Immortal memories

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"WHAT does Robert Burns mean to me? Listen, I don't want my full name in the paper, but I'll tell you a story like you've never heard before."

Murren is 61, with a brown crown of hair and a heavy coat buttoned against the gnawing cold. She's standing in Alloway, between the Burns Monument and the Brig o' Doon, and dabbing at her tears with a paper hankie.

She's from Dumfries and Galloway originally. Her father was a professional reciter of Burns's poetry so she grew up immersed in those verses and rhymes. As a teenager she met a Muslim boy and, at 15, became pregnant. They were in love, but their families saw things differently. He was sent to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. Murren was told she had disgraced the family, that there was no way she was bringing up a mixed-race baby. She was sent away to England to see out her pregnancy at a mother-and-baby home and then give her child up for adoption.

Of course, she loved the baby when she had him; she could feel the love, and can still feel it, in her body where she carried him, as a painful hollow space. "And do you know what the date was when I had to hand over my nine-month-old baby?" she asks. "January 25, 1967. So you ask how I feel about Burns? Terrible pain and poignancy."

She made her son a teddy bear to take with him to his new parents, and sewed into one foot a ten-shilling note and a poem she adapted from 'A Red, Red Rose': "Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear / And the rocks melt wi' the sun / O, I will love thee still, my Dear / And I'll always be your mum."

She has been affected terribly by losing her child, but part of the healing process is renewing her love for Burns, and so she has come along to Alloway today to visit the cottage where the poet was born. She still loves his poems very much, and takes particular comfort in the verses he wrote in praise of his own illegitimate children.

Murren's story is dramatic, yet it is not unusual for people in Scotland to feel a profound connection with Rabbie. He was born in a thunderstorm in Alloway on January 25, 1759, and died at home in Dumfries on July 21, 1796. Following in his footsteps, and talking to people about him along the way, it becomes clear just how deep Burns has penetrated the Scottish psyche; he's like some rogue chromosome spiralling eternally through our DNA.

THE ICONIC BURNS COTTAGE in Alloway was built in 1757 by Robert's father, William, a farmer. Small and white, with tiny windows and a thatched roof, it looks laughably anachronistic in the context of a modern street. But there's something moving and even holy about the atmosphere inside. Through the gloom you can see the wooden box-bed in which Burns was born. Taken with the models of farm animals in the adjoining byre, it's hard not to think hyperbolic thoughts about the stable in Bethlehem.

Now part of the Burns National Heritage Park, the cottage attracts about 32,000 visitors each year, down from 90,000 a decade ago. It is hoped that the fuss around the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth, when everything from stamps to milk cartons has been emblazoned with the Burns brand, will return the crowds. There are plans next year to open a new museum nearby, at a cost of 21 million.

The cottage has attracted famous literary pilgrims, including John Keats and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edwin Muir, visiting in 1934, thought it "one of the most ludicrous and pathetic sights in Scotland" and called for demolition.

Standing on the pavement outside, their two toaty wee dogs yapping at the traffic hurtling past, Tom and Dee Urquart from Denny are making their first visit to the cottage. A married couple in their 50s, they are enthusiastic about the Homecoming year and in particular the gathering of clans due to take place in Edinburgh this July. Tom is a Scot, but Dee is from Iowa, and they have lots of friends and family coming over from America. Both are wearing kilts and a great deal of tartan besides.

"Burns is the embodiment of the whole spirit of what we are as Scots, y'know," says Tom. "Our love of freedom. And he was a very independent-thinking man politically, as I am myself. I'm a nationalist, as he was, and as we come closer to independence he would have been proud of the way things are going."

Dee moved to Scotland six years ago. Until Tom taught her about Burns, the only poem she knew was 'Auld Lang Syne', but she hadn't appreciated that it was Scottish. "But I love the old Scots," she says. "My favourite is the 'Address to a Haggis'."

"But," laughs Tom, "she has only got as far as 'Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face'."

The nine-year-old Burns and his family moved from the cottage in 1766. In 1783, aged 26, he and his brother Gilbert began renting Mossgiel, a farm near the village of Mauchline, a few miles inland from Ayr. Mossgiel is a working dairy farm today; back then, Burns grew oats and barley, though he struggled to grow anything as the ground was very damp. In the evenings, cold and exhausted, he would sit up in his attic room and write the verses which, when published in 1786 as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, would make him famous. It was here that he wrote 'To a Mouse' after accidentally destroying its nest with his plough.

