Robert Burns lit a “cultural touch paper” more than 200 years ago, and the effects are still being felt today, writes Alison Campsie
He was the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ who could distil humanity, its triumphs and toils into tiny, penetrating drops of poetry and prose.
The life and work of Robert Burns will be remembered on January 25 in ceremonies the world over, where reverence to the Bard will be served with a fair dose of Scottish kitsch.
But just how relevant is Burns today, both in Scotland and futher afield, more than 200 years after his death – and how deep does his legacy go beyond the haggis, drams and recitals that will mark next week?
For Patrick Hogg, author of Burns: The Patriot Bard, the repercussions of Burns’ work are as clear as they are urgent in modern day Scotland – with his cultural relevance as powerful now as in the turn of the 19th century.
According to Hogg, Burns preserved the Scots language and saved Scottish identity from the onslaught of “sophisticated elitist Anglicization” that was flooding Scots society during Burns’ own time.
To Burns, the Scots language was the pulsing heart of the ordinary people – they carried the best traits of Scottish culture – their story, their hardship, their honest toil, their povertyPatrick Hogg, author of Burns: The Patriot Bard
“Burns lit the fire and the torch is burning brightly in the new Scottish cultural renaissance in all modern creative forms of cultural identity,” said Hogg, “all hame grown and vital with braid Scots.”
“Burns knew that as long as the Scots language is artistically vital and alive in our own culture, then Scottish identity will survive.
“He was truly the People’s Poet and even if we ritually misunderstand his powerful, intense radical egalitarian voice and fight over his politics like cats in a bag, then his immortal fame burns on eternal.”
As Hogg explained, Burns had been advised by leading literati figures in Edinburgh not to write in Scots after his path-breaking Kilmarnock edition in 1786, which included works such as Halloween and To a Mouse.
However, Burns ambitions were bigger than “heaping up the dirty ore of money”.
“Scotland was to become a bland, cultural satellite of English elite culture,” he said.
“Burns knew this and stood firm that Scots could be a language of artistic expression.
“So, through his own works and the work of modern Scots writers today, the Scots language is still vital and central to Scottish identity and modern culture.”
Hogg pointed to the works of Maker Liz Lochhead and the late Willie McIllvanney’s novels as bearing the influence of Burns.
Actor Tam Dean Burn, songwriters Dick Gaughan and the voices of Eddie Reader and Karen Matheson also contain a dusting of Burns, he said.
“You also have modern pro-independence rappers belting out radical free verse against the nepotism of the London establishment.
“To Burns, the Scots language was the pulsing heart of the ordinary people. They carried the best traits of Scottish culture – their story, their hardship, their honest toil, their poverty, their laughter, their tears, were the voice of Scotland.”
There could also be “no higher compliment” than the remark by Bob Dylan, who said he could not have written a song like A Red Red Rose without the Bard. (“Burns is one of the greatest songwriters of all eras,” he said.)
Colin Waters, of the Scottish Poetry Library, said Burns’ writing contained universal themes that transcended geography.
According to Waters, Abraham Lincoln named Burns as his favourite poet while writer Toni Morrison praised Burns’s The Slave’s Lament; Waters is adamant that Burns was the equal of Yeats, Goethe and Whitman.
While Wordsworth and Coleridge are celebrated for writing about ordinary people in their own language and a deep engagement with nature and landscape, Burns had already achieved this a decade earlier, Mr Water said.
The earliest printed translation of a Burns poem into a foreign language appeared in 1795, ‘Das Leben wär’ ein leerer Schall’, a German translation of ‘Green Grow the Rushes’.
Mr Waters said: “Germany, especially in the 19th century, had an affinity with Burns’s verse, and to this day German is the language into which he is most often translated.”
Russia during the Soviet era was also particularly receptive to his poetry, with 600,000 volumes of Burns translations were sold during the Communist years.
The Kremlin is also said to have held Burns Nights, although the first supper out of Scotland is thought to have been held in 1812 in Calcutta by homesick soldiers.
“Burns came to signify all things Scottish for many toiling on foreign shores for the Empire,” Waters said.
Despite his historic reach, Mr Waters added there was much in Burns that feels modern to contemporary readers, from his frankness about his romantic and sexual life, his egalitarian politics to his bawdy humour and his ecological concerns.
He said there is “not a single Scottish poet today” who has not wrestled with his legacy at some point, and gestured to a “golden generation” of Scottish poets including Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, John Burnside.
“I think the fact that poetry is such a going concern here can be traced back to Burns,” said Waters. “He’s still giving this country a voice, either directly through his own still relevant work or by the generations he has inspired right up until today.”
Poet Hugh McDiarmid may have said “mair nonsense has been uttered in his name than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ,” but the hook of Burns, the draw of the Bard, remains as potent now.
It would appear we just can’t give him up, whether it be the base pleasure of his words or his all-powerful expression of Scottish identity, our affection for Burns is going nowhere.