Robert Burns

Robert Burns


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Family background 1

Robbie’s Education 2

Adolescence 3

Adulthood before fame 3

The Kilmarnock Volume 4

In Edinburgh 5

Ellisland 6

Dumfries 6

Death 7

Burns’ Oeuvre 7

And Women 8

Burns and Scotland 9

Burns and Progressivism 10

FRESCI on Burns 11

Bibliography 12



Family background

Robert Burns is the best loved Scottish poet, admired not only for his verse and great love-songs, but also for his character, his high spirits,(9) ‘kirk-defying’, (9,14) hard drinking (9) and womanising! (9,14) Robert (2,5) or ‘Rabbie’ (3,5) Burns, (1,2) known as the Bard of Ayrshire, the Ploughman Poet (5,10) and various other names and epithets,(5) such as simply ‘The Bard’, (10) was a Scottish (1,3) poet (1,2) and lyricist. (3,5) His start in life was a humble one. (6) He was born on (1,2) the dark and windy night of (6) January 25th, 1759, (1,2) in a two roomed thatched (13) cottage built by his father, (9,15) a few miles from (13) the village of (2,6) Alloway, (1,2) two miles south of Ayr (2,15) in Ayrshire, (3,4) in Scotland. (1,3) It is now the Burns Cottage Museum. (15) Robert was the (1,2) eldest (1,15) son (1,2) of the seven children of William (1,7) OR Willian (2) Burnes (1,2) (1721–1784), a tenant farmer from Dunnottar in the Mearns (15) in Kincardineshire (13,14) in the north-east of Scotland. (12,13) William came from a long line of more or less (13) unsuccessful farmers. (13,14) His mother was Agnes Broun, (1,2) (1732–1820), the daughter of a Kirkoswald tenant farmer (15) and so an Ayrshire woman of farming stock. (12,15) William Burnes had come to Ayrshire in an endeavour to improve his fortunes. (14) He had been a gardener (8,12) who ran a small market garden (13) for the Provost of Ayr. (8) When Robert was 7 (13,15) William found that his nursery and his gardening could no longer support his growing family, (13) so he sold the house (15) and became a tenant farmer (1,2) on the (13,14) 70-acre (280,000 m2) (15) farm of Mount Oliphant (13,14) which he leased in 1766. (14,15) The family attempted to make a living at farming (10,12) and Burns’ father worked immensely hard there, (14) but they spent most of their time toiling (10) in poverty. (6,10) By the age of 15, Robbie Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. (15) 18th Century Ayrshire, lying along the southern shores of the Firth of Clyde, though today one of the most fertile and economically best balanced counties in Scotland, was then scarcely less backward than the part from which he came. (13) The underlying trouble was the shortlease system by which farmers held their farms. (13) A farmer who spent money improving his land was liable to find his rent had been put up when the lease came to be renewed, because the value of the landlord’s property had been increased. (13) So small farmers did their best to scrape as good a living out of the impoverished soil as they could, the members of their families labouring for the common weal. (13) Old Burnes was one of these struggling unsuccessful farmers. (13) At Whitsun 1777, (13,15) however, when Robbie was 18, his father freed himself from the sterile burden OR  ‘unfavourable conditions’ (15) of Mount Oliphant, (13) and left it (13,15) just in time to escape total ruin, (13) He subsequently farmed at (7,14) 130-acre (0.53 km2) farm at (15) Lochlie (7) OR Lochlea (13,14) midway between (13) Tarbolton (13,15) and Mauchline, (13) which he took in 1777. (13,14) Despite his ability and character, (15) William Burnes was consistently unfortunate, (14,15) and migrated with his large family from farm to farm without ever being able to improve his circumstances. (15) Robert Burns originally spelled his name ‘Burnes’. (3) His father later shortened his name to Burns. (10) OR Robbie was the first to drop the’e’ from the spelling of the family name. (13)

