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Sunday, January 25, 1998 Published at 09:01 GMT


Spirit of Rabbie warms Scots' hearts

For millions of Scots - even those who live far from home - Sunday will bring ghost stories, poems, songs ... and whisky.

There is no more traditional Scottish institution than Burns night - a great excuse, if Scots needed one - to gather, drink prodigiously and celebrate. But it is also the day when they remember the man hailed as their national poet.

Robert Burns, who was born at Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25, 1759, is perhaps an unlikely hero. He fathered several illegitimate children, his businesses failed and he was scorned as a reprobate.

Most humiliatingly, Rabbie, as he is usually known, was even forced to recant his radical political views, before dying aged just 37. His poetry, though, remains hugely popular in Scotland and internationally.

Social pretensions

Professor David Daiches, of Edinburgh University, believes Burns, who produced a prolific amount of verse and song, is still seen as a radical, humane figure.

"He was an egalitarian, that is to say he passionately believed that people should be treated for what they are - not for their wealth, social status or rank.

"This idea was strongly implanted in him from his earliest days, when he watched, as the son of an impoverished tenant farmer, the landed gentry go round with their social pretensions - he watched them with resentment," says Professor Daiches.

'Ploughman poet'

Modern-day Scottish poet, Liz Lochead, also regards Rabbie as a glamorous figure and national emblem.

"He was the ploughman poet but also a wonderful wit and intellect - he told great stories in his poetry," she said.

"He also did the most for the Scottish song - he collected folk songs and improved upon them and rewrote them. There is a vast body of folk poetry and song with a Burns collection.

"So it means a lot to Scots everywhere and, of course, the dialect in Burns is very peculiar to him and to Scotland. There's nothing like language to cohere a bit of national fervour."

'Sacrificial moment'

While it is true that the Address to the Haggis - a standard ingredient of all Burns' suppers - is for many Scots just another excuse for a party. But Liz Lochead says the institution, in which diners toast the traditional meat pudding, has a deeper meaning for most people.

"No party takes place without hearing Burns's mock heroic addressed to the haggis before it's cut open in a sort of sacrifical moment."

Ms Lochead adds: "There are not many parties where a few of his most beautiful love songs aren't sung. And there are not many where someone doesn't do a loud Tam O' Shanter and have everybody shivering with one of the greatest ghost stories ever written."

Humour and humanity

Of course, while Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, some treat Burns night as a moment to celebrate the country's distinctive sense of national identity.

But Burns himself cannot be represented by simple nationalism. He remains a figure of humour and humanity - one with whom Scots and others like to identify, a spirit summed up in poems like A Man's a Man for A' [All] That:

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a' that,
That sense and worth, o'er [over] all the earth,
May bear the gree [have the first place] for a' that.
For a' that and a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That man to man, the whole world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

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Burns Country

Audio samples from Norton Anthology of English Literature, including Tam o'Shanter

Edinburgh Tattoo guide to Burns Night

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