The Robert Burns Experience
Alan Taylor writes in The Herald about the struggle for an accurate depiction of Robert Burns amid the marketing gimmicks, plagiarist biographers, opportunistic innkeepers feverish with swirling visions of tourist dollars, and Burns's own cultivation of celebrity. It seems that the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, slated to open December 1st in Alloway has finally gotten it right, but before we go there, let's see how wrong it can get:
Imagine, if you can bear to, one of those shops on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile out of which drones tartan muzak of the kind that would have made Bonnie Prince Charlie slit his wrists. The Tam o’ Shanter Experience, mercifully now closed, was like that with bells on. Tam appeared on a screen getting “fou and unco happy”, as was his wont. For sale was tat of a type many mantelpieces would be ashamed to display. There was haggis, too, should you be inclined to hold an impromptu Burns supper, and Highland toffee, Hawick balls, whisky miniatures, tea towels, of which one can never have enough, and collections of Burns poetry and books about Burns.
All of which, reflected the writer Andrew O’Hagan when he paid a visit, was “testament to how successful a brand name and face Burns had become”. Burns was no longer merely a poet but a product, a unique selling point, his legacy not only Ae Fond Kiss or To A Mouse or A Man’s A Man For A’ That but an idea and an image upon which could be projected marketing campaigns which paid scant acknowledgement to his poetic genius.
“Is there something special about Burns,” asked O’Hagan, “that he so lends himself to commercial enterprise of this kind? The only rival would be Stratford-upon-Avon and its relationship with Shakespeare. Thomas Hardy inspires no such turnover in the land he called Wessex. Even in America – where Whitman-furters, the Emily Dickinson Matchstick Doll’s House and the Emerson Nature Kit would not seem terribly out of place – there is nothing to compare with the Burns trademark. There is no Twainworld to speak of, no Hawthorne Haunted House, or Ahab’s Universe of Water.”
So what's the antidote? A museum that can attract "scholars and tourists alike." Director Nat Edwards "emphasises that the intention is not to offer the definitive or authoritative account of Burns’ life. Rather, he says, it is to 'question perceptions.'" With so much physical material to draw upon as a result of his contemporaries' penchant for Burns souvenirs, leaving the experience open-ended manages to do what many long ago deemed impossible: Bring the focus back to the poetry.
It is a life told through bric-a-brac, much of which would be of little interest were it not for its association with the Bard. That so much has survived, however, is testimony to the regard in which Burns was held. Anyone who knew him kept something of him even if it was only anecdote. Few inns in the south of Scotland did not claim a connection with him. Often the landlords could point to windows on whose panes Burns had scratched a line or two. He was a man who was acutely conscious of his celebrity, who, says Edwards, fathered at least 13 children by four different women. Aware of his growing fame and doubtless aware, too, of the misinformation that was being spread about him, he wrote when he was not yet 30 years old a long autobiographical letter which remains indispensable to those seeking the real Robert Burns.
“Who writes their autobiography when they’re 29?” says Edwards. “It’s celebrities, isn’t it?” It is. But a celebrity in the latter half of the 18th century was very different from his counterparts today. Burns’ celebrity was not manufactured and not predicated on tittle-tattle. For all his “illicit love” and incontinent boozing he was a poet and, more unusually, one whose work retains its freshness and potency, its mystery and universality.