THE 225th anniversary of the death of Robert Burns will occur this week. It was on July 21, 1796, that the man who was already recognised as the National Bard died at the age of just 37, almost certainly from endocarditis caused or exacerbated by rheumatism.

Over the last two weeks I have described Burns’s death and the immediate aftermath of his passing, which included the establishment of a fund to assist his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour, in her widowship in which she would be caring for the Bard’s children, the last of whom, Maxwell, was born on the day of his father’s funeral.

As promised, I will try this week to describe the legacy of Robert Burns and I will start with the bold assertion that he almost single-handedly preserved Scots as a language. I will go further, and declare that Burns played a great part in preserving the nationhood of Scotland. Were it not for Burns, I suspect we would all now talk Home Counties English, and the “North Britain” movement that was very much developing during his lifetime – people who wanted Scotland to be wholly inculcated into the motherland of the British Empire – might well have triumphed.

Burns saw the danger clearly. In 1793 he composed Scots Wha Hae, to the old bagpipe tune of Hey Tuttie Tattie, and left no one in doubt of his patriotic feelings. His bitter song Parcel of Rogues correctly blamed the hireling traitors for selling out their country in 1707, and I have always had a soft spot for his poem/song Caledonia with these words:

“Thus bold, independent, unconquer’d, and free, Her bright course of glory for ever shall run, For brave Caledonia immortal must be.”

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To understand Burns’s chief legacy you have to be aware of the context of his times. The Scottish Enlightenment was very much ongoing, and there was genuine disagreement among Scots of a political and philosophical kind as to where the country was going. Radicalism had taken root in Scotland, though many like Burns were afraid to openly espouse the causes that had revolutionised France and the USA.

A sense of cultural loss was evinced by many Scots in the latter years of the 18th century as “Britain” took over. Yet with his own songs and poems, and his astonishing contributions to collections of Scottish tunes and lyrics – he wrote or preserved about 700 of them – Burns turned the tide of Anglicisation. He directly influenced Sir Walter Scott – they met only once in Edinburgh while Scott was still a teenager – who in turn ramped up the vision of Scottishness being preserved. And it was.

Burns was not well served by his first biographers. Well-meaning friends raised money to have a Life of Burns published, the profits going to the poet’s family, and Dr James Currie, 1756-1805, was given the task. With access to the Burns family and friends, and particularly his great friend Mrs Dunlop, Currie published The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns: With Explanatory and Glossarial Notes; And a Life of the Author in four volumes in 1800.

Currie was a strong advocate of temperance, and the biography basically painted Burns as an incurable drunk. That image stuck with Burns for decades after his death until several writers and historians pointed out the bleedin’ obvious – if Burns had been such a lush, how come he was able to write so brilliantly and copiously?

The irony, of course, is that preservation of Scottish culture and Burns’ immense contribution to it was hugely advanced by a worldwide phenomenon – Burns Suppers and Burns Clubs. From long personal experience, the Suppers are rarely alcohol free and I suspect most Burns Clubs would not want to be.

The Suppers are unique – there are no Shakespeare Swallys, as National columnist Kevin McKenna might term them, nor Dickens Dinners or Byron Brunches, but each year on or around January 25, devotees and members of the public gather to be entertained and to learn about Scotland’s poet and toast his Immortal Memory. An excuse for a bevvy? Yes, but the tradition has kept his name and works alive for more than 200 years.

The first Burns Supper was held by nine of his friends on the fifth anniversary of his death in 1801. The first Burns Club was founded in Greenock in 1801, and suppers and clubs began to spread across Scotland beyond, helped by the spread of the British Empire in the 19th century. But Burns was not just a Scottish or British phenomenon – the Americans embraced him with President Abraham Lincoln a huge devotee, and the universality of his work saw him lionised in Russia and China.

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There are said to be more statues of Burns around the world than any other secular or non-royal figure and he is reported to be worth a nine-figure sum to the Scottish economy each year as visitors come to find about about him.

I leave you with a very optimistic note supplied by the Robert Burns World Federation which states on its website: “Since its establishment in 1885, the Federation has been the official organisation representing over 100,000 Burnsians in every part of the world. With the technology available today...we are presented with a fantastic opportunity to deliver, at pace, that knowledge and understanding of Burns works to individuals, schools and colleges across the world.”

They are setting up a Lifelong Learning Unit within their head office in Kilmarnock, creating a library of books on Burns and other Scots writers, an educational resource and a digital presence.

With 225 years having passed since his death, it seems that the legacy of Robert Burns is set to grow and grow.