3.9: Info on Robert Burns


3.9: Info on Robert Burns

Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, was born in 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 apparantly 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 Hornbrook" 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" and "A Red, Red Rose". In 1796, at the age of 37, he died, 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" 12pounds 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 was recently seen in bargain books for a mere 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 night consists of having a meal of tatties (mashed potatoes), neeps (turnips - not swede!) and haggis. Details of how to buy haggis are elsewhere 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 bloke makes a speech remembering Burns and how his thoughts and poems are timeless and as relevent 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.

Probably Burns' most famous tune is Auld Lang Syne, however most people do not sing either the right words 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 words to a tune which his publisher didn't like, so he then put the words 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 elsewhere for details).

It is someting 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?

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

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