Mood disorder in the personal correspondence of Robert Burns: testing a novel interdisciplinary approach

It’s all a hive of excitement here today!

Friday saw the publication of the first peer-reviewed results of the project, where we’ve laid out the method we’re using to explore Burns’s letter and other writing as a sources of evidence relating to his mental health. Peer review is incredibly important in the research world – other academics not involved with the project (and with their identities anonymised in the review, called blinding) have read and reviewed the work and agreed the results are important enough to include in the academic literature. It’s a process that essentially props up the whole research landscape and is largely done by researchers in their own time and for no payment, so huge thank you to our reviewers, whoever you are.

As happens with many exciting research projects in the university, the Communications office have issued a press release and it’s generated lots of interest. As well as the BBC, various newspapers have picked it up and posted it on their websites, I’ve done a couple of interviews for the radio and this afternoon, I’m off to the STV studios at Pacific Quay.BBC 120618

It’s great to see so much interest in the project, and to have a chance to talk about what else we’e found since this particular phase of work was undertaken (this was done back in 2016 but it takes a while to write an article and get it through the peer-review process to publication). We’ve now completed a review of all the letters to and from Burns, added in further evidence from those who knew him in life, and created a mood map of the last 10 years of his life.

The current work is laying key events on Burns’s life onto that map to explore how his different mood states may have influenced (and been influenced by) what was happening at the time. It’s an intense process, and takes time to make sure it’s done properly but it’s throwing up some VERY interesting suggestions of influence. These in turn will feed into the analysis of Burns’s creativity that will mark the final phase of the project.

The project really is a new perspective on Burns and it’s great to be sharing it with a much wider audience. Work on the next article will begin soon (although it might be a while before it gets through to the process!)


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 belonging

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.

Top table
Greenock Burns Club 2018 Annual Celebration Speakers and Performers

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.

Badge 6
I also get a certificate which lists all the past Honorary Presidents – it’s still a really scary 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?

Memory 4
I’m sure I’m asking “What am I even doing here?”

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.

Badge of office
Burns bling – my much-treasured badge of office



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.

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!

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.

Degrees and doctorates

It’s been a while since my last post and I’ve been fairly quiet on Twitter lately, so a project update is definitely needed. And there’s no better time than now as we celebrate a significant milestone – last week I submitted the first draft of the first full chapter of my thesis for review by Gerry and Danny.

At 22,500 words, it’s big (the other chapters will probably be in the region of 10,000 words), and it’s been a long time coming, but it does cover the 15 months of work that has gone into analysing Burns’s letters for evidence of mood disorder. Quite simply, the rest of the project can’t happen without it, so the time taken to get it right is time well-invested.

But that’s not the only reason I’ve been quiet lately and not the only milestone I’m celebrating. Almost five years ago, and with much apprehension, I took up taekwondo; this weekend, I finally achieved my 1st degree black belt.

Trust me, no-one is more surprised at this than I am! I never expected to stick it out so long or to make it so far, so it really is a huge achievement for me.

As I’ve been preparing for grading, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the connections between my taekwondo training and my research work. They have a lot in common: they have both been new starts for me; I’ve come to them both later in life than many others; the end goal of both (or what you think it is the end goal) takes a long time to reach and you don’t realise how much work it takes until after you’ve done it.

What has resonated with me most though are the tenets of taekwondo – courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. The more I thought about them over the past few months, the more I realised that just as they worked in getting a creaky old thing like me through to black belt, so too do they help in getting me closer to a doctorate.

For those who don’t know, taekwondo is a Korean martial art created in the 1950s by General Choi Hong Hi. Literally translated, it means the ‘art of the hand and the foot’. But the –do of taekwondo – the art – isn’t just about learning how to perform the moves and use them correctly. It’s also about a way of thinking. Within taekwondo, this is defined by the student oath, the first line of which is a promise to observe the tenets.

So, to celebrate my first chapter and my first degree, I thought I’d share a little of my thinking – what do the tenets mean in my taekwondo and how they connect to my research life.


This is about treating those of a higher grade with respect – bowing to instructors at the start and end of classes, thanking them for teaching points, addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’, turning up to class on time.

