THESE days Burns isn't just a bard, he's a brand. Back in 2003 the World Bank estimated that Robert Burns boosted the Scottish economy by £157 million. SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, who wants the value-added figure of the Bard's financial benefits to Scotland updated, says Burns the brand helps promote Scotland’s exports and trade links "around the globe". The Burns brand, she says, creates a year-round tourism industry, and the The Centre for Robert Burns Studies at Glasgow University is an "income generator and job creator – with students from all over the world". From Burns suppers through to our Burns museums, the bard, she said, was putting money in the nation's coffers. But what is it about Robert Burns? Why does the ploughman poet born in 1759 still matter, today, in 2018?

He brings us t’gither

Where would Burns' fame be without the supper? For as much as we love the verse, the whole fact of coming together on the night of January 25 - the Bard's birthday - for a blow-out of haggis and whisky has probably done more than anything to make him a global phenomenon. Burns Night is the only literary supper to have survived since such nights were all the rage in the 19th century. For Graham Main, artistic director of the Big Burns Supper in Dumfries, the event, a kind of arts festival meets giant supper club - including performances from Eddi Reader, Ocean Wisdom and others - isn’t so much about the bard, but about communing. It’s a friendship festival. “We don’t place Burns at the centre of it,” he says. “We place the Burns supper at the centre."

That coming together is perhaps something we need more than ever in these digital, screen-oriented times. “We’ve taken out of Burns Night what we think is fit for the 21st century," says Main, "which is bringing people together, connecting communities.”

He was politically radical

It’s not, according to writer and activist Kevin Williamson, Burns’ lyrical love poems that give him relevance today, but his politics. “Remember,” he says, “this is a guy who was quoted in both Westminster and Holyrood parliaments the day the Scottish Independence referendum was announced.” What matters, observes Williamson, is Burns’ radical political ideas, his “track record of speaking truth to power” and his “siding with the common people against those who would lord it over them”.

“In an age of war and revolution,” he says, “when the common people were excluded from all political discourse, often under the threat of incarceration or deportation, Burns was a radical subversive who led a double life. He was a respectable government official by day, but by night, especially in the last four years of his life, he consistently risked his liberty to articulate the cause of social change.”

As Williamson, who runs Neu Reekie arts events, points out, during Burns' lifetime he couldn't put his own name to many of his most famous political works. “But these songs and verses still inspire solidarity... As long as there is inequality and social elites Burns will remain not just relevant but an iconic symbol of equality."

Professor Gerard Carruthers, director of the Robert Burns Centre at the University of Glasgow, however, advises against getting too carried away in our caricaturing of Burns’ politics. “Burns matters to many people as a political figure and that is fine. There are, however, too many myths about his politics which swirl around, including the ridiculous proposition that the British government wanted the poet dead, even that it murdered him.”

“Much more interesting,” he observes, “is the Burns who lives through two world defining events, the American and French Revolution which define him increasingly as a proto-Republican and as certainly in favour of reform.”

One of Burns’ most relevant aspects for our times, he says, is “the sardonic, satirical attitude to authority found in 'Holy Willie's Prayer' or 'A Man's A Man'. Burns mirrors our own “scepticism to government”.

He loved the lasses, O

It’s long been thought that Burns wasn't just a ladies man but a bit of a lech. That notion has resurfaced in the #metoo-era - only last week former Makar Liz Lochhead was quoted describing him as a “sex pest”. What she was referring to was one of his letters, in which he boasts about giving his pregnant girlfriend, Jean Armour, "thundering scalade” on a horse manure strewn floor. Lochhead said the act "seemed very like a rape" and described the letter as “Weinsteinian”.

But, actually, one of the things many people love about Burns, women included, is that he clearly did love the lasses. He was, as Joan McAlpine puts it, “an earthy character”.

Lochhead’s comments triggered outrage. But the poet herself remains an appreciator of Burns. “When did the personal shortcomings of an artist ever invalidate their work?” she asks.

Most are in accord with this view. “He was of his time,” says singer Eddi Reader. “You don’t have to go that far back to find men who talk dirty about women behind their backs. They still exist. The thing is Burns is of his time and I’m very forgiving of human beings because human beings are very flawed.”

As Professor Gerard Carruthers puts it: “Of course we’re now refracting everything through our 21st century presentism, judging history by the ephemeral journalistic stories of today. And what next in the "historic sex" cases? Breaking news: "Caligula accused"?”

He is an icon of Scots identity and culture

One of the chief things that makes Burns so important, says MSP Joan McAlpine, is that he was writing in Scots at a time when he felt that identity was under threat. “He was,” she says, “writing about quite sophisticated concepts using Scots. If you look at 'To A Mouse', he was writing about philosophy and the nature of existence, but he was saying that in Scots. He linked Scottish culture to the wider movement of the Enlightenment.”

He knew honest poverty

Part of the draw of Burns, in these times of increasing social inequality and reducing social mobility, is that he was, as Prof Gerard Carruthers puts it “low status made good”.

