Tam to ride fiery steed at nation's biggest Burns party

OF MICE, there will be plenty, as well as a flock of sheep, a giant cart-horse, a Spitfire, a bicycle and a copy of Lincluden Abbey. Carried aloft as home-made lanterns, some requiring several hands, there will be 3,000 of them making their way through the streets of Dumfries and lighting up Robert Burns' house and his burial place on the way down to the town's historic Whitesands.

Of men, there will be even more. Around 10,000 marchers are expected to crowd into the town this evening as the first weekend of Scotland's biggest national party gets into full swing with four "Burns Light" processions that will converge to witness a 15m wooden model of Tam O' Shanter astride his horse be put to the torch on the River Nith.

For Shirley Bell, chief executive of the Robert Burns World Federation, it is yet more proof of Burns' universal appeal. "The numbers are amazing and if Robbie had been around he would have been proud of what was being done in his name," she said. "Burns Light will be truly spectacular. It is an event that has captured people's imaginations both here and abroad and the enthusiasm is just astonishing."

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The Scottish Government's Year of Homecoming celebrations got under way in earnest yesterday in Alloway, Burns' Ayrshire birthplace and the setting for many of his most famous poems. Last night, an official Burns Supper attended by First Minister Alex Salmond was held at the Brig O'Doon Hotel – just one of 3,000 logged worldwide for this weekend.

In the Year of Homecoming, which officially ends on St Andrew's Day on November 30, Scots descendants and expatriates from around the world are being invited to visit Scotland. Today, meanwhile, the 250th anniversary of the Bard's birth in a stone cottage in Alloway will be celebrated by a range of events throughout the country, although his Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire stamping grounds will remain at the heart of the activities.

The showpiece is Burns Light, for which Dumfries has been preparing for months. Three thousand lanterns have already been made, but organisers expected a rush to last-minute workshops yesterday so there could well be many more.

Over 100 community lantern workshops have already taken place, with groups including 42 schools, Guides, Scouts, Brownies, Cubs, after school clubs, church groups, local charities, local businesses, community groups and Boys Brigades. Some villages are chartering buses to bring families and entire primary school rolls to Dumfries to take part in the processions.

The spectacular finale will be the fire sculpture, believed to be the biggest Tam O' Shanter in the world and weighing in at 4 tonnes. Tam, made by local artists Alex Rigg and Trevor Leat, who make the Edinburgh Hogmanay fire sculptures, will be fired in the middle of the River Nith beside the medieval Devorgilla bridge. A concert featuring contemporary and ceilidh bands will then be held on the Whitesands stage.

Earlier in the day, the town's St Michael's Church, where Burns is buried, will be the scene of the unveiling of two specially commissioned stained glass windows, created by Moira Malcolm, of Rainbow Glass, in Prestwick. One depicts Burns, the other his wife, Jean Armour. A life-sized marble bust of the poet, hand-carved by David Cornell and gifted to the church by the World Burns Federation will also be unveiled.

Alloway itself is hosting an "Alloway 1759" event where the streets of the village will be transported back 250 years to the day the Bard was born. Street characters will welcome you to Alloway and visitors can take a horse and cart ride, visit the A Star Is Born exhibition or enjoy a re-enactment of the Tam O' Shanter ride.

The Burns House Museum in Mauchline, South Ayrshire is hosting a poetry, music and storytelling event between noon and 4pm, while the first major stage production of I, Robert Burns, for 50 years is being presented in Ayr's Gaiety Theatre.

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In Glasgow, this evening, the City Chambers will be illuminated, with the story of Burns told in sound and light. Between 5.30 and 7pm families can join the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and other special guests at a homecoming celebration in George Square.

Edinburgh is joining in with a line up of poetry, performers, art and music at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.

Children can attend free drop-in sessions with one of the best Scots language writers, Matthew Fitt, author of the hugely popular children's book A Wee Moose In The Hoose. Christopher Tait, the world's leading Robert Burns impersonator, will entertain visitors with poetry and song. Music will be provided by a strong line up of traditional musicians.

But for those who want to celebrate the anniversary without leaving their own home there is also the "Toast", and an attempt on the Guinness World Record for a simultaneous toast. The organisers suggest raising a glass to "the immortal memory of Robert Burns", count the number of people "toasting" and then log on to ||WEBSTART||www.worldwidetoasttorobertburns.com||WEBSTOP|| and complete a simple online form to record the details so the numbers can be counted as part of the worldwide total.

The current world record sits at 462,572 people who gathered in pubs, restaurants, bars and concert venues across the US. No mean carouser himself, Burns would surely have appreciated the sentiment.

