25 things you may not know about the bard

1 The iconic and most famous portrait of Robert Burns, painted in 1787 by Alexander Nasmyth, was not considered a particularly good likeness of the Bard by his contemporary, Walter Scott. Scott had this to say: "His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth's picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished… I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits."

2 The publication of Burns's first work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was intended to pay for his passage to Jamaica, where he was to be employed as a clerk on a slave plantation. Burns had outraged the local community by getting a young girl called Jean Armour (whom he would later marry) pregnant out of wedlock. He abandoned his plan to emigrate because the poems were so well received. In 1792 he wrote The Slave's Lament.

3 Burns's praise for the American Revolution is well known. Less well known is how sincerely that praise was reciprocated by numerous American presidents. George Washington had a carving of Burns on the dining-room mantelpiece of his Virginia mansion. Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower all visited the house of his birth. Abraham Lincoln, when asked in 1865 to propose a toast to Burns, replied: "I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said I cannot say anything which seems worthy of saying."

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4 The Suffragettes, however, did not consider the bard so sacrosanct. On 8 July 1914 two of them tried to blow up Burns's cottage but were foiled by the timely arrival of the night watchman. One of the women, Frances Parker, was the niece of Lord Kitchener.

It appears however they had no particular grudge against the poet, rather their motive was to attract publicity. A court report of the time recorded: "During the proceedings in Court the accused talked volubly and quoted Burns at some length: 'Liberty's in every blow, let us do or die… You Scotsmen used to be proud of Burns; now you have taken to torturing women.'"

5 The origins of the Selkirk Grace predate Burns by more than a century. Peter Westwood, who has written four books about the poet, has pointed out the manuscripts of a Dr Plume of Malden, Essex, in 1650 recorded the following prayer: "Some have meat but cannot eat; Some could eat but have no meat; We have meat and can all eat; Blest, therefore, be God for our meat."

6 Such has been the Bard's influence that he was even the subject of a speech delivered at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York in 2004 by the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan. The speech was entitled, "The Brotherhood of Man". In the speech, Annan said that Burns's famous prayer that "Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that" exemplified the "fundamental human project" of living peacefully together.

7 The poem to which Kofi Annan was alluding – A Man's a Man for a' That – was written in support of the less-than-peaceful French Revolution.

8 Not a single letter from the poet to his mother or sisters has survived.

9 The Bard's poems have been translated into at least 24 languages, including Esperanto (an artificial language based on words common to all European languages).

10 According to Lesley Campbell, a consultant for the World Bank, Burns generated some 160 million for the Scottish economy in 2008. He died 14 (1,141 today) in debt.

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11 Burns had a colourful career as an exciseman in Dumfries after struggling as a farmer. In March 1792 he was involved in the seizing of a smuggling ship, The Rosamond. One story has it that Burns purchased four of the cannonades at the subsequent auction of the seized cargo and sold them to France to aid the revolution, a move that almost cost him his job. Though remaining in the employ of the Excise until his death, Burns painted a less-than-flattering picture of the profession in his poem The Deil's Awa wi' th' Exciseman.

12 While still a farmer Burns wrote the 224-line poem Tam o' Shanter in a single day while "sitting on a sod dyke", according to his wife.

13 Much speculation exists surrounding the number of children Burns fathered, and by how many women. Most believe it was 12, by four different women, while others believe it was 14, by six mothers. He had nine by his wife, Jean Armour, who gave birth to the last of them on the day of Burns's funeral.

14 However, Burns and his family only officially recognised three of his illegitimate children (not including the first child he had by his future wife before they were married). The three mothers eventually received 200 (25,873) each from a family fund. Burns paid off the other children himself.

15 Burns's name was originally spelt Burnes. He dropped the 'e' to adopt the more common Ayrshire spelling after his father William died in 1784.

16 Rather than a dog, Burns had a pet sheep called Mailie (Molly) who followed him around and "wi' kindly bleat, when she did spy him" up to half a mile away. When Mailie was strangled by some stray rope, Burns wrote Poor Mailie's Elegy in remembrance.

17 Burns suppers were originally celebrated on 29 January because his friends got his birthday wrong. It was only after checking the church register some 15 years later that 25 January became the definitive date. The first Burns supper, held in 1801 in Alloway, was held not in January but July, to mark the fifth anniversary of his death.

18 The story of Burns's death, that already weakened by rheumatism he caught a chill after falling asleep on the way home following an evening's heavy drinking, is quite probably untrue.

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The story appeared in the biography written by James Currie. Currie, himself a teetotaller, was the third choice for biographer, and perhaps with good reason. A letter written by Burns at the time reveals that he spent almost all of January confined to his bed, and many dispute Burns's reputation as a heavy drinker altogether. It was also Currie that recorded Burns's birthday to have been on 29 January.

19 As well as being a proud Scot through and through, Robert Burns also understood the importance of British unity, as demonstrated in the following lines from The Dumfries Volunteers:

Oh let us not like snarling curs,

In wrangling be divided

Till slap! Come in an unco' loun

And we a rung decide it

Be Britain still to Britain true

Amang oursel's united

For never but by British hands

Maun British wrangs be righted.

20 In 1834, the year of his wife's death, Burns's body was exhumed for medical examination and a cast of his skull was taken and subjected to a phrenological examination. This pseudo-science, highly fashionable at the time, purported to explain differences in personality by the shape of the skull. The examination was reported to have "laid stress on the circumference of the skull, 22 inches, and what must have been an extremely active brain".

21 There have been plans afoot to make a film about Burns's life starring Scots film star Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera; 300; PS I love you), but scheduling and financing conflicts have meant work is yet to begin.

22 Burns had an unexplained fixation with holly and the holly bush. He was very specific that it should appear on the crest he commissioned for himself in 1794. One explanation put forward is that it was in a holly tree that Alexander "the Prophet" Peden, the famous Covenanter of whom his mother's great-grandfather was an adherent, hid following the Covenanter defeat at Airds Moss in 1680.

23 Burns was not just handy with a pen. He was also a fairly proficient fiddler and could wring a tune out of the Stock and Horn (a form of chanter). The Stock and Horn is featured on his crest.

24 It is estimated that there are in excess of 400 Burns clubs worldwide.

25 The day's first Burns supper of the year will take place at the Western Veti Levu Burns Club in Fiji. Fiji is the country closest to the International Date Line in the eastern hemisphere that is known to celebrate Burns night. The secretary of the club, a Mrs Aileen Burness, is a direct descendent of the poet's brother.

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