From the Highland to the Mountains: Scottish Burns Scholar Visits UW

Dr. Gerard Carruthers talks about the dangers of being a Robert Burns scholar.

By Lyle Wiley

Dr. Gerard Carruthers is no stranger to braving sudden, violent downpours of freezing rain while trekking across wet cement and grass. Wearing thin jackets, together we hop nimbly over puddles of muddy water forming on sidewalks of scattered yellow leaves.   Turtle Rock Coffee, our destination, rests just beyond the University of Wyoming campus, where a nice conversation, hot coffee and warm cinnamon rolls aim to reward our soaked walk.

We decide to sit outside on the covered deck where the rain has subsided and the smell of the wet ground is only improved on by the warm cinnamon rolls delivered by our barista.  Freezing water dripping from our shoulders and hair, we laugh about the multiple personalities of Wyoming weather.  Carruthers is very familiar with fickle, strange, inconsistencies in weather.  He is, after all, a native Scotsman.   “Scotland has about the most unpredictable weather you can find,” he relays knowingly, “we get weather instead of seasons.”

In our laughter, I forget for a moment that the bearded Scottish gentleman with the comforting smile seated across my cinnamon roll is an academic juggernaut: an intellectual giant.  Carruthers, Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, is a bit of a celebrity in Robert Burns Studies.  So strong is his voice in worldwide Burns scholarly circles that Oxford University Press selected Carruthers to the general editorial position of a large multi-edition of Burns’ works.  This is no small honor considering the huge quantity of scholarship involving Burns and the enormous cultural and literary significance of Burns to this day.  A scholarly relationship and friendship with Dr. Caroline McCracken-Flesher, an accomplished Scottish Studies scholar, excellent professor and head of the University of Wyoming English Department, was one catalyst for Carruthers’ fall visit to UW to teach an upper level course on Scottish Romanticism.

“Caroline McCracken-Flesher and I have been friends for over 10 years.   We had both done work on Sir Walter Scott.  I know that Caroline for some time has been hoping that she may expand the Scottish Studies portfolio here in Wyoming.  So, the idea was for me to come out, teach a class, speak to a few other people, (and) do a few other things.  And the other major motivation for me when Caroline kindly dangled this in front of me was that I would get the opportunity to visit certain Indian battle sites. I was able to visit the site of the Fetterman massacre about three weeks ago.”

Native American history is a deep interest of Carruthers along with much of American culture, politics and literature.  Perhaps this is due to the striking similarities between the construction of American and Scottish culture, history and literature.  We hover over our coffee a bit, sipping occasionally and drying out slowly as our conversation begins to probe some of these perceived cultural connections.

“I almost certainly have in mind for the future (at the University of Glasgow) an honors level American/Scottish comparative class.  There are writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne where you can see real parallels with specific Scottish writers.  Then you’ve got people like Melville who are writing in the later 19th century about big themes, philosophical themes and themes about marginalized identity.   The very same things are going on in Scotland.  It’s quite nice to do those two national literatures, which in some senses congregate around and qualify the central English Lit tradition.  Scholars have spoken a lot about both Scotland and America being provincial cultures and so on, and also having a certain kind of protestant group.  And you can take that to a certain level, but then beyond that, 19th century American and Scottish literature is just so great that these criticisms fail to hold up.”

To present day, Scottish Literature has very often, according to Carruthers, endured the stereotyped titles: “uncultured” and “unimportant.”   Not unlike American and Wyoming cultural biases formed both from the inside and from outside of cultures, these identities have shaped perceptions of Scottish literature and history in deeply disturbing ways in education and elsewhere.

“You get good schoolteachers in Scotland who would never do a Scottish text.  They do Shakespeare or Milton or they would do the poetry of Gerald Manly Hopkins, and that is great stuff, do not get me wrong.  But these same teachers look down on Scottish texts as something unimportant that the natives have produced. What’s happened there is this process of making Scottish production inferior and they have imbibed the notion that nothing we do is cultural.  How ridiculous is that?”

We are making strong headway on our cinnamon rolls by this point and our conversation is veering onto ground that has especially been of interest to me this fall.  I have the unique opportunity to attend Carruthers’ Scottish Romanticism lectures and then race across campus to enjoy UW History Professor Dr. Phil Roberts’ Wyoming History classes.  Many times, parallels in the history and constructed self-identity between Wyoming and Scotland swirl through my head like the cream in my coffee.  Both Wyoming and Scotland operate under assumptions and constructions that force literature and culture production occurring in house to the immediate peripheries of pop culture or primitivism. Carruthers’ takes a moment to try to order my swirling thoughts a bit.

