Robert Burns

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Robert Burns

Robert Burns, foremost Scottish poet

Robert Burns - known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland's favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and (in Scotland) simply as The Bard (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland, and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best-known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English and a 'light' Scots dialect which would have been accessible to a wider audience than simply Scottish people. At various times in his career, he wrote in English, and in these pieces, his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

Burns is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death, he became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among Scots who have relocated to other parts of the world (the Scottish Diaspora), his celebration became almost a national charismatic cult during periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature.

Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) "Auld Lang Syne" is often sung at Hogmanay (New Year), and "Scots Wha Hae" served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well-known across the world today, include "A Red, Red Rose", "A Man's A Man for A' That", "To a Louse", "To a Mouse", "The Battle of Sherramuir", and "Ae Fond Kiss".

Burns Night, effectively a second national day, is celebrated on 25 January with Burns suppers around the world, and is still more widely observed than the official national day, Saint Andrew's Day, or the proposed North American celebration Tartan Day. The format of Burns suppers has not changed since Robert's death in 1796. The basic format starts with a general welcome and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace. Just post the grace comes the piping and cutting of the Haggis, where Robert's famous Address To a Haggis is read, and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented. This is where the reading called the "immortal memory" which is an overview of Robert's life and work is given. Lastly the event will usually conclude with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.


  • 1 Biography
    • 1.1 Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect
    • 1.2 The Scots Musical Museum
    • 1.3 Burns and politics
    • 1.4 Final years and poetic reputation
  • 2 Burns' works and influence
  • 3 Masonry
  • 4 Romantic life
  • 5 Honours
    • 5.1 Statues and memorials
    • 5.2 Towns named after Robert Burns
    • 5.3 Miscellaneous
  • 6 See also
  • 7 Notes
  • 8 References
  • 9 External links


Statue of Burns in London
Statue of Burns in London

Burns was born in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of William Burness/Burns (Burns himself originally spelled his surname Burness, but dropped the 'ess' from it), a small farmer, and a man of considerable force of character and self-culture, and Agnes Broun, the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire.

Burns's youth was passed in poverty, hardship, and a degree of severe manual labour which left its traces in a premature stoop and weakened constitution. He had little regular schooling, and got much of what education he had from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. Burns also received education from a tutor, John Murdock, who opened an 'adventure school' in the Alloway parish in 1763, and taught Latin, French and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert. However, with all his ability and character, the elder Burns was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm, without ever being able to improve his circumstances.

In 1781 Burns went to Irvine to become a flax-dresser, but, as the result of a New Year carousal of the workmen, including himself, the shop took fire and was burned to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end. In 1783 he started composing poetry in a traditional style using the Ayrshire dialect of Lowland Scots. In 1784 his father died, and Burns with his brother Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm; failing in which they removed to Mossgiel, where they maintained an uphill fight for 4 years.

Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect

Inside cover of the Kilmarnock Edition.
Inside cover of the Kilmarnock Edition.

Meanwhile, his love affair with Jean Armour had passed through its first stage, and the troubles in connection therewith, combined with the want of success in farming, led him to think of going to Jamaica as bookkeeper on a plantation. From this he was dissuaded by a letter from Thomas Blacklock, and at the suggestion of his brother published his poems in the volume, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect in June 1786, known as the Kilmarnock volume. This edition was brought out by a local printer in Kilmarnock and contained much of his best work, including "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil", "Hallowe'en", "The Cottar's Saturday Night", "To a Mouse", and "To a Mountain Daisy", many of which had been written at Mossgiel.

The success of the work was immediate, the poet's name rang over all Scotland, and he was induced to go to Edinburgh to superintend the issue of a new edition. There he was received as an equal by the brilliant circle of men of letters which the city then boasted – Dugald Stewart, Robertson, Blair, etc., and was a guest at aristocratic tables, where he bore himself with unaffected dignity. Here also Walter Scott, then a boy of 15, saw him and describes him as of "manners rustic, not clownish. His countenance. more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. a strong expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest." The results of this visit outside of its immediate and practical object, included some life-long friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn and Mrs Dunlop. The new ed. brought him £400. About this time the episode of Highland Mary occurred.