Staying with the record books, the highest Burns supper in Scotland was held this year on Ben Nevis by Scottish mountaineer Chris Dunlop, who holds the record for the world's highest ever Burns supper on top of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, in 2008.

But perhaps the most unusual Burns Supper will be held in war-torn Helmand. Around 800 service personnel will sit down to a Burns-themed evening "scran" in the camp galley tent at Task Force headquarters in Lashkar Gah. Festooned with saltires for the occasion, and with the pipes playing on the stereo, the galley will serve haggis, neeps and tatties, while copies of readings and poems will be given out. Whisky, however, will be conspicuous by its absence.

Some of the other Burns supper plans in 2009 include a supper on the highest structure, in the CN Tower, Toronto; the most chilled out supper, hosted by a Clan Chief on Balmoral Beach in Australia; and possibly the most remote supper, to be held by the Scientific Exploration Society in the east of Bolivia.

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In Azerbaijan, the Baku Caledonian Society celebrate their 12th Burns Supper with 200 international guests.

In Switzerland, balloonists at the annual balloon fiesta in Chateau d'Oex will munch communal trays of haggis while overshadowed by the tallest piper in the world – a 155ft balloon in the shape of a piper.

South Africa will see a clan chief and 360 guests toast Scotland at the Cape Town Burns Supper attended by the Cape Town Highlanders, who are a fully operational 125-year-old mechanised infantry unit with strong links to the late Gordon Highlanders and the current Royal Regiment of Scotland.

In Canada the Tam O' Shanter Dancers will perform "A Portrait Of Burns" in front of 300 guests as a giant Celtic framed painting comes to life when a Burns actor steps forth from it to recite his songs and poetry.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, boasts a "Community Tam" when guests share the reading of Tam O' Shanter.

'His popularity is greater than ever'

EXTRACTS from the First Minister's address at the Homecoming Burns Supper at Brig O'Doon, Alloway, last night.

We are here to celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest Scots of all time. A man whose life was short, but whose legacy spans centuries. Whose poems and songs celebrate and dignify the human condition.

A democrat, a patriot, a ploughman, a poet, a hopeless romantic. Robert Burns was many things. But an ordinary man, "for a' that". Tonight, as we celebrate the genius of our national poet – a stone's throw away from his home, a few hours away from the 250th anniversary of his birth – we herald in a momentous year for Scotland. Homecoming 2009.

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Another great Scotsman and scholar, John Stuart Blackie, said that "when Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland". In two and a half centuries, Robert Burns' popularity is undiminished. Indeed it is greater than ever. The man who modestly said of himself, "my name has made a small noise in the country", now commands universal appeal.

This weekend, countless armies of Burns' societies around the world will be raising a glass to Scotland's national poet. From Bahrain to Bangkok via Banff, Buchan and Bishopbriggs, the haggis will be addressed. The Immortal Memory of Burns revered. The lasses toasted.

The size and influence of the Scots Diaspora is vast – and the passion for Scotland runs deep. That is indeed why the life and work of Robert Burns is a truly global celebration. You may find yourself overwhelmed, and more than a little "ramfeezled", if you consider the full extent of

Burns' legacy. There are more international monuments to Robert Burns than to any other writer – around 200 in all, as far afield as the United States, China, Australia, New Zealand – and aye, even Scotland.

The cultural legacy of Robert Burns is everywhere – and can be seen on so many landmarks of popular culture. John Steinbeck wrote of "the best laid schemes o' mice and men". J D Salinger found inspiration in Burns's poem 'Comin' thro' the Rye'. And Frank Capra knew to end his Oscar-winning It's A Wonderful Life with the Burns' hymn to universal friendship, 'Auld Lang Syne'. As the world's most popular song, it ushers in each New Year, sung by millions worldwide – regardless of whether they can hold the tune, or even know the words!

Burns' fans include everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Kofi Annan. Bob Dylan has described him as his "biggest inspiration".

No other cultural or literary figure is commemorated quite like Robert Burns. His popularity transcends class, country, culture and time. Over 200 years since his work was written, it has been translated into every known language. And it is as resonant today as it ever was.

We continue to celebrate Burns, because his work celebrates us. And we should continue to engage with Burns, because his work can engage us on the deepest levels.

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Ladies and gentlemen, as we begin tonight's festivities, and this historic year for our country, it is interesting to speculate what Burns himself might have to say on the occasion.

He might have said: "While we sit bousing at the nappy, An' getting fou and unco happy" ('Tam O' Shanter'). Or he might have said: "From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs, That makes her loved at home, revered abroad" ('The Cotter's Saturday Night')

Burns was a man who spoke for all occasions. A man born of humble rank, whose legacy today goes far beyond riches. Tonight, we celebrate not just the man of the moment, but Scotland's human being of the millennium.

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