Last weekend the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum hosted an inspired new play by Victoria Bianchi, “Causeway: The Story of the Alloway Suffragettes”. Just to give a quick recap of the piece, the talented Pamela Reid and Annaliese Broughton embody two famous Suffragettes, Francis Parker and Ethel Moorhead, respectively, and bring us back to 1914 at the dawning of the Great War. Although the war was upon the world, Francis and Ethel insist that Scotland had already been fighting, but for something else: women’s suffrage.
Causeway brings visitors on a journey retracing the steps of Francis and Ethel from Glasgow all the way to Alloway, who went with the intention of blowing up Burns Cottage as a message on behalf of the Suffragette movement. There is another particularly interesting way in which the suffragettes voiced their opinions, not only in Bianchi’s production, but in history as well.
Suffragettes, named for their more militant approach to gaining women’s right to vote, also used the medium of song and poetry to voice their cause. They composed songs based on tunes and hymns, created original anthems, and adapted soldier’s marching songs. Even Burns songs inspired sSffragettes, for example, the 1870s song titled “Human Equality” by the social activist William Lloyd Garrison, is believed to be supplemental to “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”.
So why are we talking about this 100 years later, and how is it relevant to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
Francis Parker was arrested and put on trial after the attempted bombing of Burns Cottage, and was said to have quoted Robert Burns’ Scots Wha Hae. Although we can only imagine the speech made by Parker on trial, Bianchi eloquently peppered in Burns’ quotes and verses in Francis’ speech and throughout the entirety of the play in order to illustrate how people used, and still today use Burns with political and ethical motivations.
The actor Reid passionately channelled Parker’s spirit in a fierce dismissal of the use of Burns as a symbol of masculinity and arguing that the Suffragettes were not attempting to attack Burns but the initiatives of the patriarchy. This makes a powerful point against the unfortunate truth that Robert Burns’ words can be reinterpreted in a multitude of different ways, and not always for causes with which we might agree. Bianchi makes clear that at that time (and perhaps still today!), Burns was being used to exclude people from having power, in this case, specifically women.
Bianchi perfectly executes the true story of two women who were in the fight to reclaim the words of Robert Burns and claim their right for the vote, reminding us to consider that people may use the words of Burns with specific motivations.
For an unadulterated picture of Burns and women’s equality, it is worth looking into his piece “The Rights of Woman”. Some believe that it functioned as a mocking response to Wollostone’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, published earlier in the same year. But of course, as with every Burns poem, we can only speculate how Burns felt, and what he would have thought of the women’s Suffragette movement is anyone’s guess.