Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard

Share this article

"When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland"-- 19th century scholar and educationalist, JS Blackie

ROBERT Burns was born into a farming family in Alloway, Ayrshire. His father William was a poor tenant farmer, Robert was the eldest of seven children. He spent his youth working on his father’s farm, but, following established Scottish tradition, his education was not neglected. He attended a local school and learnt Latin, French, mathematics and philosophy and was an accomplished scholar. At 15 he wrote Handsome Nell – his first poem and an early indication of his love for the fairer sex.

After his father’s death the family moved to Lochlea farm near the Ayrshire village of Mauchline, but Burns was no farm hand, preferring poetry to the plough. During this time he wrote To A Mouse and when his roving eye got him into trouble with the church, Holy Willie’s Prayer, his answer to what he saw as church hypocrisy.

When Jean Armour became pregnant by Burns he was keen to marry, but her father opposed this match to a man with a reputation for hard drinking and womanising. In despair Burns decided to emigrate and sold some poems to finance his escape to Jamaica. These poems, known as the Kilmarnock edition, were printed in 1786 at the cost of three shillings and the entire print-run of 612 copies sold out within a month.

Almost overnight he became a literary success and went from local hero to national celebrity. Armour’s father allowed the marriage to take place and, high on his success, Burns decided to further his literary ambitions by visiting Edinburgh. There he was feted by a literary society eager to applaud the young man described by Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie as the ”heaven-taught ploughman”.

He moved between Edinburgh and Dumfries, taking inspiration from both countryside and city. Poems like Tam O’Shanter revel in his love of local stories and superstitions, while in Edinburgh he collaborated with the music-seller James Johnson. Burns helped collect and publish Scottish songs and contributed some of his own including Ae Fond Kiss.

Boosting his reputation for being a ladies man, Burns had a total of 13 children by five women, including nine by his wife.

He spent the final years of his life in Dumfriesshire, once again trying his hand at farming. When this proved too disheartening he worked for the Dumfries Excise. By now his health was failing and years of hard physical labour aggravated a long-standing heart condition. He died prematurely at the age of 37 on 21 July 1796. Some 10,000 people are said to have attended his funeral, the same day his wife gave birth to their youngest son, Maxwell.

In its obituary, The Edinburgh Advertiser described Burns eloquently:

”His poetical compositions, distinguished equally by the force of native humour, by the warmth and the tenderness of passion, and by the glowing touches of a descriptive pencil, will remain a lasting monument of the vigour and the versatility of a mind guided only by the lights of nature and the inspiration of genius.

On the first anniversary of his death, the first recorded Burns celebration was held at the cottage in Alloway where he was born – which by then had become a public house. These impromptu gatherings spread across Scotland, and then as people emigrated, round the world. Today Burns Night – now celebrated on the bard’s birthday, 25 January – is enjoyed by millions of people across the world who salute the ”immortal memory” with haggis and pipes and whisky and women.