Robert Burns the Scottish Bard:

Prescriptivism, Poetic Primitivism, and the Status of Scots in the Eighteenth Century

Jennifer R. McDermott © 2007 



Robert Burns remains to this day a defining figure of Scottish identity. As a poet, lyricist, and collector of folk ballads, Burns is the most widely renowned of all Scots writers. In fact “Burns Night,” which is held on the 25th of January every year to commemorate his birthday (both in Scotland and the wide-reaching Scottish Diaspora), is more extensively celebrated than the official national holiday: Saint Andrew’s Day. What is it that would make this eighteenth century poet from the rural district of Ayrshire into such a cultural icon?  What could possibly account for his popularity and unique position as the national bard of Scotland?  This article argues, by way of a focused literature review, that it is precisely Burns’s sophisticated code-switching between Scots and English, or his Anglo-Scottish hybrid, that accorded him a strong following in the sentimentalist/ primitivist vogue while also allowing him to present a genuine voice for Scottish nationalist expression.  Specifically, Burns’s Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) created a release valve against the anti-Scots pressures dominant in the eighteenth century. In order to situate Burns and his impact within the eighteenth century vernacular revival, this article combines a linguistic study of his poems with an historical approach.  


1) The History and Codification of Scots as a Language


Defining Scots

Much ink has been spilt debating the status of Scots. Over the past three centuries, there has been substantial controversy in Scotland (see McArthur 1998:138-159) over whether Scots should be considered a national language apart from English to be preserved in its own right, or whether it is just a “low bad,” “vulgar,” or “slovenly” English dialect.[1]  Historically, Scots has been defined as the oldest form of English spoken in Scotland or as a “traditional Germanic language of the southern and eastern parts of Scotland (the Lowlands), Orkney and Shetland and parts of Ulster” (Nihtinen 119). In literary forms, Scots is frequently known as Lallands (Eng. Lowlands) with the localized varieties of Doric or Ulster as subdivisions. The Scots tongue descended from the northern version of Anglo-Saxon as a cousin to the East Midland dialect of Middle English, and accordingly it shares many features of Standard English.  But the gap that began in the Middle Ages between “Inglis” – as Scots was called until 1494 – and “English” has continued to widen with time.  As such, Scots and English have different words and expressions, divergent grammatical patterns, and distinct systems of morphology and pronunciation. Here “Scots” is used as a general term that covers every aspect of the language from its origins within an Northumbrian Old English context, to its use the by medieval Makars, its appearance in the “Scottish Court, the literary Scots which developed after around 1700, and all the surviving dialects, such as the speech of Buchan, the Borders and Caithness” up to modern usage (Purves 1).

The Language Ecology of Scotland
In present day Scotland three linguistic systems intersect: English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic. While Scotland is typically described on tourism websites as a predominately English speaking nation, it is important to note that Scottish English is not merely British English with a funny accent. Rather, as Raymond Hickey points out, there are many distinguishable varieties spoken in Scotland.  He suggests four major categories of Scottish English, keeping the Gaelic stratum entirely distinct.  The first of these is traditional Scots, the next is Contact English spoken by both Scottish Gaelic and English speakers, the third is Standardized Scottish English (SSE) which most closely resembles British Received Pronunciation, and finally there is the Urban Variety arising from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Scottish Gaelic is consistently deemed a separate entity in Scotland’s history.  This is because in the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland, English has only been spoken about 200 years. These regions are still populated by tens of thousands of native Gaelic speakers.  The demarcation (or lack thereof) between English and Scots, however, has remained a more sensitive language situation for centuries (Trudgill 91).


The Political Struggle for Dominance and the Historic Influence of England          

English has been spoken in Scotland almost as long as it has existed in England itself.  Before the Angles settled the land north of the Humber in the seventh century, however, the majority of Scotland’s population was Celtic-speaking.  It was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Scotland that Old Northumbrian English, known as “Inglis” but now recognized as Scots, expanded into general use.  This spreading of Scots pushed Gaelic up towards the Highland Line and caused the British Midland dialect to become “extinct in Scotland” (Sandred 13).  Indeed, during the years when Scotland was an independent kingdom Scots flourished.  


When James VI (the Scottish King) ascended the English throne in 1603, the old Scottish Court and Parliament used Scots as their official language. Scots was their means of diplomacy and a vernacular prose medium with high status in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under the “Union of the Crowns.”  At this point Scotland and England remained separate countries; Scotland maintained its own legal, kirk (Eng. church), and governmental systems. However, the “Union Acts of Parliament” dissolved this crucial difference.  From 1707 onward, the Parliament of Scotland was disbanded.  Scotland was subsumed into the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Here Standard English instead, i.e. received British norms, replaced Scots as the dominant language and it became associated with power, rule, and hierarchy in the political ideology of Scotland.  The Union with England “sometimes described as being ‘in bed with an Elephant’ (Scott 1985) has had undoubtedly wide-ranging consequences with regard to both national identity and linguistic and cultural matters” (Nihtinen 118).  Accompanying the Union Acts was a switch in education systems, language status policy, and general opinion regarding Standard English over Scots as the language of choice. 


