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Next Saturday it’s Burns Night and I’ll be in a castle in Aberdeenshire delivering the “Address to a Haggis” for a big Burns supper. I’ve loved the poet and his work since I was 11, when I won a primary school recitation competition held by the Robert Burns World Federation. I live in Edinburgh, and started acting at school and then got involved in amateur dramatics, where I found I most enjoyed getting the poses and body language right in the period plays. But it was not until I was 21 that I first went to a Burns supper, and as soon as I saw someone else performing as Burns I knew that’s what I should be doing.
My father suggested I combine my love of acting with my love of Burns and portray Burns in the image of the man himself. I pieced together an outfit from theatrical suppliers and had a wig made; I still have it, it just gets re-dyed annually. I now have a tailor who fashions my costumes on old images of Burns. There’s a famous painting by Alexander Nasmyth in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, of the poet in front of the Brig o’ Doon in Ayrshire. He’s wearing a rusty-coloured tweed jacket, pale breeches and riding boots. A Harris tweed factory in Scotland found an almost perfect match for the tweed in the painting, which I had made into an authentic 18th-century jacket. Funnily enough, I got my boots on eBay. They were riding boots and once I got them on, I couldn’t get them off and I ended up having to slice down the back of them with a Stanley knife. That’s them ruined, I thought, but then I had the brainwave of drilling lace holes in and they worked perfectly.
Of course, Burns Night is my busiest time but I also perform a one-man Burns show. I’ve performed all over the world – South America, southeast Asia, the Middle East – and I’m always surprised by how well known Burns is. In Glasgow, two Taiwanese girls came up to me and so I asked them if they knew who I was. They said no and when I told them I was Robert Burns and started reciting “Auld Lang Syne” they said “Ah, we know this one” and sang it back to me in Taiwanese! The Russians really take Burns to heart – they were the first people to honour him with a commemorative stamp [in 1956]. I was in Pushkin Square in Moscow once, doing a piece to camera for Russian television and a bit of a crowd had developed. I was becoming a wee bit wary as any unauthorised gathering was still frowned upon. I became really worried when a soldier pushed his way through the crowd towards me and I thought, oh we might be in trouble here. He stood in front of me and said, “You’re Robert Burns”, and I said “erm, aye” and he said, “I love Robert Burns!” and proceeded to recite “My Heart’s in the Highlands” to me.
I fit in my gigs around my day job – I’m the manager of fitted kitchens for John Lewis in Edinburgh. One of my first overseas bookings came after I got an email asking if I wanted to do a gig in Washington and I thought to myself, OK, six or so hours away, not far from New York, I can do that in a weekend easy. When I replied saying yes, the response was, “Fantastic, bravo from Seattle.” I thought, Seattle, what’s this guy on about? Of course, he meant Washington state, not DC, and it was a 14-hour flight. But I still did it in a weekend and I got to perform on a yacht in the middle of Lake Washington. It was for the commodore of the Seattle Yacht Club, who was of Scottish descent and celebrating his 60th birthday.
The biggest challenge, though, is performing live for the Ayrshire folk because they hang on every word and if you make a mistake they will let you know. Once, at the annual Burns an’ a’ That! festival in Ayr, an old guy in his eighties said to me, “Son, that was the best rendition of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ I’ve ever heard but your Ayrshire accent’s rubbish!”