This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 48, summer 2023.
Words: Leanne McGrath.
Liz Lochhead is on a quest. The former Makar has, as she describes it, an "itch" to write about her beloved Rabbie Burns. Write what, she is not yet sure. A poem? Prose? A play? About the man, the myth, the legend? Only time will tell.
But this passion project brought her to the Library to meet our Manuscripts Curator Dr Ralph McLean – an expert on our national Bard – to learn a few fascinating facts and get a closer look at some of the items in our Burns collections.
First priority is a cheese scone and a cappuccino, over which Lochhead is warm and chatty, her West Coast vernacular as rich as her verse. She has plenty of anecdotes, often about famous friends such as actor Alan Cumming, frank opinions on the political landscape and, as it turns out, an eye for a bargain, revealing that the much-admired tartan tweed blazer she is wearing came from a charity shop near her Glasgow home.
But soon the cheerful conversation must turn to the business at hand – Ayrshire's Ploughman
"He was never a Ploughman Poet," Lochhead gently admonishes with a smile and a shake of her head. "He invented the Ploughman Poet in Edinburgh [while living there in 1787]. It was a good legend, a good back story. He didn’t need a publicist, Burns. I mean, he was genuinely a failed farmer. But he was a genuinely popular poet.
"Burns did so much that everyone can get their bit of him. I’m trying to search for a bit more of mine, just for fun. That’s why I write, for fun.
"Something is itching with Burns at the moment. I'm going to write something – not scholarly, because I’m not a scholar. I’m interested in a sort of fictional Edinburgh in the year Burns was there on the make. He was making himself into a rock star."
"I might not get anywhere with this wee quest of mine," Lochhead adds. "I'm more interested in the poetry, that’s the most important thing. It’s a wee passion.
"What I love about Burns is the contradictions. I'll find out a lot of interesting things [today] to inform my reading.
"I hardly ever go and do research, unless I’m sniffing around something. But Ralph is fantastically knowledgeable, enthusiastic and approachable.
"That's what I’ve always found in libraries, not just the National Library. It’s nice to come to a library, I love libraries.
"I remember when the library opened in Newarthill [in North Lanarkshire, the former mining village where Lochhead grew up].
"Today I'm actually holding things in Burns’s hand and can see his handwriting change over the years."
The delight on Lochhead’s face as she examines a selection of Burns’s letters is evident. Among
the items brought out are a fragment of a letter the Bard sent in 1786, which Ralph collected from auction house Lyon & Turnbull that morning. In it, Burns describes himself as "just a poor wayfaring Pilgrim [on] the road to Parnassus".
There is also an original sketch inspired by 'Tam o'Shanter', by the artist John Faed, with Ralph telling an astonished Lochhead how Burns’s epic poem is "technically a footnote" in Francis Grose's 'Antiquities of Scotland' (1791).
"Grose was talking to Burns about wanting to do something on Alloway’s Auld Haunted Kirk and Burns said he had a few stories," Ralph revealed. "Grose said, 'well, if you've got anything, I’ll put it in the book'. It appears as a footnote – one of the most famous footnotes in history."
"Incredible," notes Lochhead. "So Grose gave him a kick in the backside to write 'Tam o'Shanter'? These things are absolute treasures. It's amazing stuff."
One of the rarest items in the Library’s collections is next – the fourth earliest letter by Burns that still survives and the only letter to his father that still exists, dated 1781.
Burns discusses the fear that "poverty and obscurity await me" and how "perhaps very soon, I shall bid eternal adieu to all the pains, and uneasiness, and disquietudes of this weary life".
"As a depressive he would have had these thoughts a lot," says Lochhead. "But I find it hard to imagine his actual speaking voice. There’s the voice of the poems and the Scots he knew was going out of fashion. He preserved the language at that point, tapping into the tradition of the Makars, trying to keep that tradition alive.
