WHEN it comes to the Year of Stories, Scotland really is spoiled for choice. Following on from 2021’s focus on Coasts and Waters, VisitScotland chose this year to celebrate some of the most iconic pieces of literature to be created in or inspired by Scotland.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh are just a few on an endless list of names to make an impact on Scottish literary history. Ask anyone around the world, however, to name a Scottish literary great, and chances are they’ll tell you Robert Burns.

“We’ve found Burns suppers in more than 140 countries in the last five to six years. There are about nine million people [who] toast him in January, so it’s a very unique phenomenon,” says Dr Paul Malgrati, a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre For Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. “I can’t think of any other country than Scotland where they celebrate a poet’s birthday in the way people celebrate Burns,” he adds.

The Tam o’Shanter poet enjoys iconic status both in his home country and across the globe. In 2016, he was voted the “greatest Scot in history” in a National Trust for Scotland poll ahead of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Mary, Queen of Scots. His poems are studied in school classrooms and universities alike. His work has touched millions, from Keats and Wordsworth to Bob Dylan – who is on record saying that A Red, Red Rose was a big inspiration for him. Even the boxing legend Muhammad Ali has visited Burns Cottage.

READ MORE: Alan Cumming takes on life of Robert Burns in solo dance-theatre performance

Much of the celebrity status the poet enjoys began with the publication of Poems, Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect, commonly referred to as the Kilmarnock Volume, which was published 236 years ago on this day in 1786. It contains some of his most famous creations, including To A Mouse.

When first published, the collection was largely bought up via subscription by those who could afford it, with 612 copies flying out almost instantly.

The year after publication, Burns had to make his way to Edinburgh, where an additional 3000 copies were printed.

“At the heart of the Kilmarnock poems, there’s a very important class dimension. Burns wasn’t a member of the enfranchised – he couldn’t vote,” says Malgrati.

By writing in Scots, the poet looked to champion a vernacular the ruling classes felt was beneath them. It was the voices they heard on the streets being presented to them in literature.

The National: Burns: Scotland’s  biggest story

The first poem readers were presented with was The Twa Dogs, A Tale, which pitted a rich man’s dog (Caesar) against a poor man’s (Luath).

“This animal dimension was very important throughout the collection. The rich man’s dog eventually goes on to criticise his master, saying he’s useless, and you can also hear that in the vernacular of the poorer dog who quite proudly takes the side of the common man,” Malgrati says. “It was a bold statement to make.”

Burns certainly wasn’t somebody afraid to take on the establishment. Moving on from a not-so-subtle metaphor using two dogs, Burns directly addresses Westminster in The Author’s Earnest Cry And Prayer.

Specifically, he attacks MPs, including those representing Scotland, for not doing enough to help the common people. “He was effectively saying, ‘if you don’t stand up for us, then beware’. Again, it was a very bold political statement from somebody who didn’t even have the right to vote. He was intervening in political debates as a disenfranchised man,” says Malgrati.

The National: Burns: Scotland’s  biggest story

Drawing inspiration from the Jacobite Rising, the poet goes so far as to threaten kilts and daggers in the streets if the people of Scotland don’t get the support they need.

For his PhD thesis, Malgrati focused on the politics of Burns which are, to say the least, complicated. “They lend themselves towards interpretation. He could be a leftist or a nationalist, but he wrote in the Scots language and in English. There are definitely suggestions he could be aligned with Scottish independence when you consider some of the things he was writing about.”

In spite of his genius, the man behind the poet was a complex figure. “Despite my love for Burns, I’m very much aware of his flaws. He’s not a god, he’s a man,” says Chris Waddell, the learning manager at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway in Ayrshire. Behind Waddell, there’s a famous portrait of the poet taking pride of place in the middle of the wall, along with a shelf lined with all of Burns’s works.

“There’s a lot of mythology around Burns. The notion that he was a drunk simply isn’t true. It was invented by his first biographer James Currie who thought he was doing it in his (Burns’s) best interests,” Waddell adds.

IT might seem unclear now why portraying someone as a heavy drinker could possibly benefit them, but as Waddell points out, things were different in the 1700s. Burns had several affairs, and it’s believed this resulted in several illegitimate children.

“The womanising is true, and in a modern context, we have to be careful with how we examine that. I think it’s previously been a nudge and a wink but we have to reassess historical figures and consider them in their time,” Waddell adds. “His behaviour would rightly raise eyebrows now.”

He says the museum doesn’t “pull its punches” when it comes to this aspect of Burns’s life. It is, after all, a place dedicated to the man as much as his work. “We think it’s important to be truthful in our displays, and we focus on his relationships with women, particularly his wife, Jean Armour.”

Those feelings are ones with which Malgrati agrees, and as a scholar, he seeks to find a way to separate Burns’s creative life from his personal one.

“He’s an important window into the 1700s. Obviously, this is wishful thinking because of the importance he has in Scotland and the political and cultural symbol he is, but I would say that as a scholar, I’m not trying to find a role model in him.”

READ MORE: Why Robert Burns does not deserve to be called a humanitarian

As with almost every literary great, there’s often no escaping the fact that they led a complex life. Ultimately, there is no denying the asset that The Bard is to Scotland.

“The guy is a towering figure. He’s a part of the national DNA and the image that we put of ourselves out into the world,” says Waddell.

VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead points out: “Robert Burns has inspired people to visit Scotland, from locations featured in works such as The Birks Of Aberfeldy and Brig o’ Doon to places frequented during his life such as his childhood home or the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton.”

When it comes to promoting the legacy of Scotland’s stories, it’s hard to find any better at telling them than Burns.