Burns’s experiences have for their own lives and in talking openly about such issues in relation to such a public (and successful) figure. Colleagues spoke to me later of the many lunchtime conversations they overheard around the paper and, more importantly, around mental health issues.

There were intriguing questions, both in the panel discussion, and during lunch and coffee breaks, about Burns’s posturing within his letters, the clues that his poetry might hold and about the nature of the ‘Irvine episode’* These were particularly valuable as these are all aspects which later stages of the project will be exploring; thus, questions on these justify us including them in project plan and confirm that there is, and will be, ongoing interest in the project’s progress and findings.

And I’m reliably informed by Gerry and Danny that, as a result of the paper, they’re not going to get rid of me just yet. Everyone’s a winner!

I hope to be able to share some of the actual detail of the paper with you soon but we have to work within the rules for academic publishing which means getting it into a journal first.


And so, it was from one conference to another, and to a very different audience. Every year, the British Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nitrition (BSPGHAN) hold their annual meeting in a different location. This year, it was being hosted in Glasgow between the 25th and 27th January. Given the timing, having a Burns Supper for their Gala Dinner on the Thursday evening was the obvious option. I was delighted to have been asked by the organising team to deliver the Immortal Memory.

It was only after I had said ‘Yes’ that I actually thought about what my focus should be. 250 paediatricians, nurses, nutritionists, dieticians, pharmacists and scientists – not my usual audience and not likely to feel much of a connection if I stood up and talked about Burns’s mental health. Nevertheless, inspiration struck as I was reading the poet’s letters to and from George Thomson; I realised this in collecting, editing and preparing for publication songs and poems, Burns was undertaking a project in a fashion which would be recognisable by any researching academic.

And so, through the life of Burns, we shared the journey, the challenges and the pitfalls of collecting data, preparing for publication and seeking an outlet, of giving time and effort freely for a cause we believe in and, in the words of Burns, seeking ‘to wipe all tears from all eyes’. I’m told there were tears in the eyes of several people by the end, some of whom I’ve known for many years and are definitely NOT the crying type, so I think I hit the right note.


And finally, two more exciting bits of news.

I was delighted to be asked to attend the Hunterian’s Burns Night at the Museum on the 27th January. These nights are great fun, with atmospheric lighting, special exhibits and a non-stop whirlwind of pop-up talks and performances over the course of the 3 hours of the event. I was manning the CRBS stand so I had plenty of opportunity to chat with the public about the work of the centre, the new online courses being offered, and a little about my own work. A particular highlight was the event being opened by Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs; afterwards, she spent considerable time chatting with the team about various aspects of the Centre, including 20 minutes with me discussing the Blue Devilism project and the wider issues of mental health awareness. As an Ayrshire lass, she knows her Burns!

This week has also seen another project abstract be accepted, so in April, I’ll be heading down to Nottingham for ‘Reading Bodies, Writing Minds’, a one-day conference exploring various aspects of mental health within the field of medical humanities. I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “‘O wad some pow’r the gift tae gie us’: redefining the melancholy of Robert Burns’.


*This refers to the period in Burns’s life when, at the age of 22 Burns had moved to Irvine to learn the trade of flax dressing. He invested in a flax dressing business there but lost everything when the the business premises and everything in them burned down. This may have been one precipitating factor in a significant episode of illness, severe enough that Burns was attended five times over eight days by Dr Charles Fleeming, and that his father, William Burnes, should make the 10-mile journey from Lochlie to Irvine to visit his son. Burns writes about this episode in a letter to his father, dated 27 December 1781, and in the famous autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, now held in the British Library. It is variously suggested that the episode was a bout of the rheumatic fever which would damage his heart and lead to his early death, or a severe episode of mental disturbance resulting from the stress and shock of the loss of his investment. Of course, it may also have been neither or both of these….

Pre-conference publicity

Ahead of Saturday’s annual CRBS conference where I’m presenting the initial findings of the project, today’s Sunday Herald have run a great article on the project’s work so far.

Of course, I’m pleased to see coverage of what makes our project novel and interesting but I’m particularly delighted by the emphasis within the article about the bigger picture – raising awareness of and reducing stigma related to mental health issues.

Please do consider coming along to next week’s conference to hear the full story behind the article. I can also vouch for the excellent scones that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum serves.

I’ll blog again next week, about the conference generally but particularly about the reception and reaction to today’s article and the full paper.

First publication!

A little bit of excitement today with the publication of my first piece of project-related writing here.

Following my trip to South Carolina, I was delighted to be asked to write an article for Robert Burns Lives! to introduce the project to the website’s US readership. 

Curated by Frank Shaw, a passionate Burnsian and enthusiastic supporter of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, the RBL! pages are a mine of information on many aspects of the poet’s life and contain contributions from lay and academic experts from around the world – well worth a little exploration. 

It’s truly a special moment for me to be given a small space among them. Hopefully, it also marks the first of many project-related publications!
(Thanks go to Prof. Patrick Scott of University of South Carolina for his editorial support.)