"I'm really glad he existed… I’m personally glad, as well as for Scotland, that he gave us so much fun.
"I've got no desire to do anything but celebrate the work he did, celebrate the things he wrote. There's a celebration of the idea of a poet who didn’t come from wealth but who had that fire and energy inside himself."
Burns's influence and impact on Lochhead is, as she admits herself, undeniable. His work "definitely" showed her that she too could write in Scots – and inspired a lifelong love of performing poetry. "We learned Burns off by heart at primary school – 'To a Mouse'. It’s a fantastic poem. He was quite naked and vulnerable in that.
"My cheeky reply ['From a Mouse' (2009)] was just an entertainment. I'm taking the mickey out
of Scotsmen's attitude to Burns and the glorifying of the 'Jack the lad' persona.
"It's not that I want to be po-faced about it, but I don't want them to think it's a good idea to encourage that kind of behaviour.
"I'm a feminist and I'm a woman. I'm interested, still, in sexual politics because there's no solution to it. I don't think Burns is part of the problem but there's a lot of poisonous masculinity about and, let's face facts, Burns was not squeaky clean.
"He certainly was a lover, a faller in love, but he must have been a shocking husband in many ways. Not a shocking father, he knocked his pan in trying to provide."
Lochhead certainly shook up the male-dominated poetry world in 1972 with her debut collection, 'Memo for Spring', published after the then 24-year-old opened for Norman MacCaig at a reading in Edinburgh. As Ali Smith notes in her introduction to last year's 50th anniversary edition of 'Memo for Spring', here was " a poet who’s a woman, and a Scot! … it's an impact the size of a changed world" .
Changing the literary landscape was not the intention of Lochhead, who is also an acclaimed playwright." I didn't write to encourage other women to write. I wrote because I didn't see why I shouldn't," she says." I didn't actually expect the poems to get put in a book. I wrote all the poems in 'Memo for Spring' when I was at the Glasgow School of Art. I thought I'd be an art teacher and paint. My first book happened almost by accident.
"I never felt that I didn’t have any right to write things. I was pre-second wave feminism. I had heard of the Suffragettes and had noticed some things were quite unfair but I was just always interested in the poems. My favourite poet is probably a woman poet – Anon. I think Anon was a woman.
"They were lovely to me, all the male poets. It wasn't their fault female poets hadn't been getting published or encouraged enough."
Lochhead was appointed the second modern Makar in 2011, following the death of Edwin Morgan, and held the post until 2016.
"It was great to do it. It really saved my life," she says. "It was about six months after my husband [architect Tom Logan] died, really quite suddenly. I didn’t know whether I should accept or not. My sister said, 'well, what would Tom say?'."
A few months later, she wrote about her grief in 'Favourite Place', part of a project for the Scottish Book Trust. Unlike much of her work, which is filled with humour, there is raw heartache, especially in the ending: "The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.
"And this will not be a consolation, but a further desolation."
"I didn't feel happy writing 'Favourite Place' but I felt honest," she says. "I just wrote the truth and sent it off. Did it make me feel better? Not particularly, at the time. But I wouldn't have written the poem had I not been asked.
"I wish people would ask for poems more often! I only wrote about half a dozen poems during lockdown. They're getting rarer but they mean more to me, to be able to do it. It's the only time I feel really happy.
"I will publish the lockdown poetry if they [her publishers] do a 'Collected Poems'. In some ways, I should wait another year. What's so special about your 75th year, really? But I do feel a certain sense of getting a move on and writing stuff I want to write. Not out of ambition, just for fun. I just want to keep writing for as long as I'm alive."
She is also working with producer Gordon Maclean on a digital project, to help more people hear poetry spoken aloud, the way she believes it should be heard.
"I'd really like to write some decent short stories," she adds. Not a novel? "No, I’m too old and have no stamina for prose.
