As a literary storm of #MeToo proportions rages in the British press, is Dunedin doing its own Burns bashing or standing by its man? Helen Speirs investigates.

"It's been years since a white man was this nervous in Hollywood," host Seth Meyers quipped at last month's Golden Globes in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles.

At the red-carpet event, which heralded the start of the Hollywood awards season, Meyers went on to joke that, for the male nominees present: "This is the first time in three months it won't be terrifying to hear your name read out loud."

It was, in fact, no laughing matter. Meyers was referring to Hollywood's hall of shame, the growing tally of male A-list actors and producers outed for sexual harassment and worse.


As the list of women telling their stories has grown, and Hollywood's House of Cards toppled in the wake of the allegations against heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, the question on everyone's lips has been: who's next?

Few would have picked it to be one Robert "Rabbie" Burns: 18th-century Scottish poet and lyricist, widely regarded as that country's national poet and feted worldwide, including in Dunedin - the "Edinburgh of the South" and recently anointed Unesco City of Literature, where a statue of the bard sits in a commanding position at the heart of the city, overlooking the Octagon.

But the man who penned Auld Lang Syne, To a Mouse and A Red, Red Rose, whose January 25 birthday is celebrated the world over, has just been labelled "Weinsteinian", a "sex pest", and a rapist.

The comments were made by former national poet of Scotland Liz Lochhead, and have unleashed a storm of controversy in the British press.

According to the Guardian, Lochhead cited a 1788 letter by Burns to a friend in which he bragged of giving his lover Jean Armour a "thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones", and said he "****ed her until she rejoiced". For Lochhead, this "disgraceful sexual boast … seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend. It's very, very Weinsteinian."

She is not alone in her criticism. The Guardian reported Burns biographer Robert Crawford saying Burns had "his Weinstein moments" and published an article last year in which critic Stuart Kelly also labelled the bard a "rapist".

Given the momentum of the #MeToo movement, it is unsurprising the issue has been raised again, particularly around the bard's birthday, but is the discussion warranted or wearisome? After all, the facts of Burns' sexual profligacy (he fathered 12 children to four women) are well known.

Dunedin poet and former Burns fellow Emma Neale says, if the accusations of rape hold water, then Burns' attitudes and actions are "repellent" although sadly nothing new.


"Women have been protesting sexual aggression for centuries."

However, she urges caution "when equating poems with the life; perhaps especially bragging poems; they are performances, often, not empirical evidence of actions".

Fellow Dunedin poet and former Burns fellow Sue Wootton is wary about comparing Burns' attitudes and actions with today's social mores.

"I think we can only attend to fixing our own time's moral compass, which we adjust partly by reference to what has gone before."

She will not dismiss Burns, his poems and songs, therefore, and would "leave Robbie on his pedestal in the Octagon", but says "I'll be reading all the new poems too, and singing hooray for the sound of all the voices for too long silenced by the old ways".

One of those new voices must surely be Jill O'Brien, who wanted to highlight Burns' unsavoury bragging and sexual conquests, and did so in a poem titled Reply from the Lassies: #Me an Aw, which won the city's Burns poetry competition last month.

Dunedin poet and former Burns fellow Sue Wootton is wary about comparing Burns' attitudes and actions with today's social mores.
Dunedin poet and former Burns fellow Sue Wootton is wary about comparing Burns' attitudes and actions with today's social mores.

"Were Burns' sexual activities consensual? We don't know for sure, but given the imbalance of power between this educated wealthy man and a young servant girl, it seems unlikely,'' she told the Otago Daily Times last month.

"I wanted to make the point that those who write history can't write it to suit themselves and leave out the bits that don't fit with the myth, in this case the myth of Burns as role model of Scotland.''

How then does Dunedin officialdom view Burns in light of the latest controversy? Is he still a fitting role model for our Unesco City of Literature, should his statue remain in the Octagon, is a fellowship in his name still appropriate? Can we - and should we - separate the artist from his art? Why has Burns' writing stood the test of time and why should it remain worth celebrating? Is it fair to view and judge an 18th-century male poet through a 21st-century feminist lens? Do we do Burns a disservice if we do, or women a disservice if we don't have the conversation?

Those were the questions I sought answers to from at least half a dozen relevant people within the Dunedin City Council, University of Otago and Dunedin Burns Club, the organisations involved in the main events and awards celebrating the bard's life and work (including the annual Burns Suppers, the Robbie Rocks music competition and afore-mentioned Burns poetry competition).

The silence was deafening - surprising for a city so enamoured of the bard and with so many experts in the field. Response came courtesy of two short official statements, which largely ignored the questions posed.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull responded on behalf of the council stating: "We don't look to Robbie Burns as a way to live our lives, rather we celebrate his poetry, the influence his works had on Dunedin's rich history, and the reminder of our city's proud Scottish heritage."

A University of Otago spokeswoman said of its administration of the Burns fellowship: "The fellowship was an investment from local donors committed to the importance of supporting the development of literary culture. It has been running for almost 60 years with great success."

It seems the city is standing - quietly - by its man. But the reluctance to discuss the issue at any length or depth is perplexing for a university charged with being the "critic and conscience of society" and does not seem befitting of a Unesco City of Literature. If the bard's works are beautifully composed, well-loved, oft-quoted and the creative inspiration for many other notable writers and works, why not celebrate him loudly and proudly when called on? If the personal issues are complex and controversial and the fondness sits uneasily, why not admit and explore the contradictions? Or do the #MeToo and #Time'sUp movements make any conversation involving even a centuries-old darling too risky for many?

Columnist Lisa Scott, in a recent Otago Daily Times piece, wondered why Burns was so beloved and wrote that the theme for last month's Burns Supper, "Burns on the rights of man (and woman)'', was "probably some sort of crime against feminism" given "Burns considered women had the right to be wooed, winkled and abandoned". However, she went on to write that: "Burns might have been the archetypal bad boy (and you can bet your bottom dollar I would have fallen for him, he sounds just my type, a scoundrel)".

Is that the unpalatable, unmentionable and un-PC truth only a few would dare voice: that there's still plenty of room for a rogue?

The other uncomfortable truth must be, where would it all end if we opened the misogyny floodgates? Do we ban the works of Baxter, Hughes, Donne, Chaucer ...?

For now then, it seems the Burns fellowship is safe, and Robbie's statue will not go the way of US Confederate monuments.

Neale does not want the statue toppled or replaced but does have a suggestion for a more appropriate effigy.

"I would love it if the city and university combined would fund a beautiful, life-like, respectful statue of Janet Frame - she is a local literary hero that I would feel unreserved in honouring."

Wootton has a similar solution to those uncomfortable with honouring Burns.

"January 25 [Burns' birthday] is also Virginia Woolf's birthday and it's her birthday that I always celebrate. Woolf is an excellent corrective to the unsavoury aspects of Burns' life."

- A version of this article appeared on The Spinoff