The Scots Musical Museum

In the winter of 1786 in Edinburgh he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver / music seller, with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.

On his return to Ayrshire he renewed his relations with Jean Armour, whom he ultimately married after another set of twins was born (and shortly afterwards died) in 1788. He then took the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries, having meanwhile taken lessons in the duties of an exciseman, as a line to fall back upon should farming again prove unsuccessful. At Ellisland his society was cultivated by the local gentry. And this, together with literature and his duties in the Customs and Excise, to which he had been appointed in 1789, proved too much of a distraction to admit of success on the farm, which in 1791 he gave up.

Meanwhile he was writing at his best, and in 1790 had produced Tam O' Shanter. About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of the Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support his claims. After giving up his farm he removed to Dumfries.

It was at this time that, being requested to furnish words for The Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune, then would compose the words: "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 and politics

His worldly prospects were now perhaps better than they had ever been; but he was entering upon the last and darkest period of his career. He had become soured, and moreover had alienated many of his best friends by too freely expressing sympathy with the French Revolution, and the then unpopular advocates of reform at home. His views on democracy are well expressed in his famous poem For a’ that and a’ that, which was translated into many languages in later years. A generation of Russian schoolchildren learned it by heart, seeing it as a hymn to social equality.

His Republican views did not stop him from celebrating the Jacobite cause in such poems as Charlie, he’s my darling. The last Jacobite rebellion had died fourteen years before Burns was born, but the Hanoverian English kings remained deeply unpopular in Scotland. However, because he was a government employee, he had to tone his views down. Later, when relationships between Britain and France deteriorated, he changed some of his radical opinions and even joined the Dumfriesshire Volunteers.

Final years and poetic reputation

Burns' health began to give way; he became prematurely old, and fell into fits of despondency; and the habits of intemperance, to which he had always been more or less addicted, grew upon him. He died of his long-standing rheumatic heart condition on July 21, 1796 at the age of 37. A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children, and within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support them. The editor disapproved of Burns’ life, presenting him as a drunkard and a rake, a reputation which clung for many years.

His memory is celebrated by Burns clubs across the world; his birthday is an unofficial national day for Scots and those with Scottish ancestry, celebrated with Burns suppers.

Burns' 1787 epistle to Mrs Scott, Gudewife of Wanchope House, Roxburgh, is a rare example of the rhyming of the word purple – it is a common myth that there is no rhyme.

I'd be mair vauntie o' my hap,
Douce hingin' owre my curple,
Than ony ermine ever lap,
Or proud imperial purple.

Burns' works and influence

A statue of Burns, complete with plough, outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia
A statue of Burns, complete with plough, outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia

Burns' direct influences in the use of Scots in poetry were Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson. Burns' poetry also drew upon a substantial familiarity and knowledge of Classical, Biblical, and English literature, as well as the Scottish Makar tradition. Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect of the English language. Some of his works, such as Love and Liberty (also known as The Jolly Beggars), are written in both Scots and English for various effects.

Burns' themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland's national identity. It is this, perhaps unique, ability to appeal to all strands of political opinion in the country that have led him to be widely acclaimed as the national poet.

Burns' views on these themes in many ways parallel those of William Blake, but it is believed that, although contemporaries, they were unaware of each other. Burns' works are less overtly mystical.

Burns is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a "heaven-taught ploughman." Burns would influence later Scottish writers, especially Hugh MacDiarmid who fought to dismantle the sentimental Burns cult that had dominated Scottish literature in MacDiarmid's opinion.

Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns'), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns' most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, Auld Lang Syne is set to the traditional tune Can Ye Labour Lea, A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham and The Battle of Sherramuir is set to the Cameronian Rant.

The genius of Burns is marked by spontaneity, directness, and sincerity, and his variety is marvellous, ranging from the rollicking humour and blazing wit of Tam o' Shanter to the blistering satire of Holy Willie's Prayer and The Holy Fair. His life is a tragedy, and his character full of flaws. But he fought at tremendous odds, and as Thomas Carlyle in his great Essay says, "Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy. but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs."

See Cutty-sark for the popularity of the phrase "Weel done, Cutty-sark", a line from "Tam O' Shanter".

Robert Burns memorial, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (1935)
Robert Burns memorial, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (1935)


The statue is in the centre of Dumfries, Scotland.
The statue is in the centre of Dumfries, Scotland.

Robert Burns was initiated into Lodge St David Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, when he was 22. His initiation fee was 12s 6d. He was passed and raised on 1 October 1781. Later his lodge became dormant and Burns joined Lodge St James Tarbolton Kilwinning number 135.

The location of the Temple where Burns was made a Freemason is unknown but on 30 June 1784 the meeting place of the lodge became the “Manson Inn” in Tarbolton and one month later, 27 July 1784 Burns became Depute Master which he held until 1788, often honoured with supreme command. Although regularly meeting in Tarbolton, the “Burns Lodge” also removed itself en masse to Mauchline, 4 miles away, to hold meetings in this town. Mauchline was only 1 mile away from his own farm at Mossgiel.

In those days the Master of the Lodge was a mere figurehead, and it was the Depute Master who carried out the working of the Lodge. During the Masonic season of 1784 he never missed a meeting and was heavily involved in Lodge business, attending nine meetings, passing and raising brethren and generally running the Lodge.

Similarly in 1785 he was equally involved as Depute Master where he again attended all nine lodge meetings amongst other duties of the Lodge. During 1785 he initiated, and passed his brother Gilbert being raised on 1 March 1788. Burns' period in the lodge was a hectic one. He had a real zest for freemasonry and he appreciated that true Masonic friendship is intimately bound up with the company of one’s brethren and cannot be disassociated from the lodge room, hence the number of meetings under his direction. The minutes show that there were more lodge meetings well attended during the Burns period than at any other time. He must have been a very popular and well respected Depute Master.

The statue is in the centre of Dumfries, Scotland, where he lived and died.
The statue is in the centre of Dumfries, Scotland, where he lived and died.

The date of his publication by a Freemason of his first Kilmarnock Edition of poems on 16 April 1786 was five years after his initiation into Freemasonry.

Burns' popularity aided his rise in Freemasonry. At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, in the presence of the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful Grand Master, Most Worshipful Brother Francis Chateris. When he was received into Edinburgh Lodges his occupation was recorded as a “poet”. In early 1787, he was feted by the Edinburgh Masonic fraternity. The Edinburgh period of Burns life was fateful as further editions of Burns poetic output were sponsored by the Edinburgh Freemasons, ensuring that his name spread around Scotland and subsequently to England and abroad.

After having spent 5 months in Edinburgh he set out on a tour in the South of Scotland, visiting lodges throughout Ayrshire, becoming an honorary member of a number of them.

On 18 May 1787 he arrived at Eyemouth, Berwickshire and a meeting was convened of Royal Arch and Burns became a Royal Arch Mason. He was never a Scottish companion because at that time although Eyemouth is in Scotland, it operated under the English Royal Arch constitution. The name was “Land of Cakes” 52 on the English roll. The Chapter is now Scottish, number 15.

On his return journey home to Ayrshire as he passed through Dumfries, where he later lived and is the site of the Burns Mausoleum, he was given the freedom of the town. On 25 July 1787, after being re-elected Depute Master he presided at a meeting where several well-known Masons were given honorary membership. A Highland tour followed with many other lodges being visited. During the period from his election as Depute Master in 1784 Lodge St James had been convened 70 times. Burns was present 33 times and was 25 times the presiding officer. On 11 November 1788 was his last meeting at his mother lodge St James Kilwinning.