Robbie’s Education

His knowledge of Scottish literature was confined in his childhood to (14) huge amounts of (12) folk songs and folk tales orally transmitted (12,14) by his mother and a kinswoman of hers, Betty Davidson, (12) together with a modernization of the late 15th-century poem ‘Wallace’. (14) These stories no doubt had an influence on his writings in the future. (4,9) He turned many of the stories into poems. (9) Even with the family’s money struggles, (6,8) his father recognised the importance of education (6,7) and ensured that, (6,7) as well as working on the (6,8) succession of small (12) family farms, (6,8) which was unavoidable because of the poverty, (8) his children were given the opportunity (6,7) to read and (2,6) learn. (6,7) It was while the family was at Mount Oliphant that Robert got much of his schooling. (13) Robbie was largely (10,12) OR sporadically (14) educated by his father, (10,12) who was self-educated (15) and had the traditional Scots respect for education. (10) He learned the three Rs, (12,15) geography, and history, (15) some French and much Scripture. (12) His father wrote for his children ‘A Manual Of Christian Belief’. (15)) After a few years of home education, (15) Robert briefly (8,15) received (10,14) a little (15) formal schooling from a teacher (10,14) called John Murdoch (7,8) (1747–1824), (15) who had been hired by his father to tutor him. (10) Murdoch taught Burns (7,8) and his brother Gilbert (7,15) (1760–1827) (15) in a school founded by their father and neighbours. (7) OR at his (8,15) adventure (15) school which he had founded (8,15) in Alloway (8,13) in 1763. (15) Murdoch taught Burns (7,8) from 1765 (7,15) to 1768 until he left the parish. (15) Murdoch introduced Burns (7) to the works of Alexander Pope (2,7), and schooled him in English, French and Latin, (7,14) and mathematics (15) to the extent of acquiring a superficial reading knowledge of French and a bare smattering of Latin. (14) Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School in mid-1772 before 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. (15) Robert was later educated in Ayr (8) Dalrymple (13,15) and in 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at (15) Kirkoswald. (13,15), where he met Peggy Thompson (born 1762), to whom he wrote two songs, ’Now Westlin’ Winds’ and’I Dream’d I Lay’. (15) Robert’s parents encouraged him to read books by important contemporary writers (11,14) and he read most of the (14) English (11) ones. (14) He also read Shakespeare, Milton, (11,14) and Dryden. (14) Burns was therefore well read (10,11) And could be said to have received a relatively good (2) Education (2,11) OR some rudimentary education (11) OR the best education that was available to them in the limited circumstances of the time. (13). He had access to good books (10) and began to read avidly. (2,12) As a lad growing up in Ayrshire, Burns was always fond of supernatural stories, most of which were told to him by an old widow who helped out on his father’s farm. (4,9)


Young Robert had started to labour with his father in the fields (13) and did his share of hard work on the farm. (13,14) He was proud, restless, and full of a nameless ambition (14) gained his first insight into the problems of the peasantry, and had probably already done that damage to his heart which resulted in his early death. (13) Constant back-breaking work on a farms (2,12) took its toll on the young Burns (2,13) who found it demanding and detrimental to his health. (1,13) He developed a premature stoop. (15) He broke up the drudgery by (1,2) by taking an interest in nature, drink (2) writing poetry and engaging with the opposite sex. (1,2) These interests dominated the rest of his life. (2) At the age of 15, (6) Poetry sprang into his heart, at the same time as love. (12) While he was working as a farm labourer, (8,10) he met his first love, (8) Nellie Kilpatrick, (2,7) (1759–1820) (15)  a girl he partnered in the harvest. (12,15) She inspired him to (8,10) try his hand at (6,8) love (6) poetry, (6,8) and in 1774, (6,7) Burns wrote his first song, ‘Handsome Nell’, (2,7) OR ‘O, once I lov’d a bonnie lass’, (8,15) set to the tune of a traditional reel. (8) The hard work at Lochlea (13) after 1777 (13,14) caused Burns’ endocarditis. (13) By the time the family had settled in OR Lochlea (13,14) Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, (1771) Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760) and the work of Sterne’s immediate predecessor, Robert Fergusson had become Burns’s ‘bosom favourites’. (7) The family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. (15) The adolescent Burns attended (13) OR ‘formed’ (15) a young man’s debating society (13) known as the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club. (15) To his father’s disapproval (13,14)  he also joined (13,15) with Gilbert, a country (15) dancing class in Tarbolton, (13,15) in 1779. (15) There were signs of Robert’s exceptional writing talent from an early age. (6,12) His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began making romantic overtures to Alison Begbie (b. 1762). (15) In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him. (15) The works of Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne also fired Burns’s poetic impulse. (2,7) He worked at a succession of labouring jobs, including flax dressing, and began writing poetry regularly. (8) He was initiated into masonic Lodge St David, at Tarbolton, on 4th July 1781, when he was 22. (15) In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become 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. (15) This venture accordingly came to an end, and Burns went home to Lochlea farm. (15) Rarely having much time to sit and ponder poems, it became his habit to compose as he worked. (12) During this time he met and befriended Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet. (15) He continued to write poems and songs and (15) in 1783, he began writing his first ‘Commonplace Book’. (7,14) So long as he lived, his father managed to hold in check the ardently expanding temperament of his most gifted son. (13) In January 1784 (15) his father won (13,15) a long drawn out (13) dispute with his landlord which went the length of the Court of Session. (13,15) A fortnight later he died (15) in February (13) 1784. (8,9) He had been worn out (11,12) by the struggle to keep farm after farm going. (12,14) He was penniless (10,11) and older than his years. (13) When it became obvious that their father was unlikely to live much longer. (13) OR after their father’s death. (14,15) Burns and his brother Gilbert rented a farm (8,13) at Mossgiel (7,13) near Mauchline (7,8) OR at Mauchline. (8) Their landlord was the Ayr lawyer Gavin Hamilton. (13) 