“He was,” Joan McAlpine describes, “an educated working class person. He was a farmer who worked the land, and yet he had had an education and he was able to mix with all strata of society.”

He gets all ower the place

Once you start looking for Burns, says Eddi Reader, you find him all over the world and in the most surprising places. From Ava Gardner singing ‘Coming Through The Rye’ in the film Mogambo, to the novel Catcher in the Rye, and from John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men to the fact that we sing Auld Lang Syne all over the world. "You look so many places and there he is," says Reader. "I found him in Stanley Park in Vancouver in a statue. I found him in Minneapolis. I found him at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. I found him in the aphorisms my Granddad used to say, lines like ‘Time and tide waits for no man’. Once I started to chap the door of Robert Burns, when he opened it I just suddenly saw the world anew. “

He raises difficult questions

Burns was possibly a bit of a sex pest, but he was also a man who wrote about the rights of women. He is the writer of 'The Slave’s Lament', but also the man who booked a thankfully never-taken passage to Jamaica with a plan to work in the slave economy. All this makes him complex and difficult - or simply real. It also means that he’s at the centre of a debate about how we deal with our past.

Hence, actually some of the most interesting artworks looking into Scotland’s shameful slave history, revolve around Burns. They include Douglas Gordon’s smashed statue, Black Burns, and Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament video work featuring reggae artist Ghetto Priest. Fagen recalls the moment he discovered the story of Burns’ Jamaica plans: “I was reminded of how as a child, at school, I, like lots of kids, learned Burns songs and poems off by heart. But outside school, at the time, the music I was getting interested in was Jamaican reggae.”

His anger and curiosity were roused by this link, and the fact he had never been taught this history at school. “I thought what about Scotland’s place in the transatlantic slave trade? What about that lack of education about it? Could I make works that make us think about these questions?”

For many The Slave's Lament is a key song. Jamaican roots-reggae artist Brina, who has done her own versions of Burns songs, observes: "In 1792 Burns wrote that song about a woman taken from Senegal to endure inhumane treatment in Virginia. This was at a time when people began to petition against slavery. Burns was a smart man and he knew plenty about slavery, its benefits and its evils. He used the arts to send monumental messages the whole world o'er of the brotherhood, and the meaning of the essence of unity, among humanity. That side of Burns is worth upholding."

He was a human for a’ that

What comes across in his writing is his humanity – that he lived, loved and felt like we all do. As Eddie Reader puts it, recalling when she first fell for his work: “I started to feel him as a potent, vibrant human who was here with me. Maybe he was an ordinary boy that just liked shagging and maybe he was just a guy who wanted to do something beautiful and maybe that’s what the special thing is. Maybe it was not that he was precious, but that he was just like us. And I loved that, discovering that. That he was probably just like us.”

His works, as Professor Gerard Carruthers observes, have an enduring resonance. “The songs like many of the poems, sing of love, grief, a world of beauty and cruelty. In our century where the pace of change and our moral and political compasses seem ever-changing, these texts represent a kind of timelessness.”

Former Makar Liz Lochhead observes: “He was a very, very complicated and very contradictory character. Not a hypocrite, but a mass of contradictions.” And complexity is something in our black-and-white, social-media-driven world, we struggle with because it negates the messiness which we know lies at the heart of humanity.

He was a genius writer

Let’s not forget the words. For they were great, and they still speak to us. As Liz Lochhead puts it: “Burns is important because language is important, as it is — so far — possibly the very best, bar none, means that we human beings have of communicating with each other.”

“How could Burns,” says Lochhead, “and his commitment to language not matter desperately in these days when Donald Trump has reduced public rhetoric to the mad tweets of an egotistical and illiterate baby?”

Your guide to the perfect Burns Night

The supper: Local butcher’s haggis if you can, but there’s always the cheap Lidl number. Most folk don’t like to mess with the classic straightforward haggis, neeps and tatties – but the truly rebellious can always add a bit of coriander to their neeps, or even some spring onions to their mash. And there's nothing wrong with a decent whisky and cream sauce.

The music: Get out one of your old Celtic Connections CDs to give your evening a global feel. Or put on Eddi Reader Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns.

Do the drill: You may not want to do the full Burns ceremonial ultra-marathon in your home, but just in case here it is: Gather, Selkirk Grace, Parade of the haggis – preferably to pipes - Address To A Haggis, Eating, Singing, Immortal Memory Address, more singing, music and readings, Toast to the lassies, Reply from the lassies, Tam O’Shanter, more singing and speeches, Auld Lang Syne.

Or keep it short and sweet: Just revel in the Address To A Haggis and, get stuck in to those “gushing entrails bright”, then read out a few other poems. To A Mouse or My Love is like a Red, Red, Rose are both good for a family gathering. For adults, if you’re feeling your mojo, go full Tam O’Shanter. Singing or playing a musical instrument really badly is also to be encouraged.

Other poets: The real pleasure of Burns Night is in going off piste, finding that bit of Burns you’ve never read before, or even introducing another, dare I say it, living poet. Go on, take a risk. Maybe even write your own.