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Notable Scots: Writers

Robert Burns (1759-1796):

"When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland."
~ J. S. Blackie
Robert Burns
Robert Burns

Before one can understand Robert Burns, and what he means to Scotland, one must first understand the political and cultural climate of the Scotland into which Burns was born. Under the Stuart dynasty, Gaelic culture and Lowland elements had been fusing into a national character; the Reformation, however, halted this fusion and drove a wedge between the predominantly Catholic Highlands and the Protestant Lowlands. When the Crowns of England and Scotland merged in 1603, making James VI of Scotland James I of Great Britain, Scotland began its shift towards English cultural and linguistic hegemony. Scotland was further stripped of its voice when the Parliaments merged in 1707, and Scotland's affairs were managed from London rather than Edinburgh. Adding still to the split personality of Scottish national identity, eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy, represented by Hutcheson, Hume and Smith, originated in a general European (hence non-Scottish) mood. The question, then, was whether Scotland would develop with a "European" (meaning English) identity or a distinctively "Scots" identity.

A split Scotland could regain itself in two ways. It could either best England in her own cultural game (as promoted by Hutcheson, Hume and Smith), or it could revive its traditional roots (promoted by poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson). Scotland could become either European or Scots. Robert Burns' work represented "that last brilliant flare-up of a Scottish literary tradition" that was drowning in the European mood of the rising urban gentility, English in both language and culture. 1 Burns, a man of his time, produced a body of poetry that sought to preserve a "Scottish" Scotland.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, South Ayrshire, the eldest of seven children born to William Burness, an aging tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun. In 1766, the family moved to a 70-acre Mt. Oliphant farm, where heavy manual labour and undernourishment permanently damaged Burns' health, leading towards the rheumatic heart condition that would result in his early death.

Although poverty limited Burns' formal education, his father did all he could to ensure his sons were educated. Several neighbours pooled their money to hire a tutor named John Murdoch, who stayed in Alloway from 1765 til 1768. William Burness supplemented Murdoch's teaching, based in the English tradition of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, at home, working from a collection of books that he purchased for that specific purpose. They surveyed a wide variety of subjects and included Physico-Theology and Astro-Theology by William Derham; Thomas Salmon's Geographical Grammar; T. Stackhouse's New History of the English Bible; Samuel Richardson's Pamela; and "a collection of letters by the Wits of Queen Anne's reign." 2 Aside from English, Burns was also schooled in French and Latin.

The first books Burns read for private entertainment were a History of Sir William Wallace and a chapbook on the life of Hannibal. His love of poetry did not stem from reading classical literature though. When he was a very young child, his mother's maid educated him in the Scottish folk tradition with "the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies [etc]." Burns wrote in an autobiographical letter that these stories "cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy" within.

These latent seeds did not bear fruit until Burns was fifteen and fell in love for the first time. Nelly Kirkpatrick was a neighbour girl, and his partner in harvest labour; he wrote his very first poem for her ("O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass!"), and became a poet perhaps because of her:

"She was a bonie, sweet, sonsie lass... 'twas her favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme," he explained. "Thus began with me Love and Poesy.... For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning Poet til I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were... the spontaneous language of my heart."
~ Robert Burns 3

Burns spent the next ten years as the principal labourer on the family farm, his time consumed by backbreaking work occasionally interrupted with a composition of verse. William Burness, the patriarchal force of constraint, was ageing quickly and could not handle all the physical demands of the farm. Once he died in 1785, young "Rabbie" was relieved and free. He quickly earned a reputation as a rhymer, composing many of the poems on which his legacy would later rest. "To a Mouse," "The Holy Fair," "A Cotter's Saturday Night," and more circulated by word-of mouth throughout the county.

Along with the release of Burns' literary passions came the outpour of his romantic inclinations: he found solace in the arms of his mother's servant, Bessy Paton, who gave birth to his first illegitimate child, a girl named Elizabeth, later that year. Burns' widowed mother took the child into her personal care to raise.

Burns' attention quickly turned from Bessy Paton to Jean Amour, the daughter of a Mauchline building contractor. Jean would be pregnant with twins by 1786, and although Burns' first inclination was to marry his sweetheart, her father forbade it. Heart- broken, Burns decided to immigrate to Jamaica; before departing, however, he arranged to publish a 600-copy run of a volume of poetry. He wanted to provide some financial benefit for the infant Elizabeth, and hoped to win a wider recognition as a poet than his status as a local bard could grant him: "Before leaving my native country for ever, I resolved to publish my Poems.-I weighed my productions as impartially as in my power; I thought they had merit; and 'twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow," he wrote. 4 Clever indeed - Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published 31 July 1786 in Kilmarnock, sold out within a month, and enraptured both readers and critics.

