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Robert Burns - The Ploughman Poet

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A picture of Robert Burns with a scene from the north west Highlands of Scotland in the background.

Born on 25 January, 1759 at Alloway, near Ayr, the national poet of Scotland, Robert (Rabbie) Burns was the son of poor tenant farmers, William and Agnes Burnes. Despite these humble beginnings, he succeeded in writing and publishing a number of books of poetry, and is considered one of the greatest of love poets, both in the English language and in the Scottish dialect of that language.

The Early Years

William Burnes was born in Dunnottar near Stonehaven in 1721 but had to leave his native county in search of work. After spending a period in Edinburgh, he arrived in Ayrshire in 1750 and began to build a clay cottage1 in Alloway in 1757, the year in which he married Agnes Broun. Agnes was herself a remarkable lady, eventually living to the grand old age of 88 years, thus outliving three of her own children and 10 of her grand children.

Born 13 months after the marriage of his parents, Robert Burns was the elder brother of six siblings, Gilbert, William, John, Agnes, Annabella and Isobel. He spent his first seven years at Alloway, before moving to the nearby Mount Oliphant farm in 1766.

During these formative years Burns had to turn his hand to farm work. Following the established Scottish tradition, however, his education was not neglected. He was an avid reader in any case, and he attended a local school set up by his father and four neighbours, with the 18-year-old John Murdoch as teacher, receiving additional instruction in Latin, French and mathematics. During the evenings, around the fire, his father would read aloud from the Bible, and Robert became a devout Church goer.

These years saw his social life developing, and it was also during this time – when he was about 15 – that, according to his own account, he first turned his hand to poetry. His first poem, called 'Handsome Nell', was about his first love for a girl, the village blacksmith's daughter, named Nellie Kilpatrick2. Nellie and Robert had been paired together to work in the fields during which time Nellie would often be singing. Robert gradually developed a 'certain delicious passion' for her and, at the end of the working day, would carefully pick the nettle stings and thistles from her hands.

I did not know why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles.

Being rather awkward and bashful with the fairer sex at this age, Robert never divulged his feelings to her even though she made his 'heart strings thrill'. Burns was later to say that it was due to Nellie that he 'first committed the sin of rhyme' and 'Thus with me began Love and Poesy.'

O once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Aye, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell

Throughout his life, Burns remained a charming and witty man and attracted the attention of numerous women, many of whom can be identified as the inspiration for various poems. Among his most famous love poems are 'A Red, Red Rose' and 'Ae Fond Kiss'.

Early Manhood

In 1777, when Burns was 18, the family moved to Lochlea (or Lochlie) farm, near Tarbolton. There he was to remain until his father's death in 1784, after which the family moved to Mossgiel farm, near Mauchline.

In 1781, Burns became a Freemason of St David's Lodge, Tarbolton, this lifelong connection with Freemasonry providing a constant social support for him.

In Burns's day the Kirk3 not only played a central spiritual role in rural society, it also functioned as the guardian of public morality. Burns's womanising and choice of friends brought him into frequent conflict with the Kirk, but his criticism of the Kirk was largely reserved for the double standards of some of its leading members.

During this time, Burns was a ploughman by day and a poet by night, and the years 1784 to 1786 were one of his most prolific periods: he wrote such well-known poems as 'Holy Willie's Prayer', 'The Jolly Beggars' and 'The Holy Fair'. Perhaps by virtue of being a ploughman, much of Burns's finest work was inspired by nature and his 'To a Mouse', written in November, 1784, after he had overturned a mouse's nest while ploughing a field, is considered a great paean of empathy.

Jean Armour

In 'Mountain Daisy', written in April the following year after his plough's crushing of the eponymous flower, he is alerted to his own precarious place in the world:

Ev'n thou, who mourn'st the Daisy's fate,
That fate is thine — no distant date;
Stern Ruin's plough-share drives, elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crush'd beneath the furrow's weight,
Shall be thy doom!

This poem was written at a time when Burns was experiencing severe personal difficulties. Mossgiel farm was not profitable and, during this time, he had fallen in love with Jean Armour, who became pregnant by him. Although Burns was willing to marry her, Armour's father James was opposed such a union and, indeed, is said to have fainted on hearing the news. There seems to have been a rift in Burns's relationship with Jean Armour at this time; he believed that he had been abandoned by her, and set about having himself declared single again.

