CLEAN-SHAVEN and rosy-cheeked, the image of Robert Burns is seared into the public consciousness.

But according to a group of hirsute fans, the real Rabbie was a whole lot hairier.

The Beard Liberation Front, an “informal network of beard wearers”, claims our picture of Scotland’s national bard has been skewed by pogonophobia - fear of beards.

As Burns Night approaches, the group is now calling for a re-evaluation of the Ayrshire poet, who they claim was “the first hipster”.

Organiser Keith Flett said: “The establishment image of him is designed to hide the true nature of the Bard as a hirsute rebel.”


Well, the fact that Burns was hoiked up in front of the Kirk for fornication and publishing free-thinking works on politics, class and religion means the rebel part is without question.

But according to experts the hipster claim is more questionable.

Flett says Burns would have “worn facial hair as it suited him”, claiming that this is key to the contemporary hipster ethos which has seen a massive growth in men’s grooming.

However, the assertion is based on circumstantial evidence as no image of a bearded Burns exists.

Flett said: “We’ve been looking at this for years. There are quite a few portraits that depict him as having quite substantial sideburns, but the point we make is if he was relying on patronage from Edinburgh society, that was largely a clean-shaven affair.

“That’s not what he spent most of his time doing. We don’t think he actually did shave quite a lot of the time and he had facial hair for a good part of the week because that would have been quite an ask for anybody except the wealthy, who would have a barber do it for them.

“There were no safety razors and at this time of year there’s not a lot of natural light in the mornings – to do it by candle light is an ask. There are pictures of soldiers from the time and they mostly have facial hair because they couldn’t shave that often.

“He probably would have wanted to appear rather less officially respectable than the pictures show. The whole hipster culture is that you wear the facial hair as it suits you.”

He added: “There would have been establishment pressure to appear without a beard.

“It seems possible that Burns may have felt that if his image did not conform to that required by official Scottish society in the late 18th century and his job as an exciseman, his poetry, and in particular society’s patronage of it, would be spurned.”


Professor Gerard Carruthers, director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University, says it is unlikely that Burns rocked full facial fuzz, but certainly was less well-groomed than portraits suggest.

He said: “A lot of contemporary accounts say he was very dark-complexioned. He probably not only had a five o’clock shadow, but a three o’clock and one o’clock as well. I would like to see a picture of him with designer stubble.

“He never mentioned having a beard, neither does anyone else say he had one. By and large, younger men – especially fashionable younger men – tended not to have full beards. It’s fashion, but in the 18th century beards probably were much less hygienic than they are now.

“If he was around today no doubt he would have a beard and might have even tried a goatee out – he was a man who wore a ponytail at one point.”

Meanwhile, Chris Waddell, learning manager at the Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, says Burns not only cared about his image but took pains to craft it, visiting the fashionable Edinburgh literati wearing farming garb as he created his reputation as the “heaven-taught ploughman”.

He said: “His image was quite carefully cultivated. I tend to think of him as less angelic than he looks in the 18th century portraits, which were very stylised.

“He was only painted four times in his life and he would probably have spruced himself up for the image-makers. They probably took a few liberties, but beards were not particularly in vogue.

“I’d quite like it if the Beard Liberation Front would send us an image of what they think a bearded Burns would look like.

“We’ve seen quite a few over the years – we had one in Lego and one made of match heads – but the images we have of him now, especially the shortbready ones, are instantly recognisable. There aren’t many writers in the world who have that.”

He added: “We revere Burns in almost quasi-religious terms in Scotland, with his own national day and it’s own rituals attached to it. However we picture him, the realities are much more interesting than the mythology. He was a fascinating character.”