Scotland's Poet of the People - Robert Burns

Robert, "Rabbie" Burns
25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796

Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard, and Scotland's Poet of the People, was an astute observer of human nature, a humanist, poet, songwriter and remains a romantic cornerstone of Scottish culture. It is impossible to grow up in Scotland, or attend a Scottish school, without reading some of Robert Burns' wonderful and varied writings, and everyone who has read his poetry has their own personal favourite.

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Burn's cottage in Ayrshire - now a museum

Robert Burns' poetry has found its way into our language and culture, perhaps without our noticing, and there are few people in the English, or the Scots' speaking world for that matter, who haven't heard the famous song, sung every New Year, the world over....

"For Auld Lang Syne,
we'll take a cup o' kindness yet
for the sake of auld lang syne"

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

(see bottom of page for complete poem)

Or perhaps you've heard it said that

"The best laid plans of mice and men..gang aft a'gley"
from Burns' poem "To a Mouse"

(see bottom of page for complete poem)

or his plainly stated views on human vanity...

"A Man's a man for a that"

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!

(see bottom of page for complete poem)

His thoughts on destroying a field mouse's nest with his plough are so profound they could have been written by an environmentalist of the 21st century..

"I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union"
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

and his hopes for social harmony are so eloquently expressed, how can one not share them?

"For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that."

The day of Robert Burns' birth, 25th January, 1759 which was originally a gathering of a few of his friends to mourn his passing, is now remembered throughout the world as Burns Night, or a Burns' supper, where the haggis ("the chieftain' o' the puddin' race", yes he wrote a poem about a haggis too!) is eaten, whisky is drunk and his poems are read and savoured along with the food and the company. Robert Burns was more than a poet, he was a man of the people, and his powerful and meaningful commentary on the human condition have assured his place in the hearts and culture of Scotland for posterity.

Robert Burns' house in Dumfries

Robert Burns grew up in hardship and poverty, though not without the benefit of education. His father was a self educated tenant farmer, and Burns himself worked in the fields in all weathers, and the winter weather in Scotland can be harsh indeed. Although the work left him with a stoop, and permanently damaged his health, leading to his premature death at the age of 37, Burns was far from bitter. He grew up charming and handsome and, yes, a ladies' man.

Burns flaw, and we all have them, is that he found it difficult to be faithful, but arrogant he most certainly was not. He hated hypocrisy, pomposity and pretentiousness, and when you read his poetry you discover his most prized virtues .. honesty, fairness, simplicity, kindness and hard work.

Born on 25th January, 1759 in Alloway (in south Ayrshire), as one of seven children, Robert Burns lived in a house built by his father, whose name was not Burns, but Burness, and received most of his education from this remarkable man. Burn's father, who wrote for his children a Christian manual entitled "A Manual Of Christian Belief", disapproved of the young Robert's interest in joining a country dancing school along with his brother Gilbert, as frivolity was not part of his world-view. Robert took to full time farm labouring at a young age, and it seems from then on his life was on a predictable course, but Burns was neither a predictable, nor ordinary man. Interestingly enough, at the age of 22, Burns became a Freemason and he was to be involved with Freemasonry for the rest of his life.

An early attempt at learning the art of flax dressing - (preparing flax to make linens, fishing nets and so on), was cut short when the shop where he was an apprentice was burned down, and he returned home to his father's farm.

After the death of Burns' father, he and Gilbert tried in vain to keep up the farm, but it was not to be, and they eventually moved to a farm called Mossgiel, near Mauchline, where he met his future wife, Jean Armour, (with whom he would have nine children), when she shooed him away from her laundry which was drying outside on a clothes' line.

Tam o' Shanter flees from his alcoholic delusions

Robert Burns' true calling of course was always poetry, and it was here in Mauchline, a community held in the strict religious grip of the Church, that Burns wrote some of his most intriguing poems, "Tam o' Shanter" and "Holy Willie's Prayer" in eloquent protest at the perceived hypocrisy of the Church that dominated local lives.

