WE’VE got to talk about Rabbie, apparently. No, this isn’t about Lionel Shriver’s next book, but a reflection on Robert Burns, man of the people, yet not so much that he wasn’t booked on a passage for Jamaica and employment on a plantation.

It never happened. His poetry became a sensation, and he embraced the bourgeois fleshpots of Edinburgh instead. Still, the reputation is sullied, the blot indelible on the escutcheon, and in today’s frenzy over statues, questions arise about a “dark side”. So should we be thinking the unthinkable and cleanse the causeway of images of our national poet?

Put bluntly, hostility to statues is both selective and reductive, with chilling precedents like Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas and the Mosul sculptures. Our current statue-war proceeds not from a process of thought but an absence of thought, which Hannah Arendt, were she around, might call “the banality of iconoclasm”.

It also suggests an agitprop opportunism with minimal links to racial justice issues. Yes, Bristol’s Edward Colston had to go, but did that rare work by Irish sculptor James Cassidy have to suffer? Frankly, Bristol council knew the image was deeply offensive, and should have removed it.

Similarly, Confederate “heroes” in places like Richmond, Virginia are there to remind locals that their “Northern Aggressor” liberators maybe won the war but sure as hell didn’t win the peace. Thus does the “lost cause” raise two fingers to the Union and crush the descendants of the enslaved. None of the statues is an authentic relic. Far from it. The most recent dates from 2015, when Barack Obama was President. This has very little to do with Robert Burns, of course, except that his memorial in Confederate Park, Jacksonville, really has no business being there.

The problem with the author of The Slave’s Lament is that different people revere him for different reasons. If you thought A Man’s a Man for a’ That was a Socialist anthem, think again, or at least ask yourself why the original manuscript was acquired by archetypal cut-throat capitalist JP Morgan, who thought it an affirmation of Manifest Destiny and new-world raw individualism, rather than a hymn to comradely solidarity.

Still, the stone’s in the shoe. Burns was days away from boarding The Nancy in Greenock, bound for Savanna La Mar, Jamaica, to work on a slave plantation. Not good, even in 1786.

Yet I have a theory – no more than that, so it cannot be a cause – that Burns was not so much planning a career as plotting an escape. After all, his farm was failing, he was broke, and Jean Armour’s father wanted him jailed. How would you feel?

Burns often valued women for their intellectual abilities, one being Helen, daughter of agricultural improver William Craik of Arbigland, a man whose social circle included enlightenment luminary Lord Kames and Benjamin Franklin.

A playmate of young Helen’s was probably John Paul, four years her senior and son of the estate gardener – though some suspect a “natural” son of the laird, and thus her half-brother. He would later get into trouble with the law, adopt the surname Jones, and end up becoming the “father of the US Navy”. One who certainly was her half-brother was James Craik. He was a British army surgeon in the West Indies when she was born. They never met, but was aware of him, writing with candour.

“One illegitimate son of my father’s – always treated by (my mother) as if he was her own child – was educated in the medical line – and settled in America – he was some years in the regiment commanded by Washington, with whom he formed a friendship that continued uninterrupted through life. Soon after the commencement of the American revolution the General appointed him ‘Physician General to the United States’.”

Speculation makes bad history, yet it may be that Craik met Washington when he brought his dying older brother, Lawrence, to Barbados. They certainly knew each other well during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. Could it have been Craik’s experience which suggested to Burns that a cost-effective way of reaching Virginia might be to use Jamaica as a stepping stone?

We cannot know if this was the objective, unless some clinching document turns up. While both Washington and Burns admired each other, and the poet even wrote the President a “Birthday Ode” in 1794 while the latter had a copy of the Ayrshire bard’s poems in the library at Mount Vernon, documentary evidence is lacking. James Craik’s private papers which may have cast light on the subject were lost during the Civil War.

Perhaps the great American documentary maker, Ken Burns – who discovered after a DNA check that he was a distant cousin of our heaven starr’d ploughman – should slate this as his next project.

Meanwhile, let’s look after those statues.