The only way out of his difficulties, it seemed, was to emigrate. In anticipation of a move he transferred his property to his brother, Gilbert Burns. Jean's father, believing that Burns was attempting to abscond, issued a warrant against him and Burns effectively went into hiding.

Burns had secured a job as a bookkeeper on an estate in Port Antonio, Jamaica, owned by one of his friends, Dr Patrick Douglas. He had negotiated a three-year contract on a salary of £30 a year and, believing he would never return to Scotland, he paid a deposit of 9 guineas4 to secure a one-way steerage passage on a brigantine known as the Nancy. Shortly before he was due to leave, in late August 1786, the melancholic Burns wrote:

Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
The bursting tears my heart declare —
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!

Burns's plans to sail for Jamaica were well advanced when events took an unexpected turn. He had been advised by Gavin Hamilton - a local lawyer - to finance the voyage by publishing some of his poems. Burns's work Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock in July 1786. Because Burns published the same work a number of times with additions and revisions, this edition is known as the 'Kilmarnock Edition'. The book was sold for three shillings and was an instant success. The entire print-run of 612 copies sold out within a month making him a profit of £20, thus rejuvenating Burns's belief in his abilities and in the merit of his poems. He reconsidered his decision to emigrate and decided to stay in Scotland.

Jean continued to live with her parents in Mauchline, while Robert lived at the farm at Mossgiel. They lived apart even after the birth of their twins, Robert and Jean, on 3 September, 1786.


Following the success of his Kilmarnock edition, Burns decided to further his literary ambitions by visiting Edinburgh, returning periodically to Mauchline - and Jean. Burns's desire to make his name among the Edinburgh literati was helped considerably by Henry Mackenzie5 who wrote a review of the Kilmarnock edition in a short-lived but influential periodical known as The Lounger. In the edition of 9 December, 1786, Mackenzie wrote:

Though I am very far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems... will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this Heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.

Soon Burns was being fêted by an Edinburgh society eager to meet this 'Heaven-taught ploughman'.

For the next 18 months Burns stayed frequently in Edinburgh where he was arranging the publication of a second edition of his Poems, and joining in the social round. The 'Edinburgh edition' was published in 1787.

At this time, Jean once again became pregnant by him. When Burns returned permanently to Mauchline on 23 February, 1788, he found that Jean had been expelled from the family home and was destitute. Reconciling their relationship, Burns found her a place to stay and, on 3 March, 1788 she went into labour and delivered a second set of twins - two girls, both of whom died before the end of March.

As a result of Burns's new-found celebrity as a poet, James Armour finally relented and allowed his daughter to be married to him, their marriage being registered on 5 August, 1788 in Mauchline. The couple moved to Ellisland Farm where Burns attempted to work the land, but the ground was so exhausted that this ultimately proved 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. In November 1791, they then moved to Dumfries, where they lived in Bank Street - the 'Stinkin' Vennel'6. Two years later, in 1793, they moved to Mill Street, at the time commonly known as the Millhole Vennel, but which is now Burns Street. The family were to remain in Dumfries for the rest of their lives.

Mrs Agnes M'Lehose

One of the people Burns met in Edinburgh was Mrs Agnes M'Lehose, with whom he established a platonic relationship. Their ensuing correspondence - using the pseudonyms 'Clarinda' and 'Sylvander' - is one of the most famous examples of stylised romantic letter-writing. But even more famous is 'Ae fond kiss', the parting song which Burns sent to Mrs M'Lehose, from Dumfries on 27 December, 1791, after their final meeting.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee!

The quality of Burns's love poetry is considered to be the equal of that of Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott thought that 'Ae Fond Kiss' contained the 'essence of a thousand love tales'.

Shortly after the appearance of the Edinburgh edition, Burns realised that he was being regarded as something of a novelty, a ploughman-poet rather than a true writer, and returned briefly to the plough.

Travels and Music

In May 1787 Burns set off on what he described as a 'slight pilgrimage to the classic scenes of this country'. His travels took him first to the Borders and later to central Scotland and the Highlands.

