Robert Burns

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Robert Burns (1759–1796), popularly known as Robbie or sometimes Rabbie Burns, was a poet who wrote largely in Scots and Scottish dialect. Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, 25 January 1759, he died 37 years later in Dumfries, Dumfriesshire. He has come to be regarded as Scotland's national poet, with his birth observed worldwide on "Robbie Burns Day" and celebrated with Burns Suppers. Often sentimentalized, his life was one of contradictions. An ardent Scots nationalist, he worked for a time as an excise collector for the British Government; a campaigner against the slave trade, he had almost emigrated to Jamaica to work as the bookkeeper on a friend's estate, one built on the labour of slaves.[1]


Robert Burns was born in 1759, near Ayr. His father, William Burns, or Burnes, a gardener at the time, had, according to Burns an honest and strong character, while his mother had a fund of tales and songs. William Burns started a school for the children of local families, the teacher being John Murdoch, who in effect provided Burns with the elements of a literary education. To maintain his family, William tried farming in two places, but failed in both.[2] While his father was still alive, Robert tried his hand at flax-dressing as a way of earning money, but did not stick with it. He became a popular personality in the neighbourhood, and started producing verses of local interest. His father being on the point of death, Robert leased the farm of Mossgiel from Gavin Hamilton, whom he knew through the Freemasons. Despite his best endeavours to succeed in farming, the first two years were not successful. At the same time he took up poetry in earnest. Here he fathered his first illegitimate child on a servant girl and was obliged to do penance. During this time he met Jean Armour, made her pregnant, and promised to marry her, at the same time proposing to emigrate to the West Indies. The marriage proposal was temporarily frustrated by the opposition of Jean's father. The idea of emigration got as far as friends finding him a post as a book-keeper in Port Antonio in Jamaica, and was only abandoned because the publication of Burns's poems in Kilmarnock led to support for a second edition from Dr Thomas Blacklock, a well-known figure in Edinburgh.[3] After his rejection by the Armour family, and even after his rise to fame brought a change in their attitude, he continued to have affairs (and sometimes children) with different women in a variety of locations and walks of life.

Burns now paid a triumphal visit to Edinburgh. Walter Scott, then aged 15, saw him there and described him thus: "His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish; a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity... I would have taken the poet, had I not known what he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school - i.e. none of your modern agriculturists who keep labourers for their drudgery, but the douce gudeman who held his own plough. There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, which glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption."[4]

He spent two winters in Edinburgh, with tours round other parts of Scotland, the Borders and the Highlands during the period in between, leaving his younger brother Gilbert to run the Mossgiel farm with the rest of the family. The only significant poem he wrote in the capital was the Address to a Haggis, and during the second winter he was no longer what he had termed the "meteor" of the social scene.

He was now making his first moves towards finding a job as an Excise officer. As this did not immediately come his way he eventually accepted the offer of the lease of a farm at Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. In 1788 he married Jean Armour and took up the lease, leaving his younger siblings to run the Mossgiel farm. In 1789, the offer of the Excise post based in Dumfries came through. At first he tried to combine this with farming at Ellisland, but in 1791 he abandoned farming and moved to Dumfries, working diligently at his post.[5]

After the Edinburgh edition of his poems was produced, Burns seems to have been afraid that he could not maintain his writing at that level, and concentrated on songs, the one conspicuous and marvellous exception being Tam o' Shanter In 1787 he had begun his association with James Johnson, publisher of The Scots Musical Museum in several volumes. He received no payment for his contributions of new and revised songs. In 1792 he began to collaborate with George Thomson on a similar project.[6] In 1793, when the French Revolution caused a polarisation of opinion and led to government repression, Burns was apparently denounced as an enemy of the government and his political views were investigated by officers of the Excise. He did not retract his views, and some of his most egalitarian songs were written after that investigation; but he also succeeded in winning a temporary promotion in office. He began to show symptoms of heart disease in 1794 and died in 1796.[7]


Burns had access to some of the English poets from an early age, and continued to read them in later life. He quoted Addison 20 times in his writings, and used his pocket Milton so much that it fell apart.[8] But it was his discovery of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson that made him realise that great verse could be written in Scots. He acknowledged both of them as influences, made great use of Fergusson's favourite stanza form, and provided Fergusson's grave with a proper headstone. [9]

Most of the Edinburgh literati pressed Burns to gain a wider audience by abandoning Scots and writing in the standard English he had used for some of his poems. He resisted this. "I know pretty exactly what ground I occupy, both as a Man & a Poet."[10] When he did write in English, the influence of Shenstone, an English "Augustan" poet, whom he admired, was usually apparent.


