Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds Burns, once a very real human being, is today iconic. In 1885 the World Burns Federation was formed, providing Burns with a popular following like no other writer on the planet. This organisation brought together the ‘Burns Clubs’ which had sprung up from 1801, within five years of the poet’s death in 1796. Today the Federation comprises more than 250 clubs worldwide. Most of these will have an annual Burns supper on 25th January to celebrate the poet’s birthday. In 2009, the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, it is reckoned there were some 900,000 Burns Suppers across the globe. Between 1786, when he first appears in print and 1986, there were reckoned to have been produced over 2,000 different editions of Burns’s work.
Skip to 1 minute and 12 seconds His first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect published in Kilmarnock in 1786, and so known as the ‘Kilmarnock edition’, was produced in 612 copies. Today around 70 of these survive, fetching anywhere between 30 and 75 thousand pounds at auction. A recent estimate of Burns’s worth to the Scottish economy is £157 million per annum, a figure that does not attempt to add up the worth of the international sales market in his manuscripts (a good letter manuscript will fetch around £8,000; if you sell a very good song manuscript by Burns, you might be able to buy yourself a fine new sports car!). Burns’s worldwide appeal is palpable.
Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds As well as the suppers, we have a writer who is popular in the USA, seen as an example of success by someone from a humble background with the right ability and drive. Burns is also popular in Russia, seen as a ‘proletarian’ poet par excellence. A few years ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I signed a copy of a book on Burns I had edited for a Chinese Red Army general. In some stores in Japan, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is played to signal that closing-time is near. Burns has been translated into over forty languages, including Latin, Faroese, Esperanto and English!
In this video, Gerry Carruthers examines Burns as International Icon.
Filmed in the Bute Hall, University of Glasgow, with additional footage from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
© University of Glasgow