Adulthood before fame

This left Robert Burns as head of the family. (12) He inherited the farm (9) OR was left in charge of the tenant farm (8,10) which he had rented at Mossgiel (7,13) This seemed to free him in some way. (7,12) The poet spent less and less time over farm concerns and more and more on literature (12,13) and the lasses (13,14) and male companions. (14) Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm, but after its failure they moved to the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in March, which they maintained with an uphill fight for the next four years. (15) Burns developed rapidly throughout 1784 and 1785 as an ’occasional’ poet who more and more turned to verse to express his emotions of love, friendship, or amusement or his ironical contemplation of the social scene. (14) Though he wrote poetry for his own amusement and that of his friends, Burns remained restless and dissatisfied. (14) In mid-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 stonemason from Mauchline. (15) In April 1785, (12) OR 1786 (14) he met (7) and fell in love with (12) his future wife, Jean Armour. (2,7) OR He was already married to her when they moved to Mauchline. (8) He took sides against the dominant extreme Calvinist wing of the church in Ayrshire and championed a local gentleman, Gavin Hamilton, who had got into trouble with the kirk session (a church court) for Sabbath breaking. (14) Burns perhaps exhibited his greatest poetic powers in his satires. (14) In the series of great satires which he produced during 1786, he thundered against the hypocrisy of the extreme narrow ‘Auld Licht’ sect of the kirk, using their purely local squabbles to reflect his humanity and concern for universal values. (13) He won the reputation of being a dangerous rebel against orthodox religion. (14) By March (7) 1786 he was in terrible financial difficulties: the farm was not successful and he had made two women pregnant. (9) Jean Armour was pregnant, (7,12) with twins (2,13) and her father was not best pleased. (12,14) 14 suggests that it was his anticlericalism which upset Mr Armour, whereas most others say it was his daughter’s pregnancy. (HN) Although copies of ‘The Holy Fair’ and ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ circulated the parish in 1785, this treatment was to inspire some of his most famous anti-Calvinist works. (7) His own religion throughout his adult life seeming to have been a humanitarian Deism. (14) Meanwhile, the farm was not prospering. (14,15) The rift in his relationship with Jean Armour (2) and his many insoluble problems (14) such as the need to make enough money to support a family (15) caused him to think of leaving Scotland altogether. (4,12) A friend offered him work in Jamaica. (15) He decided (9,10) to emigrate (3,4) to the Caribbean island of (4) Jamaica (3,4) in the West Indies (2,4) Burns was to be the bookkeeper for Charles Douglas who ran the Springbank estate for his brother, the Earl (?) of Mure. (15) He hoped to achieve in Jamaica the success that had eluded him in Scotland. (10) It has been suggested that that was a position for a single man, (15) OR He planned to go with Mary Campbell. (2,10) He would live in rustic conditions, not in the great house, at a salary of £30 per annum. (15) He would be a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. (15) 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. (15) At about the same time, in 1786, at the age of 27, (6,9) Burns took up with Mary Campbell (2,10) (his ‘Highland Mary’) (2,15) (1763–1786), whom he had seen in church while he was still living in Tarbolton. (15) She was born near Dunoon and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. (15) He dedicated the poems ‘The Highland Lassie O’, ’Highland Mary’, and ’To Mary in Heaven’ to her. (15) 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. (15) Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that on 14 May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. (15) Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to the seaport of Greenock, and sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown. (15) As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, (15) To raise the money required for this journey, (9,10) OR to show his country what he could do, (14) amidst the domestic chaos in his private life, (11) his landlord (13) Gavin Hamilton (15) OR he (12) began to think of gathering his poems together for publication (12,15) ‘as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica’. (15) On 3rd April (15) Burns therefore approached (12,15) John Wilson (15) a printer (12,15) in nearby Kilmarnock, to print his poems. (10,12) He transferred his share in Mossgiel farm to his brother Gilbert on 22nd July, and on 30th 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. (15)’

The Kilmarnock Volume

On July 31st 1786 (7,8) on the same day that Jean Armour’s father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean, (15) Printer Wilson published (2,3) (by subscription) (12) at 3 shillings a copy (15) in an edition of 612 copies (12) Burns’ first collection of verse (2,3) ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’, also known as the ‘Kilmarnock volume’. (3,4) It was a masterful collection, (6) and its success was immediate and overwhelming. (14) Its appeal spanned different classes of Scottish society (11,14) and it was praised by critics (10,12) and simple country folk (14) alike. (10,12) Its publication made a huge impression on Edinburgh’s literary elite, and propelled Burns to celebrity status. (6) The novelist (7) Henry Mackenzie enthusiastically eulogised the poet, christening him ‘the heaven-taught ploughman’, (7,12) OR ‘an unschooled ploughman poet’ ‘, (8) suggesting falsely that he had had no education (7,8) and forcing Burns to fit an enduringly belittling but rewarding role. (7) Still only 27, he was famous across the country with poems such as ‘To a Louse’, ‘To a Mouse’ and The Cotter’s Saturday Night. (2) On September 3rd Jean bore him twins out of wedlock. (14) In October 1786, Mary Campbell and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. (15) Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him. (15) She died (2,15) of typhus on 20th or 21st October 1786 and was buried there. (15) Mary’s death, (2,15) the sensational success of the Kilmarnock Volume (2,3) and persuasion by Dr Thomas Blacklock (9,15) kept Burns in Scotland. (2,3)

