All over the world on 25 January, people gather to commemorate the birth in 1759 of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. As much celebrated in Asia as he is in his native Ayrshire, it is sometimes difficult to separate the myth from the man – and to reconcile the bard’s many contradictions.
The Alloway-born poet and songwriter is sometimes presented as a semi-literate ploughman who just happened to be able to put his thoughts down on paper in a poetic style, but he was, in fact, relatively well-educated and well-read, despite his father, William, being a comparatively unsuccessful farmer.
A passionate advocate of freedom and independence, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, Burns nevertheless numbered many titled people among his acquaintances. From 1789 until his untimely death from rheumatic fever on 21 July 1796 he served as that ultimate symbol of authority and order – an excise officer, based in the town of Dumfries.
Many of Burns’ poems and songs feature well-lubricated hospitality, and he specifically wrote in praise of whisky in his epic tale Tam O’Shanter, declaring that:
‘Inspiring bold John Barleycorn [whisky]!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippeny [tuppenny ale], we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!’