Welcome back! Today I would like to pick up where I left off in my previous post about Scottish poet Robert Burns and the annual Burns Night celebration. I promised you I would go a little deeper into the life of the man who penned “Auld Lang Syne” and who, some 222 years later, is regarded as the national poet of Scotland. So let’s dig in!
Ol’ Rabbie was a handsome chap, eh?
The eldest of seven children, Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in a small town in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father, William Burnes (the family later dropped the ‘e’), and mother, Agnes Brown, were poor tenant farmers. Because of the family’s impoverished situation, young Robert spent his formative years engaged in hard, manual labor on the family farm. This facet of his life would shape his world view and inform his writing throughout the years.
Despite their difficult and humble circumstances, William and Agnes understood the value of education. In addition to farm labor, Robert and his siblings had the opportunity to learn. As a result, Burns became an avid reader and, at an early age, began to show an aptitude for writing prose. According to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, he penned his first song at the tender age of fifteen – a love song to his crush, Nellie Kilpatrick, called “Handsome Nell” (also referred to as “‘O once I lov’d a bonnie lass”).
That was only the beginning of Burns’ literary awakening. By the age of twenty-seven, he had already acquired fame across Scotland with his first collection of poems, entitled “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.” In his short life, Burns would go on to pen hundreds of poems and songs, many written in the Scots language and many in English. Burns explored a vast array of topics in his writings – love, death, drink, humor, friendship, nature, nationalism, religion, politics, family, farming (which always remained close to this heart), and many more.
It is undeniable that Rabbie led a…well…colorful and varied life. He became a Freemason in 1781. As a result of his lifestyle choices (chiefly, his tremendous admiration for the fairer sex and drink), he also found himself in frequent conflict with the Church of Scotland. Though married to Jean Armour, Burns had numerous illicit relationships. He fathered twelve children (oh yes he did), eight of whom were born to his wife.
“A rift in their relationship nearly led to Burns emigrating to the West Indies with is lover Mary Campbell (his Highland Mary). Mary’s sudden death and the sensational success of his first published collection of verse kept him in Scotland.” (BBC.co.uk -referring to a rift with wife Jean)
I wonder. If Mary had lived and Burns had emigrated to the West Indies, would he have found the same success as he did in Scotland? Would we still be speaking of him today? Would the world remember his name if that one piece of his life had been different? Interesting thought.
Burns spent his late twenties in Edinburgh. He was known as ‘The Ploughman Poet,’ a name that harkened back to both his upbringing and his affinity for romanticism and nature. Over the next few years, Burns continued to achieve success and admiration, with his womanizing and decadent lifestyle running parallel to his productive working life. He lived his life in a way that was contrary to the moral standards of his day. Perhaps it was because of his lifestyle that his creativity flourished. To his core, Burns was not a conventional man. He was unconventional, independently minded, possibly stubborn, and a free spirit. You may not agree, but doesn’t it seem that many times the most eccentric in our world are the ones who produce the most memorable art and lasting legacies? Think Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Mozart, Wagner, Picasso, Van Gogh…Michael Jackson!
Burns spent the final years of his life in Dumfriesshire in the south of Scotland. He continued to write, and for a time, went back to his roots (no pun intended) to try his hand at farming. The endeavor proved unavailing, however, and in 1789 he began work as an Excise Officer.
Over the next few years, Burns’ health began to decline steadily. The early years of hard, physical work, and a bout of rheumatic fever when he was younger likely weakened his heart, and his decadent lifestyle had taken their toll. On July 21, 1796 – at just thirty-seven years old – the Bard of Ayrshire died. To make a sad situation even more cheerless, on the day of his funeral, his wife Jean gave birth to their youngest son Maxwell.
So, what was it about Burns’ relatively short life that left a lasting legacy in the hearts of the Scottish people? Why is he still so popular nearly two and a half centuries after his death? I think it is partly because of his humble beginnings and the fact that he lived among the ordinary people of Scotland. His writing showed his understanding of and solidarity with the common man. He understood their plight. Burns’ humor, his wit, his frequent political incorrectness, and the fact that he saw into the hearts of people (particularly the poor) were – and still are, the qualities that have endeared him to generation upon generation. Robert Burns was a Scot to his core and remains a big part of the Scottish identity today. Whether you prefer to call him Robert, Robbie, Rabbie, the Ploughman Poet, or the Bard of Ayrshire, one thing is for certain…his name is sure to live on for generations to come.
And to you, friends.
*Featured image and statue photo courtesy of Pixabay.