Robert Burns

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Robert Burns (1759-1796),

“A Scottish Bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his country’s service, where shall he so properly look for patronage as to the illustrious names of his native land: those who bear the honours and inherit the virtues of their ancestors? The poetic genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha—at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue; I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired.” --ROBERT BURNS, Edinburgh, April 4, 1787.

Poet and songwriter, Burns wrote hundreds of enduring homages to Scottish life and beyond in song and poetry including “Address to a Haggis” (1786), “The Highland Lassie” (1786), “Auld Lang Syne” (1788), “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” (1789), “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose” (1794), and “Tam o’Shanter” (1790);

Weel done, Cutty-sark!
And in an instant all was dark:

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

[Footnote 1: It is a well-known fact that witches, or any evil spirits, have no power to follow a poor wight any further than the middle of the next running stream. It may be proper likewise to mention to the benighted traveller, that when he falls in with bogles, whatever danger may be in his going forward, there is much more hazard in turning back.—R. B.]

Burns wrote of his own rural experience as well as dealing with themes of patriotism, republicanism, class structure, and sexuality, with wit, humor and sometimes bawdy but always accessible verse. He devoted much of his life and writing to honoring Scottish heritage and culture; its people, literature, folklore, ballads, and music. He was also at times deeply troubled by the societal values that led to conflicts and wars and he was considered radical for his political views. He alienated himself from many friends when he expressed support of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. While not forgetting his humble roots he went on to be one of the most celebrated poets during his lifetime and up to the present, almost two hundred and fifty years later. His life and works have inspired many other writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hugh MacDairmid, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth.

Robert (Rabbie) Burns was born on 25 January, 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire of south west Scotland, the son of a poor tenant farmer or “cotter” William Burnes [Burness] (1721-1784) and his wife Agnes Broun [Broun]. The Burns family lived in a cottage that William himself had built, and which John Keats would later visit and write his sonnet “Written in the cottage where Burns was born”. The cottage and property now belong to the Burns National Heritage Park. Young Robert and his siblings worked the fields with their father, which was hard manual labour near the shores of the Firth of Clyde. They were exposed to the sometimes fair but more often harsh climes of Scotland that would take their toll on Robert’s constitution. He and his younger brother Gilbert also attended the local school and were tutored by John Murdoch.

Burns became a voracious reader of many classic Greek, English and Scottish literary works including William Shakespeare’s, Allen Ramsay’s, and Robert Fergusson’s. He also studied the Bible, French, Latin, arithmetic, geography, and history, and his childhood nurse Betty Davidson is said to have introduced him to the world of Scottish folklore and witchcraft as in “Tam o’Shanter”. The family moved to the farm Mount Oliphant in 1766, then a year later to Lochlea farm. Burns was a handsome, dark-haired young lad; a hard worker at the plow, and he worked as a flax dresser for a time. He also started on his life-long habit of spending nights out drinking Scotch whisky and flirting with the ladies. Burns became a Freemason in 1781 and after the death of his father in 1784, he and Gilbert rented Mossgiel farm, near Mauchline, but it proved an unsuccessful business venture.

Around the age of fifteen Burns had started writing poems in the Ayrshire dialect of Lowlands Scots, including his first, “Handsome Nell” (1771-79);

O once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell.

Other early poems include the oft-quoted “To A Mouse” (1785) written by Burns when he overturned their nest whilst plowing a field. It inspired the title of novelist John Steinbeck’s masterpiece Of Mice and Men (1937).

But mousie thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley,
An Lea'e us nought but grief an' pain for promised joy.

“Holy Willie’s Prayer” (written in 1785) is Burns’ satirisation of the local parish Kirk of Mauchline’s hypocritical and humorless elder William Fisher;

When from my mither's womb I fell,
Thou might hae plung'd me deep in hell,
To gnash my gums, and weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell,
Chain'd to their stakes.

Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To show Thy grace is great and ample:
I’m here a pillar o' Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example
To a' Thy flock !

