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Burns Night 2024: Dundee rocker Kyle Falconer shows ‘different side’ on BBC show hosted by Alistair Heather

Ahead of hosting a BBC Scotland Burns Night celebration “with a difference”, Angus-raised writer and broadcaster Alistair Heather talks about his relationship with the work of Robert Burns and being inspired by his grandad.

Alistair Heather with Kyle Falconer during the filming of Burns Night 2024 in Glasgow. Image: BBC Scotland/Sean Purser
Alistair Heather with Kyle Falconer during the filming of Burns Night 2024 in Glasgow. Image: BBC Scotland/Sean Purser

Alistair Heather’s love affair with the “mither tongue” dates back to his days at Newbigging Primary, near Monifieth, when the school won the prize for the best Scots language school in Scotland.

The Angus-raised Scots language expert and Courier columnist had a “remarkable” teacher called Mr Henderson who taught pupils the bagpipes, how to pluck pheasants and gut fish.

The teacher also used to get old retired folk in from the village to teach pupils the local dialect.

Going on to Carnoustie High School, Alistair spent several years overseas before studying history with Gaelic at Aberdeen University.

His dissertation was on use of Scots in Angus by the Jacobites.

A younger Alistair Heather with his grandad. Image: Alistair Heather

However, speaking to The Courier ahead of presenting a BBC Scotland Burns Night 2024 “programme with a difference”, he reveals that some of his earliest, fondest memories of Burns relate to his grandad singing down at the local pub.

“I went to Newbigging Primary,” recalls Alistair.

“My grandparents lived in Carnoustie and my grandad would sing – he was a great singer.

“He’d sing Burns songs down at the Aboukir pub in Carnoustie as part of the folk session down there.

“We were very much in the tradition of that.

“He’d sing My Love is Like a Red Red Rose to my granny.

“They were married for 64 years.

“The power of those love lyrics is just unlike anything else.

“When I was wee we’d go to The Fiddlers in Monikie – a long shut pub – for the folk sessions up there.

“But when I entered primary school Burns poetry recitals, I won absolutely nothing!

“I also once entered the Scots poetry recital at Kirriemuir Folk Festival.

“I came stone dead last. Fourth out of four – the only person that didn’t even get a certificate!”

Has Alistair Heather always been a fan of Robert Burns?

Like many young-folk, Alistair had a love-hate relationship with the works of Robert Burns at school.

As he moved into his teens, he “moved away” from the Bard, and Scots culture in general, and got into the heavy metal scene instead.

He recalls how for one week of the year, people were encouraged to recite these words.

Yet  for the rest of the year, the “mither tongue” was banned from the classroom.

“That’s something I hear all the time from folk – that Scots is banned 51 weeks a year and then for Burns week it’s brought back in,” he says.

Alistair Heather and Len Pennie presenting the Scots Language Awards in 2022.

However, as his interest in Scots language and culture has grown, Alistair now sees Burns as a “good vehicle to get Scottish culture into the classroom” and to “get people chatting about their own heritage”.

While he’s got no time for any outdated “sexist and elitist” interpretation of Burns, he’s’ pleased to be helping promote a fresh take on the Bard by presenting Burns Night 2024 which airs on the BBC Scotland channel at 8pm on Thursday January 25.

What are the highlights of Burns Night 2024 BBC Scotland programme?

Recorded live at Glasgow City Halls on January 16, the programme sees a line-up of famous faces appear alongside contemporary and traditional musicians, performing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Scotland’s national Bard.

Joining the celebration are Dundee’s Kyle Falconer from The View, members of Manran, Michelle McManus, Georgia Cecile and Shereen Cutkelvin.

Kyle Falconer performing on Burns Night 2024 in Glasgow. Image: BBC Scotland/Sean Purser

There are also pipers from world champions Peoples Ford Boghall and Bathgate Caledonia Pipe Band, BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year Amy Laurenson, Young Jazz Musician of the Year Ben Shankland and BBC Introducing Scottish Act of the Year Terra Kin.

The programme also features celebrity recitals from Karen Dunbar, Jordan Young and Len Pennie.

What is special about the kilt Alistair Heather is wearing for Burns Night 2024?

To present the show, Alistair is wearing his late uncle’s kilt.

On his top half, to make “glam” some ex-hire gear he got for his brother’s wedding, Dundee designer and ex-Carnoustie High School classmate Samantha Paton of Isolated Heroes has made a sequined Rabbie Burns face for the back of his jacket, making it “look punky giving it camp motor cycle jacket vibes”.