Homeward Bound

Last week I posted from Glasgow Airport as I waited to head out to South Carolina, so it seems only right that I write again while I wait on the return flight.

It’s been a fantastic week, for me and for the project. I’ve been able to spend hours of really focused time working with resources not available in Scotland, such as Burns’s (allegedly) tear-stained letter to Clarinda and a range of pamphlets from the 19th century when phrenology (the study of the lumps and bumps of the skull to determine a person’s character and temperament) really was considered a science.

I’ve also had the chance to make new contacts with various people within the USC community, particularly Professor Patrick Scott (hugely knowledgeable on Burns, Scottish Literature and the wider literary field) and Dr. Elizabeth Sudduth (Director of the Irvin Rare Books and Special Collections, and passionate about all things bookish).

A particular highlight was finishing up yesterday with an impromptu tour of the Rare Books vault with Elizabeth, where they keep their most precious holdings. Shelves and shelves of Burns, Milton, Darwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway; bindings that are hundreds of years old, medieval illuminated manuscripts that have colours as fresh as the day they were added; an insight into the wonderful work that Elizabeth and her team undertake with students, particularly Honours students, to explore the collection and have them involved with valuable research on the texts; and some surprising items such as Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a cast of Burns’s skull. It really was a treasure trove, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit(s) where I can explore more of it.

Travelling solo has also meant lots of time to work without the day-to-day distractions/commitments of campus life in Glasgow. As a result, I’ve managed to finish a fairly major data-crunching task which seems to be showing some interesting results in relation to the mapping of Burns’s moods. This still needs a full analysis so more on this another time. I’ve also been able to work on a couple of side projects and write the first draft of a conference abstract which I hope to submit for next year’s World Congress in Vancouver.

However, more than the sheer pleasure of being able to immerse myself completely in research, the best thing about this week has been the welcome. The people of USC have been wonderful, more than willing to go for a coffee or a beer to chat about my work and start building new relationships. I’ve been overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of support, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Glasgow in coming months. For a new researcher, building these contacts is an important stepping stone to becoming established in a field and I feel I’ve made real progress this week.

I’m sad to be leaving it all behind, even though I know I’ll be back. As my first proper research trip, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to academic travel. These trips are what you make of them but the people of USC have made it so much easier.

But I am looking forward to being home again.


Burns’s letter to Clarinda (‘scuse the shadows)

Blue Devilism goes international

I’m writing this while I sit in the lounge at Glasgow airport, waiting for a gate for the flight that will take the project on its first international foray.

This week, I’m off to visit the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library, home to the largest collection of Burns related materials outside Scotland.

The trip is to be an exciting mix of establishing my own working relationships with people who are already good friends of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and various tasks relating to different aspects of the project – some work with manuscripts, texts dealing with Burns’s personality and biographies which shaped the way the poet was viewed after his death. There should be time for some sight-seeing too.

It’s an exciting prospect but a little daunting too. It’s going to be the longest and furthest I’ve travelled on my own, so there has been much girding of the loins in recent weeks. First impressions are always important, so I’m keen to give a good account of myself and the project, and show that it’s of the same high standard of anything from my Burns colleagues.

On the whole though, it’s a great opportunity that’s only come about through the project, so it’s something else I’m hugely thankful for, and I look forward to sharing it with you all next week.

One year on

On Monday, I received an email telling me it was time to register for the 2016-17 academic session. Which means it’s almost a whole year since the project officially started. This got me thinking about what this year has been – the progress, the achievements, the hurdles – and what the next year will bring.

First and foremost, this year has been fun. Whether it’s been getting to know Burns better or getting to know new colleagues, other PhD students or new contacts within the Burns community, I’ve loved being immersed in academia and in my subject.

All this means it’s also been a busy year – reading, writing, meetings, conferences, talks, workshops and seminars – the past 12 months have been pretty jam-packed with activity. And it’s all been juggled with the demands of family life (not to mention an house move this summer.)

However, it’s been a draining year – physically, mentally and emotionally tiring. Keeping the brain switched on to read an article or book chapter (usually several), ploughing on until a conference paper or talk is written, standing in front of an audience asking very helpful-but-challenging questions, laying the foundations of an academic profile, coming to terms with the demands of the academic role and the shift in how that fits in with the rest of my life (that’s been the really tricky one for me) – they all take their toll. It’s been important to have other things in life to provide a change of pace and focus, and accepting that taking time out can be more beneficial than just trying to push on.

But more than anything, it’s been a year of success! The project is well and truly off the ground, with a pile of work having gone into generating the first data relating to evidence of mood disorder in Burns’s letters. Thousands of words have been written, drawing together background reading, methodology, results analysis and forward planning. Important contacts have been made at various conferences and events. Exciting collaborations and side projects are being discussed and explored. And everyone seems happy with how things are going.

So here’s to the next year. Tomorrow will see me get my hands on some real Burns manuscripts for the first time (I am SUPER excited about this!). September is my first major research trip, taking me to visit colleagues at the University of South Carolina. Hopefully, we’ll see the first publication of work from the project and maybe another conference paper or two. And who knows what else….but I can’t wait!