Some years ago I happened to be at a Burns supper where Alex Salmond was speaking.

My table for two was a rickety affair directly beneath the stage of the community hall in the village of Whiterashes, near Inverurie, from which position I was afforded a worm's eye view of the tartan trews and kilted beer bellies above me on the platform.

Of the too-many Burns suppers I've been to, this one stands out for its humour and spirit, and none that night was more electric than Mr Salmond. Witty, anecdotal, and as mischievous as only a politician with his ebullient self-belief can be, he delighted the packed hall with his blend of off-the-cuff irreverence and heart-felt nationalism. Robert Burns would have warmed to him. We all did.

Having seen this masterly performance, it came as no surprise to learn that Mr Salmond has said that, were he alive today, our national bard would certainly vote for independence. The First Minister made this startlingly unscientific claim in response to questions about a new play about Burns that will be performed during the Edinburgh Festival, where audiences will be asked how they think the bard would vote in September 2014.

Mr Salmond is right to stress the poet's bone-deep love of his country. But Burns's brand of Scottishness, like that of many in the aftermath of the Union, was a curious blend of nostalgia and resentment, as when he spoke of Scotland being "bought and sold for English gold". This was only one of several quotes Mr Salmond used to bolster his case.

Wisely, he acknowledged that Burns is far too big a figure to be dragged into party politics. Yet by commandeering him for the independence movement he is indulging in a form of celebrity cherry-picking that, as well as being entirely hypothetical and thus pointless, is also risky.

For a start, like many of the world's finest writers, Burns was quixotic and contradictory: a sentimentalist one minute, an abolitionist the next, and the day after a penurious man who considered working on a Jamaican slave plantation in order to make a living. Other than his literary genius, he was no kind of role model, as the mothers of his illegitimate children would attest. Indeed, given the independence movement's need to woo the female vote, and current moral panic over teenage pregnancies, Mr Salmond could hardly have chosen a less propitious candidate.

That aside, why should we care how Burns would have voted? The question has no relevance to us at all. Like the staunch royalist Sir Walter Scott, or footloose Robert Louis Stevenson, he came from a very different age than our own. He was also a Mason, a self-protective clan who have most likely always believed their interests were better served by remaining in the Union.

However strong Burns's allegiance to his Masonic masters may have been, his grievances against his southern neighbours were not the stuff of legend but of living memory. Since his era, however, Scotland has established itself as an equal and flourishing partner in the Union. So whereas a vote for independence in the poet's day would have been an attempt to turn back the clock, a Yes vote today is about the future, about making Scotland a still better place than it already is.

I confess I would rather imagine what life was like centuries ago than contemplate what the next decade holds. Few countries have a richer history than ours, and yet I believe our past should play very little part in the referendum. Naturally, we need to know what and who has shaped Scotland over the generations, and why. The idea of independence in the 21st century, however, is a modern concept, based on a vision of how to do the best for our country in the years ahead, rather than the desire to make amends for the past, or score points for ancient wrongs.

Therefore to suggest that historical figures should influence the way we vote is simply misguided. The past can be twisted to suit almost any cause or case, as can speculation about what long-gone Scots might think about today's debate.

Whether Bonnie Prince Charlie or Flora MacDonald, John Logie Baird or Muriel Spark would tick the yes box does not matter. Whereas whether we do most certainly does.