His image was that of the “heaven-taught ploughman” whose striking dark looks saw women of all backgrounds besotted and smitten by him and his poetry.
But earlier this week Liz Lochhead, former Makar – Scotland’s national poet – claimed Robert Burns was the “Harvey Weinstein of his day”.
Lochhead, Makar from 2001-16, said while researching the poet’s work for a talk entitled “Burns and women” at the Scottish Hellenic Society later this month, she read a letter by Burns where he bragged about forcing his paramour Jean Armour – who later became his wife – to have sex on a floor strewn with horse manure while she was pregnant.
In the letter, written in 1788 to his friend Bob Ainslie, Burns wrote of jumping on a “destitute and friendless” woman and giving her a “thundering scalade” (a military assault) when she was pregnant.
Lochhead said: “The disgraceful sexual boast to his friend seemed very like rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend.”
Now Catherine Czerkawska, a leading Burns scholar, award-winning novelist and playwright, has defended the poet’s reputation.
Czerkawska told our sister paper The Scotsman: “Any comparisons between the poet and Weinstein are invidious.
“The poet had close but largely platonic friendships with women of all ages. Moreover, to label as rape the events described in the notorious ‘horse litter letter’ is to over-simplify a relationship of great complexity.
“When I was researching The Jewel [her historical novel about Jean’s life published in 2016] Jean Armour emerged as a strong woman with an abiding affection for her husband.
“In 1788, she was pregnant with the second of two sets of his twins. Burns was enjoying his Edinburgh celebrity, but felt guilty about the emotional mess he had left behind. Both were in mourning for their 13-month-old daughter.
“Although he bragged that he had made love to a receptive Jean, I suspect the truth was that Jean submitted to him without much enjoyment and he knew it.
“The babies, born soon after, didn’t survive long.
“Never a cruel man, he had betrayed Jean and his own code of kindness. Within a short space of time, he trotted back to Mauchline seeking her forgiveness and the couple were officially married. The honeymoon period was both passionate and happy.
“I am often asked what I thought of Burns as I was researching the novel. I could feel the warm blast of his charm and good humour some 230 years later. There are few ‘sex pests’ who would elicit that response.”
Czerkawska’s works include For Jean, Poems and Songs by Burns imagining the final weeks of Burns’ life on the Solway coast with in 1796.