Skip to main content


Scotland has lost its sense of humour

Robert Burns: a “hate stirrer” before his time

When I grew up in Scotland, “deference towards authority was in short supply”, says Daniel Kalder in UnHerd. “The loathing directed at those in power was visceral, the tone caustic and funny.” But now the country has lost its sense of humour – and the “finger-wagging” of its puritanical Calvinist roots is back. Everywhere you go, you are bombarded by some sort of “moral instruction” from the government: signs warning people against using bad language on trains; minimum unit pricing for alcohol to stop us drinking. Most worrying is the new hate crime bill passed by MSPs last year, which makes the vaguely worded act of “stirring up hatred” a criminal offence.

Our national poet, Robert Burns, wouldn’t have had much time for this. His work undermined “just about everything” that Calvinist worthies considered sombre and sacred. One of his poems, Holy Willie’s Prayer, is a gloriously mean satire of a Calvinist who “justifies his lustful nature as a ‘fleshly thorn’ intended by God to prevent him from becoming too perfect”. Holy Willie was based on a smug elder in Burns’s parish, and the poem was so libellous Burns only circulated it in private. Had our new hate crime law been in place back then, this sort of thing would no doubt have seen Burns accused of “stirring up hatred”. Would he have felt at ease in a country with such draconian measures? Not a chance.

Get our daily newsletter in your inbox

We cut through the noise to give you a fresh take on the world – in just five minutes a day. Sign up for the newsletter here.