The so-called 'moosey field' where that happened still attracts tourists. Mossgiel, with its long views and bare trees that stand silhouetted against the white sky like the bronchial passages in lungs, is a private residence. But Alex Wylie, the farmer who has lived here all of his 86 years, is used to visitors turning up and asking to pick daisies as keepsakes. He and his wife Nance are appreciative yet unexcited by the provenance of their home, and bemused by how breathless some Burnsians can become; one young woman, during a recent visit, sang 'Ae Fond Kiss' and promptly burst into tears.

"You keep asking what's special about living here, but the folk take it for granted," says Ian Lyell, the 68-year-old honorary president of the Mauchline Burns Club, who has brought me to meet the Wylies. "They accept that he was a great poet, but they're not putting him on a pedestal or greatly conscious about his contribution to literature. He was the guy who worked on the farm out there, who came to the kirk and went to the pubs."

Everyone in the living-room nods at this. "That's right, that's right," says Alex. "He was an ordinary person. But he had that wee bit."

The familiarity with which the Wylies regard Burns is evident too in Mauchline, where the poet was a frequent visitor and later resident. The village hasn't changed much since Burns's day. You can still walk the paths he walked and, in the kirkyard, visit the graves of people known to him and mentioned in his poetry. Most famous of all is the worn and mossy slab of Willie Fisher, the subject of that classic satire on pious hypocrisy, 'Holy Willie's Prayer'.

Phil Kelso, a 61-year-old builder, rolling a fag on a nearby headstone, tells me in passing that his own favourite poem is 'To a Mouse'. "My grandson is ten and a clever wee bugger. He can recite that."

Also buried here is Agnes Ronald, better known as Poosie Nansie, once the landlady of what was then a brothel, directly across the road from the church. It was the setting for Burns's 'Love and Liberty', better known as 'The Jolly Beggars', a great dramatic poem peopled by carousing vagabonds. Without wanting to demean the contemporary clientele, it's clear within a half-hour tea-time visit that Poosie Nansie's – as the pub is now known – still has that salty Burnsian flavour. There's plenty of bawdy talk, political grumblings and wisecracking as pints are sunk.

Seated near the bar, drinking vodka and watching the racing on telly, Davie Shankland, a 65-year-old former miner, is hesitant at first when asked about Burns, but before long he's reciting poetry from memory. So many of the people round here seem to have Burns's work as a kind of second language. "Down the pit, Burns was quoted all the time," he explains. "You see, Burns came from the same working-class background as most of us in this area, and that's what we appreciate in his poetry. His poetry was based on the common man struggling to get on in life. This is quite a poor area, lots of mining and farming, and that's why we can relate to Burns."

Having said his piece, Shankland gives me a verse of 'Address to a Haggis', shakes my hand, and goes back to the horses and his drink.

AFTER AYRSHIRE, it's harder to detect the essence of Burns in Edinburgh. So many other hot reputations were made here that the scent, overwhelmed, grows cold. But you can still catch a whiff at twilight down some of those dark, narrow, stinking closes that slope off grander streets. Deep within Anchor Close, which links Cockburn Street with the Royal Mile, a not-so-jolly beggar sits slumped in the gloaming. It was here that Burns's publisher and printer had their offices, and here too that the poet would meet his rowdy, ruddy drinking buddies.

Burns came to Edinburgh in 1786 as a literary sensation. He stayed at first in Baxter's Close, on the site where Deacon Brodie's Tavern now sits. A menu board outside boasts of the 'best haggis in Scotland', which might have met with Burns's approval, though what he would have made of the hummus ciabatta is anyone's guess.

His stay in Edinburgh is marked permanently by an exhibition at the Writer's Museum, and temporarily at the National Library of Scotland by Zig Zag, an impressive display of Burns artefacts that brings together items usually dispersed around the country. Comments in the visitors' book include "Braw" and "Burns is my Jesus Christ".

