Burns was a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death
became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both
liberalism and socialism. He is widely regarded as the national
poet of Scotland, and is the best known of the poets who have written
in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English
and in a "light" Scots dialect which would have been accessible
to a wider audience than simply Scottish people.
various times in his career, he wrote in English, and in these
pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most
blunt. A cultural icon in Scotland and among Scots who have relocated
to other parts of the world (the Scottish diaspora), his celebration
became almost a national charismatic cult during periods of the
19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong
on Scottish literature.
also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising
or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often
sung at Hogmanay (New Year), and Scots Wha Hae served for a long
time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems
and songs of Burns that remain well known today across the world
include A Red, Red Rose, A Man's A Man for A' That, To a Louse,
and To a Mouse.
Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25
January with Burns' Suppers around the world, and is still more
widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew's
Day, or the new North American celebration Tartan Day.
Robert Burns, often abbreviated to simply Burns, and also known
as Rabbie Burns, Robbie Burns, Scotland's favourite son, the Ploughman
Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, and in Scotland simply as The Bard
(see Bard (disambiguation)), was born in Alloway, South Ayrshire,
Scotland, the son of William Burnes or Burns, a small farmer,
and a man of considerable force of character and self-culture.
His youth was passed in poverty, hardship, and a degree of severe
manual labour which left its traces in a premature stoop and weakened
had little regular schooling, and got much of what education he
had from his father, who taught his children reading, writing,
arithmetic, geography, and history, and also wrote for them A
Manual of Christian Belief. He also received education from a
tutor, John Murdock, who opened an "adventure school"
in the Alloway parish in 1763 and taught both Robert and his brother
Gilbert Latin, French, and maths. With all his ability and character,
however, the elder Burns was consistently unfortunate, and migrated
with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able
to improve his circumstances.
1781 Robert went to Irvine to become a flax-dresser, but, as the
result of a New Year carousal of the workmen, including himself,
the shop took fire and was burned to the ground. This venture
accordingly came to an end. In 1783 he started composing poetry
in a traditional style using the Ayrshire dialect of Lowland Scots.
In 1784 his father died, and Burns with his brother Gilbert made
an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm; failing in which
they removed to Mossgiel, where they maintained an uphill fight
for 4 years.
Robert Burns joined as Entered Apprentice in Lodge St. David,
Tarbolton on 4 July 1781. His initiation fee was 12s 6d. A visit
to the Museum of Lodge Tarbolton (Kilwinning) sheds light on his
Masonic associations. Burns went with Lodge St. James, and on
27 July 1784, he was elected "Depute Master". Burns'
popularity aided his rise in Freemasonry. At a meeting of Lodge
St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, in the presence of the Grand
Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful
Grand Master, Most Worshipful Brother Francis Chateris.
Chiefly in the Scottish dialect
Meanwhile, his love affair with Jean Armour had passed through
its first stage, and the troubles in connection therewith, combined
with the want of success in farming, led him to think of going
to Jamaica as bookkeeper on a plantation. From this he was dissuaded
by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and at the suggestion of his
brother published his poems in the volume, Poems, Chiefly in the
Scottish dialect in June 1786. This edition was brought out by
a local printer in Kilmarnock and contained much of his best work,
including "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil",
"Hallowe'en", "The Cottar's Saturday Night",
"To a Mouse", and "To a Mountain Daisy", many
of which had been written at Mossgiel. Copies of this edition
are now extremely rare, and as much as US$36,000 has been paid
success of the work was immediate, the poet's name rang over all
Scotland, and he was induced to go to Edinburgh to superintend
the issue of a new edition. There he was received as an equal
by the brilliant circle of men of letters which the city then
boasted – Dugald Stewart, Robertson, Blair, etc., and was
a guest at aristocratic tables, where he bore himself with unaffected
dignity. Here also Scott, then a boy of 15, saw him and describes
him as of "manners rustic, not clownish. His countenance
... more massive than it looks in any of the portraits ... a strong
expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated
the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a
dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or
interest." The results of this visit outside of its immediate
and practical object, included some life-long friendships, among
which were those with Lord Glencairn and Mrs Dunlop. The new ed.
brought him £400. About this time the episode of Highland
The Scots Musical Museum
In the winter of 1786 in Edinburgh he met James Johnson, a struggling
music engraver / music seller, with a love of old Scots songs
and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest
and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum.
