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Paul Malgrati, Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014)

Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2023, 280 p.
Lauren Brancaz-McCartan
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Paul Malgrati, Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014), Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2023, 280 p.

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1Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014) is Paul Malgrati’s first monograph (2023). Extensive research has been carried out by academics on the bard and his works since his death in 1796. Thus, one may at first wonder how this book might be able to find its place among those already written by prominent Burns scholars such as Gerard Carruthers, Robert Crawford, Clark McGinn, Liam McIlvanney, and Murray Pittock.

2Nevertheless, Paul Malgrati’s highly detailed study turns out to be essential to understand the enduring vibrancy of Burns’s afterlife. His groundbreaking book re‑defines an ambiguous figure through paradoxical interpretations of his legacy. It offers a chronological analysis of the movements that have appropriated Burns throughout most of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, a period which has so far been little focused on in relation to Scotland’s national poet.

3Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014) sheds light on the various ways in which Burns’s legacy has been used in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by writers, feminists, activists, radicals, and politicians alike. Perhaps more importantly, it also clarifies the role that Burns’s image has been given to play in Scotland’s constitutional politics and in the shaping of a distinct Scottish identity in the context of devolution.

4Chapter 1 explains how Burns’s poetry was turned into propaganda by the British state to recruit soldiers into the British army during the First World War. In contrast, chapter 2 highlights Hugh MacDiarmid’s attempts at starting a national, literary revolution along with Scottish Renaissance writers to promote a more radical interpretation of the bard’s works and image, a movement which subsequently dismissed Burns’s significance for Scottish literature as irrelevant to modern times.

5Chapter 3 analyses the appropriations of Burns’s legacy by various political actors and parties, including fascists and communists, up until the Second World War, when Burns once again became central to the recruitment campaign of the British army. In the context of the war effort, the rise of the Labour Party and the establishment of the Welfare State, chapter 4 demonstrates that Burns was placed at the heart of post‑war socio-economic reforms and that he became the vehicle for social democracy in Scotland.

6From being a “unionist icon of Welfare Britain”, Burns then became “a Cold War ambassador between Scotland and Russia” (p. 145). Chapter 5 shows that in spite of communist and anti-communist feeling in Scotland, representatives of the Burns movement became intermediaries between the USSR and the US. Samuil Marshak’s translation and adaptation of the bard’s poetry into Russian, with its emphasis on egalitarian values, was so popular in Russia and amongst the diaspora that it led Soviet writers to travel to Scotland, which influenced Burns’s image in Scotland itself.

7Chapter 6 explains how depictions of Burns’s works remained popular on British and Scottish TV throughout the 1970s, however hackneyed, kailyardic and apolitical they were. They contrasted with the rise of the nationalist movement, influenced by Hugh MacDiarmid, which searched for its own distinct Scottish voice. Meanwhile, the profitability of Burns’s legacy started being acknowledged as an economic asset for Scotland, especially as the latter’s future devolution was being discussed as an option.

8As is illustrated in chapter 7, the plight of Scottish workers, who lost their jobs due to Margaret Thatcher’s policies modernising the manufacturing sector, pushed the Scots into demanding constitutional change and into using Burns as a figure of resistance against the Conservatives. When the Scottish Parliament was reopened on 1 July 1999, Burns’s “A Man’s A Man for A’ That” was sung by Sheena Wellington, thus reinforcing the association between Burns and Scottish devolution in the context of the Union.

9This idea is further developed in chapter 8. Whereas the 2000s were characterised by cross-party support for devolution and for the monetisation of Burns’s heritage in the shaping of Scotland’s distinctive cultural identity, the 2010s were marked by the SNP’s appropriation and politicisation of the bard’s legacy. Notwithstanding, as the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence showed, unionist interpretations of Burns’s works have continued to exist, Burns Country itself being a bastion of Scottish unionism.

10Paul Malgrati concludes that Burns’s poetry has been interpreted again and again to fulfil the needs of individuals and movements alike:

A pliable material, Burns’s work can be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly to meet the political requirements of the present. Yet, more fundamentally, contemporary artists and activists remind us that poetry is a very slippery platform on which to build a national identity. (p. 252)

11It would be interesting to see in a few years’ time, with hindsight, how Burns’s writings have been adopted and construed again in post-Brexit Scotland, and how they have helped the Scots make sense of their non‑European Scottish identity.

12Overall, Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014) is a meticulously researched piece of work which innovatively combines studies in poetry, literature, history, language, culture, and politics. Its clear arguments are underpinned by an impressive range of sources, including archival material and original interviews, amongst others. Although this means that some sections of the book might be considered as quite dense and scholarly, making certain aspects of the research difficult to access for general readers, Paul Malgrati’s book has the potential to appeal to anyone with an interest in Scotland’s culture and politics, be they Burns enthusiasts or laymen. Along with the interactive world map of Burns Suppers he created in 2020, which references over 2,500 Burns Suppers and Burns night events in nearly 150 different countries on the 6 continents (Malgrati, 2020, online), Paul Malgrati’s research provides a valuable insight into Burns’s twentieth- and twenty-first-century afterlife.

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Bibliographie

Malgrati Paul, 2020, “Interactive Map of Burns Suppers”, Glasgow University, available at <https://burnsc21.glasgow.ac.uk/supper-map/> (last accessed 18 January 2024).

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Référence électronique

Lauren Brancaz-McCartan, « Paul Malgrati, Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics: The Bard of Contention (1914–2014) »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesecossaises/4495 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesecossaises.4495

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Auteur

Lauren Brancaz-McCartan

Université Savoie Mont Blanc
lauren.brancaz-mccartan@univ-smb.fr

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