The first publication of Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the Kilmarnock edition) excluded some of the most contentious poems, such as Holy Willie's Prayer, by which he had already made his name locally. Nevertheless it did give a prominent position to social and religious satire, including The Holy Fair. Poems glorifying Scottish peasant life were literally central to the volume. These included The Cotter's Saturday Night, the work which his more conservative admirers found easiest to praise.[11] Subsequent poems included a similar mix of the playful, the radically political, the amorous, the anti-Kirk (but not anti-religious) and the patriotic (e g Address to a Haggis, included in the Edinburgh edition). There was a narrative element in many of Burns's poems, and this came out fully in Tam o' Shanter.


And Man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,--
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

(From "Man Was Made To Mourn" Burns' dirge on the plight of the working man)

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination-
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation

(From "Address to the Unco Guid,

Or the Rigidly Righteous." A caustic attack on the judgemental attitudes of the comfortably off. "Then gently scan your brother man, Still gentler sister woman;" -Don't judge others lightly. "To step aside is human"; and while we may see a wrong, we can only guess at the reasons for it, and know nothing of what temptations were resisted. And judgements do not come well from smug and pious dames who are maybe no temptation themselves, or are better at hiding their own transgressions.)


Burns wrote a great many songs set to traditional airs. Some of these, such as Auld lang syne, were improvements to existing songs. Others were totally original, and yet others somewhere in between. In John Anderson, my jo, for example, he took the title of a bawdy song and created a poem about love in old age. As in the poems, there is considerable variety: drinking songs, love songs, and political songs. These last include Bruce's Address to his Army at Bannockburn and Is there for honest poverty (A man's a man for a' that).

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that

(From "Is There For Honest Poverty." These lines are thought to have been inspired by the trial of William Brodie, showing Burns' contempt for the judicial view that accepting a reward for turning King's evidence somehow made a burglar an honest man, while the one he gave evidence against was condemned to hang.)

My luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
My luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

(First verse of his best known love song)


In the early 19th century, among the writers associated with Blackwood's Magazine, it was taken for granted that Burns was a very great poet.[12] It suited these Tory writers to ignore Burns's radical bent. Later in the same century, others misread, ignored or tried to suppress his radical values.[13] Some critics spent most of their time on his morals rather than his verse, these detractors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries being scandalised by his love life, uncomfortable with his politics, and wary of his gift for self promotion.

"He is... only one of a thousand instances which incontestibly prove the inutility of genius, either to produce much happiness to the possessor, or to produce much good to society" (Elizabeth Hamilton 1801)[14]

Even Robert Louis Stevenson took this line:

"Indeed, Burns was so full of his identity that it breaks forth on every page; and there is scarce an appropriate remark either in praise or blame of his own conduct but he has put it himself into verse. Alas for the tenor of these remarks! They are, indeed, his own pitiful apology for such a marred existence and talents so misused and stunted; and they seem to prove for ever how small a part is played by reason in the conduct of man’s affairs. [15]

Carlyle, while praising him as the great genius of the 18th century,propagated the idea of Burns as the half-educated ploughman, rhyming by inspiration rather than skill. He wrote in his Essay on Burns that "His poems are, with scarcely any exception, mere occasional effusions, poured forth with little premeditation, expressing, by such means as offered, the passion, opinion, or humour of the hour." He reinforced the view in his lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship, exaggerating Burns's lack of education and good models for poetry. This myth goes back to Burns's own preface to the Kilmarnock edition of his poems.[16]

Books about Burns continue to come out, each with a different emphasis: the nationalist, the radical, the writer of bawdy, the serial seducer, and so on. All these aspects of a complex personality have their truth, though for many readers, his poems and songs are simply to be enjoyed, and continue to give insight into the human condition.


  1. Robert Burns: a memoir James White London 1859.
  2. Hecht, Hans (translated Jane Lymburn). Robert Burns: the man and his work. William Hodge. 1936. ch 1
  3. Hecht, H. chs 3 - 5
  4. Letter to J G Lockhart, quoted in Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott
  5. Hecht, H. ch 8
  6. Hecht, H. ch 9
  7. Hect, H. ch 10
  8. Hogg, Patrick Scott. Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard. Mainstream Publishing Co (Edinburgh) Ltd. 2008. pp 35 & 49
  9. Hogg,p 61 and index
  10. McIntyre, I. Dirt and Deity: A life of Robert Burns. Flamingo. 1996. p 114
  11. Hecht, Hans (translated Jane Lymburn). Robert Burns: the man and his work. William Hodge. 1936. ch 5
  12. e g Noctes Ambrosianae XX April 1829, XXVII January 1831, XXXVI November 1834
  13. Ferguson, DeLancy. They Censored Burns. Scotland, Magazine. 1951. Quoted Hogg, Introduction
  14. Memoirs of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton Vol II, edited by Miss Benger, London 1818
  15. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson - Swanston Edition Vol. 3 Project Gutenberg
  16. Hogg ch 7