On the trail of a working-class hero

Scots around the world will be honouring their national poet with a Burns Night supper tomorrow. But was the man they are celebrating really the rabble-rouser of popular imagination? Frank Partridge visits Robbie Burns' old stamping ground to find out

January is the bleakest of months, so it's no wonder that the Scots should try to liven it up with their two most joyous celebrations of the calendar. No sooner has the memory of Hogmanay faded than Burns Night is upon us, and the same man is at the heart of both: Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet, but so much else besides. Burns was the working-class hero who wowed high society; the passionate lover and life-enhancer; composer and musician, sex symbol and superstar. Without doubt, he was one of the luminous figures of any nationality, any age.

January is the bleakest of months, so it's no wonder that the Scots should try to liven it up with their two most joyous celebrations of the calendar. No sooner has the memory of Hogmanay faded than Burns Night is upon us, and the same man is at the heart of both: Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet, but so much else besides. Burns was the working-class hero who wowed high society; the passionate lover and life-enhancer; composer and musician, sex symbol and superstar. Without doubt, he was one of the luminous figures of any nationality, any age.

The Burns copybook was blotted, of course. He fathered at least four illegitimate children, and never quite succeeded in putting his financial affairs in order even when his fame was international. If he really was the "heaven-taught ploughman", he would have been kept waiting at the pearly gates for a while before he was allowed back in. But much of his short, vivid life is as misunderstood as the words of "Auld Lang Syne": his reputation as an untutored rustic and a feckless, hard-drinking philanderer, for example, turns out to be so much Scotch myth.

The south-west of Scotland is a picturesque, sparsely populated region that regards itself as the country's best-kept secret. Its biggest towns - Ayr, Girvan, Irvine, Stranraer - contain little to make you want to leave the M74 motorway linking Glasgow with the south, but much of the coastline is refreshingly undeveloped, and inland there are miles of empty hills, forests and fast-flowing rivers. This is more like it: this is Burns Country.

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw

I dearly like the West

The poet made various tours around Scotland, sometimes by invitation, sometimes for inspiration, and his head was briefly turned by the pleasures of Edinburgh after his first collection caused a minor sensation there. But he never strayed from his native turf for long, and died in the border town of Dumfries, just a day and a half's ride from his birthplace.

Burns' upbringing was rich in many senses, but he could hardly have made a more humble start, born in a low, thatched cottage in the village of Alloway, the natural starting point for a pilgrimage. The two rooms and barn the family shared with their animals have been nicely preserved - gloomy, draughty and cramped, and there's an impressive collection of manuscripts in the museum next door. Down the road are the church, bridge and river immortalised in Burns' most celebrated work, "Tam O'Shanter":

She prophesied that late or soon,

Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,

Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,

By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.

Unfortunately, Alloway has gone down the Tam O'Shanter Experience route, erecting a glassy tourist centre which is undeniably useful if you want to eat, go to the lavatory, or shop (though avoid the tartan-labelled Burns Cottage Cabernet Sauvignon at £4.99, if only on principle). But it is not especially helpful in conveying the essence of the man it celebrates.

Worse - visitors can now gain access to the stately Burns Monument and gardens if they pay £1 in exchange for a numeric code that unlocks an electronic gate. Not even the national scribbler, it seems, has been spared the vandals' graffiti. At a Burns Supper last Saturday, a speaker took the view that "when Scotland forgets Burns, the world will forget Scotland". Young idlers, you have been warned.

Burns knew acute poverty as a boy, but received a solid education thanks to Scotland's insistence that even the poorest should be taught the rudiments of learning. Robbie got more than that. His father was a thinking man, his mother a fine singer, a family friend stirred his imagination with tales of witchcraft, and he was blessed with an inspirational teacher who introduced him to the classics and drilled him in the rules of language. So much for the untutored rustic. Burns knew the works of Shakespeare and Dryden, and could write elegantly in English - though he put infinitely more feeling into his native tongue:

When hailstanes drive wi' bitter skyte

And infant frosts begin to bite

In hoary cranreuch drest

Scenes like these make you shiver even if you've never experienced a Scottish winter, nor understand the words.

How much more might Burns have achieved if the back-breaking struggle to stay solvent had not taken toll of his weak heart and condemned him to an early death? For all his physical frailty, he was a man of phenomenal energy - vividly demonstrated at Ellisland Farm, a few miles north of Dumfries on the A76 to Kilmarnock, where his ground-breaking book of poems "in the Scottish dialect" was first published. Burns rented the farm when he was at his creative peak, and really should have been focusing his mind on higher things than how to coax crops out of the stony, infertile soil.

