Alternative religious spaces in the work of Robert Burns – December 2012


A Burns scholar considers the poet’s engagement with religion and finds contemporary concerns and Enlightenment ecumenism alongside distaste for hypocrisy and institutional control.

Throughout his career, Robert Burns (1759-96) was a man who engaged with religious ‘spaces’ that represented alternatives to the official Kirk of his Presbyterian cradle-culture. We see this in a work he wrote around the time in 1785 when he fathered an illegitimate daughter on Elizabeth Paton, a servant to his family. Censured by the church for ‘fornication’, Burns wrote a tenderly defiant poem for his first child, ‘A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-Begotten Daughter’. In the text we see an aspect of the poet that is distinctly ‘pro-life’:

Thou’s welcome, Wean! Mishanter fa’ me,
If thoughts o’ thee, or yet thy Mamie,
Shall ever daunton me or awe me, My bonie lady;
Or if I blush when thou shalt ca’ me
Tyta, or Daddie. (Stanza 1) Welcome! My bonie, sweet, wee Dochter!
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for;
And tho’ your comin I hae fought for,
Baith Kirk and Queir;
Yet by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for,
That I shall swear! (Stanza 3)

By 1786, Burns was in trouble again for the same ‘offence’, having impregnated Jean Armour. Once again he cocks a snook at the kirk, and in particular the ‘cutty stool’ custom, where malefactors of Burns’ sort were publicly upbraided for a number of consecutive Sundays at the weekly church service. This time the poet concocts a fantasy alternative to the ecclesiastical court or the parish gathering of elders of the kind that had decided Burns was to be castigated. His text ‘Libel Summons’ sees a group of young bucks gathering in the woods where a ‘Fornicators’ Court’ berates men who may attempt to deny their act. Lampooning ecclesiastical language, the piece begins:

In Truth and Honour’s name – AMEN-
Know all men by these Presents plain:-
This fourth o’ June, at Mauchline given,
The year ’tween eighty five and seven,
We, Fornicators by profession, As per extractum from each Session,
In way and manner here narrated, Pro bono Amor congregated;
And by our brethren constituted, A Court of Equity deputed.

As well as showing a certain virile boasting, ‘Libel Summons’ has a more serious point to make about hypocrisy, as the narrator upbraids ‘the wretch that can refuse subsistence/To those whom he has given existence’. Burns’ target is those who attempt to hide their sins, a propensity heightened by a shallow sense of respectability and fear of the kirk and its cutty stool. A phrase Burns uses in ‘Libel Summons’, the ‘body politic,’ is ironically resonant in the text signalling an objection to the institutional (kirk) control of the more literal human ‘body’. Again a moral question highly alive today might be seen to come into focus in Burns’ work.

In ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ (1786), we see a much more sympathetic portrait of Presbyterianism. The fanatical, hypocritical Scottish Presbyterian was a character that had been established largely towards the end of the seventeenth and in the early eighteenth century by Archibald Pitcairne and Allan Ramsay, writers of broadly Episcopalian sympathy in their battles with what they presented as a culture-less ‘Whiggish’, Calvinist Scotland. This Presbyterian type was adapted essentially by Pitcairne from the puritan-bashing plays of Ben Jonson and Elizabethan street rhymes about English Calvinists. Famously, Burns himself in one of his greatest works, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ (1785), adds to the negative Scottish Presbyterian depiction.

‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, however, tells Presbyterians that theirs is a sacred and venerable culture. Again, though, Burns is loath to enter the kirk itself, celebrating instead the ‘cotter’ (or small-scale farm tenant) at home in his cottage with his family reading the Bible and singing psalms on a Saturday night.

Burns’ most famous performance where we are actually inside a church is ‘To a Louse.’ There is yet again, however, a failure by Burns (deliberately so) to bring the actually ‘functioning’ church into detailed focus. Local beauty Jenny, oblivious to the louse that has alighted upon her, believes herself to be admired by the young men in church including the narrator. So the narrator has his attention drawn to the louse and Jenny herself is attending from the ‘back of her head’ to the gazes of youthful attraction she supposes herself to be drawing. And, of course, no-one, including the reader, is attending to religious worship or God. God’s absence from the poem is remedied to some extent in the poem’s finality – ‘O wad some power the giftie gie us/To see ourselves as others see us’ – that is, if only the power of God were to enable us to see ourselves objectively. Ultimately, though, even as the literal church service is relegated to incidental happening in the text, the poem nonetheless draws on the ideas, the language of orthodox Christianity. The louse is reminiscent of the worm of the grave and also of the insect-like status of humanity in the eyes of God. We are both mortal and unworthy: if we were granted the necessary insight by ‘some power’,

It wad frae monie a blunder free us An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!

That word ‘devotion’ refers both to the self-regard which Jenny is indulging (in which we all indulge), the ‘devotion’ she thinks she is attracting from the narrator and it also slyly refers to the ‘absent’ church ‘devotion’, our human-centred inattentiveness to the Almighty and the sacred.

Burns’s relationship with the Catholic community of Scotland brings into view yet another absence of which he is particularly conscious. On a visit to Linlithgow Palace in 1787 he writes, ‘What a poor, pimping business is a Presbyterian place of worship, dirty, narrow, and squalid, stuck in a corner of old Popish grandeur.’ Amidst the same tour towards the Highlands, in Stirlingshire, Burns was knighted in the Jacobite cause by a Catholic Lady, supposedly a descendant of Robert the Bruce. Later, on receiving a snuff-box with an inlaid miniature of Mary Queen of Scots, from Lady Winifred Maxwell-Constable, member of one of the great Catholic families of Scotland, he writes to her of it as a kind of sacred relic: ‘I assure your Ladyship, I shall set it apart: the symbols of Religion shall only be more sacred. In the moment of Poetic composition the Box shall be my inspiring Genius.’ He also projects as the main speaker in one of his poems, a medieval ‘bedesman’, or an often hermetic reciter of the Rosary. All of these ‘gestures’ represent quite remarkable acts by someone cradled in eighteenth-century Presbyterian Scotland, and speak to a large extent of Burns’s Enlightenment ecumenism, the man who can write sympathetically as he does in one song of Mary Queen of Scots as well as elsewhere of the Covenanters.

A less obvious and easily overlooked engagement with Catholicism also occurs in what is perhaps Burns’s most famous poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (1790). This concerns the ruin of Alloway kirk, a central scenic stage in the text. The old dilapidated kirk is indeed Presbyterian, but it also stands on the site of an older Catholic site of worship. This is why the Devil and his witches congregate and party there. In keeping with one of the poem’s themes that we psychologically project our fears and hatreds (which might also to some extent represent our desires), Burns attends to the tradition of the old kirk as an uncanny place. The ‘uncanny’ ghosts and goblins that come to be associated with the site largely originate after the Reformation, and are a projection of Catholicism as the (diabolic) other. Here again, then, Burns is drawn to another evacuated kirk space.

Gerard Carruthers is Professor of Scottish Literature since 1700 at the University of Glasgow and General Editor of the Oxford University Press edition of the Works of Burns. His recital of ‘A Poet’s Welcome’ can be heard online in a BBC podcast.

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.