Robert Burns facts: what are Scotland’s National Bard’s famous poems, how did he die and why is he controversial?

Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland (Photo: Shutterstock)
Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Scotland has produced some of the most influential figures in art and culture, and chief amongst them is Robert Burns, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

With Burns Night (Sat 25 Jan 2020) on the horizon, this is everything you need to know about one of Scotland’s most famous literary figures.

Early life

Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1795, in Alloway, Ayrshire, to parents William and Agnes Brown Burnes. He was the eldest of seven children.

Burns received some formal schooling from a teacher and other sources, which is how he acquired a superficial knowledge of French and some Latin. He read 18th century English writers like Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. 

Throughout his life, Burns was a practicing poet, but he was initially a tenant farmer like his father. He worked on the farm of Mossgiel, where his family moved.

Just before his 29th birthday, he sought out a steady, well-paid job as an exciseman (or gauger) in Dumfries, which is where he died on 21 July 1796.

An exciseman was employed by the government to ensure that people paid their taxes - especially in relation to alcohol. 

Children and relationships

Burns had many relationships throughout his life and also had children with many different women.

His first child, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Burns, was born in May 1785 by Elizabeth Paton who was his mother's servant.

By the time his first child had been born, Burns had begun his relationship with Jean Armour. At the end of the year, Jean was pregnant with his child, though it wouldn’t be until 1788 that they would marry, after their second child together. Jean and Burns would go on to have nine children together.

Burns then another child with Jenny Clow who was a maid for Mrs Agnes Maclehose, a lady in Edinburgh.

In 1790, he met a barmaid in Dumfries, with whom he welcomed another child out of wedlock.

Burns would then fall in love with Mary Campbell, but they would not have any children together. 

When visiting her brother who had fallen ill with typhus, Mary caught the disease while nursing him. She passed away on either 20 or 21 October 1786.

Famous poems and their inspirations

Burns penned hundreds and hundreds of poems throughout his lifetime, and many of them would go on to become famous worldwide.

Auld Lang Syne, perhaps the best known of his work, is said to have been adapted by Burns by an old Scottish folk song. It’s traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight at the end of the year. It’s also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending for other occasions. 

In 1785, Burns wrote To A Mouse, which, according to legend, was inspired when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse's nest whilst ploughing the fields in winter. In the poem, he apologises to the mouse, and he reflects on the difficulties the mouse will face now that it’s nest has been destroyed. 

A Red, Red Rose was penned in 1794, when Burns was devoting his time to preserving the traditional songs of Scotland.

Tam O’ Shanter tells the story of Tam, a farmer who gets drunk with his friends and acts in a thoughtless way, especially towards his wife. On the way home one night, Tam sees the local haunted church all lit up, with witches dancing and the Devil playing bagpipes. Tam is chased by the devil, but he escapes.

Address to a Haggis was written by Burns to celebrate his appreciation for haggis. During Burns Night supper, it’s customary to ready Address to a Haggis before cutting the haggis open.

How did Burns die?

There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the circumstances of Burns’ death, with many finding it difficult to agree on what exactly caused it.

The most well known theory for his passing is that he died from rheumatism, having been found by the road in the freezing cold rain following a heavy drinking session. Burns held a reputation as a hard drinker, which makes this theory the most popular.

However, Burns had been seriously ill for a long time - at least five years before his passing. 

Patrick Scott Hogg claims in his 2008 book Robert Burns the Patriot Bard that during the autumn of 1791, things were so desperate for Burns that his doctor visited him five times in the same week. He had been complaining of painful joints and a fever, which are both early signs of rheumatism.

Within a few years, Burns would not be able to function without assistance. He was essentially an invalid, ruling trips to the pub out of the question.

Stewart Cameron of the Halifax Burns Club states that the link between alcohol and Burns’ death should be ruled out entirely, “Numerous authors have dutifully attributed Burns’ death to the effects of alcohol.

“Burns had certainly made himself unpopular for some of his libertine behaviour and revolutionary political views and there was likely no shortage of people willing to propagate the idea that he was ruined by drink.

“It is clear that Burns liked alcohol and was inebriated on numerous occasions. However, it is false to suggest that his drinking contributed to his demise. The symptoms strongly suggest he had terminal heart failure from bacterial endocarditis, as a complication of rheumatic fever.”

Controversies 

While Burns is a celebrated writer around the world, he was not without his controversies.

Much has been written about the writer’s morality, womanising and the impact of his actions on those around him.

In 1786, Burns accepted a job on a sugar plantation in Jamaica as a bookkeeper due to his financial situation. He himself described the role as “a poor Negro driver”. Slavery and it’s abolition became a theme within some of his work, including The Slave’s Lament.

His scores of illegitimate children also drew controversy on the poet. Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochead called Burns a “sex pest” and compared him to Harvey Weinstein, whose actions initiated the #MeToo movement.