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Films and books on Burns 'distort his legacy'

Category: Burns News
Article Date: September 11, 2005 | Publication: The Sunday Herald | Author: Rachelle Money

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Academic blasts Burns industry's 'false mythology'

The film A Red Rose, about the life of Robert Burns, has been criticised as 'melodrama' by Dr Gerard Carruthers

CONTEMPORARY books and films depicting the life and works of Robert Burns have created a "false mythology" about Scotland's bard.

A new study by Dr Gerard Carruthers, a lecturer in Scottish literature at Glasgow University, claims that contemporary portrayals of Burns as a socialist are distorting the poet's true legacy.

He will present his new paper on Burns on Tuesday at Ayr Racecourse as part of an international conference on celebrity culture being held by Paisley University.

Carruthers told the Sunday Herald that Burns was Scotland's first true "superstar" but that contemporary books and films were squandering the legacy of the "rhinestone ploughboy".

He said: "Recently there was the very dreadful film A Red Rose that claims that Burns's doctor William Maxwell was a radical, turned by the government and that he attempted to poison Burns and this is complete crap.

"The director is a woman who claims her film was ignored because it was too politically controversial. Her film was ignored because it was based on made-up history.

"Over the last 20 years, Burns has become this leftist superman and it's as much nonsense as other versions of Burns. Time and time again Burns's legacy is hijacked by melodrama."

Writer and producer of A Red Rose, Mairi Sutherland, hit back at Carruthers, saying that he has a "political axe to grind".

Sutherland said: "Clearly this gentleman doesn't like the idea of Burns being a socialist. My defence of the murder of Robert Burns by William Maxwell is poetic licence but there are factual elements to back it up - that he was pushed to his death by the establishment."

She added: "I can substantiate it with academic papers that Gerard is welcome to look at if he wishes."

Carruthers also claims that contemporary versions of Burns have become too politically correct.

"Where once there was a right-wing conspiracy that kept Burns sexually safe, where his sexual poetry and satire wasn't acknowledged, we have now gone to the other extreme of a politically correct Burns where he is seen as a radical icon."

Carruthers attacked two recent books written on Burns, The Clarinda Conspiracy (published by Edinburgh's Mainstream), and The Canongate Burns, written by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, a book the academic says should be "pulped".

He said: "The Clarinda Conspiracy by Alistair Campsie is a well-written book but it's a Mills and Boon Burns for Marxists.

"It claims that Henry Dundas, who at the time was more or less the first minister of Scotland, was jealous of Burns because he was a better poet and could get women into beds that Dundas could not.

"As far as we know, Dundas wrote one piece of poetry because he was too busy to be a poet, and was not the sexual maniac that Clarinda claims."

Carruthers continued: "Most recently, and most damagingly the Canongate Burns pretends to be a scholarly edition of the poems.

"It's a book that really Canongate should be pulping.

"In one case they remove the initial F as the original source at the bottom of a poem - meaning this is almost certainly written by someone with the initial F - but they don't tell us that."

Carruthers's criticisms come at a time when Burns's popularity is at an all-time high. Last November Green MSP Chris Ballance began a campaign to have the bard's song A Man's A Man For A' That adopted as Scotland's national anthem. It was then announced in March that Burns's Cottage in Ayrshire is to be restored as part of a GBP10 million Burns heritage trail. A new film about the poet is in the pipeline - the movie, entitled Burns, stars Scots actor Gerard Butler, and focuses on his relationship with Jean Armour, who is played by Julia Stiles.

One Burns aficionado, Peter J Westwood, honorary president of the Robert Burns World Federation and former editor of the Burns Chronicle, fears that among the many attempts to celebrate Burns, Scots have lost sight of the true Rabbie.

"I see Burns as a man of the people but these academics try to move him up a few leagues. He was far more down to earth than some people would have you believe.

"In 2009 we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth and there will no doubt be more books and films trying to get new angles on him, but they need to be factually correct. Small mistakes are OK, but it's the big ones that get people like me hot and bothered."

For Alan Riach, lecturer in Scottish literature at Glasgow University, the main problem with our contemporary obsession with Burns is that he has overshadowed the achievements of other Scottish writers.

He said: "I feel that children should be able to learn about William Dunbar, Hugh MacDiarmid or William Souter. They all ought to be made as easily available as Burns.

"The arts are the genius of the country and education is the key by which you unlock that door, not through one single person."

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