Today is the birthday (1759), of Robert Burns commonly called Rabbie Burns in Scotland, poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide. He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English with a light Scots dialect, accessible to an audience beyond Scotland. He also wrote in standard English, and in these works his political or civil commentary is often at its bluntest.
He 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 among the Scottish Diaspora around the world. 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. In 2009 he was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish television channel STV.
As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) “Auld Lang Syne” is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and “Scots Wha Hae” served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country.
Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes (1721–1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burnes until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, and Agnes Broun (or Brown) (1732–1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre (280,000 m2) Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labor of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution, which would lead to an early death.
Burns had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747–1824), who opened an “adventure school” in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760–1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm laboring 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 laborer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759–1820), 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 (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, “Now Westlin’ Winds” and “I Dream’d I Lay”.
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. At Whitsun, 1777, he removed his large family from the unfavorable conditions of Mount Oliphant to the 130-acre (0.53 km2) 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 (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him.
In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine, North Ayrshire, 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. 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.
He continued to write poems and songs and began a commonplace book in 1783, while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burnes was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight before he died. 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. 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 stonemason from Mauchline.
His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760–circa 1799), 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 lack 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.
At about the same time, Burns fell in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786), whom he had seen in church while he was still 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 on 14 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 the seaport of Greenock, and 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. She died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786 and was buried there.
As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton suggested that he should “publish his poems in the mean time by subscription, as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica.” On 3 April 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 Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Known as the Kilmarnock volume, it sold for 3 shillings 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.
For 10 years Burns was the toast of Scotland with a prolific output of poems, lyrics, and social commentary. Thus he moved from the humblest of origins to mingling with the elite of Scottish society. It is undoubtedly this dual life that gives his work such an edge. He cared nothing for people of rank and wealth as such; he was concerned only with a person’s character whether rich or poor. He was able to take this position because he lived in both worlds and saw them for what they were. These sentiments are expressed most plainly in the immortal “For A’ That.” Burns often wrote in Lowland Scots which is pretty well incomprehensible to English speakers unfamiliar with the language, but “For A’ That” (and many other of Burns’ poems of social commentary) is written in English with a sprinkle of dialect words. You should be able to grasp the meaning from this video from the printed lyrics:
On the morning of 21 July 1796 Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37. He probably had a rheumatic heart condition and his years as a farm laborer had weakened his constitution considerably. It has also been suggested, although the evidence is not definitive, that he was a heavy drinker, which would have weakened him further. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries with a simple headstone, but his body was later moved to a mausoleum in the same cemetery.
Burns is one of my favorite poets for a variety of related reasons. First and foremost he was a poet of the people with a strong sense of social justice. He championed the core values of the French Revolution, which, in fact, got him into a certain amount of trouble. But he was fearless in his belief in egalitarianism and spoke out freely. Second, his values were straightforward – hard work, honesty, intelligence, wit, kindness, and love. Anyone, rich or poor, who shared those values was his friend. Third, he knew how to speak to all people. When he wanted to convey a general message he wrote in English, but when he wanted to enfold the “lower” classes of Scotland he wrote in Lowland Scots. It really is no wonder that the Scots loved him then and love him now.
On or near 25th January Scots worldwide hold Burns suppers. Burns suppers may be formal or informal. Both typically include haggis (recipe below), whisky, and the recitation of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are hosted by organizations such as Burns clubs, the Freemasons, or St Andrew’s Societies and have a traditional order. I’ve done both. When my family lived in Australia my father (who was born in Glasgow and whose family came from Glasgow and the Shetland Islands) would round up all the Scots in town and invite them over to our house for haggis, whisky and song.
My paternal grandparents in the Shetlands
For years I did much the same when I lived in New York, but when I became pastor of a parish that had a large Scots population I organized formal suppers at the church. I am so sorry that I do not have any photos of me in my kilt as master of ceremonies to share. Formal dinners have the following order:
Start of the evening (piping in the guests)
Host’s welcoming speech
Although attributed to Burns, the Selkirk Grace was already known in the 17th century, as the “Galloway Grace” or the “Covenanters’ Grace”. It came to be called the Selkirk Grace because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk.
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit.
The supper starts with the soup course. Normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served.
