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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Gibson MSP

The Continuing Importance of Robert Burns

On 25 January 1759, Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire. As we address the haggis and toast the lassies at Burns Suppers, we celebrate the cultural impact that Burns' words have had over the generations; his immortal memory in Ayrshire and beyond. At this time of year, we honour Burns’ enduring spirit; a fitting tribute for one who did so much to preserve and popularise Scotland’s rich, historical, cultural and literary heritage.

Widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, Burns is now revered the world over and, after Queen Victoria and Columbus, has more statues of him around the world than any other non-religious figure.

Burns contributes to Scotland’s higher education institutions. The Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, encourages interest in the Bard while providing support to the National Burns Collection.

While we recognise the cultural legacy of Robert Burns and his contribution to Scots language and poetry, rarely do we stop to consider his lasting economic contribution to Scotland, which today is realised mainly through food, drink and tourism.

As a Scottish icon, Burns has a direct impact. The Burns season generates spending on food and drink, hospitality, accommodation, kilt hire, printing and merchandising. Even the piper may need paying! The creative economy is boosted through arts events, while Burns the brand helps promote Scotland’s exports and trade links through celebrations around the globe, including Burns suppers held by hundreds of Robert Burns World Federation member clubs.

The last evaluation of Robert Burns’ economic impact in 2003 for the BBC by World Bank economist, Lesley Campbell, estimated that he generated £157 million each year for Scotland. This sum would have seemed astronomical to a farmer’s son who wrote about the hardships of 18th century rural life. However, a similar study today would undoubtedly show Burns’ capital has increased exponentially, especially following the watershed year of homecoming in 2009 which marked the 250th anniversary of his birth, resulting in £360 million of extra spending by 72,000 additional overseas visitors.

The hugely impressive Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, which was supported by an £8 million grant from the SNP Government attracts up to 300,000 visitors a year with its world-class collections. The £390,000 winter festival programme centred around Burns night itself was attended by 62,000 people last year.

Year-round Burns-related tourism is on the rise thanks to Burns Scotland partner destinations such as the Birthplace Museum, Burns Cottage, the Monument Centre in Kilmarnock and Burns House Museum in Mauchline and numerous other locations associated with the poet.

Whichever way you look at it, Burns continues to serve Scotland – even appearing on our Clydesdale Bank and Bank of Scotland notes. Of course, while we value this economic boost, it is impossible to price the cultural value of Burns’ work. He helped cement our national identity and self-confidence on a global scale. He represents democracy, equality, the importance of universal education, the lyrical power of the Scots language and so much more. His universal nature goes the distance in bringing people together through national pride and, while we celebrate his birth, we don’t mark his death, because his work is all about life and living.

As an avenue for people from all walks of life, Burns’ clubs exist not only cherish his work, they encourage Scotland’s young people to take an interest in it, thereby passing it to future generations.

Robert Burns’ life and legacy helped establish Scotland’s reputation on the world stage. That his influence is felt not only culturally but also economically is testament to him. The memory of Robert Burns is truly immortal.



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