Education Standards and the Beginnings of Language Reform

The eighteenth century, in particular, saw a great change in how people in Scotland came to regard their own use of language.  The political dominance of England over Scotland brought along with it some very negative views about the “mither tongue,” “where Lowland Scots was at best perceived by the English Establishment as vulgar, barbaric and certainly lacking in propriety” (Jones).  Just as the legislation of Scotland changed, so too did the insistence upon Standardized English within the schools. As is common within corpus planning, “the model favored by elites is typically adopted by schools, which in turn promote the public acceptance of […] the ‘ideology of standardization,’ the idea that there is a correct way of using the language and that all people ought to use it this way” (Cooper 135).  By the 1840’s the Scottish Education Department fervently discouraged the use of Scots as they deemed it “no longer the language of educated people anywhere.”  From this teaching model developed a wider preference for a fixed norm of linguistic usage – one where Standard Scottish English, which approximated British norms, was the “correct” standard to follow. English was being taught and presented in Scottish schools as a remedy for careless local speech, which made many Scots increasingly insecure about their language as it was felt to fall short of this “universal standard” (Cooper 138). 


2) Standardization and Anglicization in the Eighteenth Century



This desire to affix the English language in Scotland to an acceptable standard, to create norms and police them, came to a head in the prescriptivist movement of the eighteenth century. Many Scots began to turn against their own ‘braid’ way of speaking in favor of another model, if not one of southern court-English then at least a form approximating British English that would allow them to gain political, economic, and social ground in relation to the blooming metropolis of London (see Jones: 1995). As Charles Jones traces in his essay, “The Grammarian’s Battleground,” this period saw a proliferation of grammar books, spelling guides, pronunciation dictionaries, improvement clubs, and general essays on the proper use of the English language.  The prescriptivist aim was to linguistically “cleanse” Lowland Scotland, purging their English of any “base” Scotticisms (Jones). They aspired, like the Académie Française and the Royal Society of London, to establish a higher standard of purity.  It follows that after 1707 and the merging of the Parliaments, Scots and Scottish Gaelic began to erode under this tidal force of anglicization.


The Irony of Enlightenment

The peak of the Scottish Enlightenment (i.e. the historic period occurring from 1750 to 1780 that saw an intense upsurge in intellectual development, scientific production, and creative energy) was not without contradiction.  In the same moment that major advancements were being made across numerous disciplines by Scotsmen (e.g. Hutcheson, Hobbes, Hume, Smith, Burnett, and Watt) and that Scotland was gaining ground as a forerunner of modern achievement, the Scots themselves grew ever more self-conscious about their language as backward, barbarous, or an “uncouth brogue” (Buchanan 1757:xv: footnote).  David Hume reflects upon this irony in his letter to Gilbert Elliot: “Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government […] are unhappy, in our Accent and Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that in these Circumstances, we shou’d really be the People most distinguish’d?” (1757 letter: Dossena 57).  It is likely that since the Union Acts diverted Scotland’s attention away from their opposition with England and towards larger philosophical issues, that Scotland began to associate British English with modernization and forward thinking.  In fact, it was the very failure of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 that ironically helped to spur the Scottish Enlightenment. Whatever the reason may be, an important part of the Enlightenment’s cultural revival was the “rekindling of interest in Scots as a variety of speech and writing which was markedly different from English” – a variety in need of refinement (Corbett 9).


The Negative Codification of Scots by the English

While the vast majority of prescriptivist manuals were actually written by educated Scotsmen for the Scottish public, the impact of Britain’s open condescension cannot be underestimated.  Once the writings of Scottish intellectuals like Hume, Boswell, or Smollet reached England, British editors reviewed them with hawk-like eyes, “Bowdlerizing all traces of perceived Scotticisms” (Jones 1999: 113).  London reviewers frowned upon Scots inflections as a stain upon English.  Any Scottish writers who tried to mix with the fashionable London set were invariably sneered at for their “rustic brogue.”[2] Even English visitors, such as Thomas Morer, suggested that no matter how hard the Scottish upperclasses try, they will always have “an unhappy” and uneducated “tone” which “cannot be overcome” (1689: Kay 90). This sense of implicit linguistic superiority is obvious in much English writing, but none had a greater influence on the negative codification of Scots than Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary.


Johnson clearly states in his preface that he wishes to guard English from intruders.  Wherever he chooses to include Scottish terms he is “careful to brand the word as low,” “vulgar,” and obsolete (Siebert 486).  His snobbery against Scots shines through in some definitions, as it does for oats:  a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”  Johnson thus built a negative perception of Scotland generally, and a disparagement of the Scots language, into the book hailed as the first true standard of English. 


The Negative Codification of Scots by the Scotsmen Themselves

While English writers like Johnson codified Scots peripherally in dictionaries, Scottish writers directly attacked their own Scotticisms in grammar books, phonetic guides, seminars, and reading clubs. Groups like “The Select Society of Edinburgh” and “The Select Society for Promoting the Reading and Speaking of the English Language in Scotland” were formed by members as illustrious as Hugh Blair, Adam Fergusson, Tobias Smollet, William Robertson, and Adam Smith. They wished native Scots to learn and “perfect” the English tongue through either elocution lessons (Thomas Sheridan), education reforms (James Buchanan, James Elphinston), corrective pronunciation guides (John Burn), anglicizing orthographies (Alexander Barrie), or a combination of all these. Others promoted an even more aggressive approach, providing lists of Scotticisms, or “Vulgarities of Speech,” to target and eradicate. David Hume, James Beattie published lists, such as Scotticisms: Arranged in Alphabetical Order Designed to Correct Improprieties of Speech and Writing (1787), that suggested replacing Scotch phrases with their English equivalents (e.g. “know” instead of “ken,” or “hinder from doing” instead of “hinder to do”).  Their stated goal was to put speakers “on their guard against some of those Scotch idioms, which, in this country, are liable to be mistaken for English” (Beattie: from Berry 131). These examples are only a small sampling of the plethora of guides published in Scotland during the heyday of prescriptivism.


