What is all the fuss about Robert Burns? Robert – Robbie or ‘Rabbie’ – Burns was a prolific poet and lyricist, who died more than 200 years ago. He is Scotland’s favourite bard, still revered throughout the land, the world over by those of Scottish descent – and, in fact, by many non-Scots as well. Each New Year, people sing (or mumble) the words of Auld Lang Syne, which Burns wrote in 1788. Good grief – the man even has his own annual supper event (Burns’ Night is on 25 January, if you’re checking) – which is more than can be said for Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Enid Blyton. Of course, his detractors might argue that it’s all a bit over the top, that Robbie Burns produced gushings of over-emotional verse that is, to most modern English-listeners, barely comprehensible, because the fellow wrote in Lallans, ‘the guid Scots tongue’. Burns, his scathing doubters might go on to say, was too fond of drink and a good time, factors in his early demise at the age of 37, having allegedly fathered a hoard of children to a variety of different women along the way. Now, as a proud and cynical Sassenach*, I do confess to – whilst simultaneously secretly admiring his successes and never refusing an invitation to a Burns’ Supper – having struggled to wrap my brain round what people find so wonderful about the bloke.
* Sassenach is a supposedly abusive Scots’ term for an Englishman; it is derived from the Gaelic for Saxon.
Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759, in a two-roomed thatched cottage built by his father, William, in the village of Alloway, in south-west Scotland. William Burnes (it had two syllables, ‘burn-ess’) was a gardener who married Agnes Broun (Brown) when he was in his late thirties and she about ten years younger. Robert was their first child and was joined by three brothers and three sisters. He wrote, “I was born a very poor man’s son,” which was entirely true; but that poor man saw to it that Robert had a surprisingly good education – partly at home, partly from a teacher William hired (sharing the cost with a neighbour) and party at local schools. From his mother, Burns learned traditional tales and songs; his imagination was also influenced by a distant relative, Betty Davidson, who helped about the place.
“She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-handles, deadlights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.”
William Burnes took on the lease of a farm and Robert continued his academic education while he was working, reading while walking, or driving his cart. It was a tough life – harder than we can imagine – and it seems his father was unlucky with the deals he made. When William died in 1784, worn down by debt and dispute with his landlord, Robert became head of the family.
Somehow, despite the difficulties the family had, Robert found the time and money to attend dancing classes in nearby Tarbolton and, with a group of friends, founded a Bachelors’ Club (its meeting place is now a museum), the rules of which stated that:
“Every man proper for a member of this Society must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.”
You can’t help being drawn by Burns’ idealised, albeit often fickle, fascination with women. He immortalised many of the objects of his affection in verse; however, not all of his associations had happy endings. At fifteen, he fell in love for the first time, with Nelly Kilpatrick, ‘Handsome Nell’. Next, he was smitten by Peggy Thompson, a “charming Fillette”, who lived next door to the school he attended in Kirkoswald. He later blamed love for turning him into a poet, writing that rhyme and song became, “in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.” In 1784, he had a romance with the family farm-servant, Elizabeth Paton (allegedly plain, but with a good figure), who gave birth to his daughter, Elizabeth. That same year, he met his future wife, Jean Armour, who fell pregnant in 1786 but whose parents disapproved of the penniless Robert – despite his avowed intention to marry their daughter. Thinking Jean had spurned him (so the story goes), Robert had an affair with a Mary Campbell, ‘Highland Mary’, who he also proposed to and who he tried to persuade to emigrate with him to the West Indies. Tragically, Mary died – possibly of typhoid, though some say in childbirth. Jean Armour went on to give birth to twins.
Meanwhile, Burns had just had the first volume of his poems published, in Kilmarnock. Known as ‘the Kilmarnock Edition’, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect had a print-run of 612 copies and sold out within a month. Burns went to Edinburgh, where he mixed with the society of the day and became known as ‘the ploughman poet’ – a rustic image the well-educated Burns often played up to. He travelled, in Scotland and northern England, met up again with Jean Armour, proposed to a Margaret Chalmers, who rejected him in favour of a banker (probably a more reliable prospect), fell in love with an Edinburgh society lady, Agnes McLehouse, and managed to make her maid, Jenny Clow, pregnant. Jenny gave birth to son and subsequently died, destitute, in 1792; it is not clear what happened to the boy. Agnes – also known as Nancy and, in correspondence with Burns, ‘Clarinda’ to his ‘Sylvander’ – is remembered in the lovely Ae Fond Kiss.
