David Leask: Scotland’s Burns myth sells him – and us – short

THE Americans loved him so much George Washington was going to send a ship to rescue him from British oppression.

He is so big in Russia he is practically the country’s national poet.

There are more statues of him around the world than of any other non-religious figure bar Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria.

None of these claims about Robert Burns are even plausible, never mind remotely true. And yet they are endlessly repeated.

Some Scots clearly feel the need for the bard to be rated abroad, for our national poet to get some kind of overseas validation. For a few this gets to the point of absurd exaggeration.

READ MORE: Burns will not fade

Now that the neeps, tatties and haggis have been cleared away for another year, would this be a good time to ask why? Is it just a bit of Scottish cultural cringe? Or something else?

Our bard does have his fans around the world, deservedly and bankably so. The global Burns brand – now often deeply entwined with that of Scotland and its diaspora – is commercially, culturally and even politically valuable. Not least when it comes to tucking in to a stuffed sheep’s stomach every January to a soundtrack of Scots verse and song.

Paul Malgrati, a French-born scholar of Scottish literature at Glasgow University, has plotted more than 2,500 Burns suppers on a map of the world. His efforts will not, of course, have captured every single celebration.

But they give a real insight in to the depth and spread of Scottish culture. We sometimes moan we do not have St Paddy’s Day, a fiesta of diaspora, of soft power, of national brand. Yet in Burns Suppers we kinda do.

And that is one of the awkward realities of the poet. His international fame is so tied to his Scottishness that he can be reduced to a shortbread tin. Many of those who show up at a Burns Suppers are celebrating their affinity to Scotland, not 18th century verse. Dr Malgrati’s map shows a heavy concentration of January haggis-eating in parts of the world once turned red by the British Empire. Yip: Burns mania is – among many things – a slightly uncomfortable legacy of imperialism.

Take America. The poet has more than a dozen memorials in the US, out of a total of perhaps 60. This no doubt inspired the bizarrely false claim (sanctioned as true on a Scottish Government website) about Burns having more statues than any non-religious figure other than Columbus and Victoria (both also imperialist motifs).

For comparison, the BBC reckons there are about 34,000 statues of dead dictator Kim Il Sung in North Korea, one for every 750 people in that prison of a state.

Burns does not even fare well against his fellow poets. A Russian eccentric has been tallying up the number of statues of Alexander Pushkin, the guy who, as it happens, is his country’s undisputed national bard (just to scotch another myth).

He has found more than 540. Pushkin, perhaps unsurprisingly given the size of his audience, beats Burns 9-1. And of course the Russian verse genius can also boast an atlas worth of streets, squares, schools and even towns named in his honour.

He is not alone. Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – to pick some A-listers – have their names plastered all over their nations and beyond. Burns once nearly got a budget airport.

I am always struck by the particular need to emphasise Burns’ popularity in Russia. I guess this trope helps elevate the bard out of the anglosphere, beyond the diaspora bubble. And, well, he is known in Russia. Ish. Back in 1959, as an example, Soviet authorities bigged up the ploughman poet for his bicentennial.

Today? I Googled “Burns” – or Byorns as the Russians call him – on his birthday. There were hundreds of articles, but about the bard’s CIA chief namesake, not the man himself. A hunt for Burns books in a Russian online stores threw up plenty of reading options, but mostly about a character from TV’s The Simpsons.

Poetry is relatively popular in Russia. So when we say Burns in “big” there, we mean a good few folk like reading in rhymes and a some of them like the Scot. Cool. But they also enjoy – more frequently – translations of the works of, say, Byron or Shakespeare.

When was the last time you heard an English person boast one of their poets was “big in Russia’? Or America? They do not feel the need to do that. So why do we?

Is it because we do not feel confident in the literary heft of our national poet? Or because Burns here is not seen in the way Dante, Cervantes, Pushkin, Goethe or Shakespeare are in their home countries? Our children – incomprehensibly, disgracefully – do not study our national poet in any serious way. He remains perched awkwardly, even precariously, on the fringes of “English” literature.

“Burns is a minor figure in the high school curriculum,” said Dr Malgrati. “There may be exceptions but it seems Scottish pupils are still more likely to take exams on Shakespeare’s sonnets than on ‘The Twa Dogs’. Considering this, it’s no surprise Scots should seek other, external ways to validate their national poet.”

Burns is – despite everything – still too often regarded as something liminal, not foundational, something folk, not classical.

There is only ever going to be one place where our bard can be at the centre, not the edge: Scotland. So we should be worrying about what we think of Burns, not what others do.

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