Robert Burns – Man of the People

The life of Robert Burns is celebrated every year on the 25th January; the date of his birth. Why did the Burns Night tradition start and how did this obscure Ayrshire farm lad, born in 1759,  turn into a literary phenomenon and national hero?

The Birth Certificate of Robert Burns held at the General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh: Getty (still images) 24-01-2007

The first Burns Night was held on the wrong date (29th January 1802) due to a mistake in a  newly written biography by Dr James Currie (one of many inaccuracies written about Burns’  life).  The poet had been dead less than  six years yet, such was the impact he had made on the Scottish people, there was a great wish to preserve his memory. And what better way than to celebrate in the manner he would have appreciated most: with good company, haggis, Scotch whisky and of course, poetry. If you are thinking of hosting your own Burn’s Night Supper it’s advisable to consult some reliable information on the running order of the event. Click on the image below to watch a newsclip about Burns’ 250th anniversary in 1996.

Delivering the Address to the Haggis
Scotland: Robert Burns: Channel 4 News 23-01-1996


Robert Burns was born into a poor Ayrshire farming family in 1759. It was a constant struggle to make a living off the land and Robert endured hard manual labour during much of his early life. Despite this, his father made sure Robert was given the basis of a classical education, although he spent little time attending school. Find out more about the area where Burns grew up by watching ‘ Ayr from the Auld Brig‘ made by Films of Scotland.

Burns Birthplace at Alloway: Ayr from the Auld Brig: Films of Scotland 1961

As a young man he read widely and began to write poetry inspired by his passion for nature,  revelling and the local girls. To say he had a complicated love life would be an understatement and his many amours (plus resulting progeny) deserve a blog post all of their own.

The Brig O’Doon from Burns’ famous Tam O’Shanter
Ayr from the Auld Brig: Films of Scotland 1961

After his father’s death,  life on the farm continued to be precarious. In a bid to secure a reliable job and escape the embarrassing fallout of a recent romance, he came up with the unlikely idea of emigrating to Jamaica. Unfortunately he did not have money for the ship’s passage so decided to publish some of his poems (by subscription) to try and raise the funds. Astonishingly his volume, written in Scots dialect, was a runaway success. He changed his plans and set off for Edinburgh, where he knew no-one, to seek his fortune.

A Legend is Made
Scotland: Robert Burns: Channel 4 News 1996

In the course of arranging a second edition of his poems, he found himself in demand by the leading figures of Edinburgh society who were eager to meet the  ‘Heaven-taught Ploughman’ themselves. He charmed them all with his vivacity and wit and soon became a celebrity figure. Burns also had a strong interest in folk songs and he set many of his own poems to music. In 1787  he toured different parts of Scotland, in the course of which he collected many traditional songs which were in danger of disappearing. On his return he worked collaboratively with others to collect, publish and preserve this vital part of Scottish culture. Take your own Scottish tour  by watching Holiday Scotland which features most of the places Burns visited himself.


Burns travelled as far north as Inverness during his travels in 1787
Holiday Scotland: Films of Scotland 1966

Sadly,  Burns was never destined to make much money. He sold the copyright to his poetry early on and refused to take any payment for his work collecting folk songs, which he regarded as a patriotic service. He returned to Ayrshire to bring up his family and took up a post with the Excise in order to earn a regular income. Click the image below to find out more about how Burns is still remembered in the town of Ayr.

People of Ayr celebrate the June Rite of Burns by re-enacting the ride of Tam O’Shanter: A Town Called Ayr: Films of Scotland 1974

His outspoken radical views got him into a lot of trouble with the authorities and there were occasions when he nearly lost his job with the Excise as a result.  He desperately needed to support his growing family but hard times lay ahead and he became unwell. Many have said his illness was due to a dissolute lifestyle but we now know he was suffering from endocarditis which, in the days before antibiotics, would inevitably prove fatal. He died on 21st July 1796 at the age of 37. His wife, Jean Armour, gave birth to his 13th child on the day of his funeral. His popularity was so great that it was said  over 10,000 people watched his funeral procession.

Burns Celebrations: Gaumont Graphic Newsreel: 29-01-1920

What was Burn’s legacy to the Scottish nation? His works have been translated into 50 languages and songs such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ are known globally. His poetry is remarkable for its simplicity and honesty,  expressing his zest for life and egalitarian ideals. He has become a conduit for spreading  Scottish culture throughout the world.

Burns’s poetry and ideas continue to be relevant to us today. When the new Scottish Parliament opened, one of  Burns’ most famous songs was chosen to mark the occasion.  ‘A Man’s a Man for A”That’  is a declaration of equality and liberty.

For A’ that and a”that

It’s coming yet for a’that

That Man to Man, the world o’er

Shall brothers be for a’that


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