“Piping” of the haggis
Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a haggis on a large dish. It is usually brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host’s table, where the haggis is laid down.
The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the “Address to a Haggis.” Here is a staged version of this ceremony which is the highlight of the evening. It’s in pure Lowland Scots (with no subtitles), so unless you are familiar with the language you’ll be lost. But you’ll get the general drift from the reciter’s actions.
At the end of the poem, a whisky toast is drunk by the host, piper, and cook, and the haggis is served with bashed neeps and tatties (mashed yellow turnip and potatoes). There may or may not be a dessert course such as Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle).
Over coffee there is a series of toasts.
One of the guests gives a speech, remembering some aspect of Burns’ life or poetry. This may be light-hearted or intensely serious depending on the audience.
Everyone drinks a toast to Robert Burns.
The host will normally say a few words thanking the previous speaker for his speech and may comment on some of the points raised.
Tae to the Lassies
This was originally a short speech given by a male guest in thanks to the women who had prepared the meal (it being a male only affair). However, nowadays, with women and men as guests, it is much more wide-ranging and generally covers the male speaker’s view on women. It is normally amusing but not offensive, particularly bearing in mind that it will be followed by a reply from the “lassies” concerned.
The men drink a toast to the women’s health.
Tae the Laddies (sometimes called The Lassies’ Reply)
Like the previous toast, it is generally quite wide-ranging nowadays. A female guest will give her views on men and reply to any specific points raised by the previous speaker. Like the previous speech, this should be amusing, but not offensive. Quite often the speakers giving this toast and the previous one will collaborate so that the two toasts complement each other.
Works by Burns
After the speeches there may be singing of songs by Burns — Ae Fond Kiss, Parcel o’ Rogues, A Man’s a Man, etc. — and more poetry — To a Mouse, To a Louse, Tam o’ Shanter, The Twa Dugs, Holy Willie’s Prayer, etc. This may be done by the individual guests or by invited experts, and it goes on for as long as the guests wish and may include other works by poets influenced by Burns, particularly poets writing in Scots. Afterwards there may also be dancing or dancing displays.
Finally the host will call on one of the guests to give the vote of thanks, after which everyone is asked to stand, join hands, and sing Auld Lang Syne bringing the evening to an end.
In my experience haggis is one of those dishes you either like or hate. Personally I love it and find a way to make some version every year for Burns Night. This is my version from last year (with neeps and tatties).
In its traditional form it is essentially a boiled pudding made by mixing together the chopped up organ meats of a sheep with oats, suet, and spices which are then sewn inside a sheep’s stomach and boiled for several hours. When we lived in sheep country in Australia my father had no trouble getting all the ingredients from the local butcher who kept his own flock and did his own slaughtering. These days it’s even tough to get all the right things in Scotland. So you improvise. I find that practically any organ meats mixed with oats, fat, and spices, and boiled in a muslin bag is adequate even if not fully authentic. Here’s a completely traditional recipe. The actual spices used vary from cook to cook, and professional producers in Scotland keep their mixes a closely guarded secret. I use allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.
1 sheep’s pluck — heart, liver, and lights (lungs).
1 sheep’s stomach.
1lb lightly toasted pinhead oatmeal (medium or coarse oatmeal).
1-2 tablespoons salt.
1 level tablespoon freshly ground black pepper.
1 tablespoon freshly ground allspice.
1 level tablespoon of mixed herbs.
8oz finely chopped suet.
4 large onions, finely chopped
Wash the stomach in cold water until it is thoroughly clean and then soak it in cold salted water for about 8-10 hours.
Place the pluck in a large pot and cover with cold water. The windpipe ought to be hung over the side of the pot with a container beneath it in order to collect any drips. Gently simmer the pluck for approximately 2 hours or until it is tender and then leave the pluck to cool.
Finely chop or mince the pluck meat and then mix it with the oatmeal. Add about half a pint of the liquor in which the pluck was cooked (or use a good stock). Add the seasonings, suet and onions, ensuring everything is well mixed.
Fill the stomach with the mixture, leaving enough room for the oatmeal to expand into. Press out the air and then sew up the haggis. Prick the haggis a few times with a fine needle. Place the haggis it in boiling water and simmer for approximately 3 hours.