THIS week will see the celebration of Burns Night, when Scots and the people of many other nations around the world gather to mark the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796), without doubt Scotland’s greatest literary figure.

That we celebrate Burns with a party that includes readings of his works is unique – there are no annual Shakespeare Suppers or Dickens Dinners, yet we gather in the name of Burns to eat haggis and listen to his words.

No doubt the purists will say that Burns Night is a travesty, that we should not need a bevvy session to mark the greatness of our National Bard, but why not combine a good night out with poems, songs and speeches to pay tribute to Burns?

Above all we should celebrate Burns for his achievement in preserving the language of ordinary Scots at a time when it really did seem that English would become the only tongue for most of Scotland.

We have to look at Burns in context. By the end of the 18th century Scotland was renowned as the most literate nation in Europe having gone from a poor and backward country to one where 90 per cent of men could at least sign their own name and where as much as 75 per cent of the population was said to be able to read, write and count.

The Presbyterian Church’s insistence on compulsory schooling for much of the population was key to the improvement in literacy rate, but after the Union of 1707 and the defeat of the Jacobite risings, the spread of what had become known as “the King’s English” threatened the very existence of the Scots language.

Scotland was seeing its main centres of population transformed into powerhouses of learning. Edinburgh in particular hosted the Enlightenment – a subject we will look at later in this series – and Scottish ideas of that time influenced thinking in countries as diverse as France and the USA.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) at Glasgow University is often credited with sparking the Enlightenment, not least because he directly influenced David Hume and Adam Smith, our two best-known thinkers.

Hume (1711-1776) is now recognised as one of the world’s greatest philosophers, but even in his lifetime people would travel hundreds of miles to visit him in Edinburgh.

Adam Smith of Kirkcaldy in Fife (1723-1790) founded the modern science of political economy with his masterpiece An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) from Kincardineshire succeeded Smith as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow and became famous for defining the philosophy of “common sense”.

Another “common sense” philosopher was Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) from Perthshire who became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University and is often called the father of sociology.

Two of the greatest scientists of the time were both prominent in the Enlightenment, and indeed were friends of Adam Smith and part of that extraordinary circle which flourished in Edinburgh in the late 18th century.

James Hutton (1726-1797) of Edinburgh virtually founded the science of geology and even proposed an early theory of evolution. His friend and collaborator Joseph Black (1728-1799) was a key figure in the emerging science of chemistry who mentored James Watt (1736-1819), the father of the industrial revolution.

Scotland also enjoyed a flowering of art and literature in that Enlightenment period. John Home (1722-1808) produced a massive theatrical work, Douglas, while Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) was the first poet since the old Makars to make a real public impact. His son Allan (1713-1784) became one of the country’s top portrait painters, and influenced Henry Raeburn (1726-1823).

Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), a poet from Edinburgh, lived long enough to influence the man who in a sense can be seen as the greatest product of the Scottish Enlightenment, for into this intellectual ferment walked the champion of Scots.

Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Ayrshire, the son of a tenant farmer. His early life was one of grinding poverty and he was put to the plough almost as soon as he could walk.

In keeping with the Church of Scotland’s instructions, Burns’ father William and other poor farmers in that area realised the importance of education for their children and employed itinerant school masters to give them the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Burns was soon spotted as a child prodigy and his education went much further than usual. By the age of 13 he knew Latin and French and was reading some of the great works of poetry being produced largely in England at that time.

Worn down by his hard agricultural life, Burns wanted to improve his lot and in order to fund a journey to the West Indies where he hoped to make his fortune in the sugar plantations, he wrote down the poems he had been composing since his early teenage years. These Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect were to make him famous very quickly and earned him enough money to let him stay in Scotland.

What happened next could only have happened in Scotland at the time of the Enlightenment. For within a few short years, despite his lowly status in a very strict class-ridden social system, the ploughman had become the darling of Edinburgh society. This was a poet who could dazzle a drinking club – they were legion in Edinburgh at the time – full of philosophers with his erudition and wit, and he also enjoyed his fame, seducing a number of women across Scotland, despite having a wife and children back in Ayrshire.

His works were published in Edinburgh by William Smellie (1740-1795), the man who brought the Encyclopaedia Britannica into being. He drove a hard bargain with Burns, but the books of his poems sold in their tens of thousands, making the poet the pop star of his day, lionised wherever he went.

Burns was that most Scottish of creations, a “lad o’pairts” with a general knowledge of a great many subjects rather than one specific area. His work promoted both romantic love and the common sense philosophy of the Enlightenment – it is true to say that Burns popularised many of the ideas flourishing in late 18th-century Scotland.

HIS sympathy for the French revolution earned him strong pressure from the Government of the day who were paranoid that the French experience would be repeated in Britain. Yet he also dared to evince strong Scottish nationalist feelings in such poems as Scots Wha Hae, his rendering of Robert the Bruce’s speech before the Battle of Bannockburn.

It was the combination of his beautiful words and his humanity which has led Burns to be revered as the common man’s poet across the world and his most famous verses are known and sung everywhere at least once a year – Auld Lang Syne.

Yet his greatest achievement was to almost single-handedly preserve the common culture of Scotland. Burns travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, writing down songs and ballads in the old Scots language that might otherwise have been lost as English became the dominant tongue across the land. Coupled with his own spectacular use of Scots in such favourites as Holy Willie’s Prayer and the epic Tam O’Shanter, the ploughman poet kept a language not only alive but vibrant, and the intellectual classes and the public alike loved him for his great work.

In preserving the old, Burns also renewed Scotland’s idea of itself that flowered with Sir Walter Scott – they met in Edinburgh when Scott was just 15.

We can remember Burns for many things, but his saving of the Scots tongue is something that all who love Scotland should know and celebrate.