And the same is true of research – you treat those with more knowledge and experience courteously. You never know when you might need their help or find yourself collaborating with them or have them sitting on your viva panel. However, the idea of courtesy should extend to everyone; regardless of their position or status, others can bring valuable skills and knowledge. Things can be achieved much more easily if people don’t think of you as rude or abusive or difficult to work with. So it’s courtesy that always makes me double-check that email before I send it – is the tone appropriate? Is my request reasonable? Am I asking someone to take time out to find me an answer when I could do it myself?

Besides, what goes around, comes around – you want to be treated courteously too.

(Although I might draw the line at bowing when I go for supervision meetings!)


This is about knowing right from wrong, acting appropriately, and being able to admit guilt when you’ve been wrong. In class, it might be apologising when you’ve been too rough during sparring, being honest when critiquing a fellow student’s performance, admitting you’ve not learned your theory or practised your patterns at home.

In research, integrity is a fundamental requirement. Peers expect that your work and your results are reported and represented honestly and accurately. It’s the assumption of integrity that gives research-generated knowledge its value. It might be about calling out the failure of others’ integrity (hopefully not something I’ll ever have to do!) It can be a difficult path to tread – sometimes it involves admitting a hypothesis is flawed, that a methodology doesn’t work, that results don’t show what you wanted. But it’s a much better personal reflection to admit these things that to try to fudge it to get the data you want…you’ll always be found out in the end.


Perseverance is all about patience and sticking with things. It’s the grind, the hard work for the small gains. For me, this is always true when I’m learning a new pattern in class. It takes a while for me just to get the basic sequence of movements memorised. Then I have to start refining the small details. I’ll never be perfect but I can always be better if I keep working at it, one step at a time. For me, this is the most important of the tenets – it’s the ‘one step at a time’ approach that has got me through to black belt.

The same has been absolutely true of producing this first thesis chapter I’ve submitted. Fifteen months is a long time to spend on one aspect of a doctoral project, especially when you’re looking to complete in less than 4 years. And there were times where this was VERY difficult – three rounds of analysis, looking back over the same letters repeatedly, refining the results. Again, it was all about ‘one step at a time’, breaking it into manageable chunks, whether it was getting a particular group of letters done or a particular section of the chapter written. Perseverance got me there in the end. And perseverance will get me through to completion.


Within taekwondo, each belt colour also has a symbolic meaning. The red belt, which comes before black, symbolises danger. It warns the opponent to stay away but also cautions the student to exercise self-control. Learning taekwondo isn’t just about learning how to perform the techniques but also when to perform them. Losing control turns you into a scrapper, a street fighter, rather than a trained martial artist. (Although if anyone has seen me spar, this distinction is quite dubious…sparring is probably my least favourite bit of training.)

In research life, it’s self-control that underpins being self-directed, developing the discipline to set your own targets and work towards them under your own steam. It’s also self-control that’s got me through my first attempt at submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal – tightening the writing up to squeeze what could have been 8000 words into a 5000-word limit; not taking the reviewer comments (too) personally, putting in the extra hours to revise the article and respond to those comments. And it’s definitely self-control that is stopping me chewing my fingernails down to the quick as we wait for a final decision. (Fingers crossed we’ll hear back soon and it’ll be good news!)

Indomitable Spirit

Indomitable spirit is about not giving up, about getting back on the bike when you fall off, even if lying on the ground seems much more attractive. Never has this been truer that with my grading at the weekend. The final thing I had to do was break a board with a side kick. I’d done it plenty of times before in class, but a combination of nerves and exhaustions (we’d already spent 12 hours training across the weekend before the grading) meant I failed to break three times. A step to the side, a few deep breaths, and a stern talking to myself about how disappointed I would feel if I didn’t do this led to success on the fourth attempt.

Time and patience and determination had got me through the grading and secured me my black belt. It’s been difficult journey but I’ve shown myself that I can do it.

In comparison, finishing the research and turning out a 100,000-word thesis seems like a walk in the park.

World Bipolar Day: Blue devils and mad tornadoes

In my paper presented at the January Burns conference, for the first time, I shared some of my research that points fairly strongly to Robert Burns having been affected by bipolar disorder in his life.

Since today is World Bipolar Day, established to bring awareness and work towards the elimination of stigma associated with the condition, I thought it would be a great chance to write a little more about what bipolar disorder is and how it affected Burns’s life.

I’ve been tweeting snippets through the day (on @bluedevilism) but this fills out the picture.