Pinkerton Syndrome

A curious side-effect of prescriptivism was to carve out a special literary niche for Scots.  Even those critics who most ardently strove to improve their grammar and vocabulary towards the British standard felt that, somehow, the awkward or archaic language they sought to repress was particularly appropriate to rustic poetry.  This opinion, most closely associated with the poet, historian, and “Celtophobe” John Pinkerton (1758-1826) spread through Scotland at the same time that prescriptivism characterized Scots as “vulgar” (McClure 57).  Poetic expression was considered an exception in which Scots was acceptable as a folksy language of the heart, rather than the modern and intellectual English, or language of the head (Dossena 82).  Pinkerton writes that while “none can more sincerely wish a total extinction of the Scottish colloquial dialect than I do,” as Scotticisms are “barbarisms,” […] “Yet, I believe, no man of either kingdom would wish an extinction of the Scottish dialect in poetry” (1786, from McClure 57).  This attitude, in combination with a the growing nostalgia for all things simple, rural, and sentimentally Scottish, helped set in motion the vogue for poetic primitivism.


3) The Scottish Vernacular Revival


The Protective Urge

Robert Burns seized upon the rising popularity of primitivist expression and the techniques of his predecessors as a means to protect his disparaged mother tongue. Even while the prescriptive urge grew against Scots, so too grew a contrary desire to preserve Scots as a component of national identity.   This literary movement, “sparked by the anthologies and original poetry of Allan Ramsay, then Robert Fergusson, and then, most famously, Robert Burns,” is typically labeled the vernacular revival (Corbett 8).  This revival – defined as the linguistic reappraisal of Scots on the basis of literary production within the later eighteenth century – is usually yoked to Burns in particular, but it is important to realize that “others had ploughed the vernacular furrow before” him (Sprott 74).  The term “revival” is somewhat misleading as there is a long tradition of Scots literature, including the medieval Makars like Dunbar and such poets as Ossian/ Macpherson, Henryson, Watson, and Sempill. A distinguishing point I should stress is that this movement was less of a “revival” of Scots literature per se, but rather a case of “reassigning” Scots through literature “some of the status it had lost in the eyes of educated opinion” (Dossena 84).  As the language dynamic in the later eighteenth century shifted, most educated Scotsmen became bilingual, able to write in either Scots or English.  Due to prescriptivism, many Scottish writers like Blackdock, Blair, and Beattie aspired to compose their poems in a pure Standard English – resulting in poetry that has been called “stilted.” The vernacular poets Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, by choosing to write in Scots or a Scots-English hybrid, are notable in that they were not merely using the language unselfconsciously as writers before them had.  Rather, their decision was “an act with overt and inescapable cultural, even political, implications: a deliberate gesture of support for a denigrated tongue” (McClure 30).


Allan Ramsay (1685-1758)

As a poet, Ramsay arrived on the literary scene some fifty years earlier than Burns. He published in English and Scots, as well as “thin Scots” – a mixture of the two. While Ramsay is often hailed as the father of the vernacular revival, his position on Scots is rather complex. On the one hand, Ramsay clearly upheld the Scots literary tradition of the great medieval writers, publishing an anthology of poems before 1600; he insisted in his preface that it was essential for poets to know and use their own native tongue instead of foppishly aspiring to “vaunt of acquiring a tolerable perfection” of another (1725: Kay 106); and he railed against the Acts of Union in his early poems by picturing a heaven filled with Scottish heroes.  On the other, Ramsay established the Easy Club that began by reading British Augustan poetry; he took and then later rejected an English penname himself; and he chose to leave the most serious poems (those either political, philosophical, or moral) to the English or use English models himself (like Pope and Dryden), preferring Scots for comic or rustic poetry.  Indeed, Ramsay has often been faulted for trivializing the potential of Scots even while trying to protect it, since he seems to have “restricted the range of Scots to less dignified forms” (McClure 3).  Yet it is unlikely that Ramsay felt that his Scots was inadequate to the task of these higher poems.  More probable is the idea that he was trying to reach a wider audience through English in his political pieces. 


All in all, Ramsay must be recognized as a central figure for the vernacular revival for many reasons: first, his pastoral writing in the Gentle Shepherd made a tremendous impact by indulging in the sentimental vogue for rusticity,  second, his poems began to work towards a combination of Scots and English varied by register (in the same style, though with less success, than Burns), third, his work as an editor on the Ever Green collection established a link between the early Scots and the writings of the new vernacular revival, and fourth, he contributed to the resurgence of interest in vernacular poetry while also – perhaps accidentally – presenting Scots as most appropriate for simple, bawdy, and rustic poems. 