In Edinburgh

And so, on November, (7,14) 27th (14) 1786 (7,10) Burns (3,4) rode off (13,15) on a borrowed pony (15) to (3,4) OR visited (7) Edinburgh, (3,4) to bask in the glory (11,12) and be lionised, (13,14) by the great and the good (12) patronized, and showered with well-meant but dangerous advice. (14) He was met by the rapturous praise of the literati (7,12) and became part of the thriving cultural scene there. (8,12) The triumph of his ’Kilmarnock Poems’, had made him a celebrity. (13) In his ‘Kilmarnock’ preface he had played up to contemporary sentimental views about the ‘natural man’ and the ‘noble peasant,’ exaggerated his lack of education, pretended to a lack of natural resources, and in general acted a part, (14) and he continued to play this part in Edinburgh. (12,13) Robbie mingled in literary society, (10) and no smart party in the capital was considered complete without the ‘ploughman poet’ (13) He corresponded with and visited on terms of equality a great variety of literary and other people who were considerably ’above’ him socially. (14) He met, 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. (15) His stay in the city also resulted in some lifelong friendships, among which were those with Lord Glencairn, and Frances Anna Dunlop (1730–1815), who became his occasional sponsor and with whom he corresponded for many years until a rift developed. (15) He had a most enjoyable time – he created a striking impression, not just with his poems, but by his good looks, his charm and his ease of conversation in company: it was said that he ‘glowed’. (12) He was an admirable letter writer and a brilliant talker, and he could hold his own in any company. (14) The trouble was that he was only half acting. (14) He was a member of several Masonic lodges and was actively involved in Freemasonry. (10) Meanwhile Gilbert Burns remained at Mossgiel during the remainder of his brother’s days, though he was only able to weather one particularly severe crisis with the aid of a loan from Robert. (13) Robert made many close friends including (11) an intense but platonic relationship (11,12) with a married woman (12) Agnes (11,13) ‘Nancy’ McLehose, (11,12) or Maclehose (13), (‘Clarinda’) (13) with whom he exchanged passionate letters. (11) The ending of this relationship produced one of his greatest songs, ‘Ae fond kiss’. (12,13) A second edition of his poetry book (3,7) the first Edinburgh edition (7,9) was published (3,7) by Edinburgh publisher William Creech (12) on 17th April (7) 1787. (7,8) It brought Burns £400 (15) and ensured his literary immortality, (7) OR it added little of significance to the Kilmarnock selection. (14) On 2nd August, the poet penned his autobiography in a celebrated letter to Dr. John Moore. (7) Burns’s place as Scotland’s national poet was permanently assured. (7,14) At the same time, he was still a struggling tenant farmer. (14) Financial security continued to elude him. (10) He had sold the copyright of his Edinburgh edition for 100 guineas (12,15) and he was unable to find a patron to support his writing. (8) As well as making original compositions, he (5) spent many years (6) collecting folk songs from across Scotland (5,6), often revising or adapting them, (5) and thus preserving them for the future. (6) He had met (14) and befriended James Johnson, (11,13) an engraver (13) music archivist (10,13) and a fledgling (11) music publisher (10,13) Johnson was a keen collector of Scottish songs (14) who was bringing out (13,14) a series of volumes of songs with the music (14) which would serve as a permanent repository for Scots folk songs. (13) He asked Burns for help (11,13) in finding, (14) editing, (8,13) improving, and rewriting items (14) for his collection of Scottish folk songs. (8,13) Burns was enthusiastic (14) and collaborated with Johnson (10,13) soon becoming virtual editor of this (13,14) ‘Scots Musical Museum’ (3,8) He was also a passionately proud Scot, (6) and, increasingly seeing himself as ‘Scotia’s bard’, (12) regarded his work as service to Scotland. (14) As a result he quixotically refused payment. (9,14) Burns arranged for a memorial stone to his literary hero Fergusson to be put up in the Canongate churchyard. (12) Burns embarked on several tours of Scotland, (12,14) to observe the country (though as a farmer he was more interested in crops than scenery) and to absorb its history and traditions – including its songs. (12) But after a while, Edinburgh grew tired of Burns (13) OR he grew tired of it, (11) OR it unsettled him (14) OR The attempt to keep himself going in two different social and intellectual capacities was wearing him down (14) and left him with the problem of earning a living unsolved. (12,13) In Edinburgh (14)


On his return from Edinburgh in February 1788, (15) he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour (13,15) in April 1788 — and wrapped his intentions and actions in further epistolatory mystifications to his friends — Burns suddenly acknowledged (13) his marriage to Jean Armour. (11,12) He tried his hand at farming again. (10,12) Through a friend he was offered the tenancy of (12) OR bought (9) OR took a lease on (15) a farm (7,9) called Ellisland (7,9) on the banks of the River Nith (9) in Dumfriesshire (11,12) near OR in (8) Dumfries. (8,9) His growing family moved again, (8) and he settled there (11,13) in June (13,15) in the summer of (11,13) 1788. (8,11) He found farming at Ellisland difficult, though he was helped by Jean Armour, with whom he had been reconciled and whom he had finally married. (14) Unfortunately the farm did not prosper. (9,12) and, though a radical by inclination, (12) he trained as a gauger or exciseman in case farming continued to be unsuccessful. (15) In 1789, (7) after trying for a long time (14) he took the King’s shilling and (12) began work as an Excise officer (7,12) essentially a tax collector, (11) in Dumfries, (7,14) Monetary success again proved hard to find. (10) Work for the Excise was arduous, and while simultaneously labouring at Ellisland, Burns’s health diminished. (7) OR in 1790 he was living at Mauchline. (8) Meanwhile, in November 1790, (15) OR (1791) (14) OR 1788, (12) 1796 (11) he had written ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. (11,15)


