So what do you know about Scotland’s most famous poet Robert Burns? We thought we would tell the story so you can attend your Burns Supper fully informed! Robert Burns (aka Rabbie Burns) was born on 25th January 1759. Although he spelled his surname Burness until 1786. He grew up in Ayrshire, in the South West of Scotland, on his father, William’s farm. Much of his education was from his father. By the age of 15 Robert was a principle labourer on the farm. During the harvest in 1774, inspiration through his assistant Nelly Kirkpatrick gave way to his first attempt at poetry; O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass.
After struggling in farming he became involved in Freemasonry. He was initiated into masonic Lodge St David Tarbolton on 4 July 1781 and was passed and raised on 1st October that same year. In early 1787, he was feted by the Edinburgh Masonic fraternity and named the Poet Laureate of the lodge–a title which has since been accepted by Freemasonry in general. The Edinburgh period of Burns’s life was of great consequence, as further editions of the Kilmarnock Edition were sponsored by the Edinburgh Freemasons, ensuring that his name spread around Scotland and subsequently to England and abroad.
The Bard was not adverse to the casual love affair and he gained quite a reputation.
His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns, was born in 1785 to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton, while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns was eventually married to Jean Armour in 1788 after many family feuds. She gave birth to nine of his children, although only 3 survived infancy.
Burns took up a job as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation in Jamaica when he came into financial difficulty looking after his family. It was around this time when he fell in love with Mary Campbell and he dedicated the poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven to her. There are suggestions that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together after a marriage ceremony but Mary returned home to her parents.
Further love affairs and romances included Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose and Jenny Clow, Nancy’s domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow in 1788 before he returned to Jean Armour in 1788.
In April 1786, in need of more money to emigrate, Burns decided to try to publish some of his poems. On 31 July 1786 John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, published the volume of works by Robert Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect. It was a huge success and he was soon known across the country.
His music career began in 1787 when he met James Johnson and the first volume of The Scots Musical Museum was published containing three of Burns’ songs.
In 1788 he returned to farming, on a farm near Dumfries, but also trained as an exciseman and so gave up farming in 1791 when he had created a career in Customs & Excise. It was around this time that he was writing at his best, and in November 1790 had produced Tam O’ Shanter. He also began writing lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland.
His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), 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 across the world today include A Red, Red Rose; A Man’s A Man for A’ That; To a Louse; To a Mouse; The Battle of Sherramuir; Tam o’ Shanter, and Ae Fond Kiss. 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, A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham and The Battle of Sherramuir is set to the Cameronian Rant.
Rabbie Burns sadly died on 21st July 1796, aged 37, after a dental extraction. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries; however, his body was eventually moved in September 1815 to its final resting place, in the same cemetery, the Burns Mausoleum. Jean Armour was laid to rest with him in 1834.
Burns, a romantic poet, was regarded as the National Poet of Scotland. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language. His themes included republicanism, radicalism, 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. The strong emotional highs and lows associated with many of Burns’ poems have led some to suggest that he suffered from manic depression.
Burns clubs have been founded worldwide. The first one, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. The club set its original objectives as “To cherish the name of Robert Burns; to foster a love of his writings, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature.” The club also continues to have local charitable work as a priority.
Burns’ birthplace in Alloway is now a public museum known as Burns Cottage. His house in Dumfries is operated as the Robert Burns House, and the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries features more exhibits about his life and works. Ellisland Farm in Auldgirth, which he owned from 1788 to 1791, is a museum and working farm.
The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to honour Burns with a commemorative stamp, marking the 160th anniversary of his death in 1956. Burns is pictured on the £5 banknote (since 1971) of the Clydesdale Bank, one of the Scottish banks with the right to issue banknotes. On the reverse of the note there is a vignette of a field mouse and a wild rose which refers to Burns’ poem To a Mouse, which goes as follows:
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
|Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.Your small house, too, in ruin!
It’s feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December’s winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!
You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
But Mouse, you are not alone,
Still you are blest, compared with me!
Credit – World Burns Club
In September 2007, the Bank of Scotland redesigned their banknotes, and Robert Burns’ statue is now portrayed on the reverse side of new £5. In 2009, the Royal Mint issued a commemorative two pound coin featuring a quote from “Auld Lang Syne”.
Burns Night is celebrated on 25 January with Burns suppers around the world. The first Burns supper in The Mother Club in Greenock was held on what they thought was his birthday on 29 January 1802, but in 1803 they discovered from the Ayr parish records that the correct date was 25 January 1759. The format of Burns suppers has not changed since. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with the Selkirk Grace. After the grace, comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, where Burns’ famous Address To a Haggis is read and the haggis is cut open. The meal is served and then the reading called the “Immortal Memory”, an overview of Burns’ life and work, is given. “Toast to the Lassies” follows, which is a thanks to the ladies for preparing the food and to toast the lassies in Burns’ life. “The Response” is then given; and the event usually concludes with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
Highland Dress is worn at formal Burns Suppers although at less formal Burns Suppers just a ‘touch of tartan’ will suffice. The gentlemen can wear their traditional kilts or a tartan tie while the ladies can wear tartan skirts, shoes or sashes. The venue and tables are usually decorated in the Scottish theme too with Tartan Tablecloths and Napkins.