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Burns in School
Transcript of a talk given at the International Bicentenary Burns Conference, University of Strathclyde, 11–13 January 1996
The third cam up, hap-step-an’-loup
As licht as onie lambie
An’ wi a curchie low did stoop,
As soon as e’er she saw me,
Fu kind that day
My name is Fun – your cronie dear,
The nearest friend ye hae ...
These words, the arrival of Fun at the beginning of The Holy Fair, are my text for today; their application should emerge later.
1. WHY SHOULD WE BOTHER WITH BURNS IN SCHOOLS?
In the context of educational development in Scotland over the last 15 years ... Standard Grade, SCOTVEC Communication, revision of Higher, the 5-14 programme, Higher Still ... nothing in the curriculum can safely be taken for granted. For every component a case needs to be made. And that applies not just to Burns but, as we have been seeing recently, to the teaching of literature in general, and within that to the place of Scottish literature.
Briefly then before we come to Burns, I shall touch on two prior questions:
- why bother with literature?
- why bother with Scottish literature?
The Scottish educational system at both primary and secondary levels has viewed literature and language as intimately reinforcing each other within the subject English. Most of us would, I think justify the study of literature on grounds such as these:
- it demonstrates the fullest, most precise use of language,
- it gives young people access to vicarious experiences and promotes their imaginative, aesthetic and moral growth,
- it gives students knowledge of their cultural milieu and heritage,
- it yields reflective enjoyment – and so on.
These claims can seem high flown and they are horribly vulnerable to classroom realities, but they remain articles of faith to which most teachers of English will subscribe. They are being severely tested at the moment in the Higher Still debate.
So also are the claims of Scottish literature, which has recently been gaining more official recognition within the curriculum. I believe that Scottish texts, generously defined, have important advantages which should recommend them for classroom use at all stages. They can give our students imaginative insights into episodes and experiences which are part of our country’s distinctive past, and may influence our present and future.
They help us all to understand what living hereabouts has meant to the folk who have gone before us; they give shape to ideas, casts of mind and ways of saying which have haunted Scots over the centuries and which are often with us still.
In practical terms some are likely to tap into the domestic and non-standard language that young children bring to school. Many will also draw upon shared experiences of teachers, students and their families or illuminate local events and places. Fascinatingly they link with our music and art, our political, social and economic history. Overall they can help us to gain a sense of our cultural identity in relation to our neighbours and other nations.
But only if we know about them.
Assuming then that we have made positive answers to these two general questions, we turn to Burns. Why bother? Among all the competing claims what has Burns to offer schools today?
In what follows I shall be speaking mainly about Burns in the context of English/English language courses in school. It’s important, however, to urge that there ought to be a coherent pattern of Scottish contributions to other areas of the curriculum such as Environmental Studies and Expressive Arts in the primary school, and that within these the work and life of Burns has contributions to make at all stages – particularly in music and history but also in art and drama and possibly R.E.
Murdo: ‘What does the mouse do when he sees this ploughshare approaching? Well he did what was natural for a mouse in such circumstances. He ran away. Not only that, but he ran away with bickering brattle. A fine phrase in itself. Here is the mouse in the corn, as we might say, helpless and here is the great poet who has by this time written many great poems. It is not a minor poet that we have here but a major poet at the height of his powers, or pooers as I might say. What did this great poet, author of such famous poems as Death and Doctor Hornbook do? He addressed the mouse. Most great poets would not see in this tiny animal matter for speculation. But Rabbie Burns did. That is why he is our national poet. At this moment he would teach us a lesson.’
What does he have to offer to the study of literature and language? Well we are still, on his bi-centenary, being told on all sides that he is our NATIONAL POET. Ian McIntyre, for example, starts the most recent major biography: ‘Scotland’s national poet was born in the same year as William Pitt, Schiller and Mary Wollstonecraft’. Virtually every reputable contemporary work of reference also offers that thought: ‘The national poet of Scotland’. But what does the phrase mean? ... Scotland’s greatest poet? its most popular? the only poet most people have heard of?, the only one who can stand international comparison. You will remember the surrealist musings of Iain Crichton Smith’s Murdo upon the Muse and the mouse, with that embarrassing echo of the English teacher in it somewhere:
I am not sure where that definition or that lesson gets us – other than offering a terrible warning to teachers who pontificate on Burns!
