Writer Alan Bissett explores the complex brain of Robert Burns in a quest to discover the real man behind the myths and reveal the conflicts in his life and work.
Burns was a poetic genius, but full of contradictions. He was a lover of women, and an exploiter of them; a Republican firebrand, and a social-climbing government excise man; an advocate of freedom who almost became a Caribbean slave master. Alan examines the groundbreaking research that suggests that the poet suffered from bi-polar disorder, a condition that led him to have severe mood swings.
One of Burns’ most famous poems, Tam O’Shanter, is now being interpreted as a journey through his abnormally high and low moods – literally facing his demons. And Cutty Sark was inspired by his sexual relationship with a Dumfries barmaid, not his long-suffering wife Jean Armour.
Alan’s expert contributors are Scotland’s current Makar (national poet) Jackie Kay, poet and Burns biographer Robert Crawford, literary scholars Gerard Carruthers, Moira Hansen and Pauline MacKay, social historian Katie Barclay and science historian Elaine Thomson. They tackle the conundrums of Burns’ life and personality – his rocky relationships with women, his strange attitude to slavery and how he hid his radical leanings in dangerous times.
The documentary is interwoven with performances from The Burns Cabaret, in which Alan, singer Robyn Stapleton and actor Andrew Rothney highlight some of Burns’ most revealing work in front of a live audience. Classics such as Ae Fond Kiss and A Man’s A Man for A’ That share the stage with a less well-known version of Green Grow the Rashes and the political satire When Princes and Prelates – racy and obscene songs contained in The Merry Muses of Caledonia – Burns’s gift to a rakish gentlemen’s club.