LATE 2021, I was delighted to be approached by the Scottish Poetry Library to pen a critical response to Robert Burns’ work. I had yet to work on such a challenging commission, or on a project that took me so far from my grassroots practice. The other Trystin’ Thorns, as the project came to be called, Janette Ayatchi, Susi Briggs and Morag Anderson, were writers I admired. While I had been performing my own Reply Fae the Lassies for several years. I had never had the opportunity to delve deeper.

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Let me be honest. Burns’s poetry was something that was done to me at school. An experience to which I’m sure many Scots can relate. I failed to see value in his work and experienced a creative block as a result. I decided to get as close to him as I could. I visited his home. Stood at his family’s smallholdings, trying to imagine what life would be like for a young Robert in Ayrshire. I peered at his personal artifacts through climate controlled, state of the art display cases. I watched the river rushing under the Brig O’ Doon, tried to hear the horse’s hoofs, darkness and chatter so prevalent in his poetry.

The National:

What I found was a radical man who would turn slave driver, a lover of women who played his darlings like a fiddle. A man who adored all creation but saw his own children as mouths to feed. A Libertine who collected taxes for the Crown. A bit of me loved him, like I have loved many men in my life, despite their misgivings. Despite contradictions in their nature.

When I arrived at the library on filming day, I took my seat beside the other writers as Burns’ equal. Certainly not in cultural impact or prevalence, but in basic human worth. Something he himself was so passionate about in his writing. Yet in Scotland, we don’t see Burns as human. We see him as a facet of our national identity, and for many that makes him untouchable. Any critique on his lifestyle or subject matter is an attack on Scottishness itself. Good, because if we hold onto the past too tight, the present becomes tattered. We desperately need a new Scotland.

Today’s Scotland is a country of inequality. Divided along racist and sectarian lines. Where gendered violence is at an all time high and 1 in 4 children live in poverty. On the brink of Independence, we have a real fighting chance of changing people’s lives for the better. We cannot allow this status quo to be the foundations upon which our state is built. It is crucial to question how power and platform is afforded to some and snatched from many.

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What does this all have to do with Burns? Well, he was acutely aware of the structures of inequality. He both suffered and benefited from them within his lifetime. But in his legacy, the whitewashing of his life amounts to a form of tacit consent which allows such structures to persist. To deny that does a disservice to rich historical lessons that can be mined in his passing. I can’t help but feel if Burns was alive today, he would rally against the Cult of Personality surrounding his name, just as he satirised those in power within his lifetime.

So back to the Trystin’ Thorns project. The project has received kind praise from the vast majority of viewers. However, some of the work has, quite predictably, gathered controversy. Much of which centres around gender. The gender of the writers involved, and the gendered nature of the critiques posed. Mostly, it started in the form of Twitter sniping, but disappointingly was stoked by some particularly lazy press coverage, in which none of us were invited to contribute or rebuke. My mind boggles to think that women’s voices can still be considered so incendiary. We talked about motherhood, lust, abandonment, love, nationalism and history. Set out to challenge aspects of a complex, problematic, and certainly engaging character.

To do this, it would have been impossible not to imagine and illuminate the women silenced in Burns’s rhetoric. Their lives’ are always so secondary to the poems he wrote about them, despite being his inspiration. The irony is, of course, that through this creative process our own contributions have now been misrepresented by some as simply tackling Burns’s misogyny or tarnishing his legacy. Which of course, is a silencing act in itself.