Robert Burns

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The Time of Robert Burns

He was one of Scotland's greatest sons - and also probably the greatest poet who ever lived.

Of all the people in history who have put pen to paper, none - not even the great William Shakespeare - has ever been able to match the power, eloquence and sheer passion of Robert Burns.

The tragically short life of Burns, who was born in 1759 and died in 1796, forms one of the most important parts of Scottish history. But he is far from being just a figure from the past.

There is hardly a Scot alive who cannot recite at least some of the great man's words, and every year thousands of Burns suppers are held all around the world to honour his memory and keep his name alive.

As virtually everyone knows, Burns was born the eldest of seven children at a cottage in Alloway near Ayr on January 25th 1759. His father, William Burnes or Burness, was eking out a living as a nurseryman on the banks of the nearby River Doon and had built the cottage himself.

The young Robert grew up in a life of hardship and poverty, but his father was far sighted enough to send him to school to receive an education. Robert also read voraciously, and by the time he had grown up he knew the major works of English literature and also had a good knowledge of other subjects such as French.

In 1766, the family moved from Mount Oliphant near Alloway, where his father had taken a farm, to Lochlea near Tarbolton, The young Robert was sent off to Irvine to learn the art of flax dressing.

His training in a trade wasn't much of a success, though the one thing he apparently did learn was how to seduce women - a skill which was to both benefit and haunt him for the rest of his life.

Robert returned to Lochlea penniless after his flax venture failed - his stock had been destroyed by fire. However, this mishap actually did the world a favour, since it started to make him think about earning a living by writing.

By the time he was in his mid twenties,. Burns had become an accomplished songwriter and poet, and was showing a particular skill in writing in his native Scots. His father died in 1784, and he moved along with his brother Gilbert to a new farm, Mossgiel near Mauchline.

Burns spent only two years at Mossgiel, but it was one of the most settled periods of his life, and he began to write prodigiously. He also met a local girl, Jean Armour, who was the daughter of a stonemason and who, after a turbulent courtship, he eventually married in 1788.

By now, however, Robert was thinking about forging a new life altogether. Jean had become pregnant, and her father refused to allow him to marry her. He decided to leave the farm and seriously considered trying to start a new life for himself in Jamaica - so seriously, in fact, that he is thought to have actually bought a ticket for the sailing.

In the event, he never went. Robert finally decided to try and get his written works published in the hope that the money raised could help to pay for the voyage. He travelled to Kilmarnock and invited friends he had made to subscribe to the publication to help offset the cost of printing.

When his work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - better known nowadays as the Kilmarnock Edition - was finally published, it caused a sensation. All 612 of the original copies sold out within weeks.

The work contained only 34 poems, but it established his reputation as a writer of national merit. Instead of seeking to make a living abroad, Burns decided to head instead for Edinburgh - which rivalled London at the time in terms of its reputation as a literary centre - in the hope of getting a second edition published.

Robert did not find life easy in the capital. Members of Edinburgh's then glittering high society mistakenly thought he was rough and uneducated, and his social awkwardness and blunt manner often created friction.

However, his stay was a success. He managed to get a second edition of 3000 copies published, earning enough money to tour the Borders and the Highlands. His travels helped him to learn different regional song traditions and cemented his reputation as a songwriter as well as a poet.

However, he could not live on the proceeds of his poems forever, and in 1788 moved back to the west coast, He finally married Jean Armour, who by then had borne him four children, and decided to return to tenant farming and take a 170 acre farm at Ellisland near Dumfries.

It was during this period, in 1790, that he wrote his most famous poem ever, Tam O'Shanter. His writing was a brilliant as ever, but the farming venture turned out to be a disappointment because the land was unproductive. Instead, he decided to try his hand as an exciseman.

He turned out to be good at the job, and in 1791 finally gave up the farm as Ellisland and moved into the town of Dumfries to concentrate on his excise work. Three years later, he was given the job as Acting Supervisor in Dumfries.

Ironically, despite his reputation as an excellent government servant, Burns was attracted by the ideals of the French Revolution, which was in full swing at the time. It influenced one of his greatest ever works, Is There For Honest Poverty, and he started to champion the republican cause.

His radicalism caused some of his admirers to turn away from his work and to mock him, but he soon started to cool his enthusiasm and in 1794 joined the Dumfriesshire Volunteers.

Writing, working, socialising, and looking after a family were by this time taking a heavy toll. Burns had never really enjoyed particularly good health and started to go downhill.

In July 1796, he went to the Solway coast to try and improve his health by sea bathing, but to no avail. He was clearly aware that he was not a well man and, on returning to Dumfries, died only days later.

What was it that made Burns so unique? Without a doubt, it was the brilliance of his language combined with the human touch he portrayed through his use of the Scots tongue. He was never afraid to put passion and emotion into his songs and poems, and he wrote in a way in which the common man could understand.

It didn't take long for the cult of Burns to begin flowering. Only five years after his death, the first club was set up to honour his memory, His reputation quickly grew, and today there is hardly a country in the world where his words are not known and his literary skills revered.

Of all his works, probably the best known of all is Auld Lang Syne, which is sung across continents every New Year. It is a universal song of parting and one which, like the immortal memory of Robert Burns himself, will probably live forever.

Meanwhile...

  • 1777 The "Stars and stripes" is adopted as America's continental Congress flag
  • 1783 The American War of Independence begins between England and America
  • 1784 Paris establishes its first school for the blind
  • 1783 Glasgow Chamber of Commerce is founded - the first in Britain
  • 1791 Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster initiates the first Statistical Acount for Scotland

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