(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It was only appropriate that the scholar who compiled the Burns Federation’s COMPLETE WORKS of Robert Burns (1986) and the COMPLETE LETTERS (1987) should now produce the definitive biography of Scotland’s most famous poet. In almost 750 pages, James Mackay subjects every statement which has been made about Burns to the most rigorous examination, in order to eliminate gossip, hearsay, myth, and unwarranted assumptions from the record and arrive at the truth.

After a preliminary look at his ancestry, Mackay proceeds chronologically through the life of Burns, sometimes covering ten years in a chapter, sometimes only one or two. He is as careful in small details—for instance, clearing up minor errors about the circumstances of Burns’s birth in 1759— as he is about more significant matters, such as the nature of Burns’s feelings for Jean Armour, who eventually became his wife. Although he is generally sympathetic toward Burns, the biographer admits that at times this man who was so fond of women was surprisingly insensitive toward them. However, Mackay also points out how much is still unknown about Burns’s relationships, citing as an extreme example the issue of “Highland Mary,” or Margaret Campbell, to whom Burns addressed some of his loveliest poems and about whom critics have argued vehemently for two centuries. It is certain that Margaret Campbell died and that the poet grieved for her. What cannot be ascertained, Mackay shows, is whether or not she and Burns were ever intimate, or, if so, whether he was the father of a baby later found buried beside her.

Mackay’s willingness to settle for uncertainty, along with his clear intention of concealing nothing from his readers, is reassuring. Coming, as it does, after so many biographies which argue one position or another, this rigorously honest work fulfills a real need in Burns scholarship.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, June 15, 1993, p.771.

The Observer. November 22, 1992, p.63.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 14, 1993, p.54.

The Times Educational Supplement. October 23, 1992, p.7.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 1, 1993, p.3.