“If I must write, let it be Sedition, or Blasphemy, or something else beginning with B.” So Robert Burns is said to have spoken at the end of his life.
Kevin Williamson, who is known as Edinburgh’s own rebel poet, performs a variety of Burns’ poems here – some well known, like A Man’s a Man and the Address of Beelzebub, but also many that are lesser known, with underground, republican and anti-war themes. Many were written anonymously – especially when working as an Excise Officer, Burns had to be very careful what was ascribed to him, and at that time anti-government writing could bring down on you the most severe of punishments – you might lose your head.
As Kevin Williamson makes clear, Burns, born in 1759, lived through very turbulent times. Britain was at war and in turmoil for much of his life. He was only 17 when the American Declaration of Independence was written, and as Wiliamson says, he was the first major European poet to support the Americans – not a safe option!
The Poem written on a banknote will have resonance today, given how bankers are viewed just now. And there are some of those four- letter word poems. Kevin Williamson seemed to relish having all those fucks resonating around the National Library of Scotland. The there was the poem about letting the poor man mowe – mowe being a traditional Scots word for….and there were lots of mowes.
All ScotsGay readers interested in the radical history of Scotland, and indeed anyone who fancies hearing some seditious and up-them poetry, would do well to get along to this. The filmed material is also good, and Kevin Williamson provides a valuable background to his reading. A very stimulating hour indeed!