Creating Burns' Reputation

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BBC Radio 3, 25 January 2009
This documentary presented by poet and Burns scholar Robert Crawford showed how Robert Burns - born in 1759 in a small cottage in rural Scotland - has been transformed into a national and international icon, a worldwide symbol of Scottishness and Scottish culture. Burns himself had been partly responsible: one of his unique qualities was his ability to communicate with different socio-economic groups both in English and Scots. He led a colourful existence, travelling all over Scotland and contracting love-affairs with women of quality, both legal and illicit. He became an eighteenth century celebrity, famous for being famous as well as a great poet. More significantly he became identified with democracy through works such as "A man's a man for a'that," not only in Britain but also in America at a time when the country was establishing itself as an independent republic. The fact that he was not English probably helped him - as a lifelong opponent of colonization he was bound to appeal to most Americans.
The programme showed how Burns' reputation increased rapidly following his untimely death at the age of 39. Partly this was due to his universal appeal: members of different nations viewed him in different ways. If Americans identified him as a spokesperson of republicanism, the Canadians viewed him as a democrat with strong links to the British Empire. Burns appealed to the Romantics through his use of common language: we learned that Jane Austen referred to him directly in her unfinished work Sanderton.
Burns also became identified with the Scottish diaspora; particularly in the nineteenth century many émigrés turned to his poetry as a reminder of the country they left behind. This process expanded rapidly with the formation of Burns Clubs, which until very recently were almost exclusively male preserves. Every year on 25 January Burns' birthday was celebrated in traditional fashion with a haggis being brought out into a hall to the accompaniment of pipers. The Burns cult stretched far and wide into north America and Canada, incorporating anyone claiming Scottish ancestry.
The programme concluded by returning to Burns' birthplace where it all began. The property is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and is gradually being transformed into a heritage centre complete with exhibition halls and the obligatory gift shops. The cult of Burns, it seems, shows no sign of abating, providing a focus for Scottish culture worldwide, as well as opportunities for commercial exploitation.