Burns’ influence on working class English writers revealed after the discovery of ‘lost’ works

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Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland.
Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland.

The influence of Robert Burns saw poets in the north of England writing verse in Scots, say researchers who have uncovered a host of ‘lost’ literary works penned by industrial workers in the 19th Century.

The team, led by Professor Kirstie Blair of the University of Stirling, has discovered a deluge of poems, songs and short stories penned by navvies, shipbuilders, railwaymen, factory workers and miners, from Scotland and the north of England, which give unique, first-hand accounts of their lives in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This includes a number of northern poets with no known affiliation to Scotland writing in Scots, as well as writing homages to Burns in Northern dialect.

A sketch of Robert Burns

Robert Burns, also known familiarly as Rabbie Burns, was a Scottish poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide. 

Professor Blair said: “We identified a high number of industrial workers in Scotland and northern England – both men and women - who were poets, almost all of whom were influenced by Burns.

“They were members or founding members of local Burns Clubs, they used their rare holiday time to travel to Ayrshire to pay homage to Burns’ birthplace, and some even moved to Ayrshire to find a job in order to be near ‘Burns Country’”, Professor Blair added. “Even if they couldn’t afford a cheap copy of his poems, they knew them through song and recitation. Many of the writers we have located wrote poems that directly imitate or allude to Burns.

“I particularly enjoy the discovery of multiple poems influenced by Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ – we have found three separate poems by miners addressing mice, a poem on an earthworm – by Richard Spencer, a brushmaker in Leeds – poems on rats, on cats, and one of my personal favourites, Fife miner Robert MacLeod’s ‘The Miner Tae the Midge.’”

Previously unstudied, these forgotten works, many discovered in local libraries and archives, have now been published in a new online database, which for the first time, links the literary works with the people behind them, their birthplaces, where they lived and their occupations and employers.

"Incredible discovery"

Professor Blair, who is Dean of Stirling’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, said: “This has been an incredible discovery – it’s the first time we have direct, first-hand accounts of what being part of Britain’s industrial power looked like, from the people who worked in it.

“What might be surprising to some, is that this was a period full of culture and writing and these working-class communities fully embraced poetry and storytelling. People would work all day in a factory or a mine and then come home and write poems, or go down the pub to meet with their literary group or friends to recite tales and share stories.

“Often factories, mines and railways set up libraries and reading rooms as part of their provision for their workers, so the big employers of the time were really promoting the importance of reading, writing and engaging with culture.”

Black and white photograph of three 19th Century miners

The Gray family at the Gardrum Pit, Falkirk. Photo courtesy of Falkirk Community Trust

The new database is the only large resource of its type online. It includes 341 literary works from 245 writers linked to 288 workplaces, and contains more than 60 poets who have a recorded interest in Burns, many unknown to literary history. There are also 11 representative associations, frequented by industrial workers, with a link to Burns.

Piston, Pens & Press

Produced as part of the research project ‘Piston, Pens & Press’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project was led by the Universities of Strathclyde and Stirling in partnership with the University of Manchester and the National Railway Museum.

It is hoped it will inspire local people, schools and community groups to find interesting historical people associated with their towns.

“Everybody has always known that Scotland and the north of England had hundreds if not thousands of poets and writers from working-class backgrounds and with little formal education – but due to literary snobbery in the early 20th century, these works have often been dismissed as being poor quality and were frequently lost and forgotten”, Professor Blair added.

The research will also help inform university teaching, with students learning about Victorian literature now able to study the direct thoughts of the workers of the time.

The full database can be found on the ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ website: www.pistonpenandpress.org