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Moira Dann is a writer and former Globe and Mail editor living in Victoria, currently working on a project about British Columbia’s Dunsmuir family.

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A statue of Robbie Burns, near Allan Gardens in Toronto on Jan. 22, 2014.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Some of the most incisive lines by Scottish bard Robbie Burns – whose much-feted Jan. 25 birthday anniversary (his 260th) is next Friday – can be found in a poem he wrote to a bug.

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Burns wrote these lines – from To a Louse (On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet, at Church) – as he did much of his output, in Lallan, whose status as dialect or distinct Lowland Scottish language is still a point of debate. Lingo or dialect, the verse – which translates to “Oh, would some Power give us the gift/To see ourselves as others see us!” – speaks to the gift of perceiving ourselves as though through another’s eyes, and realizing how foolish we can be.

That degree of standing outside the self and observing could also lead to an insightful kind of empathy. Canadians are often outsiders, good at observing ourselves and our interactions with others. Is this a trait brought to Canada, inherent in the almost five million Canadians who claim Scottish ancestry?

Burns never visited Canada, but you’d never know it from all the Great Man statues dedicated to him across the country; they’re in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Fredericton, Vancouver, Victoria, Windsor, Winnipeg and Edmonton, not going up all at once after his death at 37 in 1796, but rather erected intermittently in the 19th and 20th centuries. They’re among the many tributes scattered in places well beyond Scotland’s borders; The Scotsman newspaper reports that Burns boasts the third most statues of any non-religious figure, after Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus.

Each signals something different. Hundreds attended the unveiling of the George Lawson statue in downtown Montreal’s Dominion Square in October, 1930, seen as both a commemoration of the bard and an acknowledgment of the Scottish community’s influence in Montreal’s evolution. The Burns statue in Fredericton will have a new home near the Beaverbrook Art Gallery later this year; it was first unveiled in October, 1906, and then refurbished in 2011 thanks to a donation from business magnate J.K. Irving and his wife. Windsor, Ont.’s Burns memorial is an impressive bust placed in 1952. The grand tribute in Vancouver’s Stanley Park – the city’s first statue – is a replica of the George Lawson statue in the Scottish town of Ayr, and dedicated in 1928 before a crowd estimated to be as large at 12,000.

They come in a range of sizes, too. The statue in Halifax, also a George Lawson design, is in a central spot near the Public Gardens; it’s huge and it sits atop a base that’s nine feet (2.74 metres) tall and made of granite. Compare it to the diminutive monument in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park: Erected in 1900, it’s more plinth than statue, as though his memorial-creating admirers ran out of money. And Burns has to share it with Highland Mary, of the eponymous song’s fame. It also features two out-of-service lion’s head fountains on its base.

So what does that say about us? In How the Scots Invented Canada, author Ken McGoogan wondered if "some Burns fans don’t savour the rebellious naughtiness of the ‘bad boy’ poet, who flouted church teachings and had more than his share of luck with the lassies. Here in Canada, Robbie Burns stands as the archetypal anti-Presbyterian, the subversive rejoinder to the professedly faithful.”

The reputation of the Romantic-school poet has slipped from Mr. McGoogan’s lofty idealizations, especially in these #MeToo times. One critic has called him “the boor-bard of Scotland;” poet Liz Lochhead called him a “sex pest,” citing a sexually boastful and lewd letter to a friend. He also fathered children out of wedlock and fell in love inappropriately.

But this one Scottish poet represents so much more than naughtiness to many Canadians anyway. Burns is a quotable reminder of the Scots' outsize influence on Canada: While 14 per cent of Canadians claim Scottish heritage, 13 of 22 former Canadian prime ministers claim at least some Scottish heritage. Justin Trudeau is a Sinclair on his mother’s side.

My mother’s family emigrated from Scotland to Canada after the First World War. The community they created in Montreal modelled traits such as steadfastness, a sense of humour and a love of music; it prized the ability to endure, a long memory, loyalty, a strong work ethic, the ability to compromise and a willingness to offer a leg up. It taught me the wisdom of being able to perform – always having a “party piece” ready to go, a song to sing or a poem to recite (Sir Walter Scott’s Lochinvar is a reliable crowd-pleaser). That spirit is not entirely Burns – but it’s certainly Scottish.

So Burns was complex, yes. But many people know lines of his poetry by heart without even knowing he authored them, as we do when we sing Auld Lang Syne every New Year’s Eve. It’s the ultimate sign you’ve written poetry for the ages: when your words are remembered, but your name’s largely forgotten.

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