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Robert Burns, on BBC Radio Scotland

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Alan Braidwood Alan Braidwood | 16:47 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

Ahead of the Burns programmes on BBC Radio Scotland on Tuesday 25 January, producer Esme Kennedy has written us a few lines about a project she produced called The Complete Burns.

The Complete Burns, by Esme Kennedy

"...and we'd like you to take over and record the remaining 539 poems and songs by Robert Burns" WHAT?!!

In the run up to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, my former colleague Dave Batchelor had the brilliant idea that BBC Scotland should record the Complete Works of Robert Burns for a permanent online audio archive using Scotland's best acting talent.

Robert Burns collaborators from left to right: HRH The Prince of Wales, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane and Susan Calman. Photographs by Alan Braidwood

Robert Burns collaborators from left to right: HRH The Prince of Wales, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane and Susan Calman. Photographs by Alan Braidwood

Once he got the go ahead, he got on board the immensely talented likes of Robbie Coltrane, Robert Carlyle, Alan Cumming and Richard Wilson, to name but a few, and the project was off and running. He recorded nearly 200 works before deciding to take voluntary redundancy and I think he was genuinely sorry to have to hand over his 'baby'. He had done a marvellous job and I felt a tremendous responsibility to ensure I did the rest of the project justice. So, armed with a Scots dictionary, and with Gerry Carruthers, Director of the Robert Burns Centre at Glasgow University at the end of a telephone or emai l to check any pronunciation or meanings I was unsure of, I tentatively entered the world of Burns...

My first recording was with Karen Dunbar who, not only comes from Ayrshire but is notorious for her dramatic and entertaining telling of Tam O'Shanter. This couldn't have given me a better introduction to Burns as we laughed at her character-based performances and debated the pronunciation of words, many of which Karen was familiar with from the Ayrshire school playground. The session went well and her rendition of Tam O'Shanter was a revelation to me. I was beginning to see why everyone went on about this bloke from Ayrshire who wrote poems and songs....

I have now recorded 45 actors, there are 66 in total, and between Dave and me we have recorded 717 works. I loved the experience of working with so many talented people, who all bring their own interpretation of Burns to the table. I believe no-one knows exactly how Burns might have wanted a poem delivered and this offers a certain amount of freedom to interpret his work in different ways. I always tried to be consistent with pronunciation and have an understanding of the sentiment of the text but the beauty of working with such fabulous talent was that they were able to lift the works off the page and bring them to life. It was a privilege to be part of this.

I have been astounded at the breadth and range of subjects Burns wrote about, from politics and religion, to nature, death, nationalism, women and of course, love. And he could be funny and a little bit bitchy too. He was a human being who had an innate ability to write about universal themes which still resonate today. I think he was a top bloke.

Please decide for yourselves by taking the time to listen to some of his incredible work. As Scots we should be immensely proud of the talents of this one man. The poems are listed alphabetically, by reader, by theme or by year at bbc.co.uk/robertburns.

Esme Kennedy
The Complete Burns

Alongside the recording of the BBC Burns archive, several Radio Scotland presenters joined in and lent their voices to the poems. Listen to Fred MacAulay, Chick Young, Sally Magnusson, Mary Ann Kennedy ot Robbie Shepherd to name a few recite their poems.

Here's some comments about the Robert Burns website:

Bill Paterson
I've always loved Burns and I felt that the recordings were really nurtured in the studio. I'm very honoured to be part of this historic archive.

Fergus Muat, Chess Group, Aberdeen
Just thought I'd drop a note to say how much I enjoyed the Robert Burns website and podcasts.

The stunning array of famous Scots that brought his work to life was wonderful listening and truly inspirational.

I do know that my daughters school used the site for a project and they all found it very informative and I do believe that they were also bitten by the Burns bug!

Many thanks for all the efforts that you've put into the development of the site and podcasts.

Graham Tulloch, Scottish Collections Administrator, British Geological Survey, Edinburgh
I would like to congratulate you on the excellent Burns website. I have found it both very educational and entertaining.

I particularly like the way in which one can search either by Burns' works or by artist reading the piece.

Having multiple readers (some unexpected ones also, HRH the Prince of Wales for example!) for some pieces has given me confidence or assurance that I am not reading them "wrong" as the different interpretations provides the listener with different slants on the poem.

All-in-all an excellent site and one worth a much higher profile than it has.

Dr Gerard Carruthers, Director, Centre for Robert Burns Studies, University of Glasgow

The range in genre and emotion of Robert Burns's work is beautifully matched by the cast of sensitive and nuanced voices on the BBC Scotland Burns project.

This is one the most important ways in which Burns has ever been brought to life and it is an absolutely unique resource.

Susan Calman, comedian, writer and broadcaster

I use https://www.bbc.co.uk/robertburns/ far more than I ever thought I would! Hearing the voices of well known Scottish actors bringing Burn's poetry to life is a joy. I have recommended it as a resource to many writers and comics as well as to friends of mine who are teachers to use in their classroom. It is a gem, which is easily accessible, easy to use and a real asset to the BBC and to Scotland.

Emily, Mary Erskine Junior School
'I found the BBC web page, in relation to Robert Burns, when I was doing some research about a poem I had to memorize for School in Primary 6.

It was great to be able to listen to the actor's reading the poetry, as it helped me to pronounce the words, and also to know how I should read the poem aloud. I listened to them many times, and found the website very helpful for my homework'.


  • Comment number 1.

    And yet on the very same day that you announce the completion of the project, the BBC announcs taht the site is to close as part of the BBC Online review. What will happen to the "permanant online audio archive idea then?

  • Comment number 2.

    Hello almcd

    Please don't worry. The site is not closing, It will become a permanent feature on the radio website and we'll continue to manage it as a living, breathing archive.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Jeff, thanks for the re-assurance, but as the site is listed in the Guardian as one of the first to close, perhaps you could provide a bit more info on how it will fit in with the BBC's new online strategy and where ot would "fit" within the Radio Scotland mini-site


  • Comment number 4.

    After all the publicity about this fantastic collection of Burns performances, I can't see any way to download it. Surely after several centuries Burns isn't copyright protected? Listening to one poem for hours while it keeps buffering isn't a great experience - can't I just download them so that I can enjoy them sounding as they should?

  • Comment number 5.

    Hello again almcd

    There was some daftness about this yesterday but to assure you again...the Burns site will remain intact. It will look the same, have the same scale, scope and ambition. All that will change is the url address at the top of the page, but even if you use the old one it will still take you to the site.

    Behind the scenes we'll be managing it as part of the Radio Scotland web content and there will be direct links from radioscotland to the burns archive.

    And we'll continue to add to it wheneever we have any relevant audio or video content on radio or TV.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hello Robbie

    You can download the content by subscribing the the Complete Burns podcast which draws content from the Burns site. For rights reasons we're not allowed to make all of the content downloadable on an on- demand basis. That's something we continue to review.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks again Jeff.


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