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Struggle: 'James Macfarlan'

'James Macfarlan' by Edwin Morgan


'James Macfarlan' is part of the sequence 'The Five-Pointed Star', five monologues about Robert Burns. The other voices are Catherine the Great, Sir James Murray (first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary), Franz Kafka and 'An Anonymous Singer of the 21st Century'. The poems were written for the bicentenary of Burns' death in 1996.

James Macfarlan (1832-1862) was the son of an Irish pedlar. He published three books of verse, and eked out a living writing for newspapers and magazines. A heavy drinker, he joined the temperance moved in 1860 but died in poverty two years later.

Robert Burns visited the Carron Ironworks in August 1787. Refused admission, he scratched a verse on the window of a nearby inn.


Teaching ideas


Before discussing the poem, read it aloud.

It can be split into four parts: ll.1-9, ll.10-19, ll.20-26 and ll.27-32.

  • Macfarlan quotes Burns directly twice, in l.1 and l.25, and then questions these statements of Burns. Why do you think he is unconvinced by them?
  • Can you find any other references to Burns' work in this poem?
  • What is Macfarlan's opinion of Burns, expressed in ll.1-9?
  • What sort of place is Glasgow, as described by Macfarlan in ll.10-19?
  • Why do you think Macfarlan switches from the 3rd to 2nd person from l.25?
  • In l.29, what sort of 'glory' is Macfarlan describing? Why does he call it 'dangerous'?
  • In l.30, what is 'the filthy wall' Macfarlan says 'poetry must pierce'?

The poem is written as if spoken by Macfarlan.

  • How would you characterise Macfarlan's 'voice' in the poem?
  • Think about his vocabulary, and the type of sentences he uses – is his style simple or complex, colloquial or literary, direct or evasive?

Look at the the way the poem uses rhyme.

  • How does it affect your reading of the poem?
  • For example, does it make it more serious or more humorous, faster or slower paced, easier or harder to read aloud?

What sense of Macfarlan's character does the poem convey?

  • Make a list of say five adjectives to describe him.

Do you think Macfarlan is fair to Burns in the poem?




Write a monologue in the voice of a historical character.

Remember they can only write about their own time, or a time previous to it they might have learned about – and that they don't know about anything that has happened since their lifetime!

  • Think about the kind of words they would use.
  • Use question words to help you write.

Have your character describe –

  • who they are with
  • what they are doing
  • when they are speaking -
    • the time of day
    • the time of year
    • the year itself
  • how they are feeling
  • why they are moved to speak
  • where they are.

You could write a poem in three verses.

  • In v.1 the speaker describes their surroundings and circumstances.
  • In v.2 the speaker discusses what is on their mind – a worry, a problem, something that has to be dealt with.
  • In v.3 the speaker outlines how they are going to handle this, what action they will take.


Compare events and conditions in Burns lifetime with those in Macfarlan's lifetime – say rural Ayrshire in the 1780s and industrial Glasgow in the 1850s.

Consider such areas as:

  • Education and literacy
    • how likely was it that children from poorer families would be educated?
    • What kind of schools existed at the time?
    • What subjects were taught in them?

  • Work and earnings
    • What kind of jobs did people have?
    • How much could they earn?

  • Housing
    • What kind of buildings did people live in?
    • Who did they live with?
    • How easily could they afford to stay there?
    • Who owned these buildings?

  • Food and drink
    • What food and drink were available?
    • How much variety was there?
    • What factors affected the availability of food?

  • Medicine
    • What happened to someone when they fell ill?
    • How easy was it for them to get treatment?
    • What kind of treatment could they expect to receive?
    • What sort of attitudes did people have to doctors?

  • Publishing
    • Where did the poets publish?
    • How easy was it for them to do so?
    • Who helped and who hindered them?

Further reading

Read this poem in…

Love And Liberty: Robert Burns: A Bicentenary Celebration.
Kenneth Simpson. Ed. East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 1997.
pp. 13-17 “The Five-Pointed Star”

Morgan, Edwin. Virtual And Other Realities. Manchester: Carcanet, 1997.

Read Edwin Morgan on Robert Burns in…

Kenneth Simpson. Ed. Burns Now.
Edinburgh: Cannongate Academic, 1994.
pp. 1-12 “A Poet's Response To Burns”

Morgan, Edwin. Cathures: New Poems 1997-2001.
Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2002.
includes the poem 'Robert Burns', originally written as part of the libretto Sons And Daughters Of Alba.

Times Literary Supplement. 18 June 1993.
p. 26. EM. “Ballads Blithe And Bawdy” rev. of Robert Burns.

Read James Macfarlan's poems in…

Mungo's tongues: Glasgow poems 1630-1990
edited by Hamish Whyte.
Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1993.

Scottish literature: An anthology
David McCordick, editor.
New York: Peter Lang, 1996.


Related links

James Macfarlan - The full text of The Glasgow poets: their lives and poems, edited by George Eyre-Todd (1903); pp.377-386 includes background on Macfarlan, and his poems 'The Lords of Labour', 'The Watcher' and 'The Ruined City'.

Robert Burns - Burns' poem written after being turned away from the Carron Ironworks.


Resource written by Ken Cockburn, April 2009




Languages (English), Social Sciences (History)


1990s, James Macfarlan, Robert Burns, struggle, industrialisation, poverty, Ireland, Scotland, 19th Century, 1850s