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Info on Robert Burns

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See also Answer [5.3]

Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, was born in on 25 Jan 1759, the son of an Ayrshire cottar. A cottar is a Scots word for a tenant occupying a cottage with or (from the late 18th century) without land attached to it or a married farmworker who has a cottage as part of his contract. The word dates from the 15th century. Anyway, back to Burns. He apparently developed an early interest in literature. Between 1784 and 1788, whilst farm-labouring, he wrote much of his best poetry, including "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night" and the skilful satires "Death and Dr Hornbook" and "Holy Willie's Prayer". In 1786 the "Kilmarnock" edition of Robert Burns' early poems was published, bringing with it fame and fortune, and the second edition, published by William Creech, brought him enough financial security to marry his mistress Jean Armour. The couple settled to a hard life in Ellisland with their four children, and to supplement their meagre income, Burns took a job as an excise man. From 1787, Burns concentrated on songwriting, making substantial contributions to James Johnson's "The Scots Musical Museum", including "Auld Lang Syne" (see [9.3.2]) and "A Red, Red Rose". On 21st July 1796, at the age of 37, he died in Dumfries, his health undermined by rheumatic fever.

Most of the above was taken from a recommended book "The complete illustrated poems, songs and ballads of Robert Burns" 12 pounds 95p. Published by Lomond Books, ISBN 1 85152 018 X. This is a reprint of a 1905 publication so the print is a bit strange and unfortunately there is no index and the contents aren't in alphabetical order. However, it is 650 A5 size pages (hardback) and can often be found in bargain bookshops for about 5 pounds.

The picture most usually seen of Burns (but not the one on the Bank of Scotland five pound note) is from an engraving after a portrait by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787. Today, many thousands of Scots around the world celebrate Burns night on his birthday, 25th January. Burns night has even been commemorated in the Kremlin. Burns suppers consist of having a meal of tatties (mashed potatoes), neeps (turnips - not swede!) and haggis. Details of how to buy haggis are in [13.1] in this FAQ. There is usually quite a bit of whisky drunk at these occasions too, particularly as Burns was a well known drinker (and womaniser). Usually a man makes a speech remembering Burns and how his thoughts and poems are timeless and as relevant today as they were when they were written. Then there's a "reply from the lassies" where it's usual to point out the other side of Burns and how he left many women broken hearted. Well, that's the general idea anyway, there's lots of variations. Some of the features of Burns Suppers are rather inauthentic: the kilts/tartans worn are really the garb of the Gael, and the Great Pipe is the Gael's instrument. Burns himself wasn't a Gael, and would have been more acquainted with breiks and the fiddle. For more information on Burns Suppers, see

Probably Burns' most famous composition is Auld Lang Syne, however most people do not sing either the right lyrics or the original tune. A lot of people erroneously insert the words "the sake of" in the chorus - this was not written by Burns. The tune is a bit confused too. Burns originally wrote the lyrics to a tune which his publisher didn't like, so he then put the lyrics to the tune which most people know. However, the second tune is also claimed by the Japanese!. The original tune is available on some recordings, including "The Winnowing" by The Cast and "File under Christmas" by Scotland's leading Clarsach (Harp) duo, Sileas (pronounced "Shee-lis")

The old tune is rapidly gaining momentum however, and I have heard hundreds of people sing it in Edinburgh without difficulty. The old version of the tune is also in The Digital Tradition (see [9.1] for details) and off Lyrics are at [9.3.2] in this FAQ.

It is something of a comment on the English-biased nature of Scottish education that Scotland has produced one of the world's greatest and best loved poets and yet he is hardly studied in his own country, most people studying Shakespeare at school. Shakespeare was obviously a world class bard as well, but isn't there room for Burns too? It is also something of a comment on the English education system in England. Burns and Scott tend scarcely to get a look-in on Eng. Lit. courses at univ. - certainly very rarely at Cambridge. This is a comment from an English graduate of Cambridge who says the only Scottish author they recall being vaguely mentioned was Henryson.

To hear some of Robert Burns' poetry read by a native of Prestwick, go to and look in the Scots section.

To balance this "traditional" information on Burns it should be pointed out that, as well as being quite the poet, Burns was also a sexist, philandering and womaniser. His sentiment of "A man's a man for a' that" doesn't carry over very well into his treatment of women. It is also perhaps true to say that Burns had the same casual relationship with his music as he did with many of his women. Burns is often hailed as the champion of Scots but he was broader than that and drew extensively on Highland music too, perhaps through his relationship with Highland Mary. For a' that, for instance exists as a Gaelic puirt a beul. Whether the Gaelic one predates the Burns version is not known however.

Incidentally, Robert Burns is often known as Rabbie Burns or (chiefly by Americans) Robbie Burns. These are both modern misnomers and are not names he used himself. He did use Robin, Rab, Rab Mossgiel, Rab the Rhymer, Robert and in his formal letters frequently used Robt. Of course in correspondence to Clarinda he was Sylvander and in one letter to Ainslie he signed off with Spunkie.

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