Thousands gather to celebrate birthday of the Bard

THEY came in their thousands to celebrate the birthday of one of Scotland's most famous sons.

Gathering in churches, parading through the streets and feasting on haggis, neeps and tatties, crowds joined together to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

Events were held across Burns country to toast the Bard and kick off Homecoming 2009, a series of events throughout the year that, it is hoped, will prove a much needed tonic to the Scottish economy.

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In Dumfries a crowd estimated at 15,000 paraded through the streets to converge on the banks of the Nith bearing homemade lanterns inspired by the words of Burns.

There they heard Alex Salmond, the First Minister, declare from a giant video screen that from the town's Devorgilla Bridge to the Brig O' Doon, from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope, people were celebrating the life and works of Robert Burns.

The day's events began with Mr Salmond attending a church service at Alloway in the heartland of Burns country.

At St Michael's Church in Dumfries, the 18th century A-listed church where Burns worshipped and his widow, Jean Armour, came for decades after his death, people packed the pews and heard prayers for his gift and thanks for songs of "wisdom, love or joy".

Linda Fabiani, the culture minister, unveiled a new marble bust of the Bard in Dumfries, and the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain's second-largest landowner, drew back the curtain on new stained-glass windows of the poet and his bride.

The face of Burns was taken from his famous portrait, but with no known portrait of his wife in existence, Armour was modelled on the film star Helena Bonham Carter.

Mr Salmond later attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a statue of Burns in Ayr, before joining the lantern procession in Dumfries.

The homemade lanterns bore images of Tam O' Shanter and his grey mare Meg, drawings of mice and other images from Burns's poetry. One of the lanterns was in the shape of a life-size woman with a baby. "It's a barmaid that Burns got pregnant," said Freya Skinner, 16, from Dumfries, carrying it with her father.

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On the river, a wicker model Tam O' Shanter and his horse erupted in flames in a firework show.

"It's this sort of thing we so badly need to help the regeneration of the town centre," said Dumfries councillor Roger Grant, chairman of the housing, planning and environment committee.

"There are very serious Burns suppers, maybe a little too formal. It needs to ease up a little bit and be a bit more inclusive."

There were events to mark the 250th anniversary in all Scotland's major towns and cities yesterday, with, for example, Burns's image being projected on to the city chambers in Glasgow.

But Burns lived, worked and died in Dumfries and the town has become the focal point for celebrations of his life.

On Saturday night, in his birthplace of Alloway, at the Brigadoon Hotel, the great and good of the region, and some from further afield, had held a Burns supper. They ranged from broadcaster Kirsty Wark to clan chiefs and Burns club presidents.

Organisers threw out the traditional format, with no speeches except by Mr Salmond, who spoke twice, about the man he called "the greatest Scot of all time". The only haggis came in tiny canapes, and it was not addressed.

In place was a staged telling of Burns's life, with film and television actors, such as Ryan Fletcher of Black Watch, and Siobhan Redmond, running through the meal. Musicians, including chart-topper Sandi Thom, and Scottish singer Roddy Hart, performed Burns songs.

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Thom, who counts Salmond a personal friend after he attended an Aberdeen concert in 2006, is launching a Homecoming tour next week, and recording a set of six Scottish songs.

She sang Afton Water, which Burns wrote about a lover who dies on the river bank.

"He is asking the river to flow gently and quiet and not to disturb her from her sleep. It's a really beautiful song. You can feel the hurt that he must have felt," she said. "Had he been alive today, he would have been one of the best songwriters in the world. He was the real deal."

Other guests included Mollie Rennie, 91, who in 1980 was the first woman president of the Robert Burns World Federation, and Baron Sirdar Iqbal Singh, a retired Sikh businessman affectionately known as the Laird of Lesmahgow.

Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, who was brought up in Alloway and went to Alloway primary school where she won the Burns singing and recitation competition in primary seven, was also there with her mother, Margaret Morrall, president of the Ayr Burns Club.