The rosy cheeked and elegantly coiffed image of Robert Burns as portrayed by Alexander Nasmyth is the one that has come to be universally accepted – but how close is it to reality? Has the old familiar image prevented us from seeing the real man? Using forensic technology, a 3D model was recently created at Dundee University to show Robert Burns ‘as he really was’. Apart from having Burns look like something out of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, does it bring us any closer to the essence of the man, whose value was in the quality of his mind not his face? Burns himself, while happy enough with the Nasmyth portrait, considered the lesser displayed miniature by Alexander Reid, below, an accurate likeness.

It’s interesting to look at Burns’ female relatives, who, helpfully, lived long enough to be photographed. His youngest sister Isabella was said to resemble her illustrious brother, with the same distinctive dark eyes..

Great granddaughter Jean Armour Burns Brown was told from an early age she bore a strong similarity to her forefather. She certainly has an intelligent looking face and, again, there are those dark, intense eyes that apparently characterised Burns. Images exist of Burns’ sons but they are pictured in old age and of course Burns himself, sadly, died a relatively young man.

John Cairney, Burns afficionado and the actor whose own face has been closely associated with the appearance of Burns, has this to say. ‘The last thing Burns needs is a new face. What he needs is a proper understanding of his fine brain, his educated mind and most of all, his immense heart. To understand this is to understand Robert Burns. As he said himself,

Nae treasures nor pleasures can make us happy lang,
The heart’s ay the part ay that makes ye richt or wrang.’


Burns Suppers, which will be celebrated around the world this weekend, can be ritualistic and old fashioned and many will miss the point of the man being honoured. On the other hand, how fine that Scotland should have given the world a tradition of gathering to celebrate the works of a poet. Ours is a country with few statues and memorials to warlords and aristocrats but many to a slight, flawed, humane poet genius. And that’s worth celebrating. Picture him how you wish and raise a glass to Robert Burns.