Burns Night: Happy birthday, Robert Burns!

The poet Robert Burns (Wikipedia)

In the night of the Scottish poet’s birthday, we have a brief look at his life.
It’s becoming a tradition of this blog to celebrate the birthdays of many illustrious authors, and this week the lucky boy is none other than Scottish poet Robert Burns. While I had a certain idea about him and his work, I truly did not know that there existed this lovely tradition in Scotland to celebrate his birthday with a supper that includes the ever present haggis and Scotch whiskey, but more importantly, the recitation of some of his poetry, like the “Address to a Haggis” or “To a Mouse
After all, there’s always an author that comes to specifically embody all the spirit of their country, whether they make a special effort or their work is read afterwards as such, and whose contribution to the world does indeed deserve a celebration. You have Shakespeare in England, Cervantes in Spain (and the rest of the Siglo de Oro authors to an extent), and for Scotland, that’s Robert Burns.
Burns did not only have his own compositions but compiled pretty much all the Scottish folk songs, generally with some adaptations.
He was the eldest of seven children, born to William Burnes, a self-educated farm tennant, and his wife, Agnes Broun. His father taught all his children the basics of education, but he was also taught grammar, French, and Latin by several other teachers.

It’s in his teen years, that Robert meets his first muse, Nellie Kilpatrick, to whom he writes “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass“, and later, when he is finishing his education, he meets Peggy Thompson, to whom he writes both  “Now Westlin’ Winds” and “I Dream’d I Lay“.
Due to his father’s bad luck, the family has to move to Tarbolton in 1777, where Robert joins a dancing school two years later,  and forms the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club with his brother Gilbert. He also writes four songs to Alison Begbie, who rejects him.
As every self-respecting 18thC man before and after him, he is initiated into the Masons in 1781.
A year later, he meets  Captain Richard Brown, who encourages him to become a poet, setting his career in motion.

In 1784, Robert’s father dies, and even if he tries to keep the family farm running along with his brother, they have to move to Mossgiel, near Mauchline. There, they become acquainted with a group called The Belles of Mauchline, of which Robert’s future wife, Jean Armour, was a member.

Robert had a series of love affairs that resulted in four illegitimate children, some of them even while he was courting the woman who was to become his wife. Who also happened to get pregnant with twins, and was sent away by her father before he approved of her marriage to Robert.

(Quite an intense predicament, if you ask me)

In the meanwhile, thinking that his marriage to Jean would not happen, Robert began to save to emigrate to Jamaica, giving his share of the property to his brother Gilbert and agreeing to stand in rebuke that he was a bachelor. In July of 1786, his volume of works, titled “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect“, is published. In the meanwhile, Jean’s father had an arrest warrant for Robert and he had to go into hiding. But he left that hiding to go to Jean when he received the news she had given birth to twins.

His work is met with much acclaim and Robert moves to Edinburgh, where “Poems” is published in April 1787, including in it the portrait by Alexander Nasmith which now hangs in the Scottish National Portait Gallery. He makes many acquaintances and friendships, among them, that of James Johnson, with whom he shared his passion to preserve Scottish songs.

He returns from Edinburgh in 1788, resuming his relationship with Jean and taking a lease on a farm. In November 1790, he writes “Tam O’Shanter“.

After moving to Dumfries, Robert collaborated with over 100 songs in “The Melodies of Scotland“, and made major contributions to “A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice” and to the Scots Musical Museum of Johnson, among many other things.
His  fame was at a high point, but he had alienated many of his friends with the sympathy towards the French Revolution. His health also began to decline and he died in Dumfries at the age of 37 in 21 July 1796. 

Five years later, the first Burns Night was celebrated in his honour.

To which, this year, I hope to contribute with my humble rendition ofA Red, Red Rose

Sources for this post:


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