Around the age of twenty-five Burns fell in love with Jean Armour, to whom “Bonie Jean” (1793) is addressed, and with whom he had twins. He wanted to marry her but her father and the Kirk opposed it. Frustrated with this turn of events, he decided to emigrate and seek his fortunes in the West Indies. In order to fund his passage he had his first collection of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock edition) published in 1786.

However, his plans soon changed when the joy of fatherhood set in and Poems immediately received high acclaim. Burns “the Ploughman’s Poet” became popular among Edinburgh society; he was guest of the Duke and Duchess of Atholl, his principal patron the Earl of Glencairn fêted him, and William Creech published Edinburgh editions of his works. Though he was not aware of his contemporary William Blake, a fifteen year old Sir Walter Scott met him. With Armour’s father seeing a more respectable man who could provide for his daughter, he encouraged their marriage and in 1788 Robert and Jean finally married and settled down on the farm Ellisland in Dumfriesshire.

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best.
There wild woods grow, and rivers row,
And monie a hill between,
But day and night my fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.
–“Of a' the Airts the Wind Can Blaw” (1788)

The Ellisland farm proved yet another failure and Burns with his wife and children moved to Dumfries near the Solway Firth where he obtained a position as Excise man in 1789. He worked in the Port collecting taxes on cargo and seizing smuggling ships, though he did not entirely enjoy it or take it too seriously, as his poem “The Deil's Awa wi' th' Exciseman” (1792-The Devil has Taken the Exciseman), poking fun at the position, suggests;

The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,
And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man."

The annual pay of £50 finally provided Burns with a regular and comfortable income with which he could support his family, though he received little recompense for his literary efforts. In 1787 he also enjoyed travels throughout the country. Due to his love of music, he and James Johnson set to the task of collecting together all the traditional Scottish songs, music and lyrics, published as The Scots Musical Museum (1787) which grew to six volumes. A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793) was also partly produced by Burns, with George Thomson. Burns joined the democratic militia group Royal Dumfries Volunteers in 1795. The same year his beloved three year old daughter Elizabeth died.

Years of working in the fields and a penchant for debauchery and drink no doubt contributed to Burns’ ill-health, but there is much speculation as to what caused his death. He did contract rheumatic fever as stated in a letter to his friend Mrs. Dunlop of Dumfries on 31 July, 1796. Under the care of Doctor Maxwell, he knew his prognosis was grim. With four surviving children and his wife due to have her ninth at any moment, Burns wrote her father to send assistance for her confinement. Robert Burns died on 21 July, 1796, aged thirty-seven, at his home in Mill Vennel, now called Burns House. His son Maxwell, named after his doctor, was born three days later. Burns' remains now rest in the Mausoleum in St Michael's Kirkyard. Jean Armour died in 1834 and now rests beside him.

Robert Burns is now considered a pioneer in the Romantic, socialist, and liberalism movements. While he often wrote with light-hearted humour, some of his works with their universal humanistic appeal contributed to his becoming a Scottish cultural icon. Burns' “Scots Wha Hae” (1793) served as an unofficial national anthem for many years. Inspired by his admiration of 13th century patriot William Wallace and his demise by the English, he penned it after the charge of sedition and trial of Thomas Muir. It is written in the form of a speech given by Robert the Bruce before the battle of Bannockburn, during which Scotland regained its independence from England;

Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victorie!

Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o' battle lour,
See approach proud Edward's power -
Chains and Slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha will fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha, for Scotland's King and Law,
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',
Let him on wi' me!

By Oppression's woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! -
Let us do or die!

Robert Burns' birthday is now celebrated the world over as “Robbie Burns Night” with special suppers of cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, and typsy laird for dessert. Guests Address the Haggis, Toast the Lasses with Whisky, and recite his poems and sing his songs. Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” is still sung to celebrate the New Year and Scottish Hogmany (last day of the year). Many of his songs and poems on this site have notes by Burns himself, and Allan Cunningham, who edited The Complete Works of Robert Burns in 1855. In some cases there is more than one version of the same poem or song. Some of them are revisions by Burns of older works.