Somehow, Burns found the time to begin contributing to The Scots Musical Museum, a collection of old songs which eventually ran to 6 volumes published between 1787 and 1803. This was a far-sighted project and Robert Burns’ contribution to it was considerable, including original pieces as well as new lyrics for old tunes. Among the best known are Auld Lang Syne (which Burns built on earlier versions of), My love is like a Red, Red Rose, Scots Wha Hae, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past and Comin’ Thro the Rye.
Burns, spending more than he earned, returned to Ayrshire and farming in 1788, and married Jean Armour; ultimately, they would have nine children together. Farming didn’t work for Rabbie, though, and he successfully contrived to be appointed as the local Excise Officer, or tax collector – which paid better. This work took him to Dumfries, where he and Jean came to live. Somewhere along the way, our man apparently had a fling with a young barmaid, Ann Park, at his ‘favourite howff’ (haunt, pub), the Globe Inn; Ann also fell pregnant and it seems she died, but that Jean took in the baby, Betty.
There has been some speculation about the cause of Burns’ early death. Some, particularly those of the extreme life is no-fun brigade, have indeed blamed it all on the demon drink and the poet’s libertine lifestyle. Certainly, Burns enjoyed a drink – and we have also seen that he indulged in what he might himself have called a little houghmagandy on occasion. Fortunately, though, these things aren’t necessarily killers. However, there is no doubt that Burns was very ill for sometime – and knew he was going to die. Modern experts suggest that he had suffered rheumatic fever as a youngster and that this resulted in bacterial endocarditis, leading to terminal heart failure. He died at home in Dumfries on 21 July 1796, in debt, and on the same day that Jean Armour gave birth to their last son, Maxwell. Thousands of people attended his funeral.
Now, at school, I just didn’t get Burns. It is easy to dismiss something you don’t understand, especially if you’re fundamentally lazy and have to work at it. Anyway, Scotland has produced other great writers whose stuff isn’t such a struggle to read if you don’t happen to speak Scots – JM Barrie, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alistair MacLean, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ian Rankin, to mention a few. Given the incredibly rich pool of poets and literary giants that the British Isles as a whole has produced, what is so special about someone who wrote in an apparently excruciating patois and whose brain appears to have been a periscope for his willie?
Burns wasn’t with us long: he didn’t make it to his 3 score years and 10; not even to his naughty forties. Yet he is internationally venerated. And this isn’t a recent thing, grown out of some myth, popularised because of some faux historical movie, or because the head of marketing at the Scottish Nationalist Party wanted to create a hero – Scotland’s got plenty of those. Nor was Burns like one of those old masters, scratching around during his lifetime and only receiving recognition years after he’d gone to a larger canvas in the sky. No, Burns achieved love, respect and regard when he was very much alive. And the killer is that he did it in less than 10 years: he published his first book of poems, the Kilmarnock edition, when he was 27; a decade later, he was dead; this is a man to be reckoned with.
Not only did Burns have an extraordinary creative output in his short life; the themes he chose had universal appeal. He wrote about nature, hardship, patriotism – and, of course, romance. He could be hard-hitting; but was also humorous and satirical. I’m no expert, but it seems to me he was acutely observational, rather like a modern stand-up comedian; an early Billy Connolly. And, like Connolly, he was a wonderfully intelligent man. The world was – of course – a very different place in the 18th century and Britain was going through a period of intense change. Interestingly, though some of Burns’ work is very much of its time – for example, he clearly dislikes the fire and brimstone branch of the Church of Scotland and had Jacobite sympathies as well as contradictory radical ones – so much of what he writes is ageless; once you’ve worked your way through the guid auld Scots tongue.
