Burns Night 2020: the Scottish National Bard's most famous poems and songs - and what they mean

This year Scots around the country will gather to celebrate Burns Night on Saturday 25 January 2020 - the 261st anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth.

A pioneering voice in the Romantic movement, in 2009 the poet was voted the greatest Scot in history in a poll conducted by STV.

But while Burns holds a prominent place in the nation’s history, for many Scots, the blend of Scots dialect and English in his poems can be notoriously difficult to decipher.

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So as Scots around the globe prepare for their annual Burns supper, here are what some of the Bard’s most famous works really mean.

Robert Burns.

Red, Red Rose

While there are differing accounts of the origins of this simple love song, it appears that Burns told contemporaries that he had heard the the basis of the lyrics while travelling in the countryside.

“O my Luve's like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in june;

O my Luve's like the melodie

That’s sweetly play'd in tune:”

The poem describes a love that is both fresh, like the eponymous red rose, “newly sprung in june”, as well as eternal.

In a third stanza, the Burns writes:

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“Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:

I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.”

These dramatic images of the natural world - a staple of the Romantic tradition - may have been inspired by the work of geologist James Hutton.

Hutton, a pioneering scientist who helped discover that the Earth was far older than previously estimated, was a contemporary of Burns in Edinburgh.

A Man’s a Man for A’ That

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In this poem - one of Burns' most famous - the Bard expresses sympathy with radical and egalitarian political principles.

“What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hodden grey, an' a that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;

A Man's a Man for a' that:

For a' that, and a' that,

Their tinsel show, an' a' that;

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The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,

Is king o' men for a' that.”

In this stanza, Burns argues that while ordinary people must live and eat humbly, and “fools” and “knaves” enjoy a pampered existence, it is a person’s integrity that matters above all else.

Burns implores his audience to value independent thought, self-respect, and hard work over wealth and aristocratic titles.

Tam o’ Shanter

Burns’ famous blackly-comic ballad follows the fate of the womanising drunkard, Tam o’ Shanter, as he makes his way from an inn to his home, where his angry wife Kate is waiting.

While riding his trusty steed, Meg, Tam passes a haunted church, and is horrified to see a procession of witches, demons, corpses dancing. When Tam spots one attractive young witch wearing a shirt (a “cutty-sark”) that is too small for her, he cannot help himself yelling out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”

At once, the world becomes pitch black and the evil creatures lunge at him. Tam flees in desperation, heading for the River Doon - which the creatures cannot cross.

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The demons are so close to catching him that as he makes it to safety, they manage to snatch off Meg’s tail. After the thrilling story, Burns gives the reader this warning:

“Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:

Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,

Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,

Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;

Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.”

Auld Lang Syne

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The title of Burns' most internationally famous song could be loosely translated to mean “long long ago” or “for old times’ sake”.

In it, Burns encourages his audience to be kind to one another, and to renew old friendships.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

and auld lang syne?

"For auld lang syne, my jo,

for auld lang syne,

we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,

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for auld lang syne.”

Its expression of kindness and brotherly love has made Auld Lang Syne a popular song to sing at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.