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"The man o' independent mind"- Andrew Weir on the importance of Robert Burns

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    Andrew Weir portraying Robert Burns (photo courtesy A. Weir)

Andrew Weir began his acting career at the age of 13, when he appeared as Young Hamish Campbell in the 1995 film, Braveheart.  He later went on to spend five years at the BBC in television.

In 2005 he moved to the United States to work as the U.S.-wide Media Ambassador for VisitBritain, the National Tourism office for England, Scotland and Wales. Currently, he is based in San Francisco as the Western U.S. Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie, a traditionally hand-crafted whiskey from northeast Scotland.

Weir's work has taken him all over the globe, yet throughout it all he carries with him a deep love for his native Scotland, and for its national poet, Robert Burns.

Growing up in the heart of Burns country in Ayrshire, Scotland, Weir was surrounded by the poetry and history of Robert Burns from an early age. He won his first Burns Federation award at the age of 7 (performing Address to the Toothache), and since then has maintained a life-long enthusiasm for the bard’s works.

Weir has spent much of his career helping others cultivate an appreciation for Burns; this has included spending two years touring and acting with 3rd Degree Burns, a performance company he helped found.

Weir will be speaking at a number of Burns suppers across the U.S. this January. You can also see him bring the words of the "Ploughman Poet" to life in several videos on the Scottish government’s interactive Robert Burns website.

In the following interview, Weir discusses how his own life has been shaped by Burns, and what kind of meaning Burns' legacy holds for 21st-century society.

Samantha Gillogly: What was your earliest exposure to Robert Burns’ work? Was there a particular poem that got you “hooked”?

Andrew Weir: It’s difficult to pinpoint a particular poem that drew me in, although I certainly have many favorites now! At the age of 6 or 7, I was performing rather than studying his work (perhaps the way the bard intended?) so I’d say it was a total immersion in all things Burns that provided the initial draw – being brought up in the land of his birth surrounded by the language.

SG: In your opinion, what aspects of Burns’ writing style make these poems so special, in terms of rhythm, use of language, etc.?

AW: More than anything it’s the passion – the way he went places no one else dared to go with his writing. The depth of his talent never fails to astound me. The incomparable passion and delicacy shown in his romantic works such as Ae Fond Kiss and Red Red Rose through to his more gutsy offerings, Parcel of Rogues and A man’s a man for a’ that. "Standard Habbie" (his most commonly used verse form) always felt approachable to me and I’ve heard many non-Scots comment that it helps them understand the language.

SG: Was Burns well accepted in his lifetime, or did it take time for society to elevate him to the kind of “literary saint” status with which he is regarded nowadays?

AW: Without doubt, Burns’ worldwide fame and respect came long after his death. It has to be remembered that he died during a very low point in his life – unhappy, virtually penniless and amid personal strife. We have to wonder how it came to that – how did we let that happen to one of the brightest stars on an otherwise bleak Scottish cultural landscape? It is said, however, that there were approximately 12,000 people in attendance at his funeral in Dumfries. Perhaps my country-folk of the late Eighteenth Century had a little more pride in our ploughman poet than they were willing to demonstrate during his short lifetime.

SG: In a similar vein, do you think Burns was of his time, or ahead of his time?

AW: Burns addressed many of the issues of the day in a way only he could. From equality and the rescue of Scottish culture to issues much further afield such as the American and French revolutions, so in that sense he was very much of his time. He was also a pioneer – speaking up for minorities and writing verse in Scots before it was permissible, much less socially acceptable to do so.

SG: The real lives of artists sometimes differ drastically from the art they produce. Do we know how much of Burns’ personal history and temperament were reflected accurately in his poems?

AW: The smattering of verse clearly written “to-order” for the gentry aside, I think Burns’ work is in perfect synergy with the timeline of his life – his loves, his losses, his struggles and points of view. You don’t need to look far to find evidence of his passions in life – the lassies (too many to list), his country, animals, the outdoors, equality, politics and friendship.

SG: In 2001, you founded a business solely devoted to promoting Burns’ work. How did that come about, and how did your audiences receive it?

AW: As an actor and entrepreneur, who had been speaking at Burns suppers from a ridiculously young age, people were approaching me asking me to inject new energy into their Burns suppers – I was tasked with producing something unique as well as performing some of his most famous works. I approached John Murtagh, who I had worked with on Braveheart and at Borderline Theatre in Ayr, and within a few weeks, 3rd Degree Burns was open for business.

The offering was a moveable feast of entertainment. Calling on some remarkable Scottish talent to join us over the years, we basically told the story of his life through comedy, music and drama. Audiences seemed to warm to the concept as it was a bit more accessible and seamless than listening to a fragmented group of people give their opinion on Burns supplemented by a couple of dirty jokes.

Our aim was always to make Burns entertainment a perennial offering, but it’s difficult to alter the perception that Burns should only be celebrated once a year. Last year's homecoming celebrations proved that this is not the case. John and I still get together for the occasional performance if we can work it around our current obligations.

SG: How has Burns influenced you, personally and professionally? What sort of message can contemporary audiences take away from these poems?

AW: In many ways it was through Burns’ work that I learned how to live life, respect others, and love my country.

Burns’ legacy is one of vision and optimism – “that man to man the world o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that.“

I urge people to pick a value they are passionate about and look for Burns’ interpretation of it. I think he did a pretty good job of putting the world to rights on a number of levels. Not bad for the son of a poor tenant farmer from Ayrshire!

Weir is a featured author in Andy Hall’s essay/photo book, Touched By Robert Burns. Other writers who contributed to the anthology include Dr. Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney, and Scotland’s First Minister, Rt Hon Alex Salmond. You can order the book directly here; in keeping with the spirit of Burns’ humanitarian themes, royalties from the book will be donated to UNICEF.

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