Included in Zig Zag is William Stewart Watson's 1846 painting of Burns being inaugurated as poet laureate of a masonic lodge in the Canongate. There's another version of this painting, also by Watson, within Freemasons Hall, on George Street. David Begg, the grand secretary, invites me to look at it. "Burns means a lot to the masons," he says. "They gave him his start. He was about to leave for the Caribbean and was actually stopped from going there because the masons promoted his work and bought up the first edition of his book. His connections with masonry got him an in-road into society in Edinburgh as well. And a lot of his poetry, such as 'A Man's a Man for a' that', contains masonic values. In masonry, all people are on the level whether you're a duke or a knight or a common man."

Begg feels that freemasonry was an important aspect of Burns's life that is too often played down. Travelling around Scotland, it's clear that disparate groups feel a sense of ownership with regard to Burns and believe their own contribution has been overlooked. In Mauchline they lament the coachloads of tourists pulling up in Alloway and never coming near them. In Alloway they worry that people don't realise Burns was born there. In Dumfries they'll tell you that Burns couldn't help where he was born, but that he chose, very sensibly, to become a Doonhamer.

Before leaving Edinburgh, I return to the National Library to attend a public talk by Andrew O'Hagan, the Ayrshire-born writer who has written a great deal about Burns and made a recent, excellent TV series about him. Were Burns alive today, he would be appearing at promotional events like this, hoping to sell some books to the middle classes. It's a very different atmosphere to Poosie Nansie's.

O'Hagan on Burns is funny and intelligent. Afterwards, I ask what the poet means to him, and we talk about the time when his daughter Nell was born and he gave her a bath while reciting 'Handsome Nell'. "His poems have been a soundtrack for my life," O'Hagan says. "I remember thinking there was no difference between what he was doing as a revolutionary poet and what the punk bands were doing that interested me when I was growing up. So it seems natural that when I was bathing my daughter or watching her being born that Burns would come into my mind. It's that sense he had of the seasons of human life, and the vitality of human experience; once that's got a grip on you, it never leaves you."

THE TRAIN FROM Glasgow to Dumfries ploughs deep through Burns country, with its rich, loamy, poetic names – New Cumnock, Kilmarnock, Kilmaurs, Auchinleck. Dumfries was where the poet came to live in 1788, aged 29, and it would be, for him, the end of the line.

He leased a farm, Ellisland, but the land was as stoney as Mossgiel had been wet, and he struggled to make it pay. In late 1791, he gave it up and moved with his wife Jean Armour and their children to the first floor of a tenement in Stinking Vennel, a street sloping steeply down to the River Nith. Burns is thought to have written 'Ae Fond Kiss' here, a fragrant song with no sense within its lines that it was composed by a man who had an open sewer running past his home.

These days the property is 11 Bank Street, its ground floor occupied by the Burns Hairdressing Salon and the Burns Caf. The floor that the poet's family occupied is a private home. Downstairs, a sloping offshoot in which Burns once stabled his horse, is now Bank Street Books, which sells a few second-hand editions of Burns-related titles as well as works by that other sensitive bard, Jeremy Clarkson. The owner, 38-year-old Marian Dawber, admits that her appreciation of Burns's poems is coloured by her disapproval of his multiple infidelities. "There's a statue to Jean Armour up the road there, and that's quite right because she put up with a lot." Nevertheless, Dawber is planning a walking tour of Burns's Dumfries.

It will include, no doubt, the Globe Inn, down a close off the High Street, which Burns described as his "favourite howff". Proprietor Maureen McKerrow shows me round its narrow corridors and upstairs to the room where Burns sometimes spent the night. The room contains the chair in which he used to sit, and windows on which he inscribed poetry with a diamond-tipped stylus. Other windowpanes from the Globe are now in the museum at Alloway, having been sold before McKerrow's in-laws took over the business in 1937. McKerrow, who considers herself a caretaker of Burns's legacy here, intends to ask for these back.

Framed on one wall of the bedroom is the poem 'Yestreen I had a Pint o' Wine', written in honour of Anna Park, a barmaid at the Globe with whom Burns had an affair and a daughter. The four-poster is not original, but the honour of sleeping in it is bestowed upon whoever gives the 'Immortal Memory' at the prestigious annual Burns Howff Club supper here. Donald Dewar did so once, but was too lanky for the bed.

