Call him Robert, Robbie, Rabbie, or the Ploughman Poet: Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) is the poet-son of Scotland. He was named the “greatest Scot” in a 2009 popular vote by Scotland’s STV television channel. Of the poets who have written in the Scots language, Burns is the most well-known. He also wrote in Scots English. He saved writing in full-on English for getting his civil and political views across in commentary of the times in which he lived. Robert Burns became a Mason in July 1781, when he was 22, and over his lifetime, his writings inspired both the liberalists and the socialists. He continued to be inspiring even after his death. His influence was felt very strongly during the 19th and 20th centuries: poetically, in Scottish literature, and in the growth of poet/lyricists. A pioneer of the Romantic Movement, Burns heavily influenced both Wordsworth and Shelley. The American folk singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sites Burns’s “A Red Red Rose” (1794) as the lyric or verse that had the greatest impact on his life. Burns still inspires us each New Year as we sing Auld Lange Syne.
Born in Alloway (Gàidhlig: Allmhaigh), Ayrshire (Gàidhlig: Siorrachd Inbhir Àir and Coontie o Ayrshire in Scots), to farmer parents, he was brought up with his father’s (William Burnes) moderate religious teachings, through which Burns gained a tolerance for the grimmer doctrines of Calvinism. Over time, this turned to outright rebellion which showed up in his writings. Burns did not receive very much formal schooling, but he was an avid reader and his father taught all his children how to read and write, as well as arithmetic, geography, and history. Mr. Burnes also wrote “A Manual Of Christian Belief” for his children. Robert Burns also had a tutor for mathematics, Latin and French.
Burns’s family worked hard on their farm in Ayrshire, and the significantly hard labor at a young age may have played a part in the loss of his health as a relatively young adult. What would become his egalitarian attitude and rebellion against the privileged class began as he witnessed the troubles his father had with landlords that kept them moving from farm to farm. Finally, his father won a court battle against a landlord, but it was just two weeks before he died, and the family was bankrupt 1784.
There are references to the effect on Scotland’s farms that the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783 had as it blanketed the UK and parts of Europe and North America with a thick haze of sulfur and ash—this could be the cause of Robert Burns’s health problems (his two younger brothers died at early ages after the eruption). It was most likley also the cause of the poor harvests, since Scotland was covered in ash and there were great storms and an Arctic Winter caused by the volcano. The summer of 1784 was also a cold one, and the storms continued through the next winter. So, despite Burns’s attempts at good farming, “I entered on this farm with full resolution, “ he wrote, “I read farming books, I calculated crops, I attended markets.” he was not able to support his family with it.
Burns and his brother had moved the family to Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline (Gàidhlig, Machlainn) where along with the farming, Burns began to write his poetry……and discover his penchant for women. In his lifetime, he fathered children by six different women, fourteen children in all, nine of whom were out of wedlock. All of his encounters inspired poems and songs. (Lists of the romantic genealogy of Burns’s poetry are readily available online.) He also wrote songs of political and moral themes, giving us “Auld Lang Syne” and “Scots Wha Hae”, the song that served for many years as the unofficial anthem of Scotland.
Burns’s first book of poetry was published in July 1786 when he was 27. “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” was published by a printer in Kilmarnock (Gàidhlig : Cille Mheàrnaig; cill (cell), and the name of Saint Marnoch or Mernoc) and became known as the “Kilmarnock Volume”. It contained his early works which had been written as he tried to make his way as a farmer. Containing much of what is considered to be his best writing, it sold for three shillings. The publication met with immediate success and Burns began to be known nationally. That September he received an offer for the volume to be published as a second edition. Needing to make money, Burns had planned to go to Jamaica to be a bookkeeper on a plantation, but
“I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland – ‘The Gloomy night is gathering fast’ – when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction.”
Burns was also a collector of Scottish folk songs and revised or adapted many of them in to the popular songs that we now know. His love of the old Scots songs led to a joint effort with James Johnson to preserve them. Burns became a contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. They published the first volume, which included three songs by Burns, in 1787. The second volume contained 40 songs that Burns contributed, and by the time the final volume was published in 1803, Burns had contributed about 200 songs to the 600 song collection. He was requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, and contributed over 100 songs, and also made major contribution to A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. Many of Burns’s most famous poems are based upon older traditional songs (“Auld Lang Syne” is set to “Can Ye Labour Lea”, “A Red Red Rose” is set to “Major Graham”). He described his process:
“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, I 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.”
Burns began to feel the consequences of his poor health, aging prematurely. There are signs that he may have been bi-polar, and having his health fail made him despondent. Burns died in July 1796 at his home in Dumfries at the age of 37.
AULD LANG SINE
Auld Lang Syne is one of Scotland’s (many) gifts to the world. A song of reunion, it recalls happy days gone by, separation and coming back together. “Auld lang syne” would translate into standard English as “old long ago” or more colloquially “the good old days”. It looks back at old times with a friend from childhood and seeks to rekindle the past by a handshake and a goodwill drink — “a cup of kindness yet”.
Initially the song became popular as the Scottish emigration began in the 19th century, especially to the United States and to Canada. The words of friendship, family, and the hopes of seeing loved ones again sang to the Scottish hearts so far from their homeland. Traditionally sung for Hogamany, it became embedded in the New Year celebrations outside Scotland. By the way, it’s pronounced “auld” not old, and “syne” is pronounced wth an “s” not a “z”.
BURNS NIGHT SUPPER ~ January 25th
Burns Night is a second national day of celebration in Scotland along with St Andrew’s Day. Celebrated on Burns’s birthday, 25 January, “Burns Suppers” are held all over the world. Burns Suppers start with a general welcome, followed by “The Selkirk Grace” also known as the “Covnanters’ Grace”. After the grace comes the piping in of the haggis, when Burns’s famous “Address to a Haggis” is read while the haggis is cut. Toasts and replies are made at the end of the meal and salute is made to Burns’s life and writings. “Auld Lang Syne” is sung at the close of the celebration.