Burns is obviously not our ‘national poet’ in the sense of writing the epic dealing with the national myth or story, like Vergil or Camoens. In that sense ‘the matter of Scotland’ had been treated by Barbour and Harry, as Burns acknowledged, and perhaps even by Ossian Macpherson. But he did see himself as speaking for Scotland and as being charged with a responsibility to do something for Scotia, ‘or sing a sang at least’; and many people in his own time accorded him that role, ‘Caledonia’s bard, brother Burns’.
We note also his disinterested commitment to collecting and editing ‘the poetry and music of Old Caledonia’ for Johnson and Thomson. He has a patriotic interest in Scottish history, ‘the patriot and the patriot bard’; and he sees himself in a long line of Scottish poets which include his immediate predecessors Ramsay and Fergusson.
Any point in history can of course be portrayed as a time of transition, but Burns writes at a pivotal time for Scotland when, as Tom Devine has already demonstrated during this conference, society was feeling the social pressures of really traumatic agricultural, industrial and cultural change. Remember Auld Glen, James Tennant of Glenconner, neighbouring farmer and close friend of the Burns family whose son ‘Wabster Charlie’ founded the great St Rollox chemical complex! Burns illustrates remarkably widely these forces in poems such as The Twa Dogs; the diptych of Love and Liberty and The Cotter’s Saturday Night: The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, Address of Beelzebub, The Gallant Weaver, Why shouldna Poor Folk Mowe? and many more. His work embodies matters of history, politics, commerce, religion, sexual mores, the social classes, festivals, music, language, agriculture, the landscape, travel and other aspects of Scotland in what Smout called ‘the crucial decades of the 1780s and 1790s’. He is in fact the first of our poets to be sensitive to a reasonably broad sweep of contemporary Scottish culture and to bring to bear on it some kind of historical perspective.
On the grounds then of his aspirations, and the scope and diversity of his materials and styles, we are justified in seeing him as a national poet, but it is the quality of work that entitles him to the rank of the national poet, and a consequent international status. Assessments of his quality and his position in the canon have swung between 19th century bardolatry and the fierce critique launched by MacDiarmid in the second ‘Burns Cult’ essay for the EIS in 1926; then partly back via the judicious, but warm reappraisals of Daiches, Crawford, McGuirk and others, many of whom, happily, are taking part in this conference. My own belief is that the present proceedings, though stopping this side of idolatry, will confirm once and for all the use of the definite article ... the national poet. If we believe, as I have urged, that the schools have a duty to vivify and transmit our national literary heritage, then we must in a systematic way introduce students to Burns as the one writer at the very heart of our national culture. The rest of our literature can be shown to fall into place around him. But it should also be part of a significant body of Scottish Studies within the primary and secondary curriculum.
Qualities as a Writer
Among the qualities of Burns’s writing which justify our attention are:
- his humour: from high-spirited fun to fierce satire,
- range of feelings: compassion, patriotism, indignation, melancholy, sexual excitement,
- lyric power: sentiment to sexual (humorous and serious)
- dramatic presentation of character,
- narrative skills,
- technical agility with words, ryhythm and poetic forms,
- control of Scots/English language resources,
- sensitivity to literary traditions,
- folk song qualities, matching words and melody,
- letter writing skills and personae.
Belatedly we need to do justice to the extraordinary diversity of his riches ... in the letters and songs as well as the poems; and to take account of the great range of his appeal at different ages and stages of students. What other poet in the canon of English Literature can appeal from early primary to sixth year secondary? Chaucer? Donne? Pope? Keats? Browning? Tennyson? Yeats? ... even Shakespeare?
I shall return in a moment to the important question of his use with younger children.
