Robert Burns Born
On the 25th January in the depths of the monochrome Scottish winter, Scotland’s most verbose and celebrated Lothario, and occasional poet, was born. Making his entrance in the unassuming town of Alloway, Ayrshire, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns , would bring Scotland to life with his vibrant, technicolour prose.
Burns would be the man that launched a million suppers of heart, lung and oatmeal; the great Chieftain O’ The Puddin’ Race would leave behind him a rich cultural tradition, his work celebrated annually in Scotland, and by Scots across the globe. A Burns’ Supper of haggis, neeps ‘n’ tatties is as Scottish as whisky , and he was most fond of that too. Scotland’s original bon viveur courted celebrity status long before Channel Four went on air. He was the original Beatle . Scotland’s national poet is immortalised in his own song, verse and legend.
He was from humble stock: his father, William Burness (it wasn’t until Burns’ later years that he used the ‘Burns’ name), was a gardener. His mother Agnes Broun, was a farmer’s daughter. Born in the cottage his father built – the eldest in a family of seven – Burns had some rudimentary schooling at John Murdoch’s school, Alloway. But his father was arguably a greater influence, impressing upon the young Burns the importance of education, and schooling him himself. It was on the arable land of Ayrshire that Burns’ toil would be relieved by his fertile mind. He was destined not to be just another farmhand.
Burns had a variety of occupations: exciseman, farmer, labourer, and flax dresser. But his was a life less ordinary. A prolific poet and lyricist, Burns had a suitably prolific social life. If Alexander Nasmyth ’s 1787 portrait of Burns can be considered an apt likeness, one can only conclude that dark locks, sideburns and rosy cheeks were a real hit with 18th Century ladies. Burns is reported to have fathered eight children out of wedlock to five different woman – in the days when the Kirk’s puritanical influence spread right through society, this was hugely controversial. His life could only have been as lively as his kinetic prose. His fondness of the female form would be an unending source of inspiration.
His first love, and muse, was a girl called Nelly Kilpatrick. ‘O, Once I Lov’d A Bonie Lass’, and ‘Nell Kilpatrick’ were inspired by her countenance. ‘A Red, Red Rose’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ were more poetic outpourings from Burns’ romantic pneuma.
Burns was also a man inspired by his country – perhaps his greatest talent was for livening up the old Scots’ tongue, and writing the most vivid accounts of the personalities he would meet in his travels across Scotland. Burns had become a most popular poet. Invited to Edinburgh , Burns would move in more exalted company, tempted by offers of work in London . These would remain offers. Burns would perhaps never settle down, but he did marry his sweetheart, Jean Armour. And would stay in Scotland all of his life.
By 1790, his career was peaking; the jaunty prose of ‘Tam O’ Shanter was a highlight, its ruddy wit and obstreperous hero would enter folklore, and Scottish culture at large. Burns would move to Dumfries . It was in the Scottish border town that he would die, succumbing to rheumatic fever. He was 37 years old. Though his achievements and exploits would have been fitting for a man twice his age.
Burns is hugely important to Scotland. Burns Night , on the 25th January, his birthday, is celebrated as the chief national celebration of the Scots. Haggis is eaten by the ton, with recitals of his most famous work – especially, ‘Address To A Haggis’. And, maybe his most popular work, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is a song for big occasions; New Year, funerals and weddings. Burns, whisky in hand, would have liked that.
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