Robert Burns: A racist, sexist drunk?

ROBERT Burns was a "racist, misogynist drunk" who is unfit to promote Scotland's 2009 Homecoming celebrations, a leading historian said yesterday.

The fitness of Scotland's bard to be a role model for modern Scots was called into question by Michael Fry, who said more heroic figures, such as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce or Bonnie Prince Charlie would be better able to promote Scotland's image abroad.

A series of events designed to attract visitors to Scotland kicks off on Burns Night later this month, marking the 250th anniversary of the Bard's birth, and continues until St Andrew's Day in November.

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The Scottish Government hopes the Homecoming initiative will help the country weather the worst of the economic slowdown by boosting the tourist trade throughout the year.

But Mr Fry questioned whether he was an appropriate focus for the celebrations. "Burns was a drunk, misogynistic, racist philanderer," he said. "Perhaps he was not untypical of Scots, but we have to wonder whether this is the right image for the modern Scotland. By all means, let us celebrate the poetry according to its merits. But, in the same critical spirit, let us deal honestly with the man who wrote that poetry."

Describing modern Scots acting like Burns, Mr Fry said: "We could repeatedly get drunk. In this condition, the males among us could 'lay' one woman after another, following discussion of their respective merits in dirty talk with our drouthie cronies.

"Needless to say, this would be unprotected sex performed in a spirit of utter indifference to potential pregnancies, amang the rigs o'barley perhaps. Irksome consequences would be the females' own silly fault."

He said: "It is only right to mark Burns' 250th anniversary in a literary sense. But in 2009, his example, in a practical sense, could well send Scotland straight down the tubes.

"Are there not, at the very least, other heroes preferable for a period of adversity? It is difficult to see Burns as an inspiration for testing times."

Peter Westwood, director of the Robert Burns World Federation and editor of the Burns Chronicle, dismissed Mr Fry's criticism and said the poet was a good role model. "There was no way he could have produced the great work that his did during his 37 years if he was always drunk and chasing women," he said.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Robert Burns is an international cultural icon and one of Scotland's favourite sons. He was both a man of his time and of all time. He wouldn't have been human without flaws, and his egalitarian ideals have helped cement his universal and timeless appeal."

The Reverend Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council, said: "Rabbie Burns used his educational opportunities to the best possible effect, and was an inspiration for creativity. These are good attributes for any role model to have. All of us have human frailties and none of us are perfect."

Playwright Liz Lochhead said the poet should be celebrated for his work, not life-style. "This is complete rubbish," she said. "It's not relevant to his poetry, it's not the point. We don't look at him for a way to live our lives. We should enjoy Burns as a great poet whose work means a lot to a lot of people.

"Burns' poetry spoke about the wealth of human experience. Of course, I wouldn't look to him as a feminist role model, but he's not a role model, he's a great poet."

So is there any evidence to batter the Bard…?

• 1759: Robert Burns is born on 25 January in Alloway, Ayrshire, to a local farmer. He is the eldest of seven children and grows up working on the farm.

• 1773: Burns writes his first poem at the age of 15 about his first love, My Handsome Nell. He honours her virtue.

• 1784: At around this time, Burns meets and becomes lovers with Jean Armour (right). She will go on to bear him two sets of twins before they are married.

• 1785: His first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns, is born to his mother's servant, Elizabeth Paton.

• 1785: Burns meets Mary Campbell (left). They become lovers and it is believed he may have married her.

• 1786: The publication of his first work, Poems – Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, is an overnight success, putting a stop to his plans to emigrate to the West Indies. Mary Campbell also dies in this year.

• 1788: Burns marries Jean Armour.

• 1780s onwards: Burns is said to have had affairs with Peggy Chambers, Meg Cameron, Anna Park (who died bearing his child), Nancy McLehose (right), Maria Liddell, Lesley Baillee, Jessie Leward and Jenny Clow.

• 1786-96: Burns pens more than 400 popular songs, as well as some of his best known pieces such as Tam O'Shanter.

• 1796: Burns dies in Dumfries aged 37. From Scotland's population of 1.6 million, 10,000 flock to the area for his funeral.

• Burns's concept of The Rights Of Women revealed as protection, decorum and admiration:

"For Right the third, our last, our best, our dearest: That right to fluttering female hearts the nearest,

Which even the Rights of Kings, in low prostration,

Most humbly own - it is dear, dear Admiration!"

(The Rights Of Woman)

Insights into his views of women may also be gleaned from:

"Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,

Nursing her wrath to keep it warm."

(Tam O'Shanter)

"What signifies the life o'man, An' 'twere na for the lasses O"

(Green Grow The Rashes, O!