Thoroughly modern Rabbie

'YOU WERE poked by: Robert Burns." It's the Facebook message millions of young women would love to receive. And let's face it, if Burns were alive today, not only would he have a Facebook page, a MySpace page and a blog, he'd probably be sending out lines of poetry on Twitter, too.

But aside from getting to grips with modern technology, what sort of man would Robert Burns be in 2009? What would he be doing with his life and his work? Would he have sunk into oblivion or would he be an international megastar? Many imagine Burns as a contemporary rogue, a Russell Brand character who would enjoy noising up the Establishment while his womanising was splashed all over the tabloids.

Tam Dean Burn, an actor and musician who has starred in River City and the film of Irvine Welsh's Acid House, draws parallels between Burns and the controversial Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty, whom Burn persuaded onstage at the Burns an' a' That! festival in Ayr in 2005, when Doherty was at the height of his fame and had just been deemed 'the coolest man in music' by the NME.

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"Burns and Pete are just so similar in that way of being young, romantic, rock'n'roll poets," he says. "You can see the similarities between them. Yes, Burns was very much a product of his time, but you can also decouple him from that and show he has enormous contemporary relevance."

Given time to mature, Burn reckons Burns would have hit the serious big time if he'd been around today. "I honestly think he would have become Scotland's Bob Dylan," he says. "He'd be a real leading light on the global music scene. We've never really had a Scottish figure in that league before, but I think Burns would have got there. Music was always very much in his desire for expressing himself."

Indeed his love of music, along with his desire to say the unsayable no matter how cheeky or contentious it might be, suggests he would have undoubtedly ended up in the public eye one way or the other.

"I think he'd be one of those Frankie Boyle types, a rabble rouser with a bit of Tommy Sheridan in him," says stand-up comedian Arnold Brown. He also believes that a contemporary Burns would have produced something of substance that would have contributed to modern culture, as well as poking fun.

"I could see him writing for the National Theatre of Scotland, doing something traditional, yet astounding and powerful like the play Black Watch," says Brown. "I can also imagine him doing standup comedy as well as his writing. He'd be a busy man."

Of course, the fact that we wonder at all about Burns's place in modern society is in itself a reflection of the strength and timelessness of much of his work.

"The other day I was watching Barack Obama's inauguration speech and thinking, 'If Burns was alive now, what would he think of Obama?'" remarks Scottish poet and author Jackie Kay. "You don't really think that with other writers – you wouldn't think, 'What would Shakespeare make of Obama?' But Burns, because of his thoughts and beliefs, is someone you're always aware of in contemporary life."

Brown takes the Obama comparison a step further. "Obama has the same kind of eloquence as Burns did, and that gift of inclusiveness. He has the ability to sum up a whole ethos in one line, and Burns did that plentifully."

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But while Burns would make an admittedly unlikely American President, Kay says she can imagine him getting involved in politics at home. "I think he'd be a performance poet and have some sort of ambassadorial role in the arts," she says. "I can see him being a rogue presence on the Scottish Arts Council, trying to find a way to get money out to artists and writers. He'd get involved in Scotland both politically and artistically, writing poetry but also fighting for artists' and writers' rights."

And what would he have looked like during all this? Fashion commentator John Davidson reckons he'd be a bit of a male clothes-horse with an eye for style.

"Alexander McQueen's clothes are tailor-made for Burns," says Davidson. "He'd look great in something with a bit of a swagger to it, classic tailoring with an intriguing twist. He'd be working that dandified macho look. I also think he'd be into his male grooming, and a bit of a metrosexual. He'd be as narcissistic as Russell Brand when it comes to looks, but less grubby. He'd be more groomed."

And, of course, he'd still love the ladies. "I can see him in the Celtic Connections Festival Club having a few drinks and chatting up the women," says singer/songwriter Kim Edgar. "He'd be the last to leave, I reckon."

It seems inevitable that Burns would, with his looks, gift of the gab, passionate beliefs and love of a good tune, have made his way onto the contemporary Scottish music scene, hanging out with the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Belle and Sebastian; getting involved in T in the Park and the Edinburgh Fringe.

"I think he'd be a well-respected Scottish musician, quite an indie type," says comedian Craig Hill. "He wouldn't be mainstream, I reckon, he'd still be quite cool."

That it is difficult to imagine Burns as anything other than a giant of contemporary Scottish society, no matter what role he chose for himself, is a testament to a legacy that seems almost infinite.

"He's a flawed person, just like everybody else, but he remains relevant because what's at the core of his writing is humanity," says folk singer Karine Polwart.

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"Nothing much changes about human experience. Ideologies might change as well as economic circumstances, but the core emotional experience of people doesn't change. That is at the core of his success, no matter what century we're talking about."

True words. Just as long as he avoids going on Celebrity Big Brother.

'His songs say what needs to be said'

LAST YEAR, when Bob Dylan revealed that the lyric which had made the biggest impact on his life was Robert Burns's poem My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose, many within the music world were shocked. Should they have been? Scratch the surface of the contemporary arts world and you'll find Burns everywhere you look.

"Burns has influenced generations of Scottish writers," says actor and musician Tam Dean Burn. "He was really slagged off for writing in the Scottish dialect, but he insisted on it. That influenced James Kelman and then a whole swathe of contemporary Scottish writers, like Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Their work is now considered on a world-wide scale in the same way as Burns, because they've been able to express the general so that people across nationalities can grasp and appreciate it, while still using dialect."

When it comes to music, folk singer Karine Polwart, a member of the Scottish group Burns Unit says it's impossible not to be influenced by Burns when writing songs.

"His songs have these symbols you can't avoid – classic big images that you use in songwriting. They strike a chord, they're relevant. It's very difficult to get through your songwriting career and not have a rose in it somewhere, for example. That's why he's had such a big influence. His songs say what needs to be said."

And his influence stretches further than music and fiction.

"Comedy is about exaggeration, and some of those scenes Burns wrote in graveyards are almost like the original version of Rab C Nesbitt," says comedian Arnold Brown. "Ian Pattison (writer of Rab C Nesbitt] is influenced by that same compulsion as Burns was to remark on everything. It's a very Scottish thing."

He can also see Burns's hand on the shoulder of several contemporary Scottish stand-ups "I would say Jerry Sadowitz and Frankie Boyle, and of course Billy Connolly, all have that throwback ability to embody the Scottish working-class ethos, that element of creating comedy from having something to whinge about – the 'I don't live in the big house' mentality."

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