As a highly respected scholar who has devoted his life to the study of Robert Burns, James Mackay was eminently qualified to produce his biography. For fourteen years, Mackay served the Burns Federation as editor of its Burns Chronicle; in addition, he compiled both The Complete Works of Robert Burns, which was published by the Federation in 1986, and a Burns concordance, Burns A-Z: The Complete Word Finder (1990). To his latest project Mackay has brought not only encyclopedic knowledge but also the objectivity that many of the previous biographers of Burns have lacked. While no one would accuse Mackay of having less than warm feelings toward his subject, his motive in researching and writing this volume is clearly the loftiest aim of scholarship: not to advance a particular point of view but to ascertain the truth.
Where the life of Burns is concerned, this task is particularly difficult. Long before he became a famous poet, Burns had become the subject of gossip. Along with a group of high-spirited friends, he drew the criticism of conservative Calvinists, who suspected that he was a freethinker as well as a drunkard. In addition, he seemed to be almost irresistible to women, and soon he was being credited with even more living proofs of his virility than he actually fathered. Once Burns became famous, it seemed that almost everyone had a story to tell about him. Unfortunately, after his death many of these anecdotes were reiterated in biography after biography, until they attained the status of undisputed truth. What Mackay has done in this monumental volume is to move systematically through the brief life of his subject, pointing out obvious errors of fact in previous accounts and, where there is conflicting evidence, showing how he has arrived at some conclusion, which in many cases must be labeled merely a probability or a possibility. Burns: A Biography of Robert Burns is thus of interest in two very different ways. On one hand, of course, its readers will gain a much clearer idea as to what Burns was really like, but in addition, since the biographer conducts them step by step through each analysis, they will have an opportunity to see a fine scholarly mind at work.
In method Mackay is not unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Even in relatively minor matters, such as the circumstances of Robert Bums’s birth, Mackay takes nothing for granted. Since it is known that the end of January, 1759, was exceptionally stormy, the dramatic account of William Burnes’s fording a river at night, desperately seeking a midwife to attend at the birth of his child, has long been accepted without question. After relating the story, however, Mackay pauses to take a long look at it. In Holmesian fashion, he initially wonders how, once having crossed the swollen river, Burnes would have got the midwife back to his home in Alloway. Then he turns to contemporary documents, where he finds, first, that there is no record that Robert Burns was born late at night, as the narrative supposed, and, second, that the village midwife could have arrived as soon as Agnes Brown Burnes went into labor, since she lived next door to the Burneses. Clearly, the river anecdote, though colorful and certainly harmless, is untrue.
Mackay takes pains to find an explanation for some of the confusing details that students must face. For example, while the poet’s father spelled his surname “Burnes,” the parish register records the birth of Robert “Burns” on January 25, 1759, as well as his christening the following day. The biographer notes that the spelling “Burns” reflects the Ayrshire pronunciation. Furthermore, by looking at the early letters of Robert Burns himself, he has found that the poet seems quite early to have adopted that spelling, except on a few occasions when he used still another variant, “Burness.”
The fact that Mackay is so meticulous sometimes results in what might be perceived as a defect in his work. Whenever a name is mentioned, for example, that of the Reverend William Dalrymple, who christened Robert Burns, or even those of the witnesses, James Young and John Tennant, the biographer pauses in his narrative to relate all that is known about the person identified, not only such significant matters as his later associations with Robert Burns and the references to him found in Burns’s letters and poetry, but also details about his later life which can hardly be considered relevant to the subject at hand. In defense of Mackay, however, one must recognize the fact that as a definitive biography, this work will probably be used as an encyclopedia as often as it will be read from cover to cover. Therefore in many cases the demands of the narrative must be sacrificed to the needs of later scholars.
Where a number of issues are concerned, no one would wish Mackay’s research to be any less thorough or less extensive. For example,...
(The entire section is 2030 words.)