Robert Burns was born on January 25th 1759 in the village of Alloway near Ayr. He came from a relatively poor, tenant-farmer background, although he received a good education and read avidly as a youngster. It is during his years as a teenager and young man working on farms across Ayrshire that he developed some of the passions that would colour the rest of his life – poetry and music, nature, and women. Burns was heavily influenced by the poetry of Shenstone, Gray, Milton and other great English poets, but he was especially moved by the writings of native poets such as Ramsay, Fergusson, and Thomson.
Burns started writing in 1773 at the age of 14, applying himself more seriously in his early twenties as he found more and more material to write about.
In 1785 Burns met perhaps the most famous and long-suffering of his female companions, Jean Armour. The union was hotly contested by Jean’s father – until, that is, the poet received public acclaim. Burns, ever the romantic, planned to run away to Jamaica with his lover, Mary or Margaret Campbell (referred to as Highland Mary by the poet) but his plan was abandoned eventually by the advent of his own fame in Scotland.
Fame, but not necessarily fortune, followed in the wake of Burns’s first publication: “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” (often called ‘the Kilmarnock Edition’). The collection contains many of his best loved poems, including “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, “To a Mouse”, “To a Louse”, and “To a Mountain Daisy”. Favourable reviews from literary figures in Edinburgh drew him to the capital where another of the most enduring Burns myths was born: that of the ploughman poet. Burns’s poems complemented the growing literary taste for pastoral pleasures and the type of romanticism that would dominate the literary scene for the next century or so, and he learned to play on these notions to his own advantage.
Many, however, would contest the depiction of Burns as the “heaven-taught ploughman”, an innocent whose poetic inspiration was pure and direct from the divine. Such accounts of Burns conveniently gloss over his high level of education, his familiarity with literary mores and his often radical political convictions. Nevertheless, following his period as a celebrity in Edinburgh, Burns indeed ‘returned to the plough’, leasing a farm near Dumfries.
A tale of two tongues
Burns’s poetry at this time chopped and changed between English and Scots and this perhaps reflected his own ambivalent feelings towards the Edinburgh bourgeoisie. It was on his return to farming near Dumfries in 1788 that he penned his masterpiece in the Scots vernacular, “Tam o’ Shanter” (1790). Around this time Burns was also contributing to the The Scots Musical Museum with immortal songs like “Green Grow the Rashes O” and “My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose”.
In 1789 the poet became an Excise Officer, a fact that probably had many of his drinking partners choking on their ale and provided yet another of the contradictions that separated Burns’s life from his poetry. However, supporting his wife and family required funds, so Burns had to balance his increasingly radical political views with the practicalities of life. He remained an Excise Officer until his death, although he had enough humility to recognise the irony of his own situation in the poem “The De’ils Awa’ Wi’ The Exciseman”, in which the whole community rejoices as the Devil appears to claim the local Excise Officer as his own.
Life and death
Burns was prolific in writing poems and songs throughout most of his life. In 1795 he sent his publisher “For a’ that and a’ that”, a song which vocalised his support for the political radicalism which was beginning to infiltrate British society, especially through Thomas Paine’s controversial work, “The Rights of Man”.
Although these notions of equality and liberty were already sweeping through the western world in the light of the turmoil of both the French and American Revolutions, Burns’s poetry had always warmed to these ideals with a peculiarly Scottish lilt. After all, the rhetoric of freedom and equality had been prevalent in Scottish literature since the times of the Bruce and the Wallace.
As his health began to give way, Burns began to fall into fits of despondency, aggravated his long-standing rheumatic heart condition.
His death, which came about on 21st July 1796 is thought to have been caused by endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the sack around the heart. He was only 37 years of age. The poet’s funeral took place four days later on 25th July, the day his son Maxwell was born.
Almost immediately after his death, Burns’s fame exploded not only in Scotland, but across the world. Not only did his life and work became iconic for Scots but the messages contained in hundreds of poems and songs struck a chord with people on every continent. He has become one of the most translated poets and more statues of Burns exist across the world than of any other writer.
Burns Night is celebrated on the poet’s birthday, 25th January, with Burns suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day of Scotland, Saint Andrew’s Day. The format of Burns suppers has not changed since the first such supper which took place in the poet’s birthplace in 1801. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace. Just after the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, where Robert’s famous Address To a Haggis is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. This is when the reading called the “immortal memory”, an overview of Robert’s life and work, is given, followed by an address to and reply from ‘the lasses’, and poetry and music recitals. The event usually concludes with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.