Robert (Rabbie) Burns was born to a tenet farming family on 25 January 1759 in the village of Alloway, near Ayr.
His father died in 1784, leaving Rabbie as head of the family. In July 1786 Burns published his first work, known as the Kilmarnock volume, entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. The book was a HUGE hit, and the Scottish literati praised him to the skies. Novelist Henry Mackenzie declared Burns to be a ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’, and eventually the ‘Bard of Ayrshire’ became the whole of ‘Scotia’s Bard’.
Burn wrote poems in Scots, English, and English in Scots dialect, but literary experts and Burns enthusiasts insist that he wrote most fluently in “the language of the heart.” His poems were drawn from:
his innate sympathy – or empathy – with people (indeed, all living creatures). He may have been admired by some more for his conversation than his poems, but it is the poems that live on and the poems which have made him such a universally loved figure … Not even Shakespeare has as many statues to his memory, or an annual dinner in his name. Burns Suppers are celebrated every year on the anniversary of Burns’s birth.
Certainly the ladies thought Burns spoke the language of the heart – his romances led him into trouble more than once.
His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760–circa 1799), while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786 … At about the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786) … [they may have been handfasted but Mary] died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786 …
Burns then left for Edinburg, where his literary career was blossoming. With a little money in his pocket, he was able to marry the mother of his twins, Jean Armour, in 1788. This didn’t slow down his social life much, tho.
He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes “Nancy” McLehose (1758–1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself “Sylvander” and Nancy “Clarinda”‘). When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to Jenny Clow (1766–1792), Nancy’s domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow, in 1788. He also had an affair with a servant girl, Margaret “May” Cameron. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what turned out to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of “Ae Fond Kiss” as a farewell.
Burns moved his growing (legitimate) family to Dumfries in 1791, where he lived until he died of a long-term heart condition on 21 July 1796, at the young age of 37.
While he was dying, he became infatuated with the young woman nursing him (his wife was too heavily pregnant to do so), and his last poem, ‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’, was written for her. Jean Burns gave birth to Rabbie’s final child, a son Maxwell, on the day of his funeral, 25 July 1796. He buried simply at St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries with only “slab of freestone” to mark the grave. His wife was a little too busy trying to make sure their surviving children didn’t go hungry to bury her husband in a suitably grand fashion.
However, as Burns’s fame continued to grow throughout the Regency period, his adoring fans raised enough funds to the Burns Mausoleum within the same cemetery in September 1817. His wife was buried there beside him in 1834.
Through his multiple children, Burns has more than 600 living decedents, but his true legacy is his influence on literature and culture. He kick-started the era of Romanticism, and he made the honest use of the vernacular speech and pronunciation acceptable in poetry and prose. He also became a kind of patron saint of Scots identity, and Burns Night, with it’s traditional meal of haggis and Burn’s poem lauding that dish, is celebrated with more verve than St. Andrew’s Day in Scotland. Moreover, he gave the Scottish diaspora a loadstone to hold onto their heritage from Argentina to New Zealand. This is especially true in Canada, where Burns’s biography and works grace the media on Robbie Burns’ Day. My favorite Canadian tradition is the Vancouver festival ‘Gung Haggis Fat Choy’, a delightful mash-up of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day.
It is not only the Scots and English speakers that are moved by Burns. His work, especially his “Birthday Ode for George Washington” or his “Is There for Honest Poverty” (commonly known as “A Man’s a Man for a’ that) is so able to encapsulate the struggles of working farmers and the yearning for a more egalitarian system that he became the “peoples’ poet” of Russia, reaching the hearts of Slavic nation even in translation. It was the Russians, not the Scots or the English, who first commemorated Burns on a stamp.
Arguably, the most famous of Burns’s creations is the lyrical poem “Auld Lang Syne”, which is sung around the world on New Year’s Eve. It is much older than the version Burns wrote in 1788, but it was the poet who made it accessible to (and beloved of) the greater public. For myself, I am particularly fond of “My Luve 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;
And 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’ ’twere ten thousand mile!
Hope everyone who celebrates it has a wonderful Burns’ Night tonight, and that your haggis is both moist and flavorful!