There have been – and still are – many varieties of English. The lowland Scots of Robert Burns is one of them, with roots in the language spoken by the Anglian invaders of Northumbria, heavily spiced with other influences – not least Norse and Gaelic. There are still distinct varieties of English throughout the British Isles – dialects, if you like – though, sadly in many ways, there have always been good reasons to conform to a common standard, so the differences are being levelled – and language constantly evolves. It probably didn’t help the Scots language that James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, or that he ordered every church in Scotland to use his Authorised Version of the Bible. By the 18th century, many in Scotland were keen to imitate the influential English of the south. But Burns, who was familiar with all the literary greats and perfectly capable of both speaking and writing the formal English of the day, chose to write in the traditional language of his land, the land that he knew, and thus made a powerful statement about Scottish culture. Burns was an undoubted patriot. Anyway, no Englishman worthy of his heritage has a problem with “Whan that Aprile with his shoures soote” – and some things are just better the way they are meant to be. Here’s the first verse of Burns’ poem To A Mouse, with an English version next to it:
|Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie||Little sleek, cowering, timorous creature|
|Oh, what a panic’s in thy breastie!||Oh, what a panic’s in thy little breast!|
|Thou needna start away sa hasty,||Thou needs not start away so hastily,|
|Wi’ bick’ring brattle.||With hurried rush!|
|I wad be laith to rin and chase thee||I should be loath to run and chase thee|
|Wi’ murdering pattle!||With murdering plough-staff!|
It strikes me that the original has a degree of power, whereas the English version is awful – too twee for words. Hang on, though – it’s about a mouse. Who writes a poem about a mouse?! Well, young Burns had disturbed this small beastie while he was working in a field, and the experience touched him. This guy had sensitivity. He not only wrote as people spoke, but he also wrote from the heart; it’s impossible not to warm to him. Then there’s his honesty; Burns had no time for hypocrites and, it seems, few illusions about himself:
“There’s ae wee faut they whyles lay to me,
I like the lasses – Gude forgie me!
For monies a plack they wheedle frae me
At dance or fair;
Maybe some ither things they gie me
They weel can spare.”
From Epistle to J Lapraik
Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clem requesting a volume of Burns’ poetry with which to ‘soothe and cheer’ the spirits of his men, the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, serving with him in the filth and terror of the Western Front in 1916. Churchill thought, and I have to agree, that Burns would be as likely to lift his men as anything:
“Now’s the day and now’s the hour”.
And, in contrast:
“Then come sweet muse inspire my lay!
For a’ the lee lang Simmer’s day
I couldna sing, I couldna say
How much how dear I love thee.
I see thee dancing o’er the green,
Thy waist sae gimp thy limbs sae clean,
Thy tempting lips, thy roguish een-
By Heav’n and Earth I love thee!”
O Were I on Parnassus Hill – written to Jean Armour
Burns was a man of contrasts – as we all are; who on earth would like anyone, excluding myself, who is perfect? At the end of the day, though, Burns was a wordsmith at the top of his game, and a craftsman whose metre simply carries you along without you noticing. Read Tam o’ Shanter, possibly Burns’ most famous poem. It is an epic tale of a farmer who, against his wife’s advice, stays too long in the pub with his cronies and, galloping home between night and morning, comes upon witches and warlocks dancing, with the Devil playing the pipes, in Alloway’s Auld Kirk. Tam is chased and escapes by riding over the Brig o’ Doon (the Bridge of Doon) and the rushing water beneath, which witches are unable to cross – though Tam’s trusty mare, Meg, loses her tail to Nannie, the witch (who wears a cutty-sark, a short nightdress). The piece is brilliant: exciting, at times hilarious and bawdy, it is also full of rich imagery and Burns’ affection for legend. Moreover, the characters are based on people he knew and have become part of his story: clever!
I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed the company of Robert Burns, especially over a few jars. It is possible we might have disagreed on politics, but I like to think we would have had pleasure in the debate. You can’t help wondering what he would have achieved if he had lived longer.
There is no shortage of shrines for the pilgrims of Burns, especially in Ayrshire and neighbouring Dumfries and Galloway. There are also statues of him all over the world. According to The Scotsman, “excluding religious figures Burns has more statues around the world than any figure living or dead save for Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria.”
One very imposing statue of Robert Burns is in Victoria Embankment Gardens, not far from the Houses of Parliament in London.
The picturesque and affluent-looking village of Alloway is home to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, as well as Burns’ Cottage, where was born and lived until he was 7, Alloway Old Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon. Between the museum and the bridge is the Burns Memorial Garden, where there is an extravagant Burns Monument (alas covered by scaffolding when visited by A Bit About Britain). All of these are within walking distance of one another. The Old Kirk is fascinating – and is also the burial place of Burns’ father, William. The museum holds the largest collection of Burns’ artefacts in the world. One of the more bizarre exhibits is a plaster cast of the poet’s skull, taken in Dumfries when, for some reason, his body was exhumed in 1834, just before Jean’s funeral. On a lighter note, outside is a hugely imaginative children’s playground, based on stories from Robert Burns.
