Every year, Scotland leads the world in the celebration of the life and legacy of one of the most famous literary figures, Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns, as he’s often known. From Ayr to Atlanta, Montrose to Moscow, St Andrews to Singapore, traditional gatherings take place across the globe in honour of Scotland’s favourite son.
Robert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in the village of Alloway, two miles south of Ayr to parents, Willian Burnes and Agnes Broun who were tenant farmers. They ensured their son received a relatively good education and he began to read avidly. The works of Alexander Pope, Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne fired Robert’s poetic impulse and relationships with the opposite sex
provided his inspiration. Handsome Nell, for Nellie Kilpatrick, was his first song.
Hard physical labour on the family farm took its toll on the young Burns, who increasingly turned his attentions towards the passions of poetry, nature, drink and women which would characterise the rest of his life. He fathered twins with eventual wife Jean Armour, but a rift in their relationship nearly led to Burns emigrating to the West Indies with lover Mary Campbell (his Highland Mary).
However, Mary’s sudden death and the sensational success of his first published collection of verse kept him in Scotland. At just 27, Burns had already become famous across the country with poems such as To a Louse, To a Mouse and The Cotter’s Saturday Night.
In due time, Burns had spent most of the wealth from his published poetry, so in 1789 he began work as an Excise Officer in Dumfries and resumed his relationship with wife Jean. His increasingly radical political views influenced many of the phenomenal number of poems, songs and letters he continued to pen. The hard work this new job entailed, combined with the toil of his earlier life and dissolute lifestyle began to take their toll on Burns’s health.
He died on 21 July 1796 aged just 37 and was buried with full civil and military honours on the very day his son Maxwell was born. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children.
The perfect antidote to a cold, dark late January night is a Burns Supper. These evenings are warm and merry affairs, filled with fervent speech-giving, poetry recitals and plenty of food and drink.
For many, the highlight of the evening comes with the arrival of the haggis. Scotland’s national dish takes centre stage, as the words to one of Burns’ most wellkent poems, Address to a Haggis are ceremoniously recounted for all to hear.
His catalogue of poetry and songs was broadly written in Scots dialect, the everyday tongue of Scottish people in the 18th century. On reading Burns’ verse for the first time, it’s common not to understand all the words, but still grasp the theme of the poem. Regardless of whether you immerse yourself in the language, searching for meaning line by line, or simply let the words wash over you with their curious sounds conjuring images and ideas, you can’t fail to be moved by his works.