The Witching Voice

Written by Arnold Johnston
Review by Mary K. Bird-Guilliams


The date of publication for this novel of Robert Burns’s life and work was the 250th anniversary of poet’s birth. Since the 25th of January is already celebrated as a national holiday by Scottish sons and daughters everywhere, it should be plain the sense of esteem with which he is regarded. The novel is written in “Scots” (as were most of Burns’s best works), which I found easy to slip into, although a glossary is included as an appendix to assist the reader.

The many snippets of poetry and song arise naturally as we follow Rab in his early adulthood at home on the struggling farm or with his friends and lady friends, and they become seamless in their setting of 18th-century Scotland. This is quite deliberate on the part of both Burns and Mr. Johnston; in fact, more than once, one of the upper classes advises Burns to drop the dialect and write about subjects of refinement. Burns’s reply is that the dialect and his life experience is how the Muse speaks to him.

Mr. Johnston writes plays as well as novels, and The Witching Voice was first a play which brought Robert Burns to life on the stage. Here on the printed page the same happens, illuminating this formative period in the life of the poet; the allure of the wealthier classes, which he matched in education if not birth; the tyranny and hypocrisy of the church elders; the hounds of poverty that pursued him always; and what a real gentleman he was in his pursuit of the ladies. A wonderful introduction to Robert Burns or a treat for his many admirers.