WHAT will you be doing this Burns Night? One thing’s for sure. You won’t be going to a community centre, village hall, church hall, friend’s front room or hotel function suite to attend an actual Burns Supper.

Does that mean celebrations won’t happen at all in 2021 or could the whole clanjamfry jump online, introducing Scotland’s national poet to new generations, New Scots and folk previously scunnered with Burns Supper ritual – pleasingly familiar for some but off-puttingly formulaic for others?

The pandemic will force Scots to decide.

Is the Bard’s legacy meaningful enough to get us all on Zoom, holding virtual Burns Suppers across borders, counties and countries with dispersed meals of haggis, neeps and tatties?

READ MORE: Glasgow Burns supper to be world’s largest online

Or without the sustaining prospect of a few large drams, actual drouthy neebors and a physical night out, does the appeal of Rabbie just shrivel away?

For what it’s worth, my money’s on the first option – primarily because folk need a sense of community more than ever right now and nothing creates that precious feeling of connection like revisiting the jewels of a shared culture. Of course, the opposite’s also true. Nothing creates a feeling of exclusion faster than being forced to value a set of alien words, songs, foods and behaviours carry. So, there’s work to do if online Burns is going to zing.

But it’s important work.

Other countries establish common cause each time they speak, binding one to the other through the use of their own mither tongues. Thanks to our proximity to English, Scots speakers must try harder – and that’s where gaithering events like Burns Night come in. During a normal year.

So, here’s the 2021 Covid challenge.

Can lovers of Burns communicate his universal reach well enough, loosen the format of Burns Suppers far enough and include the many cultures of Scotland with sufficient warmth and hospitality to revitalise the Burns tradition this year? Or will we just switch on Netflix and reheat some pasta instead?

It’s up to us. There is no Underbelly, Edinburgh Hogmanay or central command in charge of this most unusual night – the only folk who can save and renew the Burns Supper are Scots ourselves.

It’s not impossible. In my experience, it doesn’t take long before something in Burns’s vast repertoire of poems and songs clicks – whether it’s discovering you know all the verses to Ca’ The Yowes cos your mum sang it, savouring A Man’s A Man afresh and wondering if the “birkie ca’d a Lord” was somehow prophetically all about Donald Trump, or marvelling at the crazy intensity of Tam O’ Shanter as masters of that long poem run through audiences like demented bonxies.

READ MORE: Scotland should be doing more to celebrate the gift that was Rabbie Burns

Given a bit of preparation, a bit of explanation and a lot of energy, Burns can reach most people. The challenge this year is partly technical – getting that spirit and passion online – and partly organisational – overcoming the perception that Burns Suppers are a bit exclusive and “not for the likes of us”.

There is at least one thing running in its favour. For once the timing of Burns Night is spot on. Burns was born in the middle of the most miserable month of the year. Normally that feels like a real minus point. But in lockdown 2021, the timing is a bonus. In this pivotal, jumpy, unusual year when independence is in the air but not yet the formal agenda, when Holyrood elections are round the corner but not everyday debate, when Yessers are itching to get campaigning but can’t even chat to more than two folk on a street corner, here’s what we can do. We can venerate our own culture. Rediscover some of the extraordinary wealth possessed by this country – the kind that cannot be paid for, imposed or suddenly magicked up out of nowhere. Cultural wealth, genuine tradition – remade, revisited and restored by ourselves.

We can have the most vigorous Burns Night ever, with thousands of online gatherings based on WhatsApp groups, friendship groups, Yes groups or whatever – so long as young folk and New Scots are invited.

Why not? If we managed to have meaningful Christmas lunches, chats, weddings and funerals online in 2020, why not use January 25 as an emotional pivot point for Scotland in this difficult new year. A target. A goal. A staging post through a difficult winter. A way to combine tradition and innovation. A sign of things to come, using things past. A way to renew bonds and repurpose tradition for present times, instead of meekly handing on what’s ae been.

For centuries Scots identity was carried not by parliament or politics but by oral culture, by poems, songs and music. That’s how Scotland’s distinctive ways of looking at life survived and adapted. Song. Speech. Poetry. Cultural fitba played with two jerseys for goalposts. Free, easy and accessible. Fitba may be Scotland’s national game. But song and verse has ae been our ither national sport.

Over time though, we’ve become spectators in both. It’s time for that to change. To chuck watching other people – however talented – and get back to enjoying and enhancing our own shared, lived ­experience.

READ MORE: Janey Godley set to host star-studded virtual Big Burns Supper

Now I’ll grant you, Burns Night has not traditionally been everyone’s cup o kindness. As the poet and unparalleled Burns speaker Donnie O’Rourke has often observed, Burns would never have graced a Burns Supper – too elitist, sycophantic, swathed in tartan, maudlin, sentimental, hingy and far too safe.

I get that. I’ve seen that and felt it too.

But the great, local, intimate, non-commercial Burns’ Suppers compensate for all the rather forced events in which haggis is reduced to an apologetic wee starter and genuine enthusiasm for the poetry and sentiments comes and goes.