Jane Brown is manager of the Globe. Standing in the snug, a bust of Burns peering over her shoulder, she explains that she has worked here for 23 years, ever since her divorce. She has become passionate about the poet, and this year is booked to speak at more than 20 Burns Suppers. She sometimes gives the 'Immortal Memory' dressed as Armour, and by the end she's crying. "I've got no man," she says, "and my children are grown up, so it's my bonus, as I call it, that I've got Burns. He fills my life."

A ten-minute walk from the Globe takes you to St Michael's kirkyard, where the tombs are carved out of the same red sandstone as the church itself. Together with the red chips on the path and the pink of the sunset, the overall effect is a suffocating crimson. Out of this rises Burns's mausoleum – white, gleaming and domed. Inside there is a frieze of Burns, leaning on a plough, holding his cap and looking up at an angelic muse. He died at the age of 37 from rheumatic fever, and is buried here with his wife and some of his children. It's a cold and deserted spot at twilight, surrounded by heather and bare trees, and it's sad to think of someone so vibrant ending up here.

Yet though 'Auld Lang Syne' was Burns's most famous song, it's clear from travelling around Scotland that his relationship with the people is not entirely nostalgic and nowhere near as cold and lifeless as that marble frieze. He and his times seem familiar: he lived during a period of foreign war and suffered as the result of a banking collapse; he knew about celebrity and scandal; to support his family, he had to make career changes and could not rely on one job for life. If he was alive now, we would recognise and warmly welcome Burns as one of us. He could be the man in the pub in Mauchline, the flirt in the snug in Dumfries, the farmer in Mossgiel, the poet in Alloway who can make a woman weep for her lost son.

"I feel like I'm carrying around a bag of shame," Murren told me by the Brig o' Doon. But it was clear that shameless, timeless Burns was, even now, helping her bear some of that weight. r

For more information on the events celebrating Robert Burns's 250th anniversary, see Andrew O'Hagan's Robert Burns: The People's Poet is showing tonight on BBC4, at 9pm

The life of Robert Burns

RANTIN', rovin' Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Alloway, Ayrshire, to Agnes and William Burns, a poor gardener and erstwhile cheese-maker. Also living in the family home was one Betty Davidson, who helped out on the farm and acted as nurse to the young Robert, telling him ghost stories by night. And though her tales gave him nightmares, Burns later credited Betty with being his main inspiration to become a poet.

His early life consisted of schoolwork, learning Latin, mathematics and French, and working on the family farm. However, financial hardship meant his family were forced to move twice, first to Mount Oliphant, around three miles from Ayr, then later to Lochlea Farm in Tarbolton, Mauchline, which is where Burns stayed until his father's death in 1784.

The family then moved to nearby Mossgiel farm, though the land was rough and rocky. Burns's situation was further complicated by the fact that his womanising ways were frowned upon by the local community – he had already made Jean Armour pregnant, and her father opposed the couple's plan to marry (though they eventually wed the following year).

But personal difficulties must have fuelled his poetry because, while he began writing much earlier, the years from 1784 to 1785 – when he was aged about 25 – were to prove his most prolific. During that time, he wrote 'Holy Willie's Prayer', 'To a Mouse', 'The Jolly Beggars' and 'The Holy Fair'.

At one stage, he planned to escape his troubles by emigrating to Jamaica, and to pay his passage he published a collection of his poems. But it was the success of Poems – Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – Kilmarnock Edition that caused him to put his travel plans on hold.

He moved to Edinburgh, where he was courted by polite society for the next 18 months. In the capital, he met Agnes McLehose, otherwise known as Clarinda, who was the subject of several romantic letters and one of the Bard's most famous poems, 'Ae Fond Kiss'.

In 1787, he embarked on what he called a "slight pilgrimage to the classic scenes of this country", taking in the Borders, then later central Scotland and the Highlands. During this time, his Edinburgh Edition of poems was published, and he also contributed to James Johnson's highly successful The Scots Musical Museum.

His final years were spent in Dumfriesshire, where he attempted to farm land at Ellisland, and later worked for the Excise in Dumfries. But a lifetime of hard work had caused him to suffer a heart condition, and on July 21, 1796, aged just 37, he died of rheumatic fever. A crowd of around 10,000 attended his funeral, which was "uncomonly splendid", according to a Dumfries draper who attended.