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on Robert Burns

Address to a Haggis

Oh to be wooed like this! Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the puddin-race! Aboon them a' ye tak your place, Painch, tripe, or thairm: Weel are ye wordy of a grace As lang's my arm. The groaning trencher there ye fill, Your hudies like a distant hill, Your pin wad help to mend a mill In time o' need, While thro' your pores the dews distil Like amber bead. His knife see rustic Labour dight, An' cut ye up wi' ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like onie ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm-reeking, rich! Then horn for horn, they stretch an' strive: Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive, Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve Are bent like drums; Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive, 'Bethankit!' hums. Is there that owre his French ragout, Or olio that wad staw a sow, Or fricassee wad mak her spew Wi perfect scunner, Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view On sic a dinner? Poor devil! see him owre his trash, As fecl;ess as a wither'd rash, His spindle shank a guid whip-lash, His nieve a nit; Tho' bluidy flood or field to dash, O how unfit. But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his walie nieve a blade, He'll make it whistle; An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned Like taps o' thrissle. Ye pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care, And dish them out their bill o' fare, Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware, That jaups in luggies; But if ye wish her gratfu' prayer, Gie her a Haggis! English Translation Fair full your honest, jolly face, Great chieftain of the sausage race! Above them all you take your place, Stomach, tripe, or intestines: Well are you worthy of a grace As long as my arm. The groaning trencher there you fill, Your buttocks like a distant hill, Your pin would help to mend a mill In time of need, While through your pores the dews distill Like amber bead. His knife see rustic Labour wipe, And cut you up with ready slight, Trenching your gushing entrails bright, Like any ditch; And then, O what a glorious sight, Warm steaming, rich! Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive: Devil take the hindmost, on they drive, Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by Are bent like drums; Then old Master of the house, most like to burst, 'The grace!' hums. Is there that over his French ragout, Or olio that would sicken a sow, Or fricassee would make her throw-up With perfect disgust, Looks down with sneering, scornful view On such a dinner? Poor devil! see him over his trash, As feeble as a withered rush, His thin legs a good whip-lash, His fist a nut; Through bloody flood or field to dash, O how unfit. But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, The trembling earth resounds his tread, Clap in his ample fist a blade, He will make it whistle; And legs, and arms, and heads will crop Like tops of thistle. You powers, who make mankind your care, And dish them out their bill of fare, Old Scotland want no watery ware, That splashes in small wooden dishes; But is you wish her grateful prayer, Give her a Haggis!

To a Louse

On seeing one on a lady's bonnet at church. Ha! Whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie? Your impudence protects you sairly, I canna say but ye strut rarely Owre gauze and lace, Tho' faith! I fear ye dine but sparely On sic a place. I love this poem...especially written in its original form...

Seamus Heaney Tribute to Burns

So I bought a collection of Robert Burns' poems today on my way to work. At the very start was a funny and fitting tribute to the Poet written by Seamus Heaney. So i thought i'd share some of it with you (with a link to site i got it from so you can read it all.) A Birl for Burns by Seamus Heaney *** *** *** *** Old men and women getting crabbèd Would hark like dogs who'd seen a rabbit, Then straighten, stare and have a stab at Standard habbie: Custom never staled their habit O' quotin' Rabbie. Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns! He overflowed the well-wrought urns Like buttermilk from slurping churns, Rich and unruly, Or dancers flying, doing turns At some wild hooley. .... Copyright © Seamus Heaney

Robbie Burns!

I can't find Robbie Burns among the Author list, and wonder why. He's often regarded as Scotland's greatest poet and lyricist. Who loves the ballad 'John Barleycorn' or the song 'Auld Lang Syne' ? Perhaps you love his poem about a mouse? Or even the classic, and oft mimicked: 'My love is like a red red rose'? Join with me and have a few drams. Or should I start a group with this one?

