Call to the Bard

THE BARDIC skull gleams whitely on a shelf, the seat of poetic genius reduced to a polished plaster cast of a cast of a cranium. The original was made in 1834, when the tomb of Robert Burns was opened to allow the interment of his widow, Jean Armour, who outlived him by 38 years.

"It's a larger cranium than average," observes Colin Hunter McQueen, artist, craftsman and owner of this slightly grisly relic. "They tried their hats on it and they wouldn't fit," he adds, referring to the Victorian adherents of the pseudoscience of phrenology, who earnestly perused the poet's skull, trying to gauge his personality and character through its bumps. Their report stressed a generous cranial circumference of 22 inches, suggesting "an extremely active brain".

The skull is just one item in what is probably the largest private collections of Burns memorabilia in Britain, amassed by McQueen in his Glasgow home. This inveterate collector of Burnsiana is no mere hoarder, however. A long-retired senior conservation officer and craftsman with Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, the man who once built an 18ft model of the QE2 for Glasgow's Museum of Transport recently turned his modeller's skills to an intricately detailed scale replica of Burns's mausoleum in St Michael's kirkyard, Dumfries. The model is currently on show in the Dumfries Camera Obscura, prior to touring the country as part of this year's Homecoming celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth.

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He and his son, fellow Burns enthusiast Douglas Hunter, have further marked the anniversary by publishing another labour of love, the compendious Hunters' Illustrated History of the Family, Friends and Contemporaries of Robert Burns. Researched and written by Douglas and elaborately illustrated by his father, Hunters' Illustrated History contains more than 600 illustrations by McQueen, while some 300 birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial records were tracked down for it, frequently correcting long-established errors and unearthing new information about the poet's family and wider circle.

"There are just over 1,000 entries in the book, about people who in some way claim connection to the poet," says Douglas, 37, who juggles hats as a singer-songwriter with Glasgow folk-rock band The Picts (he has another outfit, The Court of Equity, specialising in Burns songs) as well as working as a personal trainer and jujitsu coach.

We're talking in an upstairs room, an insatiable collector's grotto which also attests to their love of things Scottish beyond the Bard. Atop a massive wooden desk that once belonged to the scientist Lord Kelvin, another, darker skull cast, that of Robert the Bruce, leers toothily from between a model of the 'Prentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel and, with a distinct whiff of Charles Addams, a working model guillotine he made for Douglas when he was a boy.

There is much more relating to this year's 250th birthday boy. Under Burns's skull, bookshelves sport a first Edinburgh Edition of his poems, as well as volumes of James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, for which Burns wrote and collected more than 200 songs, and innumerable bound copies of the Burns Chronicle. And, in an early example of what would become a major industry in Burnsian kitsch, from shortbread tins to bathmats, a framed Dunfermline damask tea-towel is embroidered with scenes from the poems, cut from the first run on the loom in 1896.

Elsewhere, Colin, a slightly shy but affable character beaming behind a patriarchal beard, opens a cabinet crammed full of Burns-related ceramic ware, plates and mugs and figurines, some of them real collectors' pieces, such as the delicate Nautilus porcelain reproduction of the drouthy duo of Tam O'Shanter and Soutar Johnny, products of Glasgow's former Possil pottery. McQueen, 66, can't remember exactly when he started collecting: "I started off with one plate; it's buried in there somewhere – it's cracked as well. I think books were always my main thing, and then the plate started off the rest and it just got worse and worse." He laughs, "It's like a disease now."

Would he call it an obsession? "Well collecting's an obsession, but it's not just Burns; we're into anything Scottish. I got it through my father. And he gets it through me," he nods at Douglas.

What does his wife, Alison, feel about it? He laughs: "You'd better ask her. But I think she gets nervous when I go anywhere near an auction house."

Some years ago, McQueen illustrated, Rantin' Rovin' Robin, a graphic novel-style biography of Burns which sold so well through the World Burns Club that Irvine Burns Club published a second edition in paperback. Its success partly prompted the present exercise, Hunters' Illustrated History, published with the help of some 450 subscribers, and which boasts endorsements from such eminent Burns scholars as Dr Kenneth Simpson, honorary Professor at Glasgow University, and Emeritus Professor G Ross Roy of the university of South Carolina (him-self an industrious collector of Burns material).

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The book ranges from the more predictable entries on the poet's immediate family, such as his long-suffering wife, Jean Armour, to friends and acquaintances as varied as William Smellie, the eminent Edinburgh printer who brought out Burns's Edinburgh Edition, to John Wilson, the Tarbolton school master whom the poet scurrilously caricatured in his satirical bogey tale, Death and Doctor Hornbook – but who apparently bore the poet no subsequent ill will.

"I'm a kind of visual person, with working in museums and things," says Colin, who traces his interest in book illustration back to his childhood love of an illustrated version of Treasure Island, which may well have been drawn by the great Dudley D Watkins, Dundee doyen of British comic illustrators.