2. RECORD OF THE SCHOOLS
How have Scottish schools been treating Burns in the past? Drawing on my own experience of over 50 years as pupil, teacher, teacher trainer and HMI, I have to conclude that the pattern has remained remarkably constant across the years and across the country. In primary and secondary school alike Burns has seldom if ever been grossly neglected: in certain ways he keeps popping up, but on the other hand he has seldom figured in any planned fashion. A typical situation is revealed away back in 1912 in Glasgow where the Albany Burns Club minutes its thanks to the headteacher and staff of Provanside Higher Grade school:
‘For the great trouble and time they devote from the ordinary curriculum in working up children for the competition.’
In other words Burns has tended to be an extra, sometimes admittedly a treat, but never fully part of the curriculum.
Within my own experiences the usual manifestations have been:
In primary school:
- telling the folk hero tale of the lad born in Kyle, learning, singing one or two songs e.g. Duncan Gray, perhaps a visit to the cottage (and new Tam o’ Shanter experience).
- Some elements of Burns Supper ... Haggis, etc., might involve singing, reciting, dramatizing ...
- working for Burns Federation award certificate.
Additionally in secondary school:
- S1-S3: some further poems, usually around January ... Tam o’ Shanter, (tho also in primary) plus perhaps To a Mouse, To a Louse, Scots wha hae, etc. Also possibly the Burns Federation competitions.
- S4-S6 some study of more demanding poems for exam purposes, such as The Twa Dogs and Holy Willie’s Prayer, and more recently pieces in the SEB designated lists for Higher or CSYS. Perhaps Burns Supper, School Burns Club, Writers’ Club etc.
The Scottish Examination Board
It is worth registering by the way that SEB and its predecessors have always made it reasonably rewarding in examination terms to spend some time on Burns. Before the 1960s, when specific authors and texts were mentioned in examination papers, Burns turned up in some form or other as regularly as Shakespeare. The Leaving Certificate of 1930 for example asked for a comparison of the poetry of Burns and Pope, and that of 1931 asks ‘In what kinds of poetry do you think Burns is most successful? Illustrate your answers by quotations’. Hardly stimulating tasks, but typical of the time and no worse than any of the other questions in the papers.
The crucial new step in 1994 was the specification of 13 poems to be studied by anyone who chose the Burns option for the Higher Grade examination. I do not know how popular with students this option has been, but I believe that for the first time it encourages teachers to undertake a substantial study of Burns at Higher level. I realise that the specified text question has been unacceptable to some teachers but at least it has had the advantage of making it worth while to study some key Scottish poets at length ie. so far, MacCaig, Crichton Smith and Burns. One can only hope that whatever form of assessment replaces it in Higher Still is as beneficial in this respect. Personally I doubt it.
The effectiveness with which Burns is presented across the school stages has always of course depended on the commitment of individual teachers. In the west there have been in the past some marvellously enthusiastic Burnsian primary headteachers who have made a rich and happy experience of their Burns topics; in other instances in some secondary departments it has meant little more than an annual dusting down of George Ogilvie’s Selected Poems or one of the Burns Federation Readers or the selection in John Blackburn’s Gallery. When studying Burns’s poems closely at the senior stages, teachers have of course used a variety of teaching techniques, from class exposition to open-ended group discussion. On the whole they have handled them much as they would the work of any non-Scottish poet, the main difference being the attention given where needed to Scots language forms.
What I have just described is the kind of mix I recall as a pupil; got involved in as a teacher in Glasgow and Aberdeen; and could still be pretty sure of encountering as I inspected primary and secondary school until two years ago. It is true of course that after the professional disputes of the mid ‘80s additional voluntary activities such as Burns Suppers and Burns Federation award preparations diminished markedly, and sometimes have not recovered. Additionally when teachers are under the administrative pressures of new syllabuses and assessment arrangements they can be excused for feeling that apparent add-on luxuries such as Burns activities may be jettisoned.
On balance one could argue, and I think I would, that this admittedly patchy experience of the work of Burns over the primary and secondary stages was a more rewarding treatment than many other authors have received in Scottish schools. There has been, after all, some emphasis on enjoyment, and some chance that pupils would sing or perform and join in a group activity of some kind..... even if it was only making neeps and tatties in P5 or saying The Selkirk Grace. But it is worth stressing in this bi-centennial year that our school system can and should do better by the national poet.
