Everything you need to know about Robert Burns

HIS WORK is admired and recognised the world over, but Scotland's '˜ploughman's poet' has his parents to thank.

Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayrshire. Picture: Christopher Furlong
Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayrshire. Picture: Christopher Furlong

Robert Burns entered the world on 25 January 1759, the first of seven children to parents William Burnes and Agnes Broun.

They family lived in a small cottage built by Robert’s father, on the banks of the River Doon in Alloway, just two miles south of Ayr.

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Both William and Agnes are credited equally with helping to shape their son’s future path. 

Robert’s love for poetry came from his mother. Agnes couldn’t read or write but that didn’t stop her from singing traditional folk songs and love ballds to her son, something she did often. 

William, a tenant farmer of modest education, taught his children how to read and write and paid for Robert’s tuition. 

Agnes instilled into her son the passion for song and William provided him with the means of communicating his thoughts and emotions to the wider world. 

Young Rabbie could not have asked for a better parentage. 

At the age of 15 Robert composed his first song ‘Handsome Nell’ for Nellie Kilpatrick, a young girl who he formed a close bond with while working the harvest. The song’s message of unspoken love would feature prominently throughout Burns’ career.

As a young adult, Burns toiled hard on the family farm, but incredibly still managed to muster up the energy required to create works of lyrical genius.

In the early 1780s Robert moves to Irvine in North Ayrshire to learn flax-dressing. It is recorded that William Burnes was a Jacobite sympathizer, and some of this radical spirit must have rubbed off on his eldest son, for upon arriving in Irvine Robert Burns becomes a freemason. His political leanings will influence many of his greatest works for years to come.

Rabbie’s passion for creating beautiful poetry grows by the day. By the end of his life he will have authored close to 350 songs – most of which will be published without fee.

But Burns was as passionate about wine and women as he was about song.

In 1784 he meets Jean Armour. They would eventually marry and start a family together, but not before Robert fathers his first children with his mother’s servant Elizabeth Paton, and engages in a string of flings with the likes of Margaret Campbell, AKA ‘Highland Mary’ and Agnes McElhose, AKA ‘Clarinda’.

At age 27 Burns’ first official work ‘Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect’ is published. It sells out in a matter of weeks.

Despite inheriting the family farm following his father’s death in 1784, Robert experiences severe financial difficulties. This, and a growing list of personal scandals, leads Burns to seriously consider emigrating to the West Indies to work as a bookkeeper on a plantation, but instead he is persuaded to stay and makes his way to Edinburgh in a bid to develop his career and publish more of his work.

It turns out well for him, and by 1787 he has published his second edition of poems. Burns is now regarded as one of the finest poets in the country, and he hasn’t even turned 30 yet.

A year later Burns, having spent much of his poetry earnings, decides to return to farming and takes a lease on a farm at Ellisland near Dumfries. However, the venture fails and Burns becomes a full-time exciseman in 1791 in order to support his growing family.

While in Dumfriesshire, Burns writes a number of his most exceptional and well-known works, such as Auld Lang Syne, Tam O’Shanter, and Ae Fond Kiss.

Burns died aged just 37 in 1896 having contracted rheumatic fever after falling asleep at the roadside in pouring rain. His youngest son Maxwell is born on the day of his funeral.

In 1815 Burns remains are relocated to a lavishly-built mausoleum. His mother, Agnes Broun, who lived to the ripe old age of 88, is reported to have remarked: “Ah, Robbie, ye asked them for bread and they hae gi’en ye a stane”. 

Key dates 

1759 – Born in Alloway, Ayrshire 

1774 – Writes first song ‘Handsome Nell’ 

1781 – Burns relocates to Irvine in North Ayrshire to learn flax-dressing. Later that year he becomes a freemason 

1784 – William Burnes, Robert’s father dies aged 62 and the family move to Mossgiel farm near Mauchline 

1784 – Family drops the ‘e’ from their surname and Robert meets love interest Jean Armour 

1785 – Burns’ first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns, is born to his mother’s servant Elizabeth Paton 

1785 – Embarks on an affair with Margaret Campbell, AKA Highland Mary. She dies of typhus the following year 

1785 – Pens ‘To a Mouse’ 

1786 – Burns’ first official work ‘Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect’ is published. It sells out almost immediately 

1786 – Jean Armour gives birth to twins, Robert and Jean. They go on to have 9 children together, but only 3 survive infancy 

1786 – Burns experiences financial difficulties and considers emigrating to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation, but moves to Edinburgh instead to focus on publishing a new collection of his poems 

1787 – Burns’ second edition of poems is published in Edinburgh 

1787 – Becomes a father again, this time with Edinburgh servant May Cameron 

1787 – Meets Agnes McLehose, AKA Clarinda 

1788 – Marries Jean Armour

1788 – Moves with Jean to Ellisland near Dumfries to take a lease on a farm

1788 – Jean Armour gives birth to twin girls

1788 – Burns has an affair with Janet Clow, a domestic servant, who gives birth to a boy, Robert Burns Clow

1789 – Jean Armour gives birth to another daughter, Francis Wallace Burns

1790 – Writes Tam O’Shanter

1791 – Moves to Dumfries to become a full-time exciseman

1791 – Writes Ae Fond Kiss

1791-1794 – Fathers four more children, Elizabeth to Ann Park, and William, Elizabeth Riddell, and James Glencairn Burns to Jean Armour

1796 – Dies aged 37 in Dumfries

1796 – Jean gives birth to their youngest son Maxwell Burns during Robert’s funeral

1815 – Burns’ remains are moved to a mausoleum

Key facts

Robert began signing his name Burns in 1786 following his father’s death. Prior to this the spelling had been ‘Burnes’ or ‘Burness’.

Burns was a radical thinker and a freemason who supported the ideas behind the French Revolution

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ was inspired by a line in the Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’.

Despite his success as a poet, Burns died penniless and had debts of £14

Burns’ first cousin was Captain Alexander Allan, the Ayrshire-born sea captain who foudned the Allan Shipping Line - one of the largest shipping lines of the 19th century.

Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit Thriller was inspired by Tam O’Shanter

There are more statues of Burns worldwide than any person living or dead save for Christopher Columbus, Queen Victoria and religious figures

Bob Dylan revealed in 2008 that the work of Burns is the source of one of his greatest creative inspirations

It is possible to visit a full-scale replica of Robert Burn’s birthplace, Burns Cottage, in the US city of Atlanta

Clubs dedicated to the legacy of Burns can be found all over the world. The first, The Mother’s Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801, however, they incorrectly celebrated their first Burns Supper on January 29th, having confused Robert Burns’ date of birth

Tommy Hilfiger claims to be a direct descendant of Robert Burns

The Bard was the first person to ever feature on a commemorative bottle of Coca Cola

Burns’ poetry was brought into space in 2010 by astronaut Nick Partin

The melody from the Burns song ‘Coming Through The Rye is used at Japanese pedestrian crossings to indicate that it is safe to cross

Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Burns and could recite his work by heart

Burns was a father to 13 children. His wife Jean Armour gave birth to 9, though only 3 survived beyond infancy

He never met his youngest child - Maxwell Burns was born on the day of his funeral in 1796

Auld Lang Syne is sang across the world on New Year’s Eve and has appeared in nearly 200 Hollywood films. It is also considered the third most popular song in the English language

A film about the life of Robert Burns starring Gerard Butler has been on hold for almost a decade