The religious times of Robert Burns


A distinguished Burns scholar shares new research into the poet’s involvement in the religious and political issues of the day

Broadly, we might say, Robert Burns was received during the 20th century essentially as a secular, even irreligious poet, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ (the poet’s sincere tribute to his Presbyterian cradle-culture) being gradually supplanted in its 19th century mass popularity by the iconoclastic kirk satire, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.

Previously in this magazine I have written to suggest that the clear evidence shows Burns to be a believer in Christianity.  We might, for instance, see his religious sensibility in his textual additions to the ‘Geddes Burns’, Burns’s poems of 1787 owned by Bishop John Geddes (1735-99), Catholic Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District of Scotland.  The poet borrowed the book from the Bishop and over a period of nearly two years (before eventually returning it to his favourite clergyman) he added a series of soulful, God-searching new works including ‘Written In Friar’s Carse Hermitage’ and ‘On the Death of Sir J. Hunter Blair’.

On returning the volume, Burns was also anxious to know Geddes’s views on the new work.  The pair had met in Edinburgh at some point during the winter of 1786-7, quickly became mutual admirers, and Geddes arranged for copies of Burns’s 1787 Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the ‘Edinburgh’ second edition) to be taken up by Scottish Catholic seminaries and religious houses abroad.  This Scoto-European audience made Burns proud, and he was tickled by it too due to its historic doubling as a Jacobite network; Burns, as his songwriting output shows, was seriously attracted to the rebellious romance of the Jacobites.  As a song-writer, as an antiquarian, Burns makes a serious contribution to the international iconography not only of Charles Edward Stuart but also of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Burns was very sympathetic to Scottish Catholics, contemporary as well as historic.  Other than Geddes, one of his closest friends and his physician in the Dumfries years was the Jesuit-educated William Maxwell (1760-1834), wrongly blamed for Burns’s decision to curatively bathe in the Solway in the final months of the poet’s life.  Earlier, in 1785, Burns’ ‘Address to Beelzebub’, never published in his lifetime, was a scathing attack on the Earl of Breadalbane and a defence of the Catholic tenants, including the Macdonells of Glengarry, whom the landowning autocrat was attempting to evict.  However, the most important part of the story of Burns and religion has to do with the Presbyterian politics in which he was continuously mired from 1785-89.

My own research of recent years has begun to show how important the Moderate Presbyterian party in Ayrshire was to Burns’s early success.[i]  Holy Willie’s Prayer’ was a kind of poetic revenge against the Popular Party Calvinists of Ayrshire who had locked horns with Moderate Presbyterian lawyers, Gavin Hamilton and Robert Aitken.  The circulation of this text in manuscript allowed people to laugh at the opponents of Hamilton and Aitken, and Burns’s reward was his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect published in Kilmarnock at the printing press of John Wilson in 1786 by subscription.  Over two thirds of these subscriptions were taken up by Hamilton and Aitken and the volume’s showpiece, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ was dedicated to the latter.

A recent discovery by Professor Patrick Scott shows that the ornament used in the ‘chapbook’ version of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ of 1789 is an upside down version of the one used in the ‘Kilmarnock’.[ii]  This proof that Wilson published the chapbook makes it more than likely that Burns was directing its appearance, contrary to previous opinion that this chapbook was a typically unauthorised, ‘pirated’ work.  And the reason this is important is that it shows Burns in 1789 directing his wrath yet again towards the Popular Party.

Why, this long vendetta?  Most generally, because Burns’s favourite Moderate clergyman, the Reverend William McGill (1732-1807) of Ayr had been pursued for years through the ecclesiastical courts on the charge of heresy after publishing his work of liberal theology, A Practical Essay on the Death of Jesus Christ (1786).  Proceedings rumbled on until late 1789, when eventually thrown out.  McGill was part of a circle of Moderate Presbyterians particularly associated with the University of Glasgow and the charges of heresy against him represent one of a number of cases associated with the university that continued through the 18th century between Moderate and popular party adherents.  John Anderson (1726-96), the Glasgow professor who left money in his will for the foundation of the University of Strathclyde, envisaged this as a more orthodox (ie Calvinist) seat of learning than Glasgow.

The Reverend William Peebles (1753-1826), who detested McGill, was at the centre of the circle intent on prosecuting him and he also coined the term ‘Burnomania’ in 1811 in a diatribe against the poet’s cultural and religious beliefs.

Close to Anderson in his views was Thomas Muir of Huntershill (1765-99), the chief lawyer involved against McGill; often seen as the ‘father of democracy’ in Scotland, after being sentenced to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay in 1793 as the result of a rigged trial.  Muir may have been increasingly radical in his politics, but he was conservative in his Protestantism.[iii]  An intriguing echo of the prosecution of McGill is to be found in perhaps the greatest of all Scottish religious novels, James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) in which the childhood opponent of demented Calvinist Robert Wringham is called McGill.

Gerard Carruthers is Francis Hutcheson Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow and General Editor of the Oxford University Press edition of the collected works of Robert Burns.  Literature and Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts co-edited with Colin Kidd will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2018.

[i] See Gerard Carruthers, Robert Burns (Tavistock, 2006).

[ii] Patrick Scott, ‘The First Publication of “Holy Willie’s Prayer”’ in Scottish Literary Review 7:1 (2015).

[iii] See new research in Gerard Carruthers and Don Martin (eds), Thomas Muir of Huntershill: Essays for the Twenty First Century (Edinburgh, 2016).



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.