Scots set up a battle of the bards

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S days as the world's foremost literary figure could be numbered if supporters of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns, have their way. They have formed a public limited company, comprising 60,000 "shareholders", with the aim of replacing Stratford-upon-Avon's favourite son with the farmer from Alloway, Ayrshire.

Recalling Burns' own claim that he would be more famous a century after he died than he was in his own day, the entrepreneurs will use their new "plc" status to market "tasteful" Burns memorabilia.

"Soon people will be referring to Stratford as England's Alloway," said Murdo Morrison, a spokesman for the Robert Burns World Federation Ltd, which was officially founded at the weekend during a conference of Burns clubs.

Mr Morrison added: "Only the Bible and William Shakespeare are translated into more languages. We do not seek to contest the Bible's status, but we want Burns to overtake Shakespeare. Burns' message is more relevant these days than Shakespeare's. The Japanese and Russians, for example, love Burns because his thoughts fit their ideas. We need professional marketing now to develop Burns' universal appeal and corner some of the market so that it can be ploughed back into our work promoting his writing and the Scots language."

Based on an organisation founded in 1885 after the unveiling of the Burns statue in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, the federation has 400 branches around the world and will soon have its own website, a board of directors and a company office in Kilmarnock.

A flagship for the organisation already exists in what is one of Britain's longest- running competitions, a contest started in 1912 to find the best singer or recitalist of Burns' work. Last year it attracted 160,000 entrants.

Plenty of evidence exists all over the world to prove that Burns is already overshadowing Shakespeare. At pedestrian crossings in Japan, the sound indicating that a walker can cross is a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne", universally recognised as the song of parting. There are also thought to be more statues of Burns - over 200 in all - around the world than of any other poet. An exact replica of the cottage in which he was born stands in Atlanta, Georgia. And Burns clubs celebrate Burns' night all over the world on January 25.

However, despite the predictions of his own fame, Burns might well have been shocked by the planned commercialisation of his name; when he died aged 37 in 1796 he was not a rich man, and his most famous song - "A Man's a Man for a' that" - powerfully forsakes earthly riches as the measure of a man's importance.

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