Robert Burns – His Life and Work

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Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759. He’s widely regarded as the Scotland’s National Poet and is celebrated worldwide. Burns is the best known of those poets who have written in the Vernacular; the old Scots language although much of his writing is also in English, and in a light Scottish dialect accessible to a wider audience. He also wrote poems in standard English in which his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest.

Burns is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic Movement and, after his death, he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism and a cultural icon both in Scotland and the Scottish Communities around the world. Celebration of his life and work became almost a national cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong in all forms of Scottish literature.

As well as writing original material, Burns also collected songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His song “Auld Lang Syne” is sung throughout the world as New Year dawns, and at almost every other occasion where friends unite. “Scots Wha Hae” has served for a long time as an unofficial Scottish national anthem though there is currently lively debate about what should be the official one.

Alloway

Burns was born in the village of Alloway, two miles south of Ayr, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes, a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, just south of Stonehaven, and Agnes Broun, the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald in Ayrshire. He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766. William Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship; the severe manual labour of the farm taking its toll in later years.

He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history. John Murdoch also wrote for them a Manual Of Christian Belief. Robert and his brother Gilbert were also taught in Alloway by John Murdoch until 1768 when he left the area. The subjects of the day included Latin, French and Mathematics. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772, returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French and Latin.

By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick who inspired his first attempt at poetry, “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass”. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thompson to whom he wrote two songs, “Now Westlin’ Winds” and “I Dream’d I Lay”.

Tarbolton

Despite his ability and character, William Burnes was consistently unfortunate, and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances. In 1777 he moved his large family from the unfavourable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre farm at Lochlea, near Tarbolton, where they stayed until William Burnes’ death in 1784. Subsequently, the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. To his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school in 1779 and, with Gilbert, formed the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club the following year. His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie. In spite of four songs written for her, and a suggestion that he was willing to marry, she rejected him. Robert Burns was initiated into masonic Lodge St David Tarbolton in 1781, when he was 22.

In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine where he learned the work of a flax-dresser but, during the workers’ celebrations for New Year 1781/1782 (which included Burns as a participant), the flax shop caught fire and was burnt to the ground. This venture accordingly came to an end, and Burns went home to Lochlea farm. During this time he met and befriended Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet. During February 1784, Robert Burn’s Father William died in Lochlea. Robert & Gilbert had already made arrangements to lease Mossgiel Farm on the outskirts of the village of Mauchline, and the whole family moved there with them.

Mauchline

The next four years were to be some of the most traumatic and productive of the poet’s life during which, between 1784 and 1788, he stayed in the house pictured below in the cobbled back streets of the town.

During the summer of 1784, Burns came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a local stonemason.

His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns, was born in 1785 to his mother’s servant Elizabeth Paton while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father “was in the greatest distress, and fainted away”. To avoid disgrace, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Paisley. Although Armour’s father initially forbade it, they were eventually married in 1788. Armour bore him nine children, only three of whom survived infancy.

Burns was in financial difficulties due to his want of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up a friend’s offer of work in Jamaica at a salary of £30 per annum. The position that Burns accepted was as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Burns’ egalitarian views were typified by “The Slave’s Lament” six years later, but in 1786, there was little public awareness of the abolitionist movement that began about that time.

About the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell, whom he had seen in church while living in Tarbolton. She was born near Dunoon, and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. He dedicated the poems “The Highland Lassie O”, “Highland Mary” and “To Mary in Heaven” to her. His song “Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, And leave auld Scotia’s shore?” suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that during May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to Greenock from where she sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown. In October 1786, Mary and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him.

Kilmarnock Edition

As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton suggested he should “publish his poems in the meantime by subscription, as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica.” On 3 April 1786 Burns sent proposals for publishing his Scotch Poems to John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, who published these proposals on 14 April 1786, on the same day that Jean Armour’s father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean. To obtain a certificate that he was a free bachelor, Burns agreed on 25 June to stand for rebuke in Mauchline kirk for three Sundays. He transferred his share in Mossgiel farm to his brother Gilbert on 22 July, and on 30 July wrote to tell his friend John Richmond that, “Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail until I can find a warrant for an enormous sum … I am wandering from one friend’s house to another.”