Never able to be faithful for long however, Robert Burns later embarked on a relationship with a girl called Mary Campbell, and planned to move with her to Jamaica where he hoped to find a position as a bookkeeper on a plantation, but Mary died of a fever before those plans could come to fruition. Encouraged by his brother Gilbert, that same year he published "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" which launched his career. His name and his fame were to follow, and he was invited to the capital city of Edinburgh, where he mingled in aristocratic society and was received with much praise.

Alexander Nasmyth's famous painting - now hangs in the National Gallery in Edinburgh

During this time he became well known in Edinburgh and met many famous people including a sixteen year old Sir Walter Scott, who wrote this fascinating description of him :-

"His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth's picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits ... there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time".

Robert Burns meets the aristocracy in Edinburgh

While in Edinburgh, again he pursued an affair, this time with a woman called Agnes 'Nancy' McLehose. Nancy was separated from her husband, but when the relationship failed to follow the course Burn's had chosen, he pursued instead her servant, one Jennie Clow. Their son, Robert Burns Clow was born in in 1788.

In spite of all the acclaim, Robert Burns never lost his humility and remained a man of the people without airs or affectations. He eventually returned to Jean and took a lease on a farm near Dumfries. No doubt wary of previous farming failures, he also trained as an Exciseman working for Customs and Excise, to support his large family.

Burn's wife of many years, Jean Armour

Sadly the rigours of the hard physical labours he had undertaken as a child began to take a toll on him and his health rapidly declined. Following the extraction of a tooth, he developed a fatal infection, and the end of his life neared. His last child, Maxwell, was born on the day of his death, and the country mourned along with Jean. Contributions of money began flowing in to help her, and alongside his child, his immortality was born.

Robert Burns wrote powerfully about many eternally important human issues.. the environment and our unfortunate relationship with nature, religion, the church and its abominable hypocrisy, the devotion of deep and true love, and about patriotism and love for his native country, Scotland. He also wrote about the evils and foolishness of over-indulgence in alcohol, and the alcoholic and religious delusions intermingled with all that follows addiction and dependency. Burns was also politically-minded and sympathetic to the cause of Scottish Nationalism, long before it was called such. "Scots Wha Hae", his famous and inspiring poem of the Scots' battle for freedom and liberty from the English, which could have landed him in jail for its revolutionary overtones, was submitted to the paper with the plea that the editors deny any knowledge of its author. It is still sung in the Scottish parliament as the unofficial Scottish National anthem, a song of freedom, courage and love for his homeland of Scotland.

He commented on every aspect of life in his beautiful and lyrical Scots' dialect and many of his poems are still sung as well as read today, including of course "Auld Lang Syne" and "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose".

You can visit the home in which he grew up, which is now a museum and the house where he spent his last days.

Statues have been erected to Burns, not only in Ayr, but also in many other cities throughout the world, where Scots now live. Below is the statue in Canberra, Australia, where many Scots emigrated following the Clearances and political upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Whenever Scots gather on Burns' Night to reminisce and celebrate their unique culture and one anothers' company, they also celebrate the life and poetry of the man who unites them in their common love for their native country, Scotland, and thereby preserve not only the immortality of Robert Burns - a true poet of the Scottish people - but the fabric of Scottish culture itself.

Statue to Burns in Canberra, Australia

Below is a map showing location of Burn's Cottage in Ayrshire...

To a Mouse

On Turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie,
O what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin' wi' the lave,
And never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin':
And naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin'
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste
An' weary winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till, crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble
An' cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.

Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But, oh! I backward cast my e'e
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Auld Lang Syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne,

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

And surely ye’ll be your pint stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin’ auld lang syne.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gie's a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

A Man's a Man for a' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

My Love is Like a Red Red Rose

O, my luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!
O I will luve thee still, my Dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Scots Wha' Hae'

Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae your gory bed,
Or tae Victorie!

'Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o' battle lour,
See approach proud Edward's power -
Chains and Slaverie!

'Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha will fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

'Wha, for Scotland's king and law,
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',
Let him on wi' me!

'By Oppression's woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

'Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! -
Let us do or dee!'

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