Down the road from Alloway is the village of Kirkoswald, where you’ll find the graves of Burns’ grandparents and great-grandparents in the old kirkyard. Also buried there are Robert’s teacher from his time at Kirkoswald School, as well as Tam o’ Shanter (Douglas Graham) and Souter Johnnie (John Davidson) – another character from the poem. A ‘souter’ was a shoemaker – and Souter Johnnie’s cottage, now housing local artwork, together with a small brewhouse (alas, no longer in use) in the garden, are also in the village and open to the public. As a further attraction, inside the ruins of the old kirk is the font where Robert the Bruce was christened in 1274. Down the road near the coast is the village of Maybole, where Burn’s mother, Agnes Broun, once lived – and possibly where his parents met.
Various farms and other places where Burns lived, or visited, can also still be seen. In the village of Mauchline, where Robert is said to have met Jean Armour, and where they were married and lived for awhile, there is a small museum. Not far away is Tarbolton, where the house Burns had his dancing lessons and founded the Bachelors’ Club with his friends, can also be visited. There’s another museum in Dumfries in the house he shared with Jean in Mill Vennel. Burns is buried in St Michael’s churchyard – and his favourite howff, the Globe Inn, is still there.
Photos of some of these places illustrate this article and captions will be seen if you hover the cursor over the images.
Burns’ Suppers are held on or around Burns’ Night, 25 January, the anniversary of the Scottish bard’s birth. The first recorded Burns celebration was held just 5 years after his death, in July 1801.
- Haggis and other traditional Scottish food;
- Whisky (wine and ale are acceptable too, but not as a substitutes – and, please note, it has to be whisky, not whiskey);
- Music and poetry celebrating Robbie Burns;
- A chairperson (usually, but not necessarily, the host/ess) and readers/performers from among the guests, appointed well in advance, to undertake the necessary constituent parts of the evening.
A guide to your Burns’ Night…
Piping in the guests
Or, if you don’t have a piper, have someone play some traditional Scottish music – preferably live, but recorded will do nicely too.
The host/ess or chairperson makes sure everyone is welcomed and introduced.
The Selkirk Grace
Burns is believed to have written this in the Selkirk Arms, Kirkcudbright.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
Piping in the haggis
The haggis is announced with a piper (if you have one) or by some other splendid Scottish musical means. Stick the haggis on your best silver platter (or nearest equivalent). Guests should be invited to stand as the haggis comes in and the opportunity should be taken to ensure that everyone’s glass is full. On very formal occasions, there’s a small procession of piper, cook/chef and someone to address the haggis.
The address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
There’s more. At the appropriate moment… “His knife see rustic Labour dight…” the person giving the address cuts the haggis lengthways with a very sharp knife, making sure the contents spill out…
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Toast: “to the haggis!”
Haggis, neeps and tatties. Haggis is either:
a) A small furry creature living in remote parts of the Highlands, hunted remorselessly as a delicacy and eaten whenever possible;
b) Minced offal (lamb and beef), with oatmeal, onions, suet and spices, cooked in a bag (traditionally, an animal’s stomach).
Haggis is traditionally served with neeps (turnips, mashed) and tatties (mashed potatoes). Some (like Mrs Britain) add mashed carrot too – and it’s great!
Typical options include Tipsy Laird (an alcoholic trifle, often using sherry); Ecclefechan tart (a tart made with dried fruit and spices); clootie dumpling (a fruity suet pudding).
A guest should perform a Burns song or recite one of his poems at this point.
The immortal memory
A well-researched, rehearsed, captivating discourse on the life and genius of Robert Burns, quoting from his works and concluding with the toast, “to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!”
Toast to the Lassies
Using suitable quotations from Burns’ works, and ideally making appropriate reference to the ladies present, a speaker praises women. It’s a broad brief, but should be amusing and always tasteful. “To the Lassies!”
Even more entertainment…
See above again.
Reply to the Toast to the Lassies
This is the chance for a chosen lady, on behalf of all members of her sex present, to retaliate.
Auld Lang Syne
Everyone sings, even those no longer able to stand.
It’s up to you…
Or, of course, you can just cook haggis, neeps, tatties and toast Robbie Burns in a small way – which is exactly what Mrs Britain did so that I’d have a couple of photos for this article.
If you want to learn more, there is an enormous amount of material on the web about Robbie Burns. One of the best sites, which includes the complete works of Robert Burns – almost 560 poems and songs – is RobertBurns.org