Working in the tradition of Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), father of vernacular revival and pastoral poet, and Robert Fergusson (1759-1774), an urban Scots voice from Edinburgh, the Kilmarnock volume embraced a distinctively Scottish tone. From Ramsay Burns borrowed his Scots orthography, his mixing of English and Scots, and his emphasis on a rustic persona. Fergusson likewise provided inspiration for sympathy, humour, and an urban linguistics. Using a variety of blended voices, Burns commented on the humanity (and inhumanity) around him without constraint, tackling such heavy issues as religious hypocrisy, class division, and political freedom. Yet joy and pleasure were not crushed beneath the weight of these topics: the Kilmarnock volume also displayed a riotous conviviality, a joie de vivre expressed through sexuality, drinking, and friendship.

Burns abandoned his plans to go to Jamaica and went instead to Edinburgh after publisher William Creech invited him up to oversee the preparation of the revised, expanded-run edition of Poems. In Edinburgh, the literati fawned over him as a novelty and curiosity - it was not his work that drew them, but the romantic notion of Burns as a humble, uneducated farmer, a "Heaven-taught ploughman" whose poetry had no root in ancient, learned tradition, but flowed instead from Divine inspiration. Although Burns resented the condescension of fashionable society, he needed their patronage and acted his part, though occasionally his country manners resulted in social awkwardness.

The considerable earnings from the 3000-copy edition of Poems enabled Burns to tour the Borders and Highlands, during which he would collect the musings, fragments, and hints of tradition to transmute into finished songs. The work he brought forth from his travels transformed him from an Ayrshire rhymester with a local reputation to "Caledonia's bard," a national poet, and from 1788 onwards he was chiefly interested in songs. "I have been absolutely crazed about it, collecting old stanzas, and every information remaining respecting their origin authors, &c., &c.," he wrote to a friend that October. 5 More than building up his own reputation as a poet - he refused to accept payment for his collaboration as an editor and collector of songs for The Scots Musical Museum - Burns was acting in the interest of Scotland. By touching traditional folk elements with his own genius, he immortalized the Scottish countryside, and perhaps saved its language from extinction - even as he wrote, Scots was becoming less and less intelligible to the majority of his readers, infected, as they were, by English culture and language.

When Burns returned a hero to Ayrshire, Jean Amour's father could no longer object to their union. After their second set of twins was born in 1788, Burns and Jean married. To provide steady income for the family, he gained a position with the Excise Service. He also produced some of his most famous pieces during this time, including 1790's "Tam O'Shanter," considered to be one the best examples of the narrative poem in modern European literature. However, as his health began to fail in the mid 1790s, Burns aged prematurely and fell into fits of severe depression. A dental extraction in the winter of 1795 led to infection, exacerbated by three months of famine in early 1796. Burns died at the age of thirty-seven on 21 July 1796, the same day Jean gave birth to their last son, Maxwell.

The affection Scotland felt for Burns was manifested at his funeral, where over ten thousand people gathered to attend. His publishers issued a memorial edition of his poems to raise money for the wife and four living children he left behind, and private donations came in from all over the country to support them.

Robert Burns Bust
Robert Burns Bust
Burns Memorial Plaque
Burns Memorial Plaque

After his death, Robert Burns became a cultural icon in Scotland and to the Scottish diaspora around the world. Celebration of his life and work became somewhat of a national cult during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - his birthday, 25 January, is Scotland's second (and more widely celebrated) national day, with festivities taking place all across the globe. He is the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition stretching back to the Court Makars, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, to seventeenth-century vernacular writers James VI and William Hamilton, to early eighteenth-century forerunners, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. Today he forms an integral part of Scotland's national memory, his words as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.

For more information about Robert Burns please visit:

Robert Burns at the National Library of Scotland
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The National Trust for Scotland's Burns National Heritage Park, Alloway
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Official site, "Robert Burns Country"
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  1. Daiches, David. Robert Burns. Rinehart & Co.: New York, 1950. 1
  2. Ibid., 44
  3. Ibid., 48, 49
  4. Ibid., 105
  5. Ibid., 261
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