The farm was still not a success, (12) so he ceased farming (9,10) for good (11) towards the end of (7) in November (13) 1791 (9,10) falling back on the excise work, (12) leaving Ellisland, (7) and moving (8,11) with his family (12) to the nearby town of (8,11) Dumfries, (7,8) OR he was already there. (8) There he accepted the position of excise officer (9,10) OR he was already one (7,14) OR He became a full-time exciseman (9,10) in the Dumfries Port Division of the Excise. (13) He took a house in Bank Street. (7) A problem soon arose as the steady income from his excise work gave him ample opportunity to continue with the hard drinking which had long been his weakness. (9) He continued to write (7,11) a phenomenal number of (7,14) remarkable (7) ’occasional’ (14) poems (7,14) and letters, (7) and do an immense amount of work for the two song collections (14) writing and gathering traditional Scottish (11) songs. (7,11) By 1796, (7) despite leading a busy life, (3,14) and accomplishing so much as a poet, (3,7) illness and poverty had crippled him. (7) As his health began to give way, he began to age prematurely and fell into fits of despondency. (15)


Never in good health, he had several bouts of illness, possibly attributed to a lifelong heart condition. (11,12) Some critics (10,15) (one of whom was temperance activist James Currie (15)) also blamed his fondness for drink as a contributing factor. (10,15) OR He did not as his unctuous 19th Century biographers tried to make out, from excesses either of wine or of women, but from some form of endocarditis. (13) OR This was not ‘lifelong (11,12) but established at Lochlea when the boy had to perform the labours of a man. (13) He died (3,4) of rheumatic fever (4,8) which he contracted ‘after falling asleep at the roadside (after a particularly vigorous drinking session) in pouring rain’. (9) OR ‘despite (or because of) a course of water treatment (immersion in the sea)’. (12) His death took place at his home (6) in Dumfries (6,7) on the morning of (11) 21st July 1796, (3,5) at the (3,4) tender (4,6) age of 37. (3,4) He was at first buried in (3,8) the far corner of (15) St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries (3,8); a simple ‘slab of freestone’ was erected as his gravestone by Jean Armour, which some felt insulting to his memory. (15) His body was eventually moved to its final location in the same cemetery, the Burns Mausoleum, in September 1817. (15) The body of his widow Jean Armour was buried with his in 1834. (15)  Now his body lies to rest in the Burns Mausoleum (3) in St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries. (3,8) Rheumatic fever was an illness that would have been easily treatable today. (6) His lifestyle of wine, women and song made him famous all over Scotland, (9) but although he was a global success with works that have stood the test of time, it comes as a surprise that Robert Burns died a very poor man. (4) He was thought to have just £1 to his name when he passed away. (4) Armour had taken steps to secure his personal property, partly by liquidating two promissory notes amounting to fifteen pounds sterling (about 1,100 pounds at 2009 prices). (15) A memorial edition of his poems was published to raise money for his wife and children. (11,15) The family went to the Court of Session in 1798 with a plan to support his surviving children by publishing a four-volume edition of his complete works and a biography written by Dr.  James Currie. (15) Subscriptions were raised to meet the initial cost of publication, which was in the hands of Thomas Cadell and William Davies in London and William Creech, bookseller in Edinburgh. (15) Hogg records that fund-raising for Burns’s family was embarrassingly slow, and it took several years to accumulate significant funds through the efforts of John Syme and Alexander Cunningham. (15) Burns was posthumously given the freedom of the town of Dumfries. (15) Hogg records that Burns was given the freedom of the Burgh of Dumfries on 4 June 1787, 9 years before his death, and was also made an Honorary Burgess of Dumfries. (15) Through his twelve children, Burns has over 600 living descendants as of 2012. (15)