He had chosen the farm because, lying on the banks of the lovely river Nith, it appealed to "the poet's soul", and that side of things worked better than he could have hoped. Pacing up and down the riverbank, he composed "Tam O'Shanter" in a single day. In just three years, 130 poems and songs flowed from his pen. But the farm was unrewarding, and Burns was forced to take a second job as an exciseman, covering up to 200 miles a week on horseback in pursuit of smugglers and tax evaders.

Les Byers, Ellisland Farm's curator, believes Burns had so little spare time that he was forced to compose on horseback: "Sometimes when you recite 'Scots Wa Hae' you can almost feel the horse underneath him." Yet Burns still found the time and energy to help set up the first reading library in the area, at Dunscore, three miles to the west. Those who have characterised Burns as a wastrel should hang their heads.

A footpath leads you through the trees to the grounds of Friars Carse, now an atmospheric country hotel, but then a private estate, with a hermitage in the woods where the poet could get some peace from the cattle and children. This was where he wrote "The Whistle", a lively piece about a drinking contest. Popular mythology has it that Robbie was up to mischief again and ended up, as ever, under the table. But the consensus at the first of this year's Friars Carse Burns Suppers was that Burns was a judge, not a participant. "The man had rheumatic fever, for goodness sake, which would eventually kill him at 37," one life-long Burns-lover explained. "There is no way he could have taken part himself." Another myth dispelled.

Has there ever been a man with his heart so unerringly in the right place? He was devout enough, but mocked the crusty old ways of the Church. He was a man of peace, but got into trouble for sympathising with the revolutionaries in France. The death of his father, broken and penniless, convinced Burns that the class system was unfair; that rank had nothing to do with birth:

Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,

An honest man's the noblest work of God.

He may have been a countryman, but he loathed mindless country pursuits. Out in the fields one day he heard a shot ring out, and saw a hare mortally wounded:

Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb'rous art,

And blasted by thy murder-aiming eye;

May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,

Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart.

After three years of mostly unrewarding farming, Burns headed south to Dumfries, Scotland's last redoubt before the English border, where today you can stroll past Burns Close along Burns Street to the Burns Mausoleum in St Michael's Kirkyard, crossing the fast-flowing Nith to another excellent presentation at the Burns Centre. Unwittingly, the poet defies the planners' efforts to rip out the soul of his solid old town with one-way systems and concrete car-parks.

Before he moved his family to Dumfries, Burns had often spent the night there after his customs and excise duties - sometimes in the arms of Anna Park. She was a pretty barmaid at the Globe Inn, located down an alley off the High Street:

Yest're'en I had a pint of wine,

A place where body saw na;

Yest're'en lay on this breast o' mine,

The gowden locks o' Anna.

Anna became pregnant and had a daughter. As ever, his long-suffering wife Jean forgave him: "Our Rab should habe had twa wives," she is reported to have said, and when Anna died prematurely, Jean took in the daughter and brought her up as one of her own. It was to his wife that Burns addressed some of his finest love songs - right up to his death, when he could barely lift his pen. This was the "love that survived the rocks on which lesser loves have perished".

The pub has preserved its Burns mementoes well, complete with lines scratched on a window pane, a four-poster bed and a resident ghost - possibly whistled up for the benefit of visiting Americans. But you understand more about a man's life when you retrace his steps and explore the places he frequented. Last Saturday, a group of happy, garrulous young lads gathered in the Globe for a pint before Queen of the South's home match. Admiring them, from a discreet distance, was an attractive barmaid.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Burns National Heritage Park, Alloway (01292 443700,

www.burnsheritagepark.co.uk). Open 10am-5pm daily from October to March, 9.30am-5.30pm from April to September, admission £5.

Ellisland Farm (01387 740426, www.ellislandfarm.co.uk). Open 10am-5pm daily except Sunday and Monday from October to March; seven days a week from April to September, admission £2.50.

Globe Inn, 56 High Street, Dumfries (01387 252335), runs Burns tours on an ad-hoc basis if the place is not too busy.

Friars Carse Hotel at Auldgirth, near Dumfries (01387 740 388), £29.95 per person for dinner, bed and breakfast, or £19.95 B&B only, midweek; £4 more at weekends.

Ria Ladniuk

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