Robert Fergusson (1750-1774)

Robert Fergusson, Ramsay’s immediate successor, also wrote in English and Scots but in quite a different vein.  Fergusson was a distinctly urban poet, University educated at St. Andrews, who wrote energetically about city life in Scots.  He divorced himself from the sentimental vogue (which connected Scots to farming and the peasant classes) to instead describe Edinburgh and “the darker side of street life in the capital city” (Kay 110).  While Fergusson began by emulating English models and writing conventional poetry in his apprenticeship, he shifted into Scots from 1772 onwards in his final poetic burst.  Indeed, Fergusson did not tend to blend Scots and English together, as Ramsay attempted and Burns later would do with such skill, but instead he would work in one tongue or the other. Critically, it has been his Scots poetry that has been valued where his English work was dismissed.  


Fergusson’s most famous poem is a jocular jibe in Scots at English language reformers.  This poem, “To the Principal and Professors of the University of St. Andrews, on their Superb treat to Dr Samuel Johnson,” uses acerbic humor to retaliate against Johnson’s anti-Scottish definition of “oats.”  He begins the poem by praising the delights that had actually been offered to Johnson during his tour of Scotland and then, with irony, suggests an alternate menu where oats are served in all five courses – envisioning the Haggis sliding abrasively down the Doctor’s throat with the inventive Scottish term: “hirsle.”[3]


Their Cumulative Influence on Robert Burns

It is clear that both Fergusson and Ramsay helped set the public conditions for Burns’s success – in terms of developing cultural authority, raising popularity for Scots, and challenging language norms.  Burns borrows from Ramsay his Scots orthography, his emphasis on a rustic/bardic persona, and his English-Scots mixing. Burns likewise draws inspiration from Fergusson’s human sympathy, humorous tone, and urban linguistic strategy.  All three poets shared a desire to write in both Scots and English as part of their “act of resistance against Anglicization,” believed in Scottish self-determination, and felt a deep affection for the traditional music, poetry, and folk stories of their nation (Scott 14, 16).  Robert Burns is the peak figure for this movement, though, in that he was able to combine the pastoral influence of Ramsay with the satiric urban style of Fergusson. 


4) Linguistic Analysis of Burns’s Poetry


Burns as a Poet

In the thirty-seven years of Burns’s short life, he published literally hundreds of poems, songs and letters.[4]  While some of these were written purely in Scots or expressly in English (which, in the same manner as Ramsay, were often directly addressed to British readers on political issues such as republicanism, radicalism, or Scottish patriotism) the vast majority carefully blended the two tongues for specific effect.  Printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Burns's Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect used both languages together and modulated registers to differing degrees within each poem, achieving tremendous public success.


Most modern critics (e.g. Andrews, Corbett, Crawford, Daiches, McGuirk, McIlvanney, Murison, and Scott) tend to discuss how well Burns was able to succeed in one tongue or the other, or consider his mastery of both languages as evidence of his ‘genius’ within the vernacular revival.  Those who link his linguistic mixing to radical intent typically evaluate the presence of political themes in poems like “The Twa Dogs” (Calvinist critique), “Scots Wha Hae’” (revolutionary ideals), “A Man's A Man For A' That” (class consciousness), “The Vision” (Anti-Union stance), or his America poems. These critics suggest that these politically explicit poems, which demonstrate different aspects of Burns’s radicalism, contribute strongly to his status as a national symbol.  I focus instead on two pieces that are rarely treated for their linguistic significance: “To A Mouse,”[5] Burns’s most widely beloved poem, and “A Bard’s Epitaph,”[6] which is lesser known.  Even in these less obviously political poems we can trace Burns’s patriotism. Both these pieces masterfully demonstrate his primitivist indulgence and bardic persona, as well as his register shifting for greater psychological-moral depth. These two poems reveal how code-switching between low and high forms can serve to dissolve ideological boundaries and social stereotypes while also providing a unique vantage point for governmental critique. The literary analysis that follows is structured around these elements as they relate to the diglossia between English and Scots English.


To A Mouse

In this poem Burns consciously casts himself as the “heaven taught plowman.”  The plot, even in the Scots sections, is easy enough to follow for the Standard English speaker. Burns, in plowing a corn field, has upturned the nest of a little field mouse and does his best to console the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” (Wilkie 74).  This scene fits perfectly into, and profited from the popularity of, the primitivist vogue. Not only does Burns represent himself as a simple rustic, but further as a man so emotional and empathetic that he would care for this poor ‘mousie’s’ woes – thus fulfilling the affective demands of the sentimentalism tradition (see McGuirk). This is in keeping with how Burns describes himself, in the dedication which prefaces his Edinburgh edition, as “A Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his Country’s service” (Kay 113). He explains that the Scottish muse came to him “at the plow, and threw her inspiring mantle over [him],” commanding him to “sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes […] of my native soil, in my native tongue” (Kay 113). Burns employs Scots in this poem, and even (as Snyder points out) an exaggeratedly archaic Scottish dialect. The obscure farming terminology would have been beyond the Scots actually spoken by the purchasers of his volume (513), but he uses it in order to characterize himself as an idealized or archetypal Scottish farmer.