3. THE BURNS FEDERATION
One cannot comment fairly on the way that Burns has been taught in Scottish schools without taking into account the promotional work of the Burns Federation over many years. I make no apology for giving due credit to it in this talk but, in preface, I should plead that I have never been a member of a Burns Club and am not engaged in a PR exercise for that excellent international organisation, the Federation. My observations are those of an outsider not privy to the inner councils. Tomorrow morning Mr. Murdo Morrison its president will have his say.
It has been common in the past for critics under the influence of MacDiarmid to denigrate the activities of the Federation, and of course it is an old Scots custom to be snide about enthusiasts. No doubt some of us also have unhappy memories of being dragooned into reciting by heart ‘To A Mountain Daisy’. Nonetheless I consider that its contribution to keeping Burns alive in our schools has been quite remarkable, if inadequately recognised.
It is true that when founded in 1885 as a means of bringing together Burns associations of various kinds, it did not see itself as having any educational brief. Its first aim was social, to ‘consolidate the bond of friendship among members’. A reading of the early issues of its journal, the annual Chronicle (First published 1892), shows no articles on the potential of Burns in schools. Its contributors were mainly concerned with the biography of the poet and his family, the preservation of manuscripts and memorabilia, and the erection of monuments. An important purpose was to report the activities of the ever growing number of active clubs. It was only in 1911 that its formal objects were revised to include the aim:
‘To encourage and arrange school competitions in order to stimulate the teaching of Scottish history and literature.’ (Vol XXI, 1912)
This change in the constitution merely acknowledged however a movement to stimulate school competitions which was already well under way. The first formal reference to a school competition had come in the 1902 report of the Bridgeton Club, but the practice had started in 1878, originally only for the children of members and pupils of three east end schools, Hozier Street, Parkhead, and Martyr public schools. There is even evidence of the Greenock Club, arguably the oldest in the world, organising some kind of children’s prize as early as 1806.
In 1912 the Annual meeting of the Federation (in Carlisle!) heard a first report on the subject:
‘Mr. John Neilson, Thornliebank, submitted a report on the educational work conducted by Burns Clubs among school children. Ten years ago in the West of Scotland six clubs promoted competitions on the songs and poems of Burns: now no fewer than 42 clubs were engaged in this work, which had proved educationally and socially a great success. He advocated competitions being held every second year, and advised that the help of teachers should be requested in the work. Mr. Neilson promised to give preliminary hints to any clubs beginning School Competitions. In seconding the report, Mr. John Wilson, Glasgow, thought that the competitions should not be restricted to the songs and poems of Burns, but should embrace Scottish song and poetry generally. On behalf of the Scottish Song Society he offered to give hints to popularise the songs of Scotland.’
Some of the ingredients of these early competitions remain of great interest to us today, in particular their repeated emphasis on three key components:
- music and song
- recitation and performance
- community involvement
The competitions usually resulted in a prize-giving linked to an annual children’s concert which was often a sell-out in the district. Such activities can at their best bring out the elements of celebration and carnival which are at the heart of Burns’s work.
Unfortunately the varied club events lost some of their individuality between the wars, when with the best of intentions the Federation took them over centrally in cooperation with the Education Authorities and, with greatly increased numbers, added something like a national examination syllabus in Scottish Literature, with texts prescribed for the session and written papers at different levels. These were taken each January, with certificates awarded to the best pupils in each class. Alas, for some older Scots today the only memory of Burns at school is a test plucked out of the air at short notice for no strong reason and thereafter quickly forgotten.
But these were the occasions when things went wrong! Overall the Federation has done its best to keep abreast of educational developments. It introduced personal projects and an Art award, encouraging the setting up of school Burns Clubs, and with the sponsorship of an oil company introduced a very popular one-day national festival for young competitors. I understand that some 140.000 young Scots from nearly 700 schools (mainly primary) are still entering for its competition annually. Happily this is not an assessment system which I was ever called upon to inspect, but I bumped into it periodically by accident and was impressed sometimes by the enthusiasm it could generate.
