Robert Crawford took the concept of the poet as bearer of tradition for the theme of his Saltire Society Lecture on the last day of the Edinburgh Book Festival, enabling him to range across time and cultures and pose as many questions as he attempted to answer in the brief space of an hour.
Although billed as a lecture on Burns as particular tradition bearer, Crawford discussed the notion itself as much, if not rather more, than the national bard. Burns is undeniably one of those whose work ensured that Scotland’s poetic and song tradition is rich indeed. We have been fortunate that so many Scottish artists have made it their business to promote the work of others, often anonymous, and often at the expense of their own.
Crawford’s particular concern, however, was how poets such as Burns incorporated, amplified and drew on Scotland’s literary traditions in their own work, as well as how this ‘carrying stream’ enriched other writers down to our own day. Crawford was also keen to stress how long it has taken Scotland to become comfortable with the diverse richness of ‘indigenous’ culture, and pointed to the Official Edinburgh Festival as instance of how this continues to be elided and avoided – the bicentennial of Burns produced only a couple of isolated events at last year’s Festival, despite the large number of settings of Burns’ songs by known European composers.
Crawford also asserted the value of academic engagement and dialogue as part of the tradition. Citing George Buchanan as well as a number of his contemporaries, Crawford pointed out how many Scottish poets had benefited universities as well as benefiting from them.
Questions ranged far and wide, including the place of the oral tradition in the canon, the contribution of female Scottish poets to James Macpherson, the progenitor of Ossian, and thereby one of the most contentious literary stushies of the eighteenth century. Crawford defended Macpherson, without whose contributions, the literature of Scotland would have been unlikely to have inspired the national (and nationalist) literatures of several European and other nations. This was a wide-ranging and broad-minded debate, in which Burns himself might well have been delighted to take part. Braw.
Robert Crawford appeared at The Poet As Bearer of Tradition; The Saltire Society Event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 30 August