He joined Lodge Dumfries St Andrew Number 179 on 27 December 1788. This was an unfortunate choice, made perhaps because of the Excise connection. Out of the six Lodges in Dumfries he joined the one which was the weakest of them. The records of this lodge are scant and we hear no more of him until on 30 November 1792 when Burns was elected Senior Warden. From this date until his final meeting in the Lodge on 14 April 1796 it appears that the Lodge met only 5 times. There are no records of Burns visiting any other lodges either.

From a purely Masonic point of view it cannot be said that he was either a great or prominent Freemason. The Masonic events were certainly very important to his life and conspicuous and important influences on his life. His association with Masonry was a means of enabling him to get his works published, to meet persons of a higher social status, and to help to raise himself from obscurity to the place he now holds as the national poet of Scotland.

Romantic life

Burns was reputed to have an affinity with attractive young women of culture. One of his objects of affection was the young Eliza Burnett, daughter of Lord Monboddo. Burns's father was a tenant at the Monboddo House, and Robert was a frequent visitor there at the learned suppers as an excuse to see Eliza. He wrote several poems to her beauty and grace, but Eliza died at an early age and no serious consequence arose from their relationship. In 1783 there are at least four letters extant of Burns writing to Eliza, all of which are romantic in content, one containing the passage: "without you I can never be happy". Burns wrote in 1786 of Eliza: "There has not been anything nearly like her in all the combinations of Beauty, Grace and Goodness the great Creator has formed, since Milton's Eve on the first day of her existence."[1]

Burns's casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk. His mother’s servant girl bore him a daughter in 1785, and he next had an affair with Jean Armour, the daughter of a builder in Mauchline. Although she bore him twins in 1786, her father forbade her to marry him.


There are many organizations around the world named after Burns, as well as a large number of statues and memorials. Organisations include:

  • Robert Burns Fellowship, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
  • Burns Club Atlanta, USA

Statues and memorials

Main article: List of Robert Burns memorials

Towns named after Robert Burns

  • Burns, New York
  • Burns, Oregon


The British Royal Mail issued stamps commemorating Burns twice: two stamps, valued at fourpence and 1 shilling and threepence, both carrying Burns' portrait were issued in 1966. A second issue commemorating the bicentenary of Burns' death in 1996 contained four stamps valued at 19 pence, 25 pence, 41 pence and 60 pence, and included quotes from Burns' poems.

Robert Burns is pictured on the £5 banknote (since 1971) of the Clydesdale Bank, one of the Scottish banks with the right to issue banknotes. On the reverse of the note there is a vignette of a field mouse and a wild rose which refers to Burns' poem "Ode to a mouse"

A BR standard class 7 steam locomotive was named after him, along with a later electric locomotive, 87035

Robert Burns' home in Scotland is now a public museum.

1996 a musical by the name Red Red Rose won third place at a competition for new musicals in Denmark. The musical was about Burns' life and Robert Burns was played by John Barrowman.

See also

  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Eddi Reader
  • Jean Redpath


  1. ^ Bailey, Eileen A. FSA, James C.A. Burnett, Charles J. Burnett and Christopher Croly, The Holly and the Horn, Leys Publishing, Banchory (2005) ISBN 0-9538640-2-2
  • Robert Burns, The Canongate Burns: The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg (2001; Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003). ISBN 1-84195-380-6
  • This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.
  • Dietrich Hohmann: Ich, Robert Burns, Biographical Novel, Neues Leben, Berlin 1990 (in German)
  • Robert Burns Country: the 'official' Robert Burns site
  • World Burns Club
  • The Bard: The Story of Robert Burns, Official Feature Film Website
  • Works by Robert Burns at Project Gutenberg
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