The first volume of this was published in 1787 and included three
songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would
end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole
collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution.
The final volume was published in 1803.
his return to Ayrshire he renewed his relations with Jean Armour,
whom he ultimately married, took the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries,
having meanwhile taken lessons in the duties of an exciseman,
as a line to fall back upon should farming again prove unsuccessful.
At Ellisland his society was cultivated by the local gentry. And
this, together with literature and his duties in the Customs and
Excise, to which he had been appointed in 1789, proved too much
of a distraction to admit of success on the farm, which in 1791
he gave up.
he was writing at his best, and in 1790 had produced Tam O' Shanter.
About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in
London on the staff of the Star newspaper, and refused to become
a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture in the University
of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support
his claims. After giving up his farm he removed to Dumfries.
was at this time that, being requested to furnish words for The
Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs.
He made major contributions to George Thomson's A Select Collection
of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson's
The Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly
rests on these volumes which placed him in the front rank of lyric
poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune,
then would compose the words: "My way is: I consider the
poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression;
then chuse my theme; begin one Stanza; when that is composed,
which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I
walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature
around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of
my fancy and workings of my bosom; humming every now and then
the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning
to jade, 1 retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there
commit my effusions to paper; swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs
of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures,
as my, pen goes."
worldly prospects were now perhaps better than they had ever been;
but he was entering upon the last and darkest period of his career.
He had become soured, and moreover had alienated many of his best
friends by too freely expressing sympathy with the French Revolution,
and the then unpopular advocates of reform at home. His health
began to give way; he became prematurely old, and fell into fits
of despondency; and the habits of intemperance, to which he had
always been more or less addicted, grew upon him. He died on July
21, 1796. Within a short time of his death, money started pouring
in from all over Scotland to support his widow and children.
memory is celebrated by Burns clubs across the world; his birthday
is an unofficial national day for Scots and those with Scottish
ancestry, celebrated with Burns suppers.
1787 epistle to Mrs Scott, Gudewife of Wanchope House, Roxburgh,
is a rare example of the rhyming of the word purple – it
is a common myth that there is no rhyme.
be mair vauntie o' my hap,
Douce hingin' owre my curple,
Than ony ermine ever lap,
Or proud imperial purple.
Works and Influence
Burns' direct influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan
Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns' poetry also drew
upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical,
and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition.
Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but
also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language.
Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The
Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various
themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary
period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha
Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities,
gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish
cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects
of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs,
and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration
to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for
Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by
political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and
establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn
into the very fabric of Scotland's national identity. It is this,
perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political
opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed
as the national poet.
views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake,
but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware
of each other. Burns' works are less overtly mystical.
is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced
William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe
Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise
Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education
by calling him a "heaven-taught ploughman." Burns would
influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid who
fought to dismantle the sentimental Burns cult that had dominated
Scottish literature in MacDiarmid's opinion.
also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes
revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known
of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title
is not Burns'), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular
in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many
of Burns' most famous poems are songs with the music based upon
older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to
the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea while A Red, Red Rose is
set to the tune of Major Graham.
genius of Burns is marked by spontaneity, directness, and sincerity,
and his variety is marvellous, ranging from the tender intensity
of some of his lyrics through the rollicking humour and blazing
wit of Tam o' Shanter to the blistering satire of Holy Willie's
Prayer and The Holy Fair. His life is a tragedy, and his character
full of flaws. But he fought at tremendous odds, and as Thomas Carlyle in his great Essay says, "Granted the ship comes
into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy
... but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage
has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs."
There are many organisations around the world named after Burns,
and a number of statues and memorials. For example:
Burns Fellowship, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
Burns Club Atlanta
Burns national memorial on Calton Hill, Edinburgh
statue in George Square, Glasgow, 1877 by George Edwin Ewing,
reliefs by J A Ewing, cast by Cox and Son
statue in Central Park, New York City
bronze statue near Union Terrace Gardens, Aberdeen
statue in London
statue of Burns, complete with plough, outside the Art Gallery
of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia
statue in Dominion Square in Montreal
statue on Irvine Moor, Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland
statue in Canberra, Australia (1935)
statue in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, USA
statue in Burns Square, Dumfries
Burns, New York
A BR standard class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along
with a later electric locomotive
statue at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh,