Friday Night Mixer | Alt-Burns

As part of ongoing Scottish National Gallery Project activities, Dr Gráinne Rice, Adult Programme Coordinator and Kirsty Reid, Project Learning Officer hosted the sixth event in the Friday Night Mixer series.

Two days after Burns Night 2023, we hosted Alt-Burns, a brilliant night of performance and discussion themed around alternative takes on Scotland’s national Bard.

Alexander Carse Tam O'Shanter at Alloway Kirk Unknown

We invited speakers to take part in an informal evening of short ‘taster’ talks exploring alternative responses to some of the Burns-inspired artworks in the Scottish collection.

First up were Claire Mitchell KC and Zoe Venditozzi from the Witches of Scotland podcast who spoke about their campaign for justice seeking a legal pardon, public apology and national monument for the thousands of people – mostly women – that were convicted of witchcraft and executed between 1563 and 1736 in Scotland.

Claire Mitchell KC and Zoe Venditozzi (photo: Roberto Ricciuti)
Claire Mitchell KC and Zoe Venditozzi (photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

They responded to Burns’s depiction of witches in his world-famous Tam O’Shanter poem. Clare and Zoe considered that Burns may have been inspired by folk memory of local Ayrshire people accused of witchcraft a couple of generations before he wrote the poem. They also discussed how traditional representations like those in Burns’s poem are at odds with what historians and researchers now understand to be the reality of the Scottish witch trials.

Next, we had a pre-recorded conversation between poet Shara McCallum (Penn State University) and Lisa Williams writer, researcher, and founder of Edinburgh Caribbean Association.

Shara read from sections of her 2021 collection, No Ruined Stone in which she has imagined a world in which Burns did make an ill-fated journey from Scotland to Jamaica. In 1786, Burns was offered a position by fellow Ayrshire-men Charles and Patrick Douglas, to work on their sugar plantation near Port Antonio in Jamaica that made its money from the labour of enslaved African people. However, due to the huge critical and commercial success of the second edition of his poems he stayed in Scotland. Shara considers what might have happened if Burns had travelled to Jamaica.

Our third speaker of the evening was multi-lingual researcher, writer and translator Ashley Douglas. She introduced her research on Scotland’s own 16th-century Sappho, writer and transcriber in Scots Marie Maitland. Marie is now believed to be the author of the anonymous Poem 49 of the Maitland Quarto (1586), a powerful nine-stanza poem in female voice in which the poet expresses her intense love for an unnamed woman.

Ashley commissioned a portrait of Marie Maitland as part of her research. A copy is on display in the James’s People display, on the top floor of the Portrait Gallery.

Ashley Douglas (photo: Roberto Ricciuti)

The evening finished with a fine unaccompanied vocal performance by Glasgow-based singer in Scots, Quinie aka Josie Vallely.

Quinie aka Josie Vallely (photo: Roberto Ricciuti)
William Bewick & Alexander Nasmyth & John Thurston Robert Burns, 1759 - 1796. Poet Unknown

Josie’s style is inspired by the singing traditions of Scottish Traveller community. Her performance explored Burns through the lens of seasonality - his observations of nature, weather and winter.

Our Friday Night Mixer events are part of the programme of activities connecting the nation to its outstanding collection of Scottish art as part of our Celebrating Scotland’s Art project.

By Dr Gráinne Rice, 2 August 2023