BURNS is as much a legend as a man. His poetry is gritty and lyrical and bespeaks the Enlight-enment era in Scotland, painting a vivid image of the rambunctious sexuality of Georgian Britain as much as the forward-thinking, ground-breaking, pragmatic intelligence with which Scotland changed the world.

The man, like the times he lived in, was complex and imperfect. When critics and historians interrogate his legend, however, they often run up against accusations of prudishness and of misunderstanding the era.

In 1930 when Glasgow writer Catherine Carswell published the first ‘‘warts and all” biography of our national poet, she received a bullet in the post along with a note suggesting she should kill herself.

No stranger to scandal, Carswell had been fired from the Glasgow Herald in 1915 for publishing a review of DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, which was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Shaken by the receipt of the bullet, she did not succumb to the accompanying letter’s suicidal advice, and her biography of Burns has become a classic, though the fact it does not gloss over either Burns’s sex life or his heavy drinking means it has remained contentious amongst a hard core of Burns fans for whom any criticism of the Bard is heresy.

READ MORE: Alan Bissett: Reading the mind of Rabbie Burns

The world Burns inhabited is intriguing. Enlightenment Scotland was a place of opportunity, where talent was celebrated but where working-class poets were not financially rewarded. Burns struggled to make a living throughout his life and punched socially and culturally above his fiscal weight. Recognised and venerated wherever he went, this must have been a difficult space to inhabit. An enfant terrible, the doors of upper-class society were open to him, but day-to-day he lived not far from the breadline and also suffered from what we would now call depression.

His first poem, O Once I Lov’d a Bonnie Lass, was written for a co-worker on the Ayrshire farm where he was employed. Burns was 15 and ‘‘Handsome Nell’’ features in several early works which reveal a good-looking young man entranced by love and cocky with it.

This image proved popular beyond Nell’s gaze. Women were always charmed by Burns despite his self-identification as a “philanderer” and his open admission to the “Mauchline Belles” in the village nearby (including his future wife) that his eloquence was not backed with real feeling – he was just chatting them up.

The poems were good though and in the socially mobile world of Georgian Scotland it was not long before he started writing odes to the daughters of the professional classes. In 1787 he met the nine Ferrier sisters in Edinburgh and penned a poem in which he declares:

Nae heathen name shall I prefix,
Frae Pindus or Parnassus;
Auld Reekie dings them a’ to sticks,
For rhyme-inspiring lasses.
Jove’s tuneful dochters three times three
Made Homer deep their debtor;
But, gi’en the body half an e’e,
Nine Ferriers wan done better!

However, while Burns ‘‘made love’’ (or at least poetry) indiscriminately he did not act according to the mores of the day and certainly did not take into account the social vulnerability of some of the women whose lives he altered for the worse. While engaged in an intense (if mostly cerebral) relationship with the married Agnes McLehose, he seduced Agnes’s maid, Jenny Clow, who later lost her health and her job when she fell pregnant.

This was toxic behaviour and it is fascinating that Jenny’s champion turned out to be Agnes herself, who wrote to Burns to insist he send money to support Jenny and the baby (which he did). Burns for his part, declared Agnes’s writing talent to be ‘‘worthy of Sappho’’.

The National: Jean Armour ... helped to clear up the emotional carnage caused by the love affairs of her husbandJean Armour ... helped to clear up the emotional carnage caused by the love affairs of her husband

Agnes was not the only female writer to whom Burns proved a critical ally. When he praised the work of working class female poet, Janet Little, known as the Scotch Milkmaid because of her employment at Loudon Castle Dairy, Little responded but like a saucy, breathless teenager: 

Is’t true? Or does some magic spell
My wond’ring eyes beguile?
Is this the place where deigns to dwell
The honour of our isle?
The charming Burns, the Muse’s care
Of all her sons the pride;
Here is pleasure oft I’ve sought to share
But been as oft deni’d
Oft have my thoughts, at midnight hour,
To him excursions made
This bliss in dreams was premature,
And with my slumbers fled.

The attraction clearly was not only on Burns’s part and in fairness he recognised his illegitimate offspring alongside his nine children by his long-suffering and extremely popular wife, Jean Armour, who he formally married in 1788 after the birth of their eldest two boys – twins.

Early in their relationship, Armour’s father had tried to prevent the alliance when it became known that Burns had sired a daughter by Bessie Paton, another co-worker on the farm. After the birth of his child with Bessie in 1785 Burns wrote A Poet’s Welcome to His Love Begotten Daughter. In this poem he acknowledges contemporary society’s censure of his sexual behaviour and his determination to defy it.

Tho’ now they ca’ me fornicator,
An’ tease my name in kintry clatter,
The mair they talk,
I’m kent the better,
E’en let them clash;
An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless matter
To gie ane fash.

Again, it was the women in his life who helped to clear up the emotional carnage that resulted from Burns’s “fornication”. Jean Armour, his wife, took on his illegitimate daughter as her own.

While Georgian Scotland was a million miles from the #MeToo generation, the extent of Burns’s philandering was not standard. The Merry Muses of Caledonia includes some of his bawdiest work, poems and songs presented at the Edinburgh gentlemen’s drinking club, The Crochallan Fencibles. The resulting (highly accepting) vision of Burns as a free-thinking, free-living “libertine” has proved attractive, running alongside his place as the voice of the common man.

READ MORE: Letters: Burns was not perfect, but he was no Weinstein

As a result, he has been considered forward-thinking in terms of women’s rights, a view sometimes backed up with a one line quote from a poem he wrote towards the end of his life for actress Louisa Fontenelle, in 1792. In it, he champions women’s rights but the rights he goes on to outline are to ‘‘protection’’, ‘‘caution’’ and ‘‘admiration’’.

These, are not the rights that Mary Wollstonecraft had in mind in her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published the same year – and confirms rather than disproves that Burns was not at the cutting edge of 18th-century forward thinking which advocated the endowment of actual legal rights on women over the rights conferred by the male gaze.

Today, for some women the unquestioning celebration of Burns lies uneasily despite his undoubted talents. Walking the line between the bard’s poetic skill, his work preserving Scotland’s folk tradition (arguably as important as his original poetry) and modern sensibilities can be difficult.

Honouring the contribution of the many women in his life goes some way towards balancing that deficit – not only because they inspired him with their beauty and wit but for the real contributions, particularly of Jean Armour, his mother Agnes Broun and the famous landlady Isabel Pagan, who performed poetry and sang traditional songs that Burns adapted and used in his own work.

No poet is an island. No poet is more loved. As it says on Agnes Broun’s grave, ultimately Burns proved “a noble tribute to her who not only gave a son to Scotland but to the whole world and whose own doctrines he preached to humanity”.