It’s true also that for women, the oldest, biggest, most prestigious Burns Suppers have been no-go zones. Large parts of Burns country in the west of Scotland (particularly areas with an Orange tradition) have excluded women for centuries.

More recently, the Reply From The ­Lassies was introduced to give one poor, woman the unenviable task of trying to amuse a bunch of drunken men right at the end of the evening. Nice.

Doubtless, generations have been put off by this unlovely appropriation of Burns’s legacy and the price-tag attached to ultra-posh, black-tie affairs in upmarket hotels.

But lockdown has kicked other large, commercial celebrations into touch. So, this could be the year to mix and experiment with Burns as well.

Let’s ditch the toe-curling toast to and reply frae the Lassies and have a toast to love proposed by whoever feels moved to do it.

IN the wake of a year when Black Lives Matters rocked the world, let’s have some very different toasts to Scotland. Burns’s dalliance with the prospect of work on a slave plantation in Jamaica led to the suggestion his statues should be removed or rebadged. And yet the Slave’s Lament must be one of the most heart-wrenching songs ever written about loss, slavery and exile. What do black Scots make of Burns’s legacy? It’s quite possible that rising to the daunting challenge of making a toast is the only way folk will decide.

It’s also true that for Highlanders, Gaels, Doric speakers and inhabitants of the Northern Isles, Burns is overshadowed by their own poets, singers and writers.

This virtual January 25, folk can use Burns’s birthday to tell ither sangs and create new traditions across Scotland, using the words of Norman MacCaig, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, Karine Polwart, Màiri Mhòr or Martyn Bennett.

READ MORE: Does this explain how Robert Burns got his surname?

Across the Tay from my home in North Fife – the tradition of Dundee’s Bard is alive and kicking thanks to a series of gaitherings – in the sadly defunct Clark’s Bar and now online.

Shortly after local songwriter-singer Michael Marra died in 2012, his family set up Optimistic Sound - a community project which raises money for Big Noise Douglas so that some of the city’s most disadvantaged kids have the richest musical lives. This Hogmanay his family – Peggy, Matthew and Alice – hosted a fabulous online tribute, with songs performed by themselves and other Marra fans – most of them generations younger than the gravel-voiced Dundonian himself.

With any luck, a living tradition has just been born.

Now, I’m painfully aware Michael Marra’s name may mean nothing to many readers. And it is painful.

Soon after Michael died, Pat Kane described him as the modern Robert Burns – an entirely fitting accolade. The lad from Lochee sang about the particular - General US Grant’s visit to Dundee, the Ullapool Moon and lost relatives in the Yukon – but his messages were universal.

Like the Ayrshire Bard, Michael Marra was driven by compassion, humanitarianism and a deep-seated fury at cruelty – whether that was the callous cruelty of war (so brilliantly described in Mincin Wi Chairlie and Happed In Mist) or the cruelty of men towards women.

Marra wrote with an eye for detail and an ear for the absurd – an outstanding lyricist, iconoclast and a man determined to right wrongs. He re-shaped and retold the stories of the hurt, forgotten and maligned – including his own uncle buried in semi-disgrace in The Lonesome Ballad of Francis Clark.

In another song he compensates for the brutality of her husband Diego ­Rivera (dismissed simply as “the fat man”) by placing painter Frida Kahlo in the ­restorative company of regulars at the Tay Bridge Bar. It’s hard to believe ­anyone but an abused woman could have written these perceptive lines:

“There’ll be no more lies and no more tears, No more listening through the fat man’s ears, No more tears and no more lies, No more looking through the fat man’s eyes.”

Marra’s version of Green Grow The Rashes O starts with the surprising and moving observation – delivered in that unimpeachable, gravel-rough voice – that God must be a woman, because the revered Rabbie Burns told us so.

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears Her noblest work she classes, O: Her prentice han’ she try’d on man, An’ then she made the lasses, O.

READ MORE: Scots Wha Hae is the best choice for national anthem

Maybe such instinctive feminism could only come from a man brought up in a city, where generations of female jute workers had wages while their “kettle-boiling” husbands had none.

SO have we the energy, contacts, imagination and sheer will to lay on a Marra meets Burns Supper online, exploring links between two writers divided by coasts and centuries but united by the continuing relevance of their work and enduring strength of their “fan base”?

This Burns Night we can explore, listen, read up, think a while, converse and debate the embarrassment of riches that constitute Scotland’s cultural heritage.

Do we have the courage to adapt the Burns tradition, maybe stumble and make arses of ourselves in the important business of reclaiming it?

Do the multiform, multi-lingual sparkling traditions of Scotland’s culture really matter to us? Or is it easier to express ourselves solely through a deadpan political world of logic, headlines and argument?

Believe in Scotland have already got off the mark with a virtual Burns Supper, in support of Scottish independence on January 23 (see ow.ly/pBAZ50CEw6M for tickets).

What about other Yes groups? Will we make the extra effort – or shrug and let the moment pass? Too busy doing something else? Too unacquainted with poetry? Too uncertain of the words? Too uncomfortable speaking or singing in public? More comfortable with that other long-standing Scots tradition – learned silence?

There’s still time to make this Burns Night a bit special.

But hurry.

It’s coming yet for a’ that.