Contrary to popular opinion, Scotland’s top hero isn’t actually Mel Gibson (AKA William Wallace). In the popularity stakes Jackie Stewart doesn’t take poll position either and even Sean Connery has to take a back sheat. In fact, ‘the people’s poet’ Robert Burns is ‘the people’s choice’ when it comes to favourite Scot of all time. Today is his birthday.
So what can be said about genius writer, social satirist and modest farmer Burns that hasn’t been rolled out a thousand times on Burns Night around the world for more than 200 years? Very little.
Burns’ over-documented penchant for wine, women and song appears to fit with today’s misconception that the archetypal Scotsman is a hard-drinking, womanising waster. But that’s more Rab C. Nesbitt than Rabbie Burns – and this unfair reputation belittles the true achievements of a writer whose works have been translated into as many languages as Shakespeare and the Bible.
The portrayal of Burns as a bit of a binge drinker has been fabricated and exaggerated over the years simply because at your average Burns Supper a whisky-fuelled, kilt-sporting speaker with one miligram of diluted Scottish blood in his body thinks he aligns himself with Burns’ genius by regailing his post-haggis audience with ‘hilarious’ anecdotes of his own drunken debauchery. He doesn’t. To quote another brilliant Scots poet, Hugh McDiarmid – “Mair nonsense has been uttered in Burns’ name than in ony’s bar liberty and Christ.” Okay, so he enjoyed the odd libation, possibly a beer with his ploughman’s, but the reality is that Burns was an amused observer of drunken exploits rather than a major reveller.
As for the womanising, it should be remembered that Burns was himself much sought after by the ladies. As father to 13 children by nine different women, he was certainly no saint. But faced with a swarthy, handsome farmhand with a silver tongue into the bargain, what lovelorn lassie wouldn’t be wooed and subdued by Burns? His expertly crafted love songs and poems were both romantic and heartfelt. They obviously did the trick of melting hearts and tempting even the most timorous of beasties. Anyone disparaging this aspect of Burns’ success can be justly accused of a little Holy Wullie hypocrisy or, indeed, halo-slipping jealousy.
So today, rather than focusing on misconstrued Bard behaviour, let your immortal memory be of Burns as he truly was: a profound humanitarian, a consummate literary artist, a rapturous writer of the lives and travails of ordinary men and women like us.