The groundwork for Hunters' Illustrated History involved tombstone research in many a graveyard – "I used to take a stout walking stick," says Colin of the times he found cemeteries haunted by rough sleepers and drug-injectors, rather than by any Tam O'Shanter-esque supernatural entities. Similarly, the creation of his model of the Burns Mausoleum involved Douglas and his girlfriend, Tracy Carmichael (who also worked on the Hunters' Illustrated History graphics), spending the best part of a month measuring up the original, in Dumfries, after they discovered that no drawings by its architect Thomas F Hunt, who designed it in 1815, had survived, bar those of the foundations. Made on a scale of one inch to the foot, Colin's three-foot high model painstakingly reproduces not only the exterior of the classically styled monument, but the intricate interior details of bas-reliefs and the domed ceiling's plasterwork.

The preoccupation with detail in miniature is in the genes, it seems. He recalls the model sailing ships his father would make: "He'd fit out the interior decks with all their furniture and other details," he smiles, "even though you wouldn't be able to see any of it in the finished model."

He can't remember a time when he wasn't aware of Burns, although an early acquaintanceship was through childhood walks with his father round a statue of the poet that used to sit at Glasgow's Charing Cross, as well as family singing sessions round the piano. "And there were Burns books about the house, and I used to scribble in one of them, to be honest – used it for drawing, even at that age." Asked what it is about Burns that inspires such evident devotion, he's slightly at a loss for words: "It's just something that stays with you; I just think he was the best."

"As a songwriter," adds Douglas, "I just know that I couldn't achieve what Burns did. He just seems to touch a nerve."

• For details of Hunters' Illustrated History of the Family, Friends and Contemporaries of Robert Burns and the Mausoleum model, visit

The Bard goes global: events all around the world

THESE are some of the Burns Night events around the world:

INDONESIA: About 200 people expected at Le Grandeur Hotel in Balikpapan. Organisers promise guests a "taste of Scotland" with "a traditional evening of Scottish hospitality, food, poetry, song and dance." Dancing lessons have run for several weeks.

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ISTANBUL: Richard and Innes Wyness, from Edinburgh, host a supper for 40 guests in their home. Cock-a-leekie soup, followed by neeps flown in from Scotland in their luggage, tatties and haggis bought at Edinburgh Airport on a Christmas trip. Tipsie Laird trifle, Scottish cheddar, oatcakes and plenty of whisky to follow.

The only fellow Scot they know in Istanbul will address the haggis, while the beast itself will be carried in to pipe music on an iPod.

CALIFORNIA: Bakersfield in Kern County was one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, but has been hard hit by the economic downturn.

The Kern County Scottish Society's 38th annual Robert Burns Supper is held at a housing community for people aged 50 and over.

A local Scottish-born bagpiper, named Robbie Byrne, is doing the Immortal Memory. The haggis is made locally to a family recipe, but served in a plastic "baggie", rather than a sheep's stomach.

BAHRAIN: The small island has two Scottish associations. The Bahrain Caledonian Society is flying in an accordionist for its bash on 29 January, and will be advertising Homecoming Scotland with leaflets and lapel badges for guests, who also receive a Famous Grouse whisky glass.

The older Caledonian Society of Awali was formed in 1936 by Scottish oil industry workers. About 300 people are expected at its dinner at The Golden Tulip hotel in Manama, Bahrain.

A Burns speaker from Scotland, George Jack, a former headmaster of Selkirk High School and past-president of the Scottish Rugby Union, has been invited out to give the Immortal Memory.

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VANCOUVER: Gung Haggis Fat Choy is an annual cultural event in British Columbia city that blends Canada's rich Scottish and Chinese traditions. It features music, poetry and performances, with a large banquet and party.

The name is a play on Scottish and Chinese words. Gung Hay Fat Choy is a traditional Cantonese greeting used during Chinese New Year, which falls close to Burns' birthday.

TANZANIA: The Caledonian Society of Tanzania was established in 1931 and has seen a recent revival, last year staging its first Burns Suppers and St Andrew's ball in four years.

This year's Burns Supper is in the garden of the British High Commissioner, with 130 guests, a piper flown in from South Africa and Macsween's haggis sent from Edinburgh.

NEW YORK: The New York Caledonian Society is staging a dinner that begins with a cocktail hour at 6pm and a pianist playing traditional Scottish music. The club's chieftain, Andrew MacMillan, will address the haggis. There will be dancing and a souvenir journal for guests.

COLOMBO: The Caledonian Society of Sri Lanka may date back as far as 1795, overlapping with Burns's life by a year. It has only about 25 members, but numbers swell at social events and about 60 people are expected at this year's Burns Supper at the Ceylon Continental Hotel.

There is a 100 per cent import duty on "luxury foods", so haggis is cooked locally.

The evening includes the "community Tam", the round-the-table reading of Tam O'Shanter.

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ARGENTINA: The Buenos Aires Tartan Army has more than 100 people booked for its Burns Supper at The Rozz Pub. There will be Irish and Scottish folk music, piping from the Buenos Aires Scottish Guard and a Robert Burns impersonator. A new whisky drink, "Burns 250", has been created for the occasion.

ENGLAND: On Hayling Island on the Hampshire coast, the "Butts Burns Evening" will attract about 80 guests.

The event gets its unusual name from the fact that most guests are cyclists or motorcyclists, fond of touring and long-distance riding.

The evening includes a dancing exhibition by the "Hayling Highlanders".

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