UP until a year ago, like most Scots, I was familiar with the popular conception of our national bard as a loveable rogue – a drinker, fornicator and thorn in the side of the religious establishment – of his political reputation as a radical and Scots patriot, and of the folk myth of Rabbie the “heaven-taught ploughman”.

Mainly through exposure in school and at annual Burns Suppers, I knew his greatest hits: To A Mouse, Tam o’ Shanter, Ae Fond Kiss, Scots Wha Hae and A Man’s a Man, all of them much-cherished by we Scots, who flatter ourselves that something of our romantic spirit and egalitarianism finds expression in Burns’s genius.

I’m probably not alone, however, in admitting I hadn’t explored the many highways and byways of Burns, both textual and biographical, that lead off from this main branch.

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What I discovered, as we pieced together the documentary Inside the Mind of Robert Burns, as we visited his haunts in Ayrshire, Edinburgh and Dumfriesshire and spoke to numerous Burns experts, was someone who defied easy categorisation, who contains flaws and contradictions, who is not always likeable, who inevitably throws off centuries of mythologising which has wrapped itself around him like a tartan shroud to reveal someone all too human beneath.

The National:

Like all of us, Burns contains multitudes, and if we are going to insist upon treating him as a symbol of Scotland itself then we are forced to confront aspects of our national character which will, and should, make us uneasy.

We started with the question: who was Burns the man, rather than Burns the legend? How did he think and act? How did other people feel about him? How did he feel about himself? Of course this requires analysis of his poems, but it also involves delving into his letters – how he expressed himself when he thought no-one but the recipient was looking – and even what is left of him in medical records.

It surprised me to learn, for example, that while Burns did throughout his life enjoy sunny bursts of joie de vivre, in which he could not get enough of socialising and society could not get enough of him, times in which the roustabout of popular legend was forged, he was also marred by bouts of terrible, debilitating depression.

There were spells, especially during an unhappy year labouring as a flax-dresser in Irvine, or suffering the many romantic crises which resulted from his philandering, when Burns became a frightened, paranoid and gloomy figure, sometimes barely able to raise his head from his pillow and face the world.

Moira Hansen of the University of Glasgow, a rare scholar of both literary and medical history, has posited the theory that Burns suffered from bipolar disorder. How else to explain those pendulum swings from manic energy to manic depression?

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Scotland too, more than most countries – given our peculiar, dual position of being subordinate as part of the Union, but hegemonic as part of the Empire, both oppressed and oppressor – has its own bipolarity to contend with, and these political contradictions find a home in Burns.

While we’re inspired by Burns the democrat, the anti-establishment rebel who championed the French Revolution and called in his great poem A Man’s a Man for global equality and fraternity, we should be embarrased by the fact that in 1786 he almost took employment as a book-keeper on a Jamaican slave plantation.

It is true that he was in financial dire straits at the time and that, in the end, he did not take up that post, but nonetheless passage was booked and at least part of Burns’s mind was able to accomodate itself to the brutal racial supremacy which accompanied the slave trade.

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Living as we do in a Scotland whose historical wealth flowed from that very trade we have to be careful when making claims about Scotland’s progressive and humanitarian credentials.

Likewise, a simplistic case is often made for Burns as a ‘‘lover of women’’ and even as a feminist. There is no doubt that he adored female company – not just for their bodies, but for their minds too – and that he famously wrote in support of women’s rights, a deeply unfashionable cause in the 18th Century.

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

The National:

THIS is all very stirring and admirable, but Burns was also capable of treating women abominably. Modern mores may express a certain ambivalence about promiscuity – and Burns himself saw sexual licentiousness as a positive, liberatory, almost healing force – but is this any excuse for serially cheating on his patient, homely and loyal wife Jean Armour (above), especially in fathering a child by the local barmaid just ten days before Armour gave birth to his son?

How did Burns live with breaking the heart of his other great love, Agnes “Clarinda” McLehose, by seducing and impregnating her servant girl, Jenny Clow, after she delivered one of her mistress’s love-letters to him?

And how do we square Burns the feminist with the man who boasted in a letter to a male friend that he had ‘‘f___ed” Jean Armour “til she rejoiced with joy unspeakable’’.

Given that Armour was heavily pregnant with twins at the time it is hard to imagine that she was enjoying this session quite as much as Burns claims, but even if she was, Burns’s extended, florid praise for his own penis – ‘‘the Sword of Mercy, the Horn of Plenty’’ – is as close to toxic masculinity as we’re likely to find in 18th Century literature.

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This is the same Burns who gleefully gathered bawdy drinking songs, festooned with c-words and “gashes”, into a collection entitled The Merry Muses of Caledonia intended for private circulation among the “gentlemen’s clubs” of Edinburgh. The ignobility of this Burns offers a window into Scotland’s testosterone-drenched pub-culture of hard drinking and sexism, which continues to this day.

Even Burns’s much-vaunted political radicalism, his proto-socialism, is blunted by the face that he was forced to present as an exciseman of his majesty’s government. Undoubtedly Burns sympathised with the common man against tyrannical monarchs, which would have been a dangerous position in revolutionary times. However, the mask he wore so as not to draw undue government attention was so convincingly detailed that I have heard even Unionists seize upon the following lines as proof that he was not quite the Burns so beloved by those of us in the Yes movement:

Be Britain still to Britain true,

Amang oursels united;

For never but by British hands

Maun British wrangs be righted

The National:

Indeed, this poem, Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?, was written for the local militia, the Dumfries Volunteers, which Burns joined to see off the threat from the very French Revolution which he secretly supported.

What we find then when we look closely at the life and work of Robert Burns is not some couthy, tourist-friendly symbol – in which everything Scotland adores about itself is neatly packaged – but a riotous clash of values and shades, a man whose noble intent is often undermined by his actions.

It is Burns’s genius and legacy that he contains so much of himself that, like Shakespeare and the Bible, we can make him say whatever we want, fit him into any ideological agenda.

But the man himself was just that: a man, as selfish and virtuous, as weak and strong, as brave and afraid as the rest of us.

Our documentary intends neither to bury nor to praise Burns, to condemn nor to condone him, but to simply see him in the round as a human being.

It is the task of modern-day Scots – perhaps especially Scottish nationalists – to confront and accept this all too real figure, to dispense with the mythologising, and in doing so deal with the reality of Scotland itself as a complex, sometimes-flawed, sometimes-noble nation, which often falls short of its own lofty idealism but nonetheless strives to be something better.