Liam McIlvanney

Two Roberts and a Bruce

Burns’s Jacobin sypathies, voiced in 1792 after the French Revolution, are to many of his followers and commentators their only impression of his radicalism. However, in Burns the Radical:Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth Century Scotland (Tuckwell PBK £16.99), Liam McIlvanney rends a deep furrow through the cosy image of the ‘heav’n-taught ploughman’ and the natural rhythms of his rural idyll. The first full study of Burns’ politics and his responses to the movements of his time, this reveals a far more sophisticated poet than has been hitherto imagined.

Burns is shown to have drawn on a wide range of intellectual resources – the democratic, contractarian ideology of Scots Presbyterianism; the Dissenting ‘New Lichts’; Irish and English ‘Real Whig’ tradition; and the theories of the Scottish Enlightenment. Within this context is examined Burns’s informal and formal education; not only the influence of both his father and his teacher, John Murdoch, but also those texts to which he was exposed in his early years. Seminal was Masson’s Collection of English Prose and Verse, a reader containing the Whiggish sentiments of such as Addison, which were, McIlvanney reminds us ‘hardly foreign to Covenanting Ayrshire.’ Involvement with improving ‘book clubs’ at Monkland, Tarbolton and Mauchline indicates Burns holistic attitude towards the benefits of education in the societal rather than merely the individual, Victorian ‘self-help’ sense.

Most of the book is given over to detailed reinterpretations of Burns’ major poems. Also presented is new research on his links with Irish poets and radicals. In short, this is a radical reinterpretation of our bardic icon, which reclaims him from the supper table for the people.

Burns famously turned around his patronising epithet, when he praised his fellow Robert in the muse as Heaven-taught Fergusson, now the title of a collection of essays and poems edited by Robert Crawford (Tuckwell PBK £14.99), which originated in the St Andrews University celebrations of the 250th anniversary of its alumnus’ birth. Fergusson, however, is the bard of eighteenth century Edinburgh, whose pungent verses anent its men and manners ever colour our grimy view of ‘Auld Reekie’.

Like Dunbar, much of Fergusson when first read aloud is unforgettable, and these studies, bringing together several enthusiasts from three continents, form the first body of such since Sidney Goodsir Smith’s delightful little book in 1952. Smith ‘topped-and-tailed’ his with two new poems, and Crawford honours this precedent by including ten commissioned poems which thread through its ‘guid braid claith’.

May this not be the last word on unfortunate Fergusson for another fifty years, as it is a ringing reassessment of his background, craft, sense of place and influence.

midwives.rtf Scottish Midwives, Twentieth Century Voices is No. 12 in the Tuckwell Press ‘Flashbacks’ series (PBK £8.99). This excellent social history uses the oral testimony of midwives to trace the history of their profession.

The reputations of polar explorers are also currently undergoing reassessment. Captain Scott has been shown not to have been unprepared for Antarctica after all, and Drs Rae and Richardson, who resolved the mystery of Franklin, are being fully recognised for their great Arctic endeavours. Likewise is Dr William Spiers Bruce, whose Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, ranks him alongside these men and Captain John Ross as one of our greatest polar explorers.

The success of Bruce’s expedition, both scientific and social, is chronicled in the reprint of The Voyage of the Scotia (Mercat PBK £9.99), which was compiled by three leading members in 1906. An oceanographer and great all-rounder, his application for Scott’s 1899 Discovery expedition was not even acknowledged, and so, with the backing of Paisley thread magnate Andrew Coates, he undertook his own in 1902 – 04. Bruce and his team found Coats Land, set up the first Antarctic base and charted the Weddell Sea.

This is a tale of quiet endeavour, which greatly enabled the later and more loudly trumpeted achievements of Scott, Amundsen and others in their race for the pole.

Copyright Neil Macara Brown 2005.