To its credit the Federation has often supported the larger educational cause of Scottish literature as a means of improving the expertise of teachers. From the first it insisted that Burns had to be seen in a wider context of Scottish studies. It had a large hand in creating the chair of Scottish History and Literature at Glasgow University. Its early Vernacular Circles, notably the London circle so much derided by MacDiarmid, did a great deal to raise consciousness of Scots language issues, and the Federation was a strong early backer of the Scottish National Dictionary.
More closely relevant to schools, it has sponsored over the years a series of very useful anthologies in which Burns is imbedded in a range of other Scots poetry, prose and drama. In 1937 the first of these collections, I am proud to say, was edited by a former Senior Chief Inspector of Schools, J.C.Smith, and a former secretary of the EIS, Thomas Henderson. A more recent version, A Scots Kist, had the backing of Douglas Gifford. Among other materials produced by enthusiasts associated with the Federation have been the delightful bairnsangs of the three Ayrshire men who disguised themselves as Sandy Thomas Ross; the folk tale and nursery rhymes collected by Norah and William Montgomerie (he died a year ago but should not be forgotten on an occasion such as this.); the simple 24 page account of Burns’s life by James Veitch, a Burns Federation Song Book edited by John McVie and the anthology for younger children, A Scots Handsel, edited by J.K.Annand. I shall say something more about a current collection Burns for Bairns in a moment.
It is fair to say also that the Federation has acted as a catalyst for the introduction of a group of Burns poems into the present Higher Grade course (which I Persist in thinking is a GOOD THING).
Value of these Efforts
I suggest then that we should be profoundly grateful for the Federations dogged efforts since the 1890s. It may have made mistakes in stressing the competitive motive so heavily and encouraging an elocution approach to the performance of party pieces, but we have to recognize that these features have been very popular with parents and children, and may account in part for the phenomenal survival of interest over the generations. In the face often of official indifference, the Federation has tried to understand and work with the school system. At its best it has maintained a generous vision of Burns as a great writer within a wider Scottish culture. It has seen the importance of the language issue. It has produced valuable materials for use in schools, and it has never forgotten what William Soutar affirmed ... that if Scottish literature and language was to come back alive ‘It would come first on a cock horse.’ This is not surprising since many of its most committed members have been Scottish teachers ... whom Christopher North, speaking of Burns’s many dominie cronies, characterised as that ‘meritorious and ill-rewarded class of men’.
4. BURNS FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN
I want to say something about Burns in our primary schools ... on the assumption that our other contributors today will be dealing mainly with the secondary sector. What I take from the Federation’s best efforts over the years are, as I have mentioned earlier, the value of celebration and festival and simple fun in the education of young people. Burns’s poetry calls out today, particularly in the earlier stages, for music, song and dance; for performance, dramatisation and group involvement.
Burns, as far as I know never wrote consciously for young children, though he occasionally addresses them in his poems. Some of his songs and his smaller pieces, as well as extracts from the major poems, have however the genuine whigmaleerie touch ... the humour, rhythm and linguistic playfulness with an occasional disturbing frisson that children love, particularly if there is also opportunity for music.
Burns himself said of one of them:
‘Duncan Gray is that kind of light-horse gallop of an air, which precludes sentiment. – The ludicrous is its ruling feature.’
This is what Edwin Morgan has called the ‘madcap, inventive, quicksilver’ side of Burns. It is the manic dimension of his work; we have also to recognize that there is a powerful depressive side as well, and that the one is the obverse of the other. For the purposes of primary education however, we should make the most of this greatly underestimated resource of sheer fun in Burns.
Up in the Morning Early, Wee Willie Gray, Hey ca thro, We’re a Noddin, O Whistle and I’ll Come to ye my Lad, Duncan Gray, To A Haggis, To a Louse, Address to the Toothache, O Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut, The Deil’s Awa wi the Exciseman, On Tam the Chapman, Killiecrankie, What will I do gin my Hoggie Die?, Poor Mailie’s Elegy, The Auld Man’s Mare’s Dead, On a Schoolmaster in Cleish Parish, The Kirkudbright Grace.