Jobs, Discontent, and Beauty by Ellen Reiss about Robert Burns

Here is a wonderful and insightful look at the meaning of Robert Burns- and what he says about economics. In, "The Right Of Aesthetic Realism To Be Known", issue #1324, Class Chairman Ellen Reiss explains the value of Burns as no one has. Happy Reading! Allan

Robert Burns

Having noticed no forum on Burns i thought i'd do you all a favour and give the great man a mention.The greatest songwriter of all time? Certainly.


What with Burns night being tomorrow, today for some of you in those strange timezones, I thought I'd post a few of my favourite burns poems Burns as a romantic A red,red rose O my luve's like a red, red rose That's newly sprung in June; O mu luve's 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. Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun; O I will luve thee still, my dear While the sands o' life shall run. And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve! And fare-thee-weel awhile! And I will come again, my luve, Tho' 'twere ten thousand miles. O my luve's like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June; O my luve's like the melodie That's sweetly play'd in tune. Burns as a social commentator Address from Beelzebub Long life, my Lord, an' health be yours, Unskaithed by hunger'd Highland boors; Lord grant me nae duddie, desperate beggar, Wi' dirk, claymore, and rusty trigger, May twin auld Scotland o' a life She likes-as butchers like a knife. Faith you and Applecross were right To keep the Highland hounds in sight: I doubt na! they wad bid nae better, Than let them ance out owre the water, Then up among thae lakes and seas, They'll mak what rules and laws they please: Some daring Hancocke, or a Franklin, May set their Highland bluid a-ranklin; Some Washington again may head them, Or some Montgomery, fearless, lead them, Till God knows what may be effected When by such heads and hearts directed, Poor dunghill sons of dirt and mire May to Patrician rights aspire! Nae sage North now, nor sager Sackville, To watch and premier o'er the pack vile, - An' whare will ye get Howes and Clintons To bring them to a right repentance- To cowe the rebel generation, An' save the honour o' the nation? They, an' be d-d! what right hae they To meat, or sleep, or light o' day? Far less-to riches, pow'r, or freedom, But what your lordship likes to gie them? But hear, my lord! Glengarry, hear! Your hand's owre light to them, I fear; Your factors, grieves, trustees, and bailies, I canna say but they do gaylies; They lay aside a' tender mercies, An' tirl the hallions to the birses; Yet while they're only poind't and herriet, They'll keep their stubborn Highland spirit: But smash them! crash them a' to spails, An' rot the dyvors i' the jails! The young dogs, swinge them to the labour; Let wark an' hunger mak them sober! The hizzies, if they're aughtlins fawsont, Let them in Drury-lane be lesson'd! An' if the wives an' dirty brats Come thiggin at your doors an' yetts, Flaffin wi' duds, an' grey wi' beas', Frightin away your ducks an' geese; Get out a horsewhip or a jowler, The langest thong, the fiercest growler, An' gar the tatter'd gypsies pack Wi' a' their bastards on their back! Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you, An' in my house at hame to greet you; Wi' common lords ye shanna mingle, The benmost neuk beside the ingle, At my right han' assigned your seat, 'Tween Herod's hip an' Polycrate: Or if you on your station tarrow, Between Almagro and Pizarro, A seat, I'm sure ye're well deservin't; An' till ye come-your humble servant, Beelzebub. Burns as a comedian The Tarbolton Lasses If ye gae up to yon hill-tap, Ye'll there see bonie Peggy; She kens her father is a laird, And she forsooth's a leddy. There Sophy tight, a lassie bright, Besides a handsome fortune: Wha canna win her in a night, Has little art in courtin'. Gae down by Faile, and taste the ale, And tak a look o' Mysie; She's dour and din, a deil within, But aiblins she may please ye. If she be shy, her sister try, Ye'll maybe fancy Jenny; If ye'll dispense wi' want o' sense- She kens hersel she's bonie. As ye gae up by yon hillside, Speir in for bonie Bessy; She'll gie ye a beck, and bid ye light, And handsomely address ye. There's few sae bonie, nane sae guid, In a' King George' dominion; If ye should doubt the truth o' this- It's Bessy's ain opinion!

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