Burns’ Oeuvre

The time after his father’s death was a period of high creative energy, producing poems (12) such as ‘To a Mouse,’ (8,14) He also developed a satiric strain and circulated caustic poems on local contemporaries. (12) His reading of an earlier poet, Robert Fergusson, inspired him to think of himself as his successor’ carrying forward and widening the range of vernacular Scots poetry’, according to D. M. Low in Robert Burns (1986). (12) His writings in 1784 and 1785 were not spontaneous effusions by an almost illiterate peasant. (14) Burns was a conscious craftsman; his entries in the ‘commonplace book’ that he had begun in 1783 reveal that from the beginning he was interested in the technical problems of versification. (14) His Kilmarnock volume of 1786 was a remarkable mixture (14) and contained much of his best writing, including’ ‘The Twa Dogs’, ‘The Holy Fair,’ ‘An Address to the Deil,‘To a Mouse,’ (14,15)  and what to contemporary reviewers seemed the stars of the volume, (14) ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, and ‘To a Mountain Daisy’(14,15)  ‘The Death and Dying Words of Poor Maillie,’ (14) ‘To a Louse,’ (14) Scotch Drink,’ (14)  ‘Halloween’, ‘Epitaph for James Smith’, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm, (15) and some others, including a number of verse letters addressed to various friends. (14) There is also a remarkable craftsmanship in these, which display a most adroit counterpointing of the colloquial and the formal. (14) There were also a few Scots poems in which he was unable to sustain his inspiration or that are spoiled by a confused purpose. (14) In addition, there were six gloomy and histrionic poems in English, four songs, of which only one, ‘It Was Upon a Lammas Night,’ showed promise of his future greatness as a song writer. (14) Burns selected his Kilmarnock poems with care: he was anxious to impress a genteel Edinburgh audience. (14) He was uncertain enough about the genteel tradition to accept much of it at its face value, and though, to his ultimate glory, he kept returning to what his own instincts told him was the true path for him to follow, far too many of his poems are marred by a naïve and sentimental moralizing. (14) His contributions to ‘The Scots Musical Museum’ and ‘Scottish Airs’ make up the bulk of his poems and folk songs. (11) He wrote his poems in Scots, standard English and Scots dialect (3,14) and devoted considerable time to composing and collecting traditional Scottish songs. (10) From the time he went to Edinburgh he became almost obsessed with songwriting – rescuing traditional songs, rewriting their words, writing new words. (12) He was blessed with an amazingly retentive memory. (12) Meanwhile, in November 1790, (15) OR 1796 (11) he had written ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. (11,15) During the last ten years of his life, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ apart, he poured all his rich genius into the moulds of songwriting and song repairing. (12,14) He was a brilliant lyricist. (3,14) and it is by his songs that Burns is best known, and it those which have carried his reputation round the world. (14) Burns wrote all his songs to known tunes, sometimes writing several sets of words to the same air in an endeavour to find the most apt poem for a given melody. (14) Many songs which, it is clear from a variety of evidence, must have been substantially written by Burns he never claimed as his. (14) He contributed over 150 songs (8,9) OR over 300 songs, many of his own composition, and others based on older verses (9) to ‘The Scots Musical Museum’ (3,8) which was published in 5 volumes (8) over sixteen years. (8,14) (1787–1803) (14) He wrote (5) OR re-worked (3,8) for it the poem (and song) (5) ‘Auld Lang Syne’. (3,5) He never claimed ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ for example, but the song we have is almost certainly his, though the chorus and probably the first stanza are old. (14) It was a (3) simple and moving (14) traditional tune (3,14) which is not the tune to which it is now sung, as Thomson set it to (14) the traditional tune ‘Can Ye Labour Lea. (15)’It was Scottish (3) OR a folk song of unknown origin. (8) Burns said it was just an old fragment he had discovered. (14) He also worked (10,13) on a similar project (14) with (10,13) the dilettante clerk, (13) George Thomson (10,13) to compile large editions of traditional and new songs. (10) In 1793 (11) he contributed (3,11) 114 (8) songs (3,8) to (3,11) the first five volumes of (14) Thomson’s ‘A Select Collection of (3,11) original (11,14) Scottish Airs for the Voice’. (3,11) (1793–1818) (14) Thomson was a more consciously genteel person than Johnson, and Burns had to fight with him to prevent him from ‘refining’ words and music and so ruining their character (14) and he received very little payment for his efforts. (8) He contributed over 100 songs to a book called ‘The Melodies of Scotland’. (3) He also wrote ‘A Red, Red Rose’, (3,5) set to the tune of ‘Major Graham’ (15) A Man ‘s a Man for A ‘ That’ (5,8) ’To a Louse’, (5) ‘To a Mouse’, (5,12) ‘The Battle of Sherramuir’ (5,11) set to the ‘Cameronian Rant’; (15)  ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (5,12) and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (5,9) a slightly veiled autobiographical story of a ne’er-do-well farmer, which is now considered a masterpiece of narrative poetry. (11) He wrote this, his most famous long poem, in just one day (9) in 1790. (8,11) It was first published merely as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk, in a volume of ‘Antiquities of Scotland’. (8) It’s the story of a man who disturbs a coven of witches in the kirk at Alloway and has to flee for his life on Meg, his old grey mare. (9) The fastest witch, Cutty Sark (it means ‘short petticoat’) nearly catches him by the River Doon, but the running water makes her powerless and though she manages to grasp Meg’s tail, Tam escapes over the bridge. (9) The only poem he wrote after his Edinburgh visit that showed a hitherto unsuspected side of his poetic genius was ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, a spirited narrative poem in brilliantly handled eight-syllable couplets based on a folk legend. (14) His last poem – song, rather – was written for the girl who nursed him at the end (‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’). (12) For all his fame, Burns never forgot his roots. (6) His love for farming stayed with him throughout his life. (6)