He begins the poem by layering many distinctive Scots lexical elements (such as “bickerin’brattle,” “laith,” “wee,” “pattle,” etc.) and an emphasized long “a” vowel sound through the orthography.  The Scots here is connected to an emotional, immediate, and comforting voice. But then in the second stanza the poem slides effortlessly into a more reflective and controlled English: “I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion/ Has broken Nature’s social Union,/ An’ justified that ill opinion/ Which makes thee startle” (74). The verses continue to balance Scots and English – moving towards the creature with a gentle, rural simplicity and vigor associated with Scots while further meditating on his despair in thoughtful, more distant English. As Carol McGuirk observes, Burns’s careful blending of “vernacular Scottish enlivens the sentimental, while the generalizing, self-consciously poetic English component broadens the significance of the vernacular [to create] an inimitable effect of meaningful simplicity, an effect by no means characteristic of all poets in the Scottish folk tradition” (xxii).  This would seem to follow in Ramsay’s footsteps since he links the pastoral mode and Scots, but Burns further incorporates English to introduce ideal dimensions to the folk model. He implies through his Anglo-Scottish hybrid that this real Scottish character has the sophistication to think philosophically in one language while commenting earnestly in another. 


The Scots lexis and idioms, like “cranreuch,” “dribble,” “daimen,” “foggage,” and “gang aft agley” serve not only to create a milieu but also to highlight specific “motivations” (Macaffe 327).  Burns employs ‘primitive’ sounding terms to increase stylistic effect, but as Macaffe avows, he also uses these Scots words to link the emotional, humanized side of his character to a Scotsman’s insider awareness.  He chooses Scots terms that carry more meaning for one select group of readers than another. Yet, even so, these idioms give the English reader the desired air of exoticism and convey a distilled essential Scottishness even when they do not recognize the insider’s meaning, making “the dialect item “the mot juste in the immediate context” for both audiences (Macaffe 327). 


With this strategic use of Scots and his delicate register-switching, Burns gains a particular radical position. As McIlvanney contends, the bardic persona and Burns’s conversational, immediate tone are fundamental to the poem’s intent.  His “persona and the accompanying rhetoric of spontaneity are integral to the poems themselves” for determining a uniquely Scottish “national character” (McIlvanney 43). It is not the case that “the bardic, primitivst discourse popularized by academics tie[d] Burns into a humiliating, subaltern role” but “on the contrary, these theories proved enabling for Burns […] by providing a vantage point from which the project of ‘improvement’ could be criticized and challenged” (McIlvanney 43).


A Bard’s Epitaph

The political implications of Burns’s code-switching are more obvious in “A Bard’s Epitaph,” the concluding poem of the Kilmarnock edition. Here Burns makes himself into a national symbol by writing about himself as one – albeit deceased. Where Burns names himself a bard it is with the connotations that McGuirk outlines: “a bard is a poet whose insights convey a national perspective and for whom self-expression simultaneously involves cultural definition” (106).  In the opening stanza, Burns asks any man, any “whim-inspir’d fool, / Owre fast for thought, owre hot for rule” that passes his grave to pause and shed a tear on his behalf.  The words “inspir’d” and “rule” hint at the political undercurrent in this poem. Yet, it is in the second stanza where Burns really begins to characterize himself as a fallen hero of Scotland.  He, “the bard of rustic song” who (in a hidden pun) both “steals” a position among the crowds and “steels” the crowd towards radical sentiment, appeals to the onlookers and hopes to elicit a “frater-feeling strong” or sense of Scottish fraternity.  Burns then makes an example of himself for others, asking them to avoid his mistakes and wildness (probably his fondness for whisky and women).  He cautions the onlooker, and so too the reader, to “attend” and learn to steer the course of their lives with similar passionate Scottishness but with more prudence. 


In so doing, Burns switches from a thin Scots at the opening to pure Standard English in the final stanza – linking “self-control” with an increasingly anglicized voice.  This code-switching implies that the English stanzas are the careful ones, those more officially permissible yet drained of the passion of the opening Scots.  It is the English turned voice that is also linked to his supposed bardic failure. Of course, as Andrews points out, these lines are highly ironic “in light of Burns’s project of national identification through the representation of character.  Where Ramsay and Fergusson had been unable to create successful models for national unification […], Burns’s appealed much more effectively to its national audience because of the ‘prudent, cautious self-control’ at the heart of its representations of character” (330-1).  Burns’s bardic self allowed Scotsmen to see themselves as flawed yet genuine, as farmers also capable of philosophical thought, as both able to use English and able to choose Scots as best suits the moment.  This “offered them a national character that could not be incorporated or dissolved” even in the midst of the English pressures that were so forcefully present in Scotland the later eighteenth century (Andrews 331).


Burns as a National Symbol

By presenting himself as a primitive rustic, a simple farmer, and a man of Ayrshire Scots, Burns was able to write in a particularly compelling bardic voice.  He wrote about traditional folk subjects and mixed into these a representation of idealized national character that further showed (as McIlvanney claims) his critical engagement with a variety of political discourses, “including civic humanism, Real Whiggism and Presbyterian contractarianism” (96).  By assuming a rustic persona as the humble ‘bardie’ in his poems, by mixing together registers, and by blending Scots and English Burns is able to suggest that even the “humblest member of [Scottish] society is competent to censure and admonish his governors” (McIlvanney 96). Burns’s poems are in many ways patriotic, radical, and distinctly historical – as they are firmly situated within this heated linguistic moment of formation in Scotland.


