THE year is 2000. I am alone, footloose in Melbourne, just off the plane, and half a world from the comforts of home. It’s then I spot him from the window of my digs. He’s staring straight at me from the park – looking familiar. I double-take.

Half an hour later, caffeine-overdosed, I find myself in the formal Treasury Gardens, squinting up at the unmistakeable pawky handsomeness.

“Morning Rabbie,” I say. “Nice plinth,” for indeed it is he. He does not reply.

That moment of double-take happens twice more, next time in Sydney three years later. This time I’m unfazed.

He has brought his ploughshare, sports his snazziest Tam O’Shanter and is staring across the harbour, red, red roses waving back at him from the bosky Botanical Gardens as if on the look-out for amorous action. Sweet-talking Bard.

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The third engagement occurs in Adelaide, ‘City of Churches’. I see him on Valentine’s Day 2010; he’s primly erect, (in a Calvinistic, rather po-faced way).

Impersonating a pillar of high society, he stands tall, aptly bookish beside the State Library, carved from marble and flanked by buildings that smack of propriety. Somewhere out there, I’m told, in the city, there’s a study group devoted to his works. And every so often, the Caledonian Society Pipe Band calls, encircling him with tunes, disturbing the silence of the library.

In Australia they have honoured him with nine statues, altogether, as if he’s an international mega-star, playing gigs on a national tour – not only appearing in major venues, but country redoubts.

In the purlieu of Ballarat, he rivals Queen Victoria. In Bendigo, a wealthy neighbouring mining town, his bust is all the rage in the bijou gallery of art. And in tiny Camperdown, there’s a festival in his name. A statue too.

So, what’s the deal?

The answer may partly lie in Australia’s attachment to history. In 1788, when the British First Fleet sailed into the haven of what is now known as Sydney Harbour, Scots were conspicuously present – and being aware of their displacement they filled the built landscape with Scottish echoes: familiar place names, such as MacQuarrie Street, Campbells Cove, Athol Bight, (named after John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl). The tendency spread.

HeraldScotland: Rabbie Burns in his cottage composing The Cotter's Saturday NightRabbie Burns in his cottage composing The Cotter's Saturday Night (Image: Newsquest)

In South Australia, near the little town of Goolwa, by the river-mouth of the Murray, a band of shipbuilders from Cockenzie named their new township Little Scotland.

Now, each November, close to St Andrew’s Day, Little Scotland Day is marked by the skirl of bagpipes, a flourish of tartan and the flying of the Saltire.

Those same Scots settlers, among the possessions they held most dear, would almost certainly have unpacked not only their Bibles, but also their ‘Burns’.

According to the 2021 Census, more than 2 million Australians, (10 per cent of the population), claim Scottish heritage.

Three years ago – prior to Covid – thanks to the depth of Scottish impact, 2020 had been ordained The Year of Scotland in Australia – proposing a calendar of activities celebrating Scottish music, culture, and food….. “Scottish artists will take centre stage,” ran the pre-publicity. Alas, the launch – a blow-out at Sydney Opera House – thanks to the virus, had to be cancelled.

A chance lost forever? Try telling that to Mary Kiani, a tartan tornado raised in Drumchapel, forged in the pop music scene of Barrowlands, and now, for two or more decades a force in the music domain of Sydney.

She sees this year’s Burns Night as a chance to re-hoist the flag.

“Burns was a pop star in own his time,” she asserts and of course she’s dressed in tartan – “I think it’s the Stewart, but no’ the Royal.”

Come this Wednesday, while Burns Suppers all over Scotland will follow tradition, with trenchers ‘groaning’, Mary’s Aussie version, an outdoor affair, will be epic.

“An hour’s drive from Sydney,” she says, “in a paddock (Aussie for field), in Glenworth Valley, from Friday to Sunday, with camping and glamping, under the stars.”

A Friday night ceilidh “round the fire pit” will lead to the proper Saturday ‘Supper’. The chef and piper will ferry the ‘chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ to the top-table, in front of a hoped-for 200 guests, The evisceration will follow tradition. Then, they’ll dish up Chicken Balmoral, stuffed with haggis served with a sauce of Drambuie cream.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, next to a brothel over on Erskine Street, in The Fox Hole, James and Brad, two Aussie-Scots, who run this chic hospitality-hybrid, (high teas by day, cocktails by night), will stage a Friday into Saturday “full Burns Supper.”

Burns would love the speak-easy ambience, the super abundant whiskies, (“once the whisky gets going the songs will get going” says James), with waiters and waitresses sporting kilts.

“We’ll have Scottish gins, and haggis bon-bons,” Brad chips in.

If lashings of talcum to soothe chafed thighs, (“the boys aren’t used to wearing kilts”), seems slightly off-piste, the Burns Supper morsels themselves will be deep-fried for added delight.

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And on Burns Night itself, the Fox Hole’s regular Wine Wednesday will be ‘Rabbie themed’. Like Mary, these Lords of the Lair take serious pleasure in their devotion to the Bard. His famous verses will duly ring; his songs will soar.

“He was foremost a rebel, believed in ‘mateship’, a man of the people – and Aussies admire that,” I was reminded the day before, by an ex-pat from Skye.

“Yes,” Mary concurs, “a man of the people.”

And, keeping it real, she’s hired a chipper van from Melbourne to lay on fish suppers, “along with other battered delights”.

A riposte to her Burns’ Night dessert of white chocolate and Cranachan tart!

It’s enough to make Rabbie leap off all his plinths, plough a speedy furrow to Mary’s paddock – downing a dram or two first at The Fox Hole – for auld lang syne.