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A bard is not just for Burns Night

Primary | Published in TESS on 23 January, 2009 | By: John Hodgart

John Hodgart argues that there is a place for Robert Burns at any stage in the curriculum and at any time of the year

In this 250th anniversary year of Burns’s birth, record quantities of haggis will be consumed in honour of the bard. Yet, ironically, what isn’t so certain is the place of Burns and Scottish poetry in Scottish schools.

Many primary or lower secondary teachers have long used the annual Burns Competition as an opportunity to “do” at least one poem or song and maybe even a project on Burns’s life and times, covering several curricular strands. These days, there is no shortage of resources to be zoomed into the classroom.

The Burns World Federation site tries to answer difficult questions such as who was Burns, why all the fuss, what is so special about him?

The Learning and Teaching Scotland website offers much that will support primary teachers, including a matrix showing how Burns relates to A Curriculum for Excellence, while the secondary section reveals ways Burns can be related to almost every corner of the curriculum, including geometry and astronomy (masonic shapes and symbols), sport (haggis throwing), distilling and making potions (exciseman and witches) and sex education (womaniser and mair than a dozen weans).

Even when Burns was a set text for Revised Higher, he was not a very popular choice, partly due to lack of interest or awareness by teachers, but also because there were too many poems to cover in the time.

One way round the time pressure is to use an integrated approach to literature, centring a unit on the text and trying to relate all the other elements to it. A study guide I devised for Revised Higher covers close reading, discursive or report writing and creative suggestions, drawn from articles about his life and work by David Daiches, with suggestions for further research. It contains short commentaries and textual analysis questions on each poem, plus critical essay questions and further notes on the songs and satires. Advanced Higher students could also dip into Ken Simpson’s excellent Scotnote and listen to the Association of Scottish Literary Studies’ tape by Ronnie Jack, which has readings and commentaries on “Tam”, “Holy Willie” and “John Anderson”.

Once students have read several texts and discussed themes, style and technique, they could draw up lists of what they consider the most interesting, then work collaboratively to find the evidence and develop their understanding. Hopefully, their reading and research would deepen their appreciation of the incredible poetic achievement of a man suspended between different worlds, struggling with conflicting loyalties and identities.

This could be explored further at Advanced Higher by comparing some of his verse epistles and letters to different audiences. Students could argue endlessly over who the real Burns was and draw up cases for the defence and prosecution.

If teachers use any one Burns poem in senior school, “Tam O’ Shanter” would have to be it, though “Holy Willie” sometimes sneaks in. Both should be essential reading for all Scottish students at this level, as they are two of the finest poems in any literature: a fantastic, satirical comic narrative and one of the sharpest satires ever penned. They speak volumes about a dark legacy that still haunts us, with many universal and contemporary parallels.

There are plenty of satires which should be done at Higher or Advanced Higher. “The Holy Fair” gleefully sends up bible-thumping madness and presents a rich comic tapestry of human contradictions, while “The Twa Dogs”, a powerful social and political satire, has many things to say to our age about a world ill-divided. “The Address of Beelzebub”, one of the most vitriolic, presents Beelzebub grimly congratulating Highland lairds on their good work in shackling their tenants who, ironically, wanted to emigrate.

Burns’s love songs could also be studied, such as “Corn Riggs” and “A Red Rose”, which offer complementary perspectives on love, while his political and patriotic songs should be required reading for all. But to appreciate fully their power and beauty, students need to understand his incredible skill in reworking tunes and creating a seamless blend of words and memorable melodies.

In most of his great poems and songs, Burns unites the art and folk traditions of Scotland, but he uses a fluid mixture of earthy expressive Scots, English as used by a Scot, plus a more elevated English to create contrasting or distancing effects.

If Burns really is our national bard, and justification for a Homecoming, his work must have a central place in the literary education of Scottish children, so they can appreciate that he is a very great poet, “weel deserving” tributes at any time of year, accompanied by haggis or not.

John Hodgart is principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire.

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