On Sunday night Jan. 25, Scots throughout the world raised a glass of whiskey and toasted a national hero, a man little known to many Americans; a man who, in his way, was as important a literary figure as William Shakespeare.
Robert Burns -- the beloved "Bobbie" -- was honored in sound with bagpipes, in dining with haggis, in drinking with single-malt scotch and in spirit by all Scotsmen who consider Burns Night as reverently as the French do Bastille Day, the Russians May Day and the Americans the Fourth of July.
It is therefore significant that in this, the "Year of the Scot" throughout Britian, we take a journey to Burns country, where the poet was born, loved, wrote and finally, on a July night in 1796, died and took the heart of all Scotland with him to his grave.
Burns was beloved by his countrymen for his wit, and his common man's viewpoint of equality: "For a' that, and a' that, It's comin' yet, for a' that That Man to Man the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that!"
For these feelings and for his reputation as the ploughman poet, Burns is not only honored in his own country, but in most of the countries of the world. (Russia was the first country to issue a stamp in his honor.)
You can visit Burns country today, sit in his favorite chair which still stands in the Globe Inn, his preferred drinking spot in Dumfries, and look through the window pane that he inscribed. You can walk into Poosie Nansie's Tavern in Mauchline, which Burns described in his cantata "The Jolly Beggars," and have a drink, much as he did 200 years ago. Just down the A76 highway in Kilmarnock, where the first edition of Burn's poems was published in 1786. Here is Dean Castle, formerly the home of Burns's friend, the Earl of Glencairn. The castle is now notable for its garden and collection of musical instruments.
Your tour of the rolling hillsides of Burns country should start at Alloway, where the Scottish Tourist Board has built a visitors' center 600 yards from the cottage in which the poet was born. Here, for 30 pence (about 75 cents), you can watch a 25-minute audiovisual program detailing the life of the poet, his times and his poems. At the Burns Center you can also purchase a variety of souvenirs featuring Burns' picture, poems and philosohpy.
After you have seen the audiovisual presentation, you should walk out the front door of the center, down a pretty street lined with towering elm trees, past a lovely little village church to the Burns Monument Hotel, a handsome 1829 inn built on the banks of the River Doon. Turn left here, walk down a cobblestoned road canopied with hedges until you come to a stone bridge spanning the clear waters flowing through the thick forest of western Scotland. Walk to the center of the bridge and think back to Burns's classic dialectic poem, "Tam O'Shanter," regarded by Burns and most scholars as his best, and by schoolchildren everywhere as a curse when they attempt to recite it in front of giggling classmates.
It was on this bridge, this "Brig O'Doon," that Tam O'Shanter escaped from the band of witches who were after him. As he rode on his speeding horse for the safety of the other side of the river, the witches made a last try to catch Tam, only to capture his horse's tail.
After you have visited the historic bridge, which has stood for more than four centuries, take a quick walk around the Burns Memorial, with its magnificent gardens. After you have enjoyed the garden, walk through the main gate of the memorial and turn right to walk the 600 yards to the Burns Cottage, where Robert was born in 1759.
The building today is a modest museum, and beside it is a building housing many of the original Burns manuscripts and letters, a priceless collection by anyone's standards. And that, aside from a small souvenir shop across the street from the cottage, is about all there is to Alloway.
How different from Stratford, with its milling crowds of tourists, its cutesy hotels using Shakespeare's name for everything from bars to banquet rooms, its fading charm being choked by over-commercialization.
For her, in Burns country, you can walk the streets of Alloway in peace and relative anonymity. You can drive the winding country roads in an easy day, stopping at Poosie Nansie's Tavern for lunch, then taking the A76 to Dumfries, stopping along the way at Ellisland Farm, where Burns tried unsuccessfully to farm, where he wrote "Tam O'Shanter," and where today you can visit the newly-restored Granary that offers a look at life as an 18th-century farmer, a life that Burns tried to ease with innovations that failed.
At Dumfries you can visit the Globe Inn and tour the house in which Burns died, and in which his wife, "Bonnie Jean," lived for 38 years after his death. Today, it is a leading Burns museum. Finally, you can drive past the splendid ruins of Caerlaverock Castle to Brow, where Burns was sent by his doctor in July of 1796, in the hope that sea bathing might be beneficial to him. He returned to Dumfries on July 18 and died three days later.
You can stay in Dumfries for the night or return via the spectacular A75 and A77 along the rugged Scottish coast and through the pastoral countryside that so inspired Burns.
And what better year to visit Burns country than 1981, the year of the biggest gathering of the clans in the history of modern Scotland? This year the McLarens and the McNabs, the Campbells and the Buchanans, the McFarlands and the MacPhersons, the Stewarts and the Grahams, the Sinclairs and the McIntoshs will be traveling from throughout the world to Edinburgh for the May 22-31 event. The gathering of the clans will actually take place throughout the year, but the main event is the May Festival in Scotland's capital.
There will be pipers and fiddlers; Highland games, where strong men toss cabers (they look like telephone poles) for sport, and the dancers doing the fling with the peculiar grace that is its trademark. Later in the summer (Aug. 16-Sept.6) Edinburgh will hold its famous festival, the greatest collection of music and theater in the world.
Throughout the year individual clans will hold reunions, and Scots from throughout the world (many more live abroad than in Scotland) will assemble and be given the chance to study the deeds of their ancestors.
In the midst of all these games and all this music and all the drinking and bragging and revelry there will be many thoughts of Robert Burns, the ploughman poet, the man who would be happy that so many of his countrymen were following his lines: "For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne, We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne!"