Robert Burns Poet

One of Scotland's greatest characters, and Internationally loved as well, Robert Burns was born the son of a gardener and tenant farmer in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. It was watching his father being beaten down by hard and unremitting toil on a succession of unrewarding farms which instilled in Burns a humanitarian outlook in life. It also made him a rebel against contemporary religious and political thought which conveniently overlooked inhumanity and made little effort to improve democratic social values.

In earlier times he might have been a Wallace; later a revolutionary socialist. Instead, he turned to writing songs and poems which resound still round the globe. By his mid-twenties, Burns was an accomplished craftsman, collecting folk songs, writing his own verse, and making satirical commentary on the social scenes around him.

In 1786, he fell in love with Jean Armour. Her father refused permission for them to marry, even though she was pregnant with what would turn out to be twins. Armour obeyed her father and spurned him. Burns turned to another woman, who died soon after. To cap all this misery, the farm he was hard at work on was not profitable, and Burns thought of emigrating to the West Indies.

As a personal fight against this tide of ill-luck, in the summer of that year he published his first collection, in Kilmarnock. Think yourself favoured if you possess one of the 612 copies of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It met with instant success, on both sides of the country, and through all the strata of society, rich or otherwise.

On the crest of this collection he went to Edinburgh in November 1786, to be the centre of attraction. With some income from the collection he was able to travel through Scotland, collecting more songs. He appreciated the scenery, the people, and its history. In the summer of 1788 he settled at a farm in Ellisland, Dumfriesshire. Later that year he was finally able to marry Jean Armour, with whom he had been reconciled.

The farm work continued to be difficult and slow to reward, and he helped support his family with work as an Exciseman. The farm was finally dropped and he became a fulltime excise officer in Dumfries in 1791. Just before he left the farm at Ellisland, he wrote Tam o'Shanter, one of his most enduring and enjoyable poems. But his personal interest was by now concentrating on songwriting, and it has been claimed that he is one of Britain's greatest songwriter. He was always modest about these, claiming that they were for the most part derived from earlier fragments.

In Edinburgh he had met James Johnson, another keen collector of Scottish songs. Johnson was producing a series of volumes on songs complete with music, and Burns was soon the chief part of the production team. James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803) was published in six volumes and contained 200 of Burns' songs. He also wrote the words for many songs found in George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793-1813), published in five volumes. Haydn and Beethoven shared space with Burns.

One of Burns' great attributes was his genuine open and friendly nature. Indeed, this has become so engrained in folklore that Scots refer to him as 'Rabbie Burns.' He had the secret of communicating common feelings to all around and was a brilliant letter writer and talker. The world over, his memory is refreshed every year on, or about the time of his birthday, with 'Burns Nights', at which songs may be sung, verses recounted, and, naturally, whisky supped.

He also had an energetic love life, with a string of lovers through the years. In 18th century tenant farmers' society this was not uncommon, and was even highly regarded as a test of one's manhood. In some ways, society at that level could be more tolerant then than later, as exemplified when his wife, Jean Armour, later looked after a child that Burns had through Anna Park, a barmaid in Dumfries.

His health began to cause concern. He had what was later diagnosed as rheumatic endocarditis, complicated by brucellosis (a bacterial infection usually transmitted through unpasteurised cow's milk). He died on 21 July 1796, at Dumfries.

His defiant, revolutionary song, Is there for honest poverty was written during the French Revolution in 1793. Its last stanza reads:

Then let it pray that come it may (As come it will for a' that) That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth Shall bear the gree an' a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, It's comin yet for a' that, That man to man the world o'er Shall brithers be for a' that. (bear the gree: take the prize)