Burns's perceived status as the national bard gave him a strong commercial motive to visit rural subscribers to the second (Edinburgh) edition of his poems. Some of the gentry and members of the learned professions who fêted him nurtured his interest in traditional ballads.

From 1787 Burns became involved in a project of the Edinburgh music-seller James Johnson, to collect and publish the words and music of all Scottish songs. Johnson had published the first volume of The Scots Musical Museum in 1787, and thereafter Burns made a major contribution to the rest of the collection. Largely due to him, the publication eventually ran to six volumes of 100 songs each.

Burns also collaborated with the musical enthusiast George Thomson in publishing 'classical' arrangements of Scottish folk-songs. The first 'set' of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs was issued in 1793.

Tam O'Shanter

In 1793, another edition of his Poems appeared, with many additions such as 'Tam O'Shanter' and a number of songs that became famous, including 'Auld Lang Syne', 'John Anderson my Jo' and 'Of a' the Arts'.

Written in a mixture of Scots and English to accompany Captain Grose's drawing of Alloway Kirk in his collection Antiquities of Scotland, 'Tam O'Shanter' is considered to be one of the greatest narrative poems in modern European literature. It tells the story of a man who overstayed his welcome at a public house and experienced a rather disturbing vision on his way home.

By now, Burns was considered by all to be the national poet of Scotland; his own poetry and his work collecting and publishing traditional songs gave Scotland a culture of folk-song surpassing that of most other lands. The themes and imagery he employed drew heavily on the folklore of witchcraft which he had learned from his childhood nurse, Betty Davidson.

Final Years

In his final years, 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, in the bedroom of his Mill Street house, on 21 July 1796. He was aged 37 years.

On the day of Burns's funeral, two days after his death, his wife gave birth to their youngest son, Maxwell. Burns was buried in St. Michael's kirkyard, Dumfries. His original modest grave was in the north-east corner of the old cemetery. In 1815, Burns's remains were exhumed and transferred to a Mausoleum, constructed in the form of a Grecian temple in the same kirkyard as a more fitting and lasting memorial to a great man. The foundation stone was laid with Masonic ceremony by William Miller, son of Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Burns's friend and landlord at Ellisland Farm.

Burns Night

Burns's premature death has transformed him into a cult icon, along with the likes of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Buddy Holly, to name a few.

Nowadays, the Robert Burns legend lives on, with countless annual Burns Suppers honouring his 'immortal memory' being held all across Britain on 25 January. Started by the poet's closest friends just five years after his death, these events have now been part of Scottish culture for over 200 years7.

Since those times, the format of the Burns Supper has remained unchanged.

Proceedings kick off with a formal welcome by the chairperson. Next comes one of the aspects peculiar to this night which is the meal itself, consisting of Haggis, 'neeps'8, and 'tatties'9, the Haggis being 'piped in'.

The most entertaining aspect of the meal is the 'Address to the Haggis'. This is traditionally spoken by a drunken Scotsman in the uniform of a chef, prior to cutting into the haggis with a sharp knife and serving to the guests. Much amusement can be had from the attempts of a modern Scot attempting to pronounce this traditional address. Everyone applauds, and toasts the Haggis with whisky.

Next comes the section entitled 'The Immortal Memory', where a selected speaker gives a short speech about Burns. This is swiftly followed by a 'toast to the lassies', involving much humorous banter aimed at the females present.

The women get to have their say in the 'Response', letting fly with their opinions on the male of the species!

Throughout the evening, songs and poems accompany the food, and the Supper traditionally ends with a rendering of 'Auld Lang Syne', which is also traditionally sung at Hogmanay.

1Burns's cottage is now a museum.2Some sources say that her surname was Blair and that she was a miller's daughter.3Scottish church.4£9 and 9 shillings.5Scottish novelist best known for his first work, 'The Man of Feeling'.6Stinking Vennel, also known as Cavart's or Wee Vennel was so named due to the adjacent stream which drained the rubbish from the High Street into the river. The Scottish term 'vennel' in this context means lane, from the Latin word venella.7The year 2009 was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth.8Mashed turnips - not swedes.9 Mashed potatoes.

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