4) Literary Impact of Burns as a Scots National Poet


Burns’s Popularity

Within a matter of weeks Burns went from being a local hero to a nationally acclaimed success.  His Kilmarnock edition, as recorded by the National Library of Scotland, cost three shillings and was covered in unassuming blue wrappings.  Yet, the entire print-run of 612 copies “sold out within a month, justifying his belief in his abilities and in the merit of his poems.” His collection was purchased (and shared) by fellow county members, as Burns was the “centre of his social community in Ayrshire” (Campbell 42), but more importantly it made its way into the hands of the literary elite of Edinburgh and beyond.  It was as Burns had dreamed.  Where he had announced himself to the world as an unlettered plowman and natural genius in the preface, the world took him at his word and celebrated him for it. 


Of course, as David Daiches and Tom Crawford note, Burns was not at all the simple farmer he purported to be. Burns received a fairly extensive education at his father’s insistence, despite their families’ limited means.  He was rigorously trained by a private tutor, John Murdoch, in English Literature “derived mainly from Arthur Masson’s anthology” (Simpson 4).  Burns was familiar with Pope’s translation of Homer, the style of the Augustan poets, and the writings of Shakespeare, Thomson, Shenstone, Mackenzie, and Locke before he ever opened a volume of Scottish poetry (see Murison: 54-59).  Yet, there was also the strong influence of his mother and her kinswoman, Betty Davidson, who granted Burns access to the “native oral tradition” (Simpson 4).  Burns developed his mother’s pithy Scots wit and schooled himself in vernacular Scottish literature by privately studying the rhymes of the Makars, Ramsay, Fergusson and others in his teenage years. Burns thus trained himself in both languages, developing his knack for choosing the right word in each instance. Indeed, Burns’s poems show the extent of his education, his subtle apprehension of social workings, and his ability to engineer particular responses.


As testament to his immediate popularity, Burns was invited to Edinburgh to oversee the publication of a new, enlarged edition of his works.  This edition, with its appended glossary of Scotticisms, came out only eighteen months later and it too sold very well, earning Burns £400 – enough money to finance his marriage and travel to the West Indies.  


The Rural Persona and the Sentimentalist Indulgence

When Burns arrived in Edinburgh, he was welcomed into the company of aristocrats and men of letters: Stewart, Blacklock, Blair, Robertson, Smith, and (then only a teenager) Walter Scott.  The urbanites were delighted with his poetry but even more so by their own discovery of this virtuoso’s talent – unearthing a diamond in the rough.  As such, the capital reacted warmly to Burns but also circumscribed him as a quaint ploughman poet, an untaught genius.  Intellectuals like Boswell, “Buchan, Blair, Mackenzie, Stewart, and a host of others” wanted to “preserve Burns’s character as a rustic oddity” (McGuirk 77). Indeed, in many of the published accounts of Burns’s travels focus on the details of his social demeanor rather than the merits of his texts, and show a concern for “spoilage” as if Burns were a “country cheese” (see McGuirk 70- 102). Nevertheless, Burns impressed the Scottish elite with his critical abilities.  They were as agog over his polite speech in person as they were with the rounded Scots sounds of his poems. As such, the publicity surrounding Burns as a ‘national find’ grew out of Ayrshire into a sentimentalist indulgence in Edinburgh, and then outward again through British Isles and even beyond – garnering Burns international fame.    


Burns’s Audience and Impact Abroad

English critics likewise encouraged Burns as a rustic genius as his Kilmarnock edition made its way into the hands of readers and found a place in popular British consciousness.[7] As an unsigned remark in the Critical Review (1787) reveals, the common stance was to “regret that the Scottish dialect, in which these poems are written must obscure the native beauties with which they appear to abound, and renders the sense often unintelligible to an English reader” (Dossena 99).  William Cowper, an English poet, similarly laments Burns’s use of an “uncouth dialect” even while he stresses the quality of his poetry (Low 91). Typically, the English literati who read and circulated Burns both appreciated his strengths and challenged his language choice, marking the sociolinguistic connotations of Burns’s Scots as a potential flaw. Yet, Burns’s very popularity – and his successful mixing of traditional Scotticisms and character with English – made him a linguistic innovator. Through his publications, Burns “disseminated Scots vernacular into the vocabulary of the world” (McGuirk 118).  


A Lasting Impression

In the eighteenth century, Burns burst through prescriptivism’s rules via his creation of a bardic persona – riding the coattails of the primitivist vogue, until at last his genius, sincerity, and immediacy came to be recognized not as apart from, but as intricately tied to, the Anglo-Scottish hybrid he employed.  His creative influence can be traced through generations of Scottish writers who weave Scots into their work: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Galt, Lewis Grassic-Gibbon, and – of course – Hugh MacDiarmid.[8] Within the last few decades especially, there has been a fervent return to Scots and new efforts made for its codification and status (see McClure or Kay). Indeed, Burns’s ballads were sung as the doors to new Scottish Parliament was ruled to open in Edinburgh in 1999, and Burns has been held up as an icon to support the resurgence of interest in Scots today. Perhaps it was Emerson that best encapsulated the effect of Burns’s work, saying that it “offers the only example in history of a language made classic through the genius of a single man” (1859: from Low 435).



