Now January commemorations of the poetry and life of Scotland’s bard are an international institution, and rightly so.
But this week I’ve been caught up by another lad o’ pairts who did not come to define what it is to be Scottish, but built much of what Scotland actually is.
Thomas Telford was born dirt poor in Eskdale, in the Borders, in 1757, two years before Burns was born further up the road in Alloway.
His shepherd father died when he was only a few months old and Thomas was raised by his mother in her cousin’s house and left school at 12 to work for a local stonemason.
As a young man Telford tried his hand at poetry too, ungainly village verse, and literature’s loss was Britain’s gain.
Aged 25, he saddled a horse and rode the 300-odd miles to London and went on to become a civil engineer extrordinaire.
Most of the fabric of Britain’s industrial revolution was constructed by this incredible “Man of Iron”, as a new biography by Julian Glover is titled.
For modern-day governments struggling inch by inch along the route of a High Speed rail line and sinking in the shifting electoral sands of a new Heathrow runway, Telford’s achievements stand as a rebuke of modern pigmy politics.
His impact across Scotland, designing harbours from Ullapool to Wick to Banff, bridges in Perthshire and docks in the Broomilaw, was massive.
The visionary plans on behalf of the British Fisheries Board to revolutionise coastal Scotland shame every MSP who voted to abolish the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise this week.
Telford built over 1,000 bridges, 1200 miles of road over rough terrain, 43 harbours and fishing ports, and incredible structures from the Caledonian Canal to the Menai Bridge in Wales. His designs for state-funded churches and manses litter Highland Scotland.
As Julian Glover concludes: “When he was done, the road that carried the fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to North America: all of them were his.”
You could add that many of them still are. The roads follow the same lines, cross the same bridges to the same churches and harbours.
He was buried in Westminster Abbey yet Telford’s remarkable achievements are largely uncelebrated today, his biggest projects overtaken by the railway innovations of the James Watts and Isambard Brunnels who followed.
Glover, who worked in David Cameron’s Downing Street, well knows how Telford’s story is a cypher for what governments must do to re-tool Victorian Britain for a Brexit future.
Perhaps Telford did not meet Burns, and they were born further apart than Glover would wish, but he should be just as inspiring.
I am all for the immortal memory of the ploughman poet, but this season let’s raise a glass to another Scot - to Thomas Telford, Eskdale Tam as he penned himself in his poetry.
He turned out to be not much of a bard but one hell of an engineer, and the world needs engineers as much as it does poets.
Man of Iron - Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain, by Julian Glover.Bloomsbury £25