Scotland’s Son: Robert Burns

At the end of every January, there is an annual celebration here in the UK called Burns Night or Burns Suppers. People drink whisty, eat haggis, and dance the night away. This event is to celebrate the birth of a famous Scottish poet named Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796).

Robert Burns hailed is ‘Scotland’s Son’or the ‘Scottish Bard’. He is – at the very least – the nation’s poet. One of the best known for writing in the Scottish Gaelic language.¹ However, he also wrote in English, using a light Scottish dialect. Despite the fact he was a great poet, the love of Burns is practically a cult! He is much loved in the UK, Canada, the United States, and even Russia! His most famous song is Auld Lang Syne,¹ his lyrics set to another tradition Scottish song, which is always sung on the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve in the UK and North America.

Most famous portrait of Burns by Nasmyth. Source: Wikipedia.

Born in Alloway, Scotland, he grew up in very poor circumstances. His childhood cottage is actually now a museum,² and apparently gives an idea of how he lived. He grew up to be a farmer, labourer and trader, but he was more a philander than anything else. He had many affairs, despite the fact he was married, which resulted in these women bearing him 12 children in total!

Auld Lang Syne is his most well-known song. Every New Year’s Eve, people across the UK and North America sing it to welcome in the New Year.

He was so poor and wanted to go to the West Indies to earn more money to support his families. However, he could not afford the passage. In order to do this, Burns sold his works, such as the Kilmarnock Edition, which was meant to pay for his passage. Instead, it led him to Edinburgh to publish another set of poems. This move began to improve his circumstances.

For instance, his famous painting (above), that hangs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, depicts him dressed very well in the fashionable dress of rich people of the time. During those days, one had to be rich in order to commission painting of themselves. However, this was for the second edition of poems. However, Burns must have been doing very well for himself, if he got that portrait done. The interesting aspect of the painting, is the background, which shows the Scottish country, which tells us he never forgot where he came from.

Burns’ main success came when he returned to Dumfries and became a lyricist. He died aged 37, after a tooth extraction. (It is kind of depressing to hear that his last child was born the day of his funeral too!) His health was already deteriorating. so that extraction did not help.
Despite all this researched and explained, I still don’t understand how he has came to be the acclaimed poet he is now. Apart from his poems in the Gaelic language, what was it that led him to be an icon? Was it his early death? Well, it certainly wasn’t his affairs!

He had many affairs, despite being married, which resulted in him fathering 12 children!

Or was it his political views? He was very much in support of the French Revolution, but notwithstanding, he isn’t famous in France. (When I lived in Paris, we certainly did not sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight of NYE! And I’ve grown up singing that song!)

Perhaps it’s because his work kept being passed around through word of mouth after his death, and people’s love for it grew that way? Since he died so young, perhaps people thought he was a tortured genius? Come to think of it, I should actually interview a Burns fan, and ask him or her why they love Burns so much. Maybe I should attend a Burns Supper, and see what the fuss is all about.

Although it is unclear to me how he became such an icon, I suppose he will always be remembered for being a unique poet. For many more New Year’s Eve’s, we will sing the lyrics to his songs, and have Burns Suppers on the anniversary of his birthday.

¹ Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne, Burns Country, http://www.robertburns.org/works/236.shtml [Accessed 28 Jan 2015]
² Unknown, Robert Burns, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Burns [n.d] [Accessed 28 Jan 2015] (line 3-4).
³ The National Trust for Scotland, The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum,  http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/ [2013] [Accessed 11 Feb 2015].
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