So…bipolar disorder…what is it? It’s one of the group of conditions known as mood disorders (along with recurrent depression and cyclothymia). It’s characterised by episodes of abnormally lowered mood or abnormally elevated mood. People affected by Type I bipolar will experience depression and mania – severe elevation of mood which can include delusions and hallucinations, and severely impairs daily life; Type II bipolar disorder also has depression but alongside less severe hypomania (this is the type Burns was likely affected by).

Organisations such as Bipolar Scotland are a great source of additional information about both types of bipolar disorder, support for people and their families who are affected by a bipolar diagnosis and details of other organisations who can help. Well worth a look!

So what can we say about Robert Burns and bipolar disorder? Well, eventually, quite a lot. It’s really taken the past 18 months just to sift through all his letters and personal writing, exploring whether there was enough evidence to come to a conclusion about a possible diagnosis. Work is ongoing to add in further evidence that comes from his friends and family, and I’m also now starting to properly explore the impact that Burns’s mental health has on his life.

But even now, at this relatively early stage, it’s clear that both his depressed and elevated moods had an impact on his life and his creativity.

Sometimes we see Burns in particularly dark places. He perfectly captures the despair that is characteristic of his depression when he writes to Agnes McLehose:

“Sick of the world, and all its joy,

My soul in pining sadness mourns:

Dark scene of woe my mind employ

The past and present in their turns.”

(20th January 1788)

But at other times, he proudly declares his brilliance in grandiose language that captures the energy and high spirits of his hypomania:

“By all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

(To Gavin Hamilton, 7th December 1786)

Most of the letters written by Burns that still exist were written in the last 10 years of his life, so this is the window of time that I’m focusing on, and within this period there are several episodes of both depressed and elevated mood. Through his letters, it becomes clear that, as well as affecting his day-to-day life in terms of how much work he felt capable of undertaking (if any! There are some depressions which leave him unable to get out of bed), Burns’s moods also affected his creativity.

This is an aspect I’m particularly interested and will be spending some time exploring in more depth. And the starting points will be Burns’s own words.

To his mind, he sees his depression reflected in his poetry:

“I am so harassed with Care and Anxiety…my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wench that ever picked cinders.”

(To Robert Cleghorn, 31st March 1788)

But also realises that at its most severe, it can silence his Muse altogether:

“I have, all this winter, been plagued with low spirits & blue devils, so that I have almost hung my harp on the willow-trees.”

(To James Johnson, February 1794)

In contrast, his hypomania can be a tinder spark, heightening his senses and his creativity, irresistibly driving his to new compositions:

“My passions when once they were lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme.”

(To John Moore, 2nd August 1787)

There are tantalising hints that Tam O’Shanter, the poem that Burns himself felt was his finest piece of work, came, at least in part, from just such a raging passion.

But in writing these words to John Moore, Burns also shows us that he had an awareness of the variations of the moods that he experienced. Other letters also show that he had a sense of not being on control of them, that the instability was something that wasn’t always related to whatever else was going on in his life. At one point, he tries to rationalise it as an effect of the moon:

“For me, I am just the same will-o’-wisp being I used to be. – About the first, and fourth quarters of the moon, I generally set in for the trade-winds of wisdom; but about the full, and change, I am the luckless victim of mad tornadoes, which blow me into chaos.-“

(To Richard Brown, 30th December 1787)

As strange as it may sound, he’s perhaps not too far off the mark. There are seasonal connections with phases of bipolar disorder, and initial analysis suggests that this also played a role in Burns’s condition.

Perhaps more interesting is Burns’s perception of the interconnectedness of his moods and his poetic propensity:

“I am, as most people of my trade are, a strange will o’ wisp being;”

(To Agnes McLehose, 28th December 1787)

“I need not recount the fairy pleasures the Muse, to counterbalance this catalogue of evils, bestows on her Votaries.”

(To Helen Craik, 9th August 1790)

For Burns, his moods were both a blessing and a curse. They affected his daily life, for better or worse, and without them, he would not have been the poet he was. His moods were simply part and parcel of who he was, as much an aspect of his character as his religion, his politics or his rural upbringing.

And so it is for those affected by bipolar disorder today. Their condition is only one aspect of who they are; while it shapes them, it does not define them. And it certainly does not exclude them from being valuable contributors to all areas of life.

At the end of the day, to misquote Burns, a man is just a man for a’ that.

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….