Robert Burns was advised by a friend not to write in Scottish verse because London readers wouldn’t understand it
- Robert Burns was advised by Dr John Moore in 1787 not to write in Scots
- Told him in letter to ‘deal more sparingly for the future in the Provincial Dialect’
- Burns refused and may even have written more verses in Scots
- The poets most famous works include Auld Lang Syne and Address to a Haggis
Robert Burns was advised not to write in Scots by a friend
His poetry popularised the Scots language, introducing the world to auld lang syne, sleekit beasties and cutty sarks.
But Robert Burns was advised not to write in Scots by a friend who thought it would limit his audience, according to new research.
A project by academics at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies looked at letters to and from Scotland’s national bard.
The team looked at some 800 letters written by Burns and around 300 to 400 letters from his friends and admirers – and have put together both sides of the letter correspondence where available.
They found that, in 1787, Dr John Moore advised the poet not to write in Scots, warning that London readers would not connect with it, though Burns ignored his suggestion.
Instead, evidence suggests he may even have written more verses in Scots after getting the advice.
Burns’ most famous poems include Auld Lang Syne – which is traditionally sung by millions of people across the world at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve – and Address to a Haggis.
The latter poem includes the line, ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great Chieftan o’ the Puddin-race!’, and is traditionally recited on Burns Night.
In a letter (above) in May 1787, the poet’s friend Dr John Moore advised him not to write in Scots, warning that London readers would not connect with it, though Burns ignored his suggestion
Dr Moore wrote to Burns in May 1787, saying: ‘It is evident that you already possess a great variety of expression and Command of the English Language, you ought therefore to deal more sparingly for the future in the Provincial Dialect – why should you by using that limit the number of your admirers to those who understand the Scotish [sic], when you can extend it to all persons of Taste who understand the English language.
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert Burns was born 25 January 1759 and died 21 July 1796 and was widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.
He was a high-ranking member of the Freemasons and much of his popularity stems from the fact he was a farmer’s son who could speak to the common man.
But he also led a varied social life which exposed him to different sections of society. In his poems, he often used small subjects to express big ideas and he is often thought of as a pioneer of the Romantic movement.
For instance, in ‘To a Mouse’, he draws a comparison between the lives of mice and men.
He was a source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism after his death.
Burns has a national day named after him on the 25th January each year.
At New Year, his poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is still sung to this day. For 200 years his birthday has been celebrated with suppers in his honour on ‘Burns Night’.
Burns replied a few months later to say his ‘scarcity of English’ denied him the words he wanted to use to write about a young woman he had been working with.
He wrote: ‘My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language; but you know the Scotch idiom, She was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass.’
Dr Craig Lamont, a research associate in Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, told The Telegraph: ‘Burns clearly ignores Moore’s advice to write less Scots verse, and though he makes excellent use of English prose in his correspondence, he did send one letter entirely in Scots.
‘It is addressed to William Nicol, Master of the High School in Edinburgh, and its date – June 1 1787 – may suggest that Burns had Moore’s advice in mind, and that rather than writing less Scots, he tried out writing even more.’
Dr Rhona Brown, a senior lecturer in Scottish Literature at Glasgow and a colleague of Dr Lamont, said: ‘In the correspondence, we get closer to Burns ‘the man’ than anywhere else: his letters reveal his triumphs, failures, anxieties, fears and joys.
‘Our edition of the correspondence is also presenting, for the first time, letters written to Burns as well as by Burns, allowing us to reconstruct personal dialogues from throughout Burns’s life.
‘Two of Burns’s relationships stand out – with Dr John Moore and Mrs Frances Dunlop – as we have both sides of the correspondence.
‘What is fascinating, for example, is that early on, Moore advised Burns not to write in Scots. He cautioned Burns that he was limiting his audience and felt that London readers wouldn’t understand or connect with the Scots language. Dunlop advised him to avoid political subjects.
‘But Burns is his own man and ignores the advice and carries on regardless. I think history has now shown that he was right.’
People around the globe will celebrate Burns Night on January 25 to celebrate the anniversary of the poet’s birth on that date in 1759.
The correspondence will be published as part of the new Collected Works of Robert Burns published by the Oxford University Press.
The new edition’s publication of responses to the poet’s letters also reveals that reactions to his works were not always what people might expect.
‘Burns sends Dr John Moore a long, heartfelt letter giving a detailed account of his childhood and life up to 1787: this letter is now known as Burns’s autobiographical letter,’ Dr Lamont added.
‘In response, Moore asks Burns to ‘divide your letters when they are so heavy’, because ‘I was obliged to pay six & eightpence for it’.’
The team will premiere their video documentary on the ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century: Correspondence’ project at 10am on January 17 at https://burnsc21-letters-poems.glasgow.ac.uk/documentaries/
The Centre will also host an online question and answer session on Thursday January 20 so that members of the public and Burns scholars can find out more about the project, with more information available via @GlasgowBurns.
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