Burns, baby Burns: The story of the Scottish Bard – Robert Burns
Born on January 25th 1759, in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns early life doesn’t read like that of a national hero. But in his short life (Burns died aged just 37), he had taken the Scottish literary world by storm, and had secured a place for himself in history and in legend.
Burns father was a tenant farmer, and although not rich, wanted the best for his son and in the established Scottish tradition made sure young Robert was well educated. Burns attended a local school, set up by his father and four neighbours, with an 18-year-old called John Murdoch as teacher. Burns received instruction in Latin, French and mathematics and it was also about this time (aged 15) that Burns turned his hand to poetry.
Along with an education came a developing social life. Not only was Burns learning about the world but whilst working on his father’s fields he met a young girl named Nelly. He soon found himself filed with passion for what he would later call “man’s first great pleasure in life,” and wrote one of his earliest poems about the girl. As the young Burns grew, so did his success with women. Male friends would comment that Burns would leave them at a tavern if a feminine opportunity presented itself. He would later go on to have fourteen children with six different mothers.
With a rich social life but from an upbringing that taught him hard work, and the ways of the land, Burns became a freemason (of St David’s Lodge, Tarbolton), in 1781. His lifelong connection with freemasonry provided a constant social support as well offering him connections to influential parties.
After his fathers death in 1874, Burns become a regular churchgoer (‘Kirk’). Its strong links to the rural community along with its guardianship of public morality would serve as much as a crutch as a temptation to test the resolve of those at the ‘Kirk’.
The years 1784 to 1785 were some of Burns’s most prolific periods. Robert was working on his farm in Mossgiel, writing poetry, living with Jean Armour, who was pregnant by him, it seemed that things had worked out well for Burns. Unfortunately, not all in the garden was rosey. Armour’s marriage to Burns was opposed by her father, the farm was not profitable, the only way out, it seemed, was to emigrate.
His plans to sail to the Caribbean were well advanced when he was advised by a local lawyer, Gavin Hamilton that to finance the voyage he should publish some of his poems. At a cost of three shillings, the entire print-run of 612 copies sold out within a month, justifying his belief in his abilities and in the merit of his poems. His book – the ‘Kilmarnock edition’ - caused him to reconsider his plans to emigrate. Burns decided to continue his literary development by visiting Edinburgh. Here he was being fêted by an Edinburgh society eager to meet the man described by Henry Mackenzie as the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’.
It wasn’t long before Burns became part of the social fabric in Edinburgh, developing relations with The Earl of Glencairn and William Creech who helped fund and promote (respectively) a second volume of poems called ’The Edinburgh edition’. This new edition of work would include a ‘slight pilgrimage to the classic scenes of this country’, giving Burns an opportunity to travel the Highlands and Borders that both influenced his work as well as its readers to name him the ‘Scottish Bard’.
In 1787, Burns became involved in a number of musical projects, collecting words and music for all Scottish songs. Burns made a major contribution to the collection with the publication eventually running to six volumes of 100 songs each.
During this time Burns sent a copy of an original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the remark, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Some of the lyrics were indeed ”collected” rather than composed by the poet but It is a fair to attribute the rest of the poem/ song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to Burns.
From 1788 Burns attempted to go back and farm at Ellisland, but yet again this would prove fruitless. In September 1789 he began work for the Excise at Dumfries. Though he performed these duties diligently and compassionately, charges of political disloyalty were raised against him.
At the same time failing health, which he sought to remedy by sea-bathing, overshadowed his literary and musical output. Years of hard physical labour working on a series of unproductive farms aggravated his long-standing heart condition. This lead to his premature death at the age of 37 on 21 July 1796.
Scotland went into mourning; ten thousand people attended his funeral and he was later named national poet of Scotland. In a typically poetic style, on the day of his funeral, his wife gave birth to their youngest son, Maxwell.
In 1801, some of Burns’ friends and admirers decided to honour the departed poet with a dinner. Each year they would meet, read Burn’s poems, drink Whisky and offer up a feast of Haggis (stuffing a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs with oatmeal and spices into the stomach lining) whilst giving out a boisterous rendition of late Bard’s poem “Address to a Haggis”.
In recent years, ‘Burns Night’ has become one of the most popular events on a hotel or restaurants social calendar. People from all different backgrounds come to enjoy a night of socialising, singing and to try a mouthful or two of Haggis.
Although the origins of Burns Night derives from a countries love of one man’s ability to connect its people through romantic poetry, I’m sure, with the life he led Robert Burns wouldn’t mind.
For more information on Robert Burns or to visit his birthplace, visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Scotland or go to www.burnsmuseum.org.uk.