If we are setting out to choose Burns material for primary purposes, likely items include:
Nor should we forget the wonderfully lively Scots prose tale of The Marriage of Robin Redbreast and the Wren which according to Burns’s sister Isabella he made for the amusement of the younger members of the family. As a narrative of a desperate journey it’s an early preparation for Tam!
How at the moment does a primary teacher get a convenient selection of Burns materials? Even in the bicentenary year the answer is, ‘not easily’. The Federation’s earlier publications, notably the excellent Scots Kist and Scots Handsel, are mostly out of print. It recently revised an anthology Burns for Bairns mainly for the purpose of its recitation competitions. This is quite a comprehensive selection, and crucially does not hesitate to make extracts from longer or more adult pieces.
I mention extracts for primary use because, as you are well aware, in Burns what starts as fun ‘may end in Houghmagandie’ (that is after all the plot line of The Holy Fair)! I first met ‘There was a lad ...’ when I was twelve, and for years I did not realise it had a final verse about ‘the bonny lassies lying aspar.’ The school edition had simply dropped it off the end. I am not advocating bowdlerising Burns, simply saying that there are some poems that are eminently accessible in parts to younger pupils, and these opportunities should not be neglected. We should not through any fear of destroying the integrity of works of art hesitate to cull what we want for our pupils.
Burns for Bairns
Unfortunately, as the title of the recent publication, Burns for Bairns, might suggest, its touch is uncertain: it contains feeble stuff such as The Banks of Nith and The Banks of Devon, and its advice on elocution and delivery is singularly unhelpful (eg. it says of The Gallant Weaver, ‘Treat this poem with a pleasant tone and tune, giving a good final cadence to the last line’). It is a pity that an opportunity has been lost here, particularly since the project was generously sponsored by one Burns Club with the intention of putting copies into all primary schools. There is still therefore place for a well packed primary kit (or Kist!) of Burns materials including selections of prose, background historical resources, tapes of music, a topographical video etc, in other words, a specialised version of SCC’s forthcoming 5-14 Kist. It may be that something of this kind has already been produced in Ayr division. If not, it is worth doing...perhaps by the new unitary authority or the Federation or the ASLS or the Saltire Society or SCCC. If we are in future to give Burns his key place at the centre of our teaching of literature and language from primary upwards, a well produced resource of this type is essential.
5. TEACHING METHODS
The teaching methods suited to presenting Burns in the 5-14 stages are in the main no different from those for any other imaginative writer: it should be possible to accommodate him within the programme for listening, talking, reading and writing, and find also room within Expressive Arts and Environmental Studies. One or two points, however, in no particular order:
i. Fun with Words
Me: explain please.
It is worth exploiting every chance for language fun in Burns, particularly the crossing over between Scots and English forms. I remember, many years ago, two 12 year olds who had been learning and singing Duncan Gray coming to me with a painting they had done of the poem. This showed some kind of quadruped offering a bunch of flowers to what looked anatomically vaguely like a woman:
Them: it’s a goat.
Me: why the flowers?
Them: it’s in love.
Me: What’s the point?
Them: it’s a wooing goat. Ha, ha, the wooing goat.
Even with primary children it is worth confronting the issue of Burns’s attitude to women. The song Sic a Wife as Willie had is a typical blend of linguistic nimbleness and grotesquerie. In a sense it is great fun, but is it right to laugh at a deformed woman? What do you think of the girl’s attitude in Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad? Write the dialogue between Kate and Tam on his homecoming. There are many opportunities for lively work in topics such as these.
The wintry west extends his blast
In many Primary schools the curriculum rightly retains a quite primitive seasonal cycle. Summer excursions and holidays, autumn, harvest, Halloween, Christmas, Spring and Easter are all worked in somehow to class activities. We should not then devalue the annual January recourse to Burns. There is some fitness in his being established as the poet of the Scottish winter festival. Winter was his favourite season after all, and there are many vivid pictures of it in his poetry that can be extracted and enjoyed, and even sung. For example:
And hail and rain does blaw
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw.