Dundee designer Samantha Paton with the Burns logo she’s designed for Alistair Heather’s jacket. Image: Alistair Heather

“The show is very much about some of the best musicians in Scotland interpreting Burns for 2024,” says Alistair, who is hosting and also reading the Immortal Memory.

“Kyle Falconer is a big name playing it.

“There will be a new, different side to him playing traditional Scottish music.

“He’s down to do Scots Wha Hae.

“But some of the other names are also just so cool.

“Just all these musicians that are current and contemporary in different genres in Scotland, interpreting Burns in a way that kind of helps it live now, helping draw fresh meaning from his words.

“And we have some great readings as well from various people.

Alistair Heather showing off his Burns jacket logo while presenting Burns Night 2024. Image: BBC Scotland/Sean Purser

“We have Seaview Primary, Monifieth – they’ve done a video of Tae a Moose. It’s adorable! Really cute!

“And we’ve got people doing readings, like Karen Dunbar doing To a Louse.

“Think of it as a Burns variety night!”

Strong links between Robert Burns, Dundee and the Mearns

Robert Burns is celebrated primarily for his contributions to Scottish literature and culture, as well as for his role in promoting and preserving traditional Scottish folk songs and poetry.

He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is honoured on Burns Night, an annual event held on or around January 25, the poet’s birthday.

Overall, the celebration of Robert Burns is a tribute to his literary achievements, his impact on Scottish culture, and the enduring popularity of his works.

While the legacy of Ayrshire-born Burns is “quite universal” across mainland Scotland, there are particularly strong Courier Country connections with Robert Burns’ father hailing from near Laurencekirk in the Mearns.

The Robert Burns statue in Dundee.

The Courier told previously how Robert Burns only made one visit to Dundee – a relatively understated trip in September 1787 when he described it as a “low lying but pleasant town”.

But if Dundee had a relatively fleeting impact on the bard as his Highland tour brought him down the east coast from a visit to his father’s family roots in Montrose and the Mearns, his legacy made a lasting mark on the city.

In October 1880, there were unprecedented scenes when up to 100,000 people took to the streets of Dundee for the unveiling of a commemorative statue to the bard some 84 years after his death.

Designed by Scotland’s then leading renowned sculptor Sir John Steell, the bronze statue mounted on a pedestal of Peterhead granite in Albert Square, outside McManus Galleries, was inspired by the opening verse of the poem ‘To Mary in Heaven’.

James Henderson, oldest member of Dundee Burns’ Club, lays a wreath on Burns’ statue in Albert Square gardens in 1972 to mark the anniversary of his death.

It represented Burns looking skywards in thoughts of his lost love, Highland Mary (Mary Campbell).

Burns’ work as a “great working class kind of political writer” captured the imagination of the Victorian public at a time when the ‘working man’ had very little say over society.

It’s a relevance that Alistair says remains true to this day.

For Alistair, though, it’s Burns’ love songs that are the “pinnacle of his achievements”.

What is Alistair Heather’s favourite Robert Burns love song?

“Ae Fond Kiss is my favourite because I am such a romantic,” he says.

“I’ve also lived abroad a lot, and that’s involved a couple of times having to leave a sweetheart, knowing I’ll never see her again.

“Ae Fond Kiss just gets me right under the ribs.

“Burns’ love songs are just so moving, they are so powerful.

“I mentioned Love is Like a Red Red Rose: really celebrating romantic love and fraternal love and the love of good company.

“That’s at the core of what makes Burns worth celebrating for me.

“He was radical in his openness, in his love.

“He was radical in his political bravery.

“He looked out from Ayrshire at a world that was descending into wars, revolutions, environmental destruction and despite the pressures put on him by his situation, he bravely faced up to all that and addressed it.

“He addressed his desire for humans to treat each other well, and his desire to enjoy love and enjoy our brief time on Earth.

Alistair Heather presenting Burns Night 2024. Image: BBC Scotland/Sean Purser

“Putting your genius to that and wanting to share that with everyone is a really powerful message.

“The reason he still resonates now is because we still need reminded to love, and still need reminded to be brave when we are faced with inequality.

“These are timeless messages.

“Also, he was fun. He was so keen for people to have a good time.

“And there’s not enough of that in poetry or literature or kind of national culture.

“Life is so brief, it is to be enjoyed.”

Burns Night 2024, hosted by Alistair Heather, is on the BBC Scotland Channel at 8pm on Thursday January 25.