His poetry performed itself – it still demands to be heard aloud
Despite every Burns Supper I've ever been to being longer than the Tattoo; despite Hugh MacDiarmid being absolutely spot-on when he said "mair nonsense has been uttered in his name than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ", Robert Burns remains my hero.
Not just mine. Here in Scotland he's Oor Rabbie, your Rabbie, a'body's Rabbie … impossible to think of merely as a poet, more a myth, according to Edwin Muir, that we Scots shape to our own likeness, a myth endlessly adaptable. To the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious … and so on. True, he did inhabit all these personae, and with such conviction, such a vigorous and distinct range of voices. Above all, his poetry performed itself – still demands to be heard aloud.
Such energy, such dazzling brilliance, mastery of his own intricate, indigenous stanzas, or rather stanza-forms he made his own, being such a virtuoso with a range of tones and registers from "high" English to richly relished demotic, a heady mix, and bringing it all off superbly. Now none but a parodist dare essay the Burns stanza.
His poetic muse (give or take "Tam O'Shanter"– and, thank God, he took it) more or less deserted him in his late 20s and, in deep poverty and with broken health, he devoted his last decade to collecting folk tunes and writing lyrics to stop your heart.
He'd be my hero for the songs alone. Or if he'd never written anything but "Holy Willie's Prayer". But above all it's about the language he preserved and imparted. Because of all those words I would never know if I'd never, aged 10 or 11, learned him off by heart. To this day, every time I see a white hoar frost I think "cranreuch cauld", remembering Burns's "To a Mouse".
• Liz Lochhead was appointed Scots Makar ,