Angus MacPhail: let’s celebrate Robert Burns

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Robert Burns has become arguably the most significant cultural icon Scotland has ever produced and today – January 25 – many are preparing for
the annual celebration of his life by way of countless Burns suppers held throughout the world.

His outlook on humanity, the world and the ways of life, coupled with  lyrical genius to deliver his message, are undoubtedly the main ingredients that have led to his immense, widespread, enduring and even growing popularity. Some of his lines are the most frequently quoted to have come from the pen of any writer.

However, I believe there is more to the man’s powerful legacy than only his philosophy and linguistic brilliance.

Burns was undoubtedly a character, a man of energy, and he lived life with vigour and passion. He was a man of extremes and complexities that are representative of the unfathomable mysteries and contradictions of life that he himself wrote of with such incredible clarity.

Even during his life, far less by today’s very different context, his behaviour attracted much criticism and surrounded him with much controversy.

As with so many historical and contemporary examples of artists, musicians and creators of genius, the flaws and virtues contained in his character were inextricable from the whole and combined, for good and ill, they created the living entity so many will celebrate on the anniversary of his birthday.

Along with the misconduct and controversy grew part of Burns’s legend and the ‘bad boy’ image in some ways has fuelled his fame. However, it is certainly for his ability as a poet that he should be celebrated.

An interesting aspect of the poet’s life that is not widely known, but by association added greatly to his stature, was his work as a collector.

As well as his talent for composing, Burns did a huge amount of collecting and compiling old poems and songs and kept alive many that otherwise may have been lost to the oblivion of faded oral tradition.

Among many of the most famous pieces widely credited to Burns, were lyrics that existed already that he had collected and often added to and fine-tuned.

It may surprise many readers that it is recognised that Auld Lang Syne, My Love is like a Red, Red Rose, and even the Selkirk Grace were not actually composed by Burns. Rather, they were existing poems that he adapted and added to.

It is important to note that he himself did not claim composition for these older works but, through the years, because of his part in bringing them to the fore, people began to assume he had written them. Involuntarily and posthumously taking the credit for these songs, while not his intention, greatly added to his profile.

This in no way should detract from his reputation as a poet, as the wealth of material he did actually compose makes him more than worthy of his place in history and the stature of his literary legacy.

We must accept that some aspects of Burns and much of his behaviour are not that which should be celebrated, but his genius as a poet is unquestionable and that is what we should be toasting this weekend.