The great poet of Scotland, Robbie Burns has been hailed as a poet who managed to make the local universal and to have raised the poor folk of Scotland to international stardom.
Robert Burns was born to an impoverished Ayrshire farming family on 25th January 1759. Ten days later a gale struck Ayr and blew down the end wall and roof of the cottage where he had been born. He and his mother took refuge with a neighbour while his father rebuilt the cottage.
Although poor, the local farming community pooled their resources to hire a teacher, William Murdoch, to instruct their children. It was Murdoch who introduce the young Burns to the great classics of English literature as well as to historic writings. At home, Burns was exposed to the traditional tales and songs told and sung by Betty Davidson, an old woman who worked for the family as a maid and kitchen hand. It was the combination of influences that were to make Burns’s poetry so far above the average.
His first poem was written when he was just 16. Titled ‘Handsome Nell’ the work was a tribute to a good-looking girl who helped with the harvest. It was typical of Burns that his first work was in praise of a pretty girl. For the rest of his life he had an eye for the girls and a wayward attitude to love and sex. As a young man he tried his hand at both farming and flax processing, but never really prospered. In 1784 his father died and Burns inherited the family farm. He soon got a servant pregnant and at the same time began a love affair with Jean Armour, a farmer’s daughter who lived nearby and was widely admired for her beauty and learning. When Burns discovered Jean was pregnant he proposed to her and was accepted. Jean’s family, however, preferred the scandal of an illegitimate child to seeing their Jean marry such a notorious womaniser and forced her to break the engagement. Burns promptly began an affair with a girl called Mary Campbell, whom he referred to as ‘Highland Mary’, and began saving up money to emigrate with her to Jamaica.
It was at this turbulent point in his life that Burns had the first of his poems published. On 20th July 1786 his Kilmarnock Volume of poems was published and sold out within a month. The poems were written in the dialect of the Ayrshire farming communities and were a blend of local folklore and sophisticated ideas gained from his literary studies. The reading public of Ayrshire loved the works and the feckless son of a poor farmer found himself welcome in polite society. Burns loved it.
The autumn of 1786 saw the sudden death of Mary Campbell and an invitation to Burn to travel to Edinburgh to promote a new printing of his works. William Creech, the most respected Scottish publisher of the time, printed 3,000 copies of Burns collected poems. In Edinburgh Burns became a hit with Society, but had an unhappy love affair with a widow, Mrs Maclehose, and failed to find any inspiration for more writing.
In 1788 he sent £300 to his brother and sisters to help them buy their own land to farm and himself bought a farm at Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. He settled down with Jean Armour, whose family was now reconciled to Burns after he had won fame and respectability in Edinburgh. In 1792 Burns gave up the farm, which had not been a huge success, and took a job as a customs officer. In 1796 he caught a chill, but went out on duty in bitter winter weather and fell victim to the chest infection which eventually led to his death in July.
Burns created in his works a picturesque version of Scottish farming life which appealed enormously to the middle classes. His world was free of the grinding poverty which affected many families, but instead painted a picture of humour and rustic occupations which were a idealised version of the truth. His imaginative use of local dialect and literary rhythm was unequalled by others working at the time. As an embodiment of what Scottish country life should be about, Burns’s work has never been bettered. He rightly occupies the role of national poet of Scotland.
Each year on his birthday Scots all over th world celebrate Burns Night. The festivities traditionally include a feast of haggis, mashed turnips and mashed potatoes accompanied by whisky. The entry of the haggis to the dining room is accompanied by a ritual which sees bagpipes being played and the host reading out Burns’s own poem ‘Address to the Haggis’, which celebrates Scotland’s national dish in poetic form.