THERE will be more than a few Burns fans waking this morning with hangovers to match Tam O’Shanter’s. From the depths of a spiritous fug, they might well be regretting the Bard’s international renown, and wishing his birthday was marked with a poetry reading in the public library rather than an evening-long and bibulous commemoration.

Even as a youth, Burns’s popularity was twinned with conviviality. Initially it was his personality that drew people to him, men as well as women. Later, his fame as a poet added lustre to his charisma. One of the finest accounts of what he was like was written by Sir Walter Scott, who recalled meeting him when he was a shy 16-year-old, and Burns was the talk of the town.

The occasion was a dinner in 1787 at the house of Adam Ferguson, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Scott was too awed to speak to the bard, but he took as careful an inventory of his appearance as if he was Raeburn preparing to make a sketch: “I should have taken the poet, had I not known who he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the Scotch school, i.e., none of your modern agriculturalists who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough.”

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The teenager was particularly struck by Burns’s eye: “It was large, of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in any human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

At this stage, nobody could have predicted that Scott would one day eclipse Burns to become the most feted and prestigious author on the planet. The pitch Scott mania reached is hard to credit in an era before mass media, when travelling by horse and coach was, for most people, as speedy as things would get.

Widely regarded as the first historical novelist, he took the western world by storm. For those of Burns’s vintage, this might have looked like the inevitable usurping by a younger generation of its elders. Yet Scott’s fate is a cautionary tale about the fickleness of literary reputations. Where once people queued for the latest edition of his books, now they stand in line to climb the Scott Monument or take a tour of Abbotsford, his stately home in the Borders. Despite once being the most eminent and influential writer in the world, he is seen as a tourist attraction rather than a novelist and poet. If you can spot anyone reading his books on the train – or indeed the National Library of Scotland – you deserve a finder’s fee.

Burns’s flame burned less ferociously, but it has outlasted all his contemporaries, and most of those who followed. In part this is because of the immediacy of his writing. He was a man of the people, addressing issues close to his and his friends’ hearts. There is a simplicity and directness about his poetry that gives it an evergreen appeal, even though many of us don’t understand every word of his Scots, or approve of all his sentiments. Scott, by contrast, has a roundabout, long-winded way of going at things, even though his imaginative verve is astonishing. He is now better known as the Great Unread than as the Wizard of the North.

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But this is not simply a tale of two authors. Burns’s astonishing legacy, and Scott’s unhappy fate, show how unpredictable literary fortunes can be. Scanning shelves of Scottish titles, I see many who have fallen by the wayside: Eric Linklater, Naomi Mitchison, Neil Gunn, James Kennaway. How often do you hear people talk about them? And who mentions Hugh MacDiarmid anymore? Yet Robert Louis Stevenson is still revered, well over a century after his death. The key to his longevity is the same as with Burns: a modern, fresh, and in his case almost journalistic style.

Internationally the same principles apply. Some writers have become part of the canon while others, who were equally talented, have faded from sight. Their only hope is to be resuscitated as a curiosity from a previous age. As Alan Hollinghurst wrote of the sadly overlooked Ronald Firbank, his books “failed to thrive”. No amount of fertiliser can bring them back into bloom.

It helps, of course, if academia takes an author under its wing. James Joyce might scarcely be read today if he had not become a pillar of the English Literature department. Thanks to that, the 100th anniversary of Ulysses next week promises to be one of the cultural high-points of the year. Robert Burns also owes much to academic endorsement, although his mass appeal has more tenacious roots than any university’s imprimatur.

Burns’s continuing relevance comes from the way he taps into a peculiar and timeless Scottish seam of sentimentality, patriotism, and political angst. Thanks to this intoxicating cocktail, after his death he was gradually elevated to the status of National Bard. Thereafter his position on a pedestal was assured. In this he is like Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dante and Cervantes, all of whom are viewed not only as artistic giants but emblems of their homelands, as iconic as the national anthem or flag.

Writers often work with a hopeful eye on posterity, but they would do better to live in the moment. Time does untold damage to a reputation, whether measured in decades, years or even months. Aspiring authors interested to see how cruel the ticking clock can be should visit second-hand shops, where rows of recent bestsellers are already curling at the edges.

Well aware of this, my husband will bide his time after reading a review of book he likes the sound of. Keen to buy the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, for instance, he waited three months after publication before setting out for his favourite charity bookshop in Edinburgh. There, as if waiting for him, was an immaculate, barely read copy of The Mirror and the Light, for £3.50.

I doubt Burns would have been surprised. Better than most he understood how fleeting success can be: “But pleasures are like poppies spread,/ You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;/ Or, like the snow-fall in the river, / A moment white, then melts forever.”

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