And Women

He was known as somewhat of a ladies’ man. (4,9) This passion of Burns (some might say a weakness) would be a central theme of his life. (10) When he held the farm at Mauchline after his father’s death, (13) he started a series of ardent philanderings. (9,13) Relationships with the opposite sex provided inspiration for his writing. (2,10) In his personal life, he dedicated hundreds of lines of verse to the fairer sex, (6,13) producing the warmest, richest, most tender and most sensuous love songs that any poet has given to the world. (13) He had an affair with (10,11) his mother’s (11,15) household servant, (10,11) OR a servant girl at the farm, (14) Elizabeth Paton, (10,11) (1760–circa 1799) (15) and in 1785 she bore his first child, (14,15) Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Burns (1785–1817). (15) Born out of wedlock, (11,15) while he was courting Jean Amour, (10,11) Elizabeth was greeted with the (9,14) lively (14) poem (9,14) ‘Welcome to a Bastard Wean’. (9) She was the first of three illegitimate daughters all called Elizabeth. (9) He then seduced Jean Armour (13,15) a Mauchline mason’s daughter. (13) When she became pregnant, (11,15) with twins (3,10)  in March 1786, her father ‘was in the greatest distress, and fainted away’. (15) Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, (15) OR Robbie and Jean declared themselves married (10) OR They may well have married by declaration — valid under Scots Law which said (13,14) until 1939, (13) that mutual consent followed by consummation constituted a legal marriage. (14) However her father (10,11) OR outraged parents (13) forbade the two to get married. (10,11) 14th April 1786, on the same day that Wilson published the Kilmarnock Volume, Jean Armour’s father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean, (15) He and his wife demanded that Jean request an annulment, (10) and Jean honoured her father’s wishes, at least temporarily, (11,13) as her parents, (13,15) to avoid disgrace (15) moved her (13,15) to live with her uncle (15) in Paisley (13,15) away from him. (13). to stand for rebuke in the kirk for three. (15) To obtain a certificate that he was a free bachelor, Burns agreed on 25th June to be (15) OR Owing to his ‘fornication’, Burns was (7) put before the (7,15) Mauchline (15) kirk session, and sentenced to three penitential appearances (7,15) on Sundays (15) facing the congregation. (7,15) This threw Burns into an emotional tangle which it is now impossible to sort out with any certainty. (13) Hurt (14) and enraged at Jean’s rejection, (11,14) Burns began wooing (11,14) Mary Campbell (2,10) (his ‘Highland Mary’). (2,13) In 1786, at the age of 27, (6,9) the rift in his relationship with Jean (2) made him decide (9,10) to emigrate (3,4) to Jamaica (3,4) (an unsavoury haven of 18th Century Scots in trouble! (13)) with Mary Campbell. (2,10) He invited her — in verse — to flee with him there. (13,15) His dalliance with Mary (2,10) soon (14) ended with her untimely (2,10) and mysterious (13) death (2,10) at Greenock in 1786, (13) but it kept him in Scotland. (2) 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. (15) He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose (1758–1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms (Burns called himself ‘Sylvander’ and Nancy ‘Clarinda’). (15) Frustrated (11) when it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced into a physical relationship, Burns moved on to (15) Jenny Clow (11,15) (1766–1792), Nancy’s domestic servant, (15) who bore him a son, (11,15) Robert Burns Clow, in 1788. (15) He also had an affair with a servant girl, Margaret ‘May’ Cameron. (15) The fame he gained by writing allowed him to overcome the opposition of Jean Armour’s father’s and (10) he finally married married her (3,6) in 1788; (7,8) she was by now the mother of several of his children, (12) Beginning with twins (3) between the years 1784 (5,8) OR 1785 (10) and 1788 (5,11), OR 1794 (8) he fathered in simultaneous extra marital affairs (8,13) several (5,11) OR 8 (8) illegitimate children, (5,11) born to him through (4,8) 4 (4) OR 5 (8) different women. (4,8) OR he went on to father 12 children (4,6) seven others with her (6,8) only three of whom survived infancy, (11,15) A very forgiving wife, Jean Armour accepted and took responsibility for all Burns’ children, legitimate and illegitimate alike. (9) On 25th July 1796 (4,7) the day of his funeral (7,11) four days after his death, as Burns was buried with civil and military honours and Scotland mourned, (7) Jean Armour gave birth to his (7,8) last born child, called Maxwell. (4,7)

Burns and Scotland

Robert Burns began life as a poor tenant farmer but was able to channel his intellectual energy into poetry and song to become one of the most famous characters of Scotland’s cultural history. (11) He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland (5,11) and is celebrated among the Scottish diaspora around the world. (5) He gained more fame after his death than he ever did during his lifetime. (8) It may be argued that Scottish culture in his day was incapable of providing an intellectual background that could replace the Calvinism that Burns rejected, or that Burns’s talent was squandered on an Edinburgh literati that, according to English critics, were second-raters. (14) That Burns in spite of this produced so much fine poetry shows the strength of his unique genius, and that he has become the Scottish national poet is a tribute to his hold on the popular imagination. (14) Despite his short life Burns left a huge catalogue (6) of lyrical (11) poetry (6) and Scottish folk (11) songs that have been poured (sic) over, enjoyed and spoken aloud for over 200 years. (6) The full extent of Burns’s work on Scottish song will probably never be known. (14) It is positively miraculous that Burns was able to enter into the spirit of older folk song and re-create, out of an old chorus, such songs as ‘I’m O’er Young to Marry Yet,’ ‘Green Grow the Rashes, O,’ and a host of others. (14) It is this uncanny ability to speak with the great anonymous voice of the Scottish people that explains the special feeling that Burns arouses, feelings that manifest themselves in the ‘Burns cult’. (14) Celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. (5) ‘Scots Wha Hae’ served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. (5) He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English (5) and a light Scots dialect (5,8) accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. (5) Burns Clubs (3,4) are groups set up to celebrate his life and works. (3) They have been founded all over the world. (3,4) The first was founded in Greenock in 1801 and was known as The Mother’s Club (4), Burns Night is celebrated with a Burns supper every year in Scotland and in places all over the world (3,10) for example in Halifax, Nova Scotia (10) on Burns’s birthday. (3,10) The Mother’s Club held the very first Burns Supper in 1802 on what they thought was his birthday, January 29th, only to discover that his birthday was actually January 25th. (4) The next Burns Supper, (4) and all that followed have been held on January 25th. (4,5) The cottage in Alloway where he was born is now a museum, dedicated to him. (9) Burns was voted ‘The Greatest Scot’ by viewers of STV in 2009. (3,5) He beat William Wallace, Sir Alexander Fleming and Robert the Bruce. (3)