“I am always confused by academics that wash up on a place and don’t touch the sides.  They think culture is something independent of the place they’re in.  So, the last thing that certain people who work in the music department in Glasgow would ever do is look at Scottish music… Whereas if I worked full time permanently in Wyoming, or Cornwall, or Vienna or anywhere it seems to me the most natural thing in the world is to begin to sample and look at the culture that is there at your doorstep.  I think one of the biggest problems in higher education and in high school sometimes is a child in various countries being taught that culture is something other than what they have.  And culture is always around us.  Culture is always on our doorstep.  And step A is to go, if you are in Wyoming and look at Wyoming literature, at Wyoming history.  No one should be ashamed of that.  I get very pissed off at these metropolitan definitions of high culture or high history that say here’s the real culture, here’s the real history.  No it is not.  It just doesn’t work that way for me.”

Growing up in Wyoming, I have especially noticed a sometimes disturbing tendency to wear outside accusations of non-cultured identity as a badge of superior reality.  Carruthers’ nods knowingly and discusses this tendency, rightly using the Scottish master poet and songwriter, Robert Burns, as a kind of bridge to understanding these cultural dynamics.

“It is a kind of good old boy mentality.  And you see it in Scotland where it becomes very self defeating.   People say, ‘Oh literature?  That’s for the English.  We don’t do anything as sissy as that!’  The real problematic pay off is that people talk about a poet like Robert Burns in terms of speaking the language of the people, being down to the earth, a purely folk figure.  While some of those things might well be there, to critically look at Burns is to look at a very literary poet.  Don’t concede literature to the English or to the master culture.  Literature is going on everywhere.  So, very often it is self-defeating the ‘we’re unpretentious, we’re down to earth’ mentality.  It is a kind of lack of ambition – a lack of real aspiration.  Burns is beloved in Scotland, but he is almost equally hated.  And some of the people that hate him think that he is just an oracle voice of the folk.  And they say why bother?  Give me some literature.   Whereas, in reality, Tam o’ Shanter is one of the great late 18th century poems.  It is both thematically and stylistically complex.  This is a work that has got a lot of profound things to say about human nature. And it’s very funny.  And it’s very dark.  And it’s very psychological.    And it’s in some ways very sexy, and it’s very entertaining and the list goes on.”

Carruthers’ eyes light up as we discuss Robert Burns, and it is not difficult to understand why this Scottish gentleman is one of the leading voices in Burns Studies.

“You could almost make the argument that Burns is the first celebrity in Western History.  He’s the first guy to have a really kind of sexy image.  He goes on tours.  He’s the first writer to be consumed romantically.  That’s why the parallels that are made between Burns and rock stars are not all that farfetched.  He dies young.  He is a brilliant songwriter.  He’s a man with a reputation with women.   There are all kinds of dark bits of his biography, whether it’s politics, or culture, or whatever.”

Being a key player in Burns Studies is a unique position for an academic.  Carruthers is not only able to produce unlimited interesting research and insight into the literature, songwriting, history, or impact of Burns; he is also, because of the Robert Burns worldwide cult, a public figure of some notoriety.  His work has been actively reported by newspapers, radio, and television in Scotland and other parts of Europe.  This media attention has led to Scottish national admiration in some cases, but jealousy and duplicitous reception from various fringes of the Robert Burns cult as well.  Carruthers leans back with a giggle when I suggest that perhaps he too, like Burns, has appropriated an interesting cultural position very similar to that of a rock star.

“Most of the individuals in the modern Burns movement quite like me and I’ve worked with them and I get on with them.  But there is a loony fringe movement of about 500 people or so who would all cheerfully go to my public execution.   I was called on one website the anti-Christ of Burns studies, which I think I’ll wear as a badge of honor.”

Carruthers burst onto the Burns Studies scene at a rather young age.  Because of his intricate and popular involvement in Burns studies as a younger man some of the older tenants of the Burns movement crowned him as the “boy wonder of Burns studies” in a completely uncomplimentary and aggressive way.  Additionally, his popularity with the media has given some of the more critical voices fuel to misrepresent Carruthers as a “media hog.”  Good thing this Scottish professor has a good nature and incredibly thick skin.

“I feel quite grateful to work in this area, because while some of it is mad, look at the great passion that it stirs up!  What can you do?  You keep your head down.  You do your work the best you can.  And, well, you let the rest of the world decide.”

Here are sentiments I could not agree with more.  The wind is breezing slightly, and my clothes have yet to dry out.  A bluing sky is peeking from the clouds, a warm window of dry exit from excellent conversation and hot coffee with a true Scottish gentleman.

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