Burns book wins Saltire Prize

Published: 30 November 2010

Professor Nigel Leask has won the National Library of Scotland/Saltire Society Research Book of the Year Award for a new book on Robert Burns.

The 2010 National Library of Scotland's Scottish Research Book of the Year has been awarded jointly to Robert Burns and Pastoral, Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland by Nigel Leask, published by Oxford University Press; and Adam Smith, an Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson, published by Penguin.

Martyn Wade, the National Librarian and chief executive of the National Library of Scotland, said:

“NLS is delighted that the standard of the shortlist was so high that we have joint winners of the Research Book award. The work by Nicholas Phillipson is a masterly re-telling of the life of Scotland’s great economist, Adam Smith, illuminating his fame by examining his philosophical thought. And the book by Nigel Leask presents a major rethink of Burns, placing him firmly within the Scottish and European Enlightenments and providing a fresh view on all the main poems.”

Robert Burns and Pastoral is a full-scale reassessment of Scotland’s national poet, offering fresh interpretations of all his major poems, and a selection of the songs, the first to do so since Thomas Crawford’s 1960 study. Although widely celebrated in Scotland, Burns has been marginalised in literary studies worldwide, due to a mistaken view that his poetry is linguistically incomprehensible and of interest to Scottish readers only.  

Professor Leask's book sets out to challenge this view by interpreting Burns’s poetry as an original and critical engagement with the experience of rural modernity, namely the revolutionary transformation of Scottish agriculture and society in the later decades of the 18th century, a major practical preoccupation of the Scottish and European enlightenment. The ‘Scots Pastoral’ tradition that Burns inherited from Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson is shown to be vital to the style and content of his verse, which also draws widely on modern English and European literature, as well as (perhaps surprisingly) that of Classical Greece and Rome. Individual chapters focus on Scots language, identity, and drink; politics, religion and poverty; the agricultural and animal world, and the unexpected links between his later career as an Exciseman, and his love of Scottish popular culture and song. Detailed study of the literary, social and historical contexts of Burns’s poetry show the poet’s artfulness and acumen as a social observer, as well as casting new light on his influence on British Romanticism.

Professor Leask, Head of the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow said: "I’m over the moon about being joint winner of the 2010 NLS/Saltire Prize for the Best Research Book of the Year. Although published the year after the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, Burns and Pastoral greatly benefited from the many international seminars, conferences and celebrations that I attended in 2009, evidence of a healthy revival in Burns and Scottish literary studies.

"I’d started research on Burns before being appointed to Glasgow’s Regius Chair in English in 2004, but writing the book became part of my personal reorientation in the Scotland that I’d left back in 1977. Although published by Oxford and to some extent aimed at an international readership, I’m delighted that Burns and Pastoral has been so well received here in Scotland. I’m looking forward to developing the themes of the book in further research collaboration with my Glasgow co-editors on the new Oxford Collected Works of Robert Burns, based in the School of Critical Studies."

Further information:
Martin Shannon, Senior Media Relations Officer
University of Glasgow Tel: 0141 330 8593

The Saltire Society

Established in the 1930s, to celebrate the rich culture, history and environment of Scotland. The name Saltire is taken from the saltire, the heraldic name of the Cross of St. Andrew.

First published: 30 November 2010