Burns and Progressivism

He was a man of great intellect (11,14) and force of character. (14) He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic Movement. (5,11) Watching his father being beaten down and dying in poverty (11,14) had deepened Burns’ critical view of the situation in Scotland. (11) It helped to make him a rebel against (11,14) Scotland’s rigid class system, (11,14) the social order of his day (11,14) and the religious and political establishment that perpetuated it. (11) He never found an environment in which he could fully exercise his personality. (14) He was in favour of reform (3,11) and a bitter satirist of all forms of religious and political thought that condoned or perpetuated inhumanity. (14) His writing often dealt with issues affecting the poorer classes, notably highlighting the need for greater social equality. (6) ‘For a’ that and a’ that’, was his cry for human equality. (8) Burns was inspired by the events of the French Revolution, (8,11) which excited him. (14) He also supported radical ideas at home, (10,11) including women’s liberation. (10) Burns’s worldly prospects were perhaps better than they had ever been; but (15) neither his foreign nor domestic radicalism was popular with many of his neighbours or friends. (10,11) He expressed his ideas in standard English, and in these writings his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest. (5) His political views came to the notice of his employers (14,15) via some indiscreet outbursts, and nearly lost him his job. (14) In an attempt to prove his loyalty to the Crown, Burns joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in March 1795, (15) and his reputation as a good exciseman and a politic but humiliating recantation saved him. (14) After his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, (5,11) His work has inspired many Western thinkers. (11) These include some famous American writers, specifically John Steinbeck in his 1937 novel ’Of Mice and Men’ which was inspired by a line in the Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’. (4) Many of his works are still well known across the world today. (10,11) His timeless words have become international favourites (8) and echoed throughout the generations, (6) inspiring people (4,6) from every walk of life, (6) although some find his use of Scottish lowland dialect difficult to decipher. (8) ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is still sung across the globe to celebrate (5,10) ‘Hogmanay’ (the last day of the year). (5) OR the New Year. (10) The sheer extent of this continuing fame 200 years after his death is a testament to the life and work of a giant of (10) English (5,10) literature. (10) Living during the cultural and intellectual tumult known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and the problem was ultimately more than one of personalities. (14) The only substitute for the rejected Calvinism seemed to be, for Burns, a sentimental Deism, a facile belief in the good heart as all, and this was arguably not a creed rich or complex enough to nourish great poetry. (14)

FRESCI on Burns


F Proud Scot but nearly emigrated to Jamaica. Scotland united with England first by personal union of crowns then by Act of Unions, two unsuccessful Jacobite revolts ending with Culloden. Age of sentimental nationalism, Welsh, Irish, and of ‘National Self Determination’ coming from French Revolution. Toured Scotland during his time at Edinburgh.

R Burns not much interested in theology, and was three years old when the last person to be executed for religious belief in Europe was executed in Toulouse. Views described as humanitarian Deism. Enlightenment had ridiculed belief in witches and magic, which Burns write about in ‘Tam o Shanter’. Burns strongly opposed to religion’s support for the social structure which harmed the poor, and to its claim to act as a moral police force. Supported the anti-religious policies of the French Revolution.

E Came from long line of unsuccessful farmers, and continued the tradition. Made around £100,000 in today’s values from his poetry while he was popular in Edinburgh, but income dropped as he worked for nothing on the Scottish songs and was rejected for his radical views. Forced to work as a tax collector and died with about £150. Took several years to collect money for his family after his death.

S Working Class with working class wife. Main work to rescue and publicise Scottish poetry and song. Lionised by society in Edinburgh but rejected later for radicalism. Hated ostentatious finery of upper class. Seduced working class girls more easily than middle class ones.

C Founded a debating society in Tarbolton, and supported the French Revolution, so he would have been a democrat. Opposed theocratic pretensions of the kirk. Much admired by socialistic progressives like Steinbeck (‘Mice and Men’).

I Womanizer; Many illegitimate children by five mothers. Public humiliation by the Kirk. Chance death of Mary Campbell helped to keep him in Scotland.


taken from the internet on 27th November 2017

  1. at head of Google search results for search ‘Burns’ + ‘Biography
  5. article
  15. article



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