That is the challenge Falkirk novelist, playwright and performer Alan Bissett has tried to answer in a new documentary about the enigmatic one-time farmer and exciseman, called Inside the Mind of Robert Burns.
It’s a highlight of the BBC’s Burns Night offering this Saturday, January 25, and amounts to an attempt to penetrate beyond the mythology to find something of the true character of Ayrshire’s most unusual son.
The show will also be aired ahead of Burns Night with a screening at 10pm on Tuesday night.
From the way Alan describes his enquiry his documentary, “Inside the Mind of Robert Burns” might just as easily have been entitled “Burns - the good, the bad and the ugly”, because Burns was a seething mass of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.
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The supposed great romantic’s treatment of women was often appalling, even by 18th century standards, and his politics veered wildly from revolutionary republican to Scottish nationalist to bastion of the British establishment.
He wrote an “X-certificate” book of bawdy poetry too.
Burns was a Mason, a member of the Dumfriesshire yeomanry (effectively a Protestant militia and social club) and a blatant social climber, philanderer, would-be slave master - and chronic binge drinker.
Yet his handsome features continue to adorn many a shortbread tin and tea towel, and as an icon of Scottishness he has no serious rival in the modern era.
Alan Bissett says his documentary aims to reveal “Robert Burns as a human being rather than as symbol of Scottishness or masculinity or radicalism”.
Inside The Mind of Robert Burns will go out on BBC Scotland on Tuesday at 10pm, and will also be shown on Burns night at 9.40pm.