"Poems are a dance, a ballad and ballet, a meter and a sound. You're writing down sounds. That's why I'm interested in doing this digital thing. I'm very interesting in a way of doing my 'Collected Poems' but I wish I had a few more.
"Maybe that gives me a kick in the backside to get a decent good few more. You feel if your 'Collected Poems' come out that would be you finished, you know?"
In Lochhead's case, it seems unlikely she will ever slow down. And for that, as Burns said, "sae let the Lord be thankit" .
Burns's 'Kilmarnock Edition' and letters are on display as part of our exhibition, 'Treasures of the National Gallery of Scotland', at George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.
From beyond the grave and with the benefit of hindsight, here’s Jenny Clow to Robert Burns
One of Lochhead's newest poems is inspired by Burns – 'Jenny Clow’s Me Too', penned for a Burns Supper.
"If you publish a bit of it," Lochhead said, "you'll have to put it in with asterisks, then the s*** will hit the fan!" Jenny, 20, was a maid to Burns’s 'Clarinda', Agnes Maclehose, the lover who inspired 'Ae Fond Kiss'. Jenny gave birth to Burns's son in 1788 and died from tuberculosis three years later. Here, Lochhead shares how poor Jenny did "anachronistically, energetically, dictate the following to me" …
Great lover? Rab, you wrote your ain reviews!
Did you believe in a wummin’s right to choose?
For aw we ken t'wis never in Jean's gift to refuse
Thon 'electrifying scalade'.
She micht have got up, rolled her een, an hauf-amused
Muttered 'no bad'.
Floored, there's minny a lass discovers
The brute hard-at-it buck rootin above her's
Quite shair he's the last o the rid-hoat lovers,
God's gift! --
Tho the delusion he's th'greatest o earth-movers
Be frankly daft.
An wha kens whit Jean Armour was feelin?
Mibbe aw yon 'ecstatic' yelping and squealin
In rising crescendo, had raither been revealin
No pleasure but pain?
Desertit, eight-month gone, long past concealin…
An twins. Again…
Rab, you dearly lo'ed a bit o posh an chose
Your 'Clarinda', the married Mistress McLehose
Frae amang Edinburgh's those-and-sich-as-those.
Tho you persisted --
(Poems, promises, billets doux) -- tried everythin, God knows,
Still she resisted.
Silly, camp, fause names! As letter-cairrier, I do admire
Th'attempt at secrecy. Why the hell tho did she require
Me to 'await the response' she was on fire
To receive from 'her Sylvander'.
Mair than his hauns, his pent-up desperation an desire
Ach, minny a swain faced thus wi nothin-doin
Indulges elsewhere in expedient rough-wooin
While some random other recipient o what’s ensuin
Accepts her fate
An for the moment he disnae care if wha he’s screwin
'S a mere surrogate.
He was mad wi lust for my chaste mistress, nothing worse.
Really wanted her, she wouldnae. I did. My curse?
I thought he fancied me. Quite the reverse
Jist made for his 'guid willy-pintle' a handy silk purse
O my soo's ear.
Twenty-first century folk thought t'was their invention,
Birth-control! And granted Rabbie an exemption --
But afore Dutch caps, rubber johnnies, no to mention
There existit an obvious method o prevention
As auld’s the hills…
Nae wey o avoiding pregnancy? Oh please!
Tell that tae the birds an bees
Minny a lover and his lass took post-orgasmic ease
'Mang th' hermless spatters
O a skillfu cocksman blessed wi expertise
In country matters.
I had to keep Mum 'boot Sainted Rabbie
Wha f***** like a poet, in Standard Habbie.
Quick, staccato an jab-jab-jabby
Then – oof, past carin
Let fly, an left me -- is yon no jist fab, eh? --
Haudin the bairn.
He made promises that meltit like snaw
Clarinda got the song, I got hee-haw
'Cept the bairn, a faitherless yin an aw --
Rab, you could’ve easily,
If you cared aboot a lass at a
Have got aff at Paisley!
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