Wild-tumbling brown the burn comes down
And roars frae brae to brae,
and bird and beast in covert rest
and pass the heartless day.
This is the first verse of the unpromisingly titled song Winter: a Dirge. It’s good strong visual stuff which intriguingly anticipates Hopkins’s Inversnaid. I suppose it should have been called Winter: a Rant since it goes very well to Burns’s intended tune, MacPherson’s Rant. It can stand on its own, and does not need for our purpose its two following verses of Augustan Deism. Or take the extraordinary first five stanzas of A Winter’s Night describing the snow storm and the animals sheltering. Even the murderous fox wins the farmer’s pity. This latter piece has the added fascination of Scots and English rhymes. Which pronunciation to choose? A vote on it?
iv. Drama, Music and Dance
There are also in Burns many chances for drama, music and dance, however modest your confidence and skills may be. Pieces such as The Deil’s Awa’ and Willie Brewed a Peck o Maut’ cry out for mime and movement. The Burns Federation, has a useful popular songbook with words and music and also a glossary by David Murison. Some schools now benefit from visiting tutors in traditional music, and children who can play fiddle or chanter. Happily moreover for schools that are not so endowed, there is now a lot of good Burns folk music on tape. I understand for example that Linn Records are releasing this week the first of a series which will cover the whole corpus of Burns’ songs. I had a chance to hear from it an irresistibly rhythmic version of Wee Willie Gray by Rod Paterson and Tony Cuffe. Some though certainly not all of the items in this first CD are likely to be very suitable for primary use. The revival of enthusiasm for country dancing among young folk is also worth exploiting, for Burns himself loved the dance. (‘The plooman laddie dancin’), though it was a cause of contention with his father.
Remember Fun in The Holy Fair:
The third cam up, hap-step-an’-loup
as licht as onie lambie
An wi a curchie low did stoup
As soon as e’er she saw me.
His poems are full of such references and opportunities for ‘mirth and dancing’, and his songs make use of the old dance tunes. I should add that my own first war-time experiences of country dancing in primary school were a total, embarrassing disaster. I still blush to think of them.
v. Audio-visual Media
There has always been a temptation to present Burns visually. When I started teaching I had one 35mm film strip of Tam o Shanter and one of Chaucer’s Pilgrims; neither was strikingly successful as a visual aid. However having recently fought my way through all the fudge, perfumes, tea trays and engraved crystal, I think I would recommend for any primary teacher a class visit to Alloway. The Tam o Shanter Experience, three-screen presentation in purpose-built auditorium, introduces a very convincing Meg and a less than diabolic Old Nick. Nanny is decent, just: not too abandoned. Her reverend grannie would not have been too shocked! This little show has a nice touch of comic, slightly homely terror which I believe Burns might have appreciated. I don’t think it diminishes the poem at all. In terms of the ‘horrible and aweful’ it is certainly no match for contemporary horror videos, but I am told that many of the primary classes who have already visited it have enjoyed it thoroughly. The recently refurbished Biggin is, for adults at least, a chilling, disturbing place, effectively and simply presented, but eerily empty. In the adjacent museum the new wall displays about Burns’s story and Ayrshire life are of very good quality. All in all, I think this is, with the adjacent brig and kirk, a worthwhile additional resource for primary classes provided they prepare for their visit in advance.
In this talk I have stated a case for Scottish literature in our schools. I have argued that the time is ripe to place Burns’s work right at the centre of our teaching of literature and language, and within a framework of Scottish studies planned across Primary and Secondary. I have described what I think are the strengths as well as the weaknesses of our traditional handling of Burns in the schools. In so doing I have acknowledged the valuable contribution of the Burns Federation over almost a century. Finally I have offered some thoughts on approaches to Burns at the primary stages. Throughout I have dwelled on the potential for high spirits and simple ‘fun’ in Burns’s work... ‘the nearest friend ye hae’.
See also the ASLS Scotnote on Robert Burns.
Copyright © Jim Alison 1997
Last updated 19 August 2010.