BY Peter Diamond | January 25 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Robert Burns’ connections with Catholicism and Scottish seminary revealed

The relationship between Scotland’s ‘greatest ever Scot’ and Catholicism has been lauded this week by a leading expert on Robert Burns and two Catholic priests.

Professor Gerard Carruthers (right), director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University, told the SCO that the idea of Robert Burns’ being ‘anti-Catholic’ was ‘now a debunked myth’ and that the poet had a strong relationship with a Scottish Catholic bishop.

“The relationship between Burns and Catholicism is very interesting… he had a number of Catholic friends including the Jesuit educated Dr William Maxwell,” Prof Carruthers said.

“I’ve made the case before that you can see in his writing that Burns is culturally sympathetic with Catholics by the very language he uses at in his poems.

“In those days writing in Scots was seen as something associated with Episcopalism and Catholicism, which is a well-kept secret.”


Catholic connection

Burns’ connections to Catholicism grew stronger through his relationship with Bishop John Geddes who served as the Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic of the Lowland District of Scotland from 1779 to 1797, something that Prof Carruthers believes to be highly significant.

“Through Bishop Geddes Burns’ obtained a kind of father figure and he was one of the 3,000 people who subscribed to the Edinburgh Edition of his poems.

“In fact, he grows so fond of Geddes that on the bishop’s personal copy of the Edinburgh Edition he writes that ‘the finest clergymen he ever met was Bishop Geddes.’

“He also created some religious poetry within that personal edition for Geddes and in the one of them he creates this persona of a hermit saying the Rosary, which of course could be interpreted as a monk or religious brother.”

Prof Carruthers said Burns once told Bishop Geddes’ that ‘from now on I’m going to be a good man, with good morals.’

“Burns is serious and to some extent he means it although he knows it’s what the Bishop would want to hear from him,” Prof Carruthers said.

The Burns’ expert said that while Burns was a freemason, ‘that was more to become involved in a discussion society and widen his subscribers.’

“I think the myth that Burns was someone who was ‘anti-Catholic’ is now being debunked and in an ongoing book I’m working on I shall write about that very myth,” Prof Carruthers said.

“Since the 1940s Burns has become more accessible to Catholics thanks to a former Glasgow City Provost, Sir Patrick Dollan.

“He became the first ever Catholic to be elected president of the Robert Burns World Federation and from there on in we start to see Catholics become more interested in Burns’ work.

“Nowadays there are many Catholic Burnsians and I think that can only be a good thing. For me I am Scottish but I have both Italian and Irish heritage but if you don’t engage with something as well-known as Robert Burns you end up conceding part of your culture.”



An Ayrshire priest has revealed how 14 years ago he also ‘debunked that myth’ when he became president of the oldest continuing Robert Burns Club in the world.

Fr Willie Boyd of St Mary’s Church Irvine, shared his views on the poet ahead of Burns’ night on January 25.

Fr Boyd said: “I was president of Irvine Burns Club (IBC) in 2005, the first Catholic priest to fill that office.

“Given that Burns had lived in Irvine and had such a huge effect on the recent history of our country, when I was invited to become part of IBC it seemed the right thing to do.

“To me, poetry is reminiscent of the psalms, opening us up to a new way of encountering and interpreting the circumstances of our lives.

“Far from being a narrow-minded man, Robert Burns was a genius, and the way he ‘saw things’ helped to shine a light for those who heard his poetry, sang his songs, or read his letters.

“He had a healthy respect for religion and was always saddened when religion didn’t come up to the mark. His disappointment is well documented in some of his most famous works.

“I believe that he never intended to target a minority point of view, or that he was writing for a particular section of Scottish society.

“The universal appeal of his wisdom is testament to that. My hope is that he is becoming more appreciated and understood by a wider cross-section of modern society, which is exactly how he would want it to be.

“We should appreciate the work of Robert Burns and perhaps allow ourselves the privilege of spending some time with his works when so many of our kinsfolk are honouring his memory.”


Scots College

The Royal Scots College in Spain was gifted an original copy of Burns’ Edinburgh Edition thanks to the connection with Bishop John Geddes. Five Catholic seminaries across Europe were gifted original books as part of a the subscription Geddes had with Burns.

Fr Tom Kilbride, rector of Royal Scots College in Salamanca, said: “We are fortunate enough to still obtain an original Edinburgh Edition by Robert Burns, which is kept in a secure room within the college.

“The original Geddes edition is now in a museum in America which contains personal notes from Burns, including a number of compliments about the bishop.

“Our version here is relatively clean in that sense but there is a few amendments by Bishop Geddes personally within the book.

“It is not brought out often but we may show the students it on Friday given the date because I think it’s quite important to remind people of that connection with the college.

“Robert Burns’ relationship with the Royal Scots College in Spain dates back over 230 years which is very interesting and the fact that we still have a great artifact of his is worth remembering.”


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