Madeleine Kearns

Robert Burns’ #MeToo moment

A year ago, I sang ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ by Robert Burns at the annual Scottish banquet at Manhattan’s University Club. Afterwards, my dinner partner, an American chap, asked me what it was about. Regret, I said. Just look at the last line.

But my false lover stole my rose [virginity]. And ah! He left the thorn [unwanted pregnancy] with me. 

The American is a feminist metropolitan, and so responded with due sensitivity. ‘Burns must have really understood women,’ he said. I agreed. From Burns’ love letters, it is evident that he used his way with words to climb inside their heads and, from there, into their beds. Burns fathered a number of illegitimate children. In 18th-century Scotland, a relationship with him could be truly ruinous. Burns’ misdemeanours earned him a bad reputation among many of his contemporaries. At one point, he tried to flee to Jamaica. But he was summoned back to sit publicly upon the solemn Kirk’s Stool of Repentance.

Yet succeeding generations have, by and large, viewed Burns’ behaviour less severely. On ‘Burns Nights’, which will be celebrated tomorrow, Robert Burns is fondly remembered as a ‘ladies man’. Sometimes, with a cheeky wink, as a ‘womaniser’. This year, however, Burns will be trying the titles ‘sex pest’ and ‘rapist’ for size. The change of tone came earlier this month when the former National Poet for Scotland, Liz Lochhead, referred to Burns as ‘Weinsteinian’.

The incriminating article was a letter Burns wrote in 1788 to his friend Bob Ainslie, in which he describes having sex with his soon-to-be wife Jean Armour who, by this point, was in her third trimester carrying his twins. In the spirit of an unfair trial, I shall quote Burns selectively. Firstly, on the subject of Jean:

I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter, and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones.’

Secondly, on the subject of his penis:

‘Oh what a peacemaker is the guide wheel-willy pintle! It is the mediator, the guarantee, the umpire, the bond of union, the solemn league and covenant, plenipotentiary, the Aaron’s rod, the Jacob’s staff, the prophet Elisha’s pot of oil, the Ahasuerus Sceptre, the sword of mercy, the philosopher’s stone, the Horn of Plenty, and the Tree of Life between Man and Woman.’ 

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