What makes Burns truly a unique figure then, for the vernacular revival of the later eighteenth century, is not only his evident mastery of established poetic forms or his considerate use of these earlier Scots influences, but beyond this his singularly successful code-switching and register-shifting between both Scots and English for particular nationalist effect. It is no wonder that ‘Rabbie’ Burns will always be Scotland’s national bard!  




















Classified Bibliography


(1) The Move to Standardize English in the Eighteenth Century – Historical Information:


Berry, Christopher. “Adam Smith’s Considerations on Language.” Journal of the History

of Ideas 35.1 (1974): 130-138. JSTOR. 29 October 2006. < sici?sici=0022-5037%28197401%2103%2935 […]>.


Devitt, Amy J. Standardizing Written English: Diffusion in the Case of Scotland 1520-

1659. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.


Dossena, Marina. Scotticisms in Grammar and Vocabulary. Edinburgh: John Donald

Publishers, 2005.


Emsley, Bert. “James Buchanan and the Eighteenth Century Regulation of English

Usage.” PMLA 48.4 (1993): 1154-1166. JSTOR. 29 October 2006.

< [...]>.


Jones, Charles. “The Grammarian’s Battleground: Sources for Scots pronunciation in the

Eighteenth Century.” Paradigm 17 (1995). 29 Ocotber 2006. <http://faculty.ed.>.


Jones, Charles. “Nationality and Standardization: the English Language in Scotland in the

Age of Improvement.” Sociolinguistica 13 (1999): 112-128.


Nihtinen, Atina L.K. “Scotland’s Linguistic Past and Present: Paradoxes and

Consequences.” Studia Celtica Fennica 2 (2005). 29 October 2006. <http://scotsyett. com/ download/Atina.pdf>.


Robinson, Chris. “Father of Dictionary and His Anti-Scots Views.” Scotsman 16 July

2005. 30 October 2006 <



Siebert, Donald. “Bubbled, Bamboozled, and Bit: ‘Low Bad’ Words in Johnson’s

Dictionary.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 26.3(1986): 485-496.


Sorensen, Janet. The Grammar of Empire in Eighteenth Century British Writing.

Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 


Trumpener, Katie. Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire.

Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 


(2) On Burns’s Language and Literary Impact:


Andrews, Corey. “Chapter Three: Robert Burns and the Character of Scottish

Nationalism.” Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth Century Club Poetry. Lampeter [Wales]: Edwin Mellen P, 2004. 215-358.


Burns, Robert. “A Bard’s Epitaph” (1786). Robert Burns Country. 16 November 2006. 



Burns, Robert. “To A Mouse” (1785). Robert Burns Country. 16 November 2006. 



Campbell, Ian. “Burns’s Poems and their Audience.” Critical Essays on Robert Burns.

Ed. Donald A. Low. London: Routledge, 1975. 39-53


Corbett, John. Language & Scottish Literature. Ed. Douglas Gifford. Edinburgh:

Edinburgh UP, 1997.


Crawford, Robert. Ed. Robert Burns & Cultural Authority. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP,



Daiches, David. “Robert Burns: The Tightrope Walker.” Love & Liberty: Robert Burns.

Ed. Kenneth Simpson. East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 1997.18-31.


Findlay, Richard J. “The Burns Cult and Scottish Identity in the Nineteenth and Twentieh

Centuries.” Love & Liberty: Robert Burns. Ed. Kenneth Simpson. East Lothian:

Tuckwell P, 1997.69-78.


Lindsay, Maurice. “Burns and Scottish Poetry.” Love & Liberty: Robert Burns. Ed.

Kenneth Simpson. East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 1997.145-155.


Low, Donald. Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1974.


Macaffe, Caroline. “Dialect Vocabulary as a Source of Stylistic Effects in Scottish

Literature.” Language and Style 19.4 (1986): 325-337. 


McGuirk, Carol. “Paradoxes of Self Expression and Tradition after 1740.” Robert Burns

and the Sentimental Era. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.103-119.


McIlvanney, Liam. Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth Century

Scotland. East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 2002.


McIlvanney, Liam. “Hugh Blair, Robert Burns, and the Invention of Scottish Literature.”

Eighteenth Century Life 29.2 (2005): 25-46.


Murison, David. “The Language of Burns.” Critical Essays on Robert Burns. Ed. Donald

Low. London: Routlege,1975. 54-69.


“Robert Burns 1759-1796.” National Library of Scotland. 2003. 2 December 2006.



Scott, Paul H. “Robert Burns, Patriot.” Love & Liberty: Robert Burns. Ed. Kenneth

Simpson. East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 1997. 266-273.


Simpson, Kenneth. “Introduction.” Love & Liberty: Robert Burns. Ed. Kenneth Simpson.

East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 1997.1-12.


Snyder, Franklyn B. “A Note on Burns’s Language.” Modern Language Notes 43.8
 (1928): 511-518. JSTOR. October 27 2006 <  sici?sici =0149-661%28192812%2943%3A8%3c11% [...]>


Sprott, Gavin. Robert Burns Pride & Passion: The Life, the Times, the Legacy.

Edinburgh: HMSO 1996.