On 31 July 1786 John Wilson published the volume of works by Robert Burns, “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect” better known as his Kilmarnock Edition. It sold for 3 shillings ( 15 pence in today’s currency) and contained much of his best writing, including “The Twa Dogs”; “Address to the Deil”; “Halloween”; “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”; “To a Mouse”; “Epitaph for James Smith” and “To a Mountain Daisy”, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

Burns postponed his planned emigration to Jamaica on 1 September, and was at Mossgiel two days later when he learnt that Jean Armour had given birth to twins. On 4 September Thomas Blacklock, the Annan born blind poet, wrote a letter expressing admiration for the poetry in the Kilmarnock volume, and suggesting an enlarged second edition. A copy of it was passed to Burns, who later recalled, “I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland – ‘The Gloomy night is gathering fast’ – when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction.”

Edinburgh

On 27 November 1786, Burns borrowed a pony and set out for Edinburgh. On 14 December William Creech issued subscription bills for the first Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which was published on 17 April 1787. Within a week of this event, Burns had sold his copyright to Creech for 100 guineas. For the edition, Creech commissioned Alexander Nasmyth to paint the oval bust-length portrait now in the Scottish Portrait Gallery, which was engraved to provide a frontispiece for the book. Nasmyth had got to know Burns and his fresh and appealing image has become the basis for almost all subsequent representations of the poet. In Edinburgh, Burns was received as an equal by the city’s men of letters—including Dugald Stewart, Robertson, Blair and others—and was a guest at aristocratic gatherings where he bore himself with unaffected dignity.

Here he encountered, and made a lasting impression on, the 16-year-old Walter Scott, who described him later with great admiration: “His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth’s picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

The new edition of his poems brought Burns £400. His stay in the city also resulted in some lifelong friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn and Frances Anna Dunlop who became his occasional sponsor, and with whom he corresponded for many years until a rift developed.

Burns Monument, Edinburgh

He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes “Nancy” McLehose”, with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself “Sylvander” and Nancy “Clarinda”‘). When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to Jenny Clow, Nancy’s domestic servant, who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow, in 1788. He also had an affair with a servant girl, Margaret “May” Cameron. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what turned out to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of “Ae Fond Kiss” as a farewell.

In Edinburgh, in early 1787, he met James Johnson, a struggling music engraver and music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns shared this interest and became an enthusiastic contributor to The Scots Musical Museum. The first volume was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume two, and he ended up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the collection, as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.

Dumfries

On his return to Ayrshire on 18 February 1788, Burns resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries on 18 March (settling there on 11 June). But he trained as a Gauger or excise man, in case farming continued to prove unsuccessful. He was appointed to duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, in November 1790, he wrote “Tam o’ Shanter”. About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of The Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh although influential friends offered to support his claims.

After giving up his farm he moved to Dumfries. It was at this time that, being requested to write lyrics for “The Melodies of Scotland”, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thompson’s “A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice” in addition to James Johnson’s “The Scots Musical Museum”. Arguably, his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes, which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune, before he composed the words. He later wrote ” I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed – which is generally the most difficult part of the business – I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. When I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures as my pen goes.”

Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia, a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns’s most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, “Auld Lang Syne” is set to the traditional tune “Can Ye Labour Lea”, “My Luve is like a Red, Red, Rose” is set to the tune of “Major Graham” and “The Battle of Sherramuir” is set to the “Cameronian Rant”.

Failing Health

Burns’ worldly prospects were perhaps better than they had ever been; but he had become soured, and moreover he had alienated many of his best friends by too freely expressing sympathy with the French Revolution, and the then unpopular advocates of reform at home. As his health began to give way, believed to be the result of rheumatic fever, he fell into fits of despondency.

On the instructions of his doctor, Burns travelled east from Dumfries to take the waters from the Brow Well and to wade into the cold waters of the Solway, neither particularly well suited for someone of his weak disposition.  His treatment was to no avail and , on the morning of 21 July 1796 Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37. The funeral took place on Monday 25 July 1796, the day that his son Maxwell was born. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries; a simple “slab of freestone” was erected as his gravestone by Jean Armour, which some felt insulting to his memory. His body was eventually moved to its final location in the same cemetery, the Burns Mausoleum, in September 1815. Jean Armour was later buried beside him in 1834.

Burns Monument, Alloway
(Photo courtesy of Les Hoggan Landscape Photography)

Through his twelve children, Burns had over 600 living descendants as of 2013.