"You'll easy draw a lang-kent face, but no sae weel a stranger." - Robert Burns
Ahead of tonight’s Burns festivities, MSPs spent some time last week debating how best to profit from the poet’s legacy. The motion on the economic potential of Robert Burns, brought by Joan McAlpine, sought to recognise the impact of “Burns the brand”. According to the last estimate, the poet generated £157m a year for Scotland.
Unsurprisingly the Chamber was unanimous in its praise for the Bard of Scotland. The debate only came close to being fractious when members from Ayrshire and those from the Borders argued over who had a greater claim on Burns. Oliver Mundell seemed to lay that point to rest by pointing out that he’s still in a Dumfries mausoleum.
Despite the mark Burns has left on Scotland, his presence has left less of a physical imprint on the Holyrood building than one might expect.
The Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament, which sits at the foot of the Royal Mile, is the building’s nod to Scotland’s literary heritage. It has engraved on it 26 quotations, mostly from Scottish writers, all selected to be of special relevance to the nation.
Only two authors appear on the wall twice: Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid. But MacDiarmid beats Burns on appearances three to two. Though both men have made significant contributions to Scotland’s literary culture, MacDiarmid remains a far more controversial figure.
He was a founder of the National Party of Scotland (a forerunner to the SNP) and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Nationalists would eventually expel him for his communism, while the Communists found his nationalism unpalatable and so expelled him as well.
MacDiarmid’s entanglement with contemporary Scottish politics is probably part of the reason he remains too controversial a figure for cosy members’ business debates. That makes his pre-eminent position on Holyrood’s lithic pantheon surprising and worthy of some consideration.
Burns doesn’t need much help in securing a public profile for himself in Scotland. Indeed, during the debate it was broadly accepted that his status as a tourist attraction is well established. But what about those who came after him? Though often lauded at home, their images could do with a boost abroad.
Alasdair Gray, for example, also features on the Canongate Wall. Author of celebrated novel Lanark, Gray is also a renowned painter. His murals can be found in Glasgow Subway stations, bars and theatres. He may soon even have another work on a wall at the Scottish Parliament. The artist is only now set to have his first solo exhibition open in London, a reflection of his relative obscurity outside of Scotland.
Muriel Spark has recently been made the subject of a small but fascinating exhibition at the National Library of Scotland to mark the centenary of her birth. But despite the enduring popularity of her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie there seems less effort to show her off on a global stage.
Burns’ claim to the Bard of Scotland title is unquestionable at this point. His reputation is global and his appeal universal, but that surely means that we can now give a platform to some of Scotland’s less iconic, but no less talented, writers. Scotland might be geographically compact, but it’s literary heritage is vast.
The controversial MacDiarmid was on to something when he incredulously wrote: “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?” We can enjoy Burns, of course, but to do so at the expense of all others would be missing a big opportunity.
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