Wilkie, George Scott. Understanding Robert Burns: Verse, Explanation and Glossary.

Glasgow: Neil Wilson, 2002.


(3) Vernacular Revival Poets:


Bold, Valentina. “Rude Bard of the North: James Macpherson and the Folklore of

Democracy.” Journal of American Folklore 114 (2001):464-477.


Crawford, Robert. Heaven-taught Fergusson' Robert Burns's Favourite Scottish Poet:

Poems and Essays. East Lothian: Tuckwell P, 2003.


Crawford, Thomas. “The Vernacular Revival and the Poetic Thrill: A Hedonist

Approach.” Scotland and the Lowland Tongue: Studies in the Language and Literature of Lowland Scotland. Eds. Derrick J. McClure, Adam Aitken, and David Murison. Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1983.


Freeman, F.W. “The Intellectual Background of the Vernacular Revival before Burns.”

Studies in Scottish Literature 16 (1981) 160-187.


Henderson Scott, Paul. “The Eighteenth Century Revival and the Nature of Scottish

Nationalism.” Scottish Studies Review 3.2 (2002) 9-19.


Jack, R.D.S. “Which Vernacular Revival? Burns and the Makars.” Studies in Scottish

Literature 30 (1998), 9-17.


Manning, Susan. Robert Fergusson and Eighteenth-Century Poetry. East Lothian:

Tuckwell P, 2003.


McClure, Derrick J. Scots and its Literature. Ed. Manfred Gorlach. Amsterdam: John

Benjamin’s Publishing, 1995. 


Newman, Steve. “The Scots Songs of Allan Ramsay: ‘Lyrick’ Transformation, Popular

Culture, and the Boundaries of the Scottish Enlightenment.” Modern Language Quarterly 63.3 (2002): 276-315.


Simpson, Matthew. “Hame Content: Globalization and a Scottish Poet of the Eighteenth

Century.” Eighteenth Century Life 27.1 (2003): 107-129.


(4) General Linguistic Background:


Cooper, Robert. “Chapter 5: Status Planning” and “Chapter 6: Corpus Planning.”

Language Planning and Social Change. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. 99-156.


Jenkins, Jennifer. World Englishes: A resource book for students. London: Routledge

Press, 2000.


McArthur, T. Ed. The English Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.


McCrum, Robert. The Story of English. New York: Penguin books, 2003.


(5) Articles on the Varieties of English in Scotland:


Aitken A.J and Tom McArthur. “Scottish Speech: A Historical View with Special

Reference to the Standard English of Scotland.” Languages of Scotland.

Edinburgh: W. and R. Chambers, 1979. 85-118.


Hickey, Raymond. “Scottish English.” Studying Varieties of English. Ed. Raymond

Hickey. September 2006. 16 October 2006. < >


Macleod, Iseabail and Aonghas MacNeacail. Scotland: A Linguistic Double Helix.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh Tourist Board (and The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages),1995.


McClure, Derrick J. Scotland and the Lowland Tongue: Studies in the Language and

Literature of Lowland Scotland in Honour of David D. Murison. Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1983. 


McIntosh, Angus.  An Introduction to a Survey of Scottish Dialects. Edinburgh: U of

Edinburgh P, 1961.


(6) Language Planning and Language Policy in Scotland/ On the Changing Status of Scots:


Corbett, John. “The Current State of Scots.” Observations by John Corbett, Convener of

the ASLS Language Committee, submitted to a Scottish Executive Committee

investigating Scots Language Provision. (2001). 30 October 2006.


Kay, Billy. Scots: The Mither Tongue. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Co., 2006.


McClure, Derrick. Why Scots Matters. Edinburgh: Saltire Society, 1998.


McLeod, Wilson. “Scotland’s Languages in Scotland’s Parliament.” Scottish Affairs 24

(1998): 68-82. 15 October 2006. < /wmclparl.html>


Sandred, Karl Inge. Good or Bad Scots? Attitudes To Optional Lexical and Grammatical

Usages in Edinburgh. Stockholm: Uppsala P, 1983.


(7) Scots Dictionaries and Grammar Books:


Purves, David. A Scots Grammar: Scots Grammar & Usage. Edinburgh: Saltire Society,



Ross, David and Gavin Smith. Scots-English, English-Scots Dictionary. New Lanark:

Lomond Books, 1998.




[1] I take these pejorative terms from Samuel Johnson’s prescriptive dictionary entries as quoted in Donald Siebert’s article.    

[2] This makes their acceptance of Burns (even if partial) so extraordinary.

[3] This poem is, of course, the source of inspiration for Burns’s own feast poem, “To A Haggis.”

[4] See the “Robert Burns Country” webpage for an exhaustive catalog of Burns’s complete works, including 539 of his poems.

[5] (Hit Ctrl + Click to read “To A Mouse” online.)

[6] (Hit Ctrl + Click to read “A Bard’s Epitaph” online.)

[7] It should be noted that the Englishmen who belittled Burns (like Johnson) did so on the same terms.  They emphasized his Scots and claimed that his vulgar language made the other merits of his poems inaccessible to a refined English audience.

[8] Hugh MacDiarmid being one of the vanguards of the Scottish Renaissance which strove to bring Scottish culture and Scots dialects back into public esteem in the 1920s.