MANY happy returns to Robert Burns.

As Scotland's First Minister freely admitted recently: "One Burns is worth 100 Bannockburns." Though, for various obvious reasons, the national bard is an unlikely candidate for canonisation, if it ever came to pass, he would surely be claimed by the Scottish catering industry as their patron saint. After the jolly ringing of tills that habitually marks Christmas, many would be in a bad way in cold, dreich January without the bard's perfectly positioned birthday celebrations to redeem them.

Increasingly, charities too have reason to hail the ploughman poet born 254 years ago today. Recently Ayr Racecourse hosted the largest-ever Burns Supper in his home town to raise funds for breast cancer research. It was an occasion when Alex Salmond, proposing the Immortal Memory, was happy to be upstaged by Ayrshire's own Karen Dunbar, with her rendering of Tam O'Shanter.

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Today Burns is a truly global figure, perhaps the best ambassador Scotland never had. Each year an estimated 11 million people the world o'er sit down to share haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down by a dram and hear selections from the bard's 400 poems and 300 songs. Many have never set foot in Scotland, let alone Ayrshire. What draws them? For some it is simply a celebration of their Scots heritage. For others, it is the proud and passionate poet or the romantic, the radical, the revolutionary or, the rogue. His words, translated into dozens of languages, continue to resonate across the centuries.

Today, as The Herald reports, there is even to be a Burns Nicht in Port Lockroy in Antarctica, thanks to the enterprising postmistress, a St Andrews graduate, and the discovery of a tin of haggis, well past its sell-by date. No matter. They can fill up with oatcakes and tablet and doubtless it will be the spirit that counts, one way or another. Burns, a great internationalist, would surely be delighted at the idea of the day of his birth being celebrated on every continent on earth.

Perhaps part of the appeal of Burns, a complex and contradictory character, lies in his capacity to continue to surprise us.

The discovery, reported today, of an undiscovered letter to actress Elizabeth Kemble, who shared the poet's interest in the anti-slavery movement, is a reminder that there is still more to discover about this great man. So happy birthday to our great bard. We'll tak a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne!