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Robert Burns 1759 - 1796

As well known as Shakespeare, the first poet to have a national day in his honour, popular around the world more than two centuries after he died, author of the song millions use to greet the new year. Burns is so much more than a tartan and haggis cliché of Scotland. Poet, songwriter, national hero, the original rock ‘n’ roll bad boy. His work has influenced other artists and world leaders. Burns proved Shelley’s claim that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ the poet who wrote about freedom, inequality and injustice and helped shape modern democracy and its values!

Eddie Reader performs Burns' love poem "My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose"

A 2018 BBC Scotland documentary “Rabbie’s Bairns” told of a school project with 8 year olds. One girl was from an Iraqi Kurdish family resettled by the government in Scotland. She talked of the horrors her family had witnessed and how happy she was in Scotland, speaking in perfect English and with a beautiful Scots accent. Her school runs a competition for the children to learn a song or poem by Burns. Burns was a loving father who taught his own children and wrote several songs and poems for children. In the documentary the little girl practiced her song for her parents, bursting into giggles when she mispronounced a Gaelic word! It was impossible to watch without admiration and sympathy or the thought that Burns work is still as popular and, sadly, as relevant today as it was more than two hundred years ago!

It was more than a love of his homeland, more than a love of poetry and song that drove Robert Burns, he had a world to challenge and to change!

Burns the National Icon

But the trouble with being a national icon is that everyone wants a part of you and pick the parts that suit their agenda!

Recently voted "The Greatest Scot" of all time, to Nationalists he stands with Bonny Prince Charlie and William Wallace. But this overlooks his distrust of politicians and decidedly international beliefs. 

To Scottish Tories his praise of the Highlands fits comfortably alongside Royals in Kilts but they chose to ignore his criticism of class, wealth and the exploitation and cruelty of industrialisation and his opposition to blood sports like fox hunting. 

To the Left he is the poet who voiced the anger that led to the labour movement; conveniently ignoring his membership of the Freemasons and his less than admirable history with women.

To Freemasons he’s a welcome piece of good PR to counter the trouser rolling and accusations of Dan Brown style conspiracies.

And to Visit Scotland, the official tourist board for the country, he is the ultimate marketing cliche gazing out from postcards and tartan boxes of shortbread!

And Burns has his critics.

MeToo era feminists condemn his admittedly deplorable treatment of women, the blatant affairs and the three illegitimate children he fathered but overlook his friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the first and greatest feminist tract “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” and that he challenged Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” with a poem “The Rights of Women” arguing against warmongering and that freedom is an only be achieved when everyone is equally free.


"While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention."

Others point to the fact the Burns planned to emigrate to Jamaica in a time of slavery but ignore the crippling poverty that that drove centuries of Scots to emigrate, that he wrote poems against slavery both at home and abroad and helped the actress Elizabeth Kemble to raise funds for the anti-slavery movement well before Wilberforce! His poems inspired American abolitionists including Abraham Lincoln.

The Truth is that there is far more to Robert Burns!

Never Call Him Rabbie!!

To begin, he was Robert Burns, not Rob or Robbie and certainly not Rab or Rabbie! 

Burns hated diminutives of his name, even his family and closest friends were only ever allowed to call him Robert. The Scots dialect was regularly mocked by the English and Burns considered Rab or Rabbie a deliberate insult!

He was born in Ayr in 1759 the son of a poor tenant farmer. By his 20’s he was working the family croft and already famous as the Ploughman Poet. Though he turned his hand to other occupations, his was a hard and short life. When he died aged 37, he had written over 500 poems and songs and collected for posterity many others by unknown authors.

Burns has been hugely influential on poetry, literature, music, politics and attitudes. Along with William Blake he was the first of the ‘Romantic’ poets and his themes of poverty, inequality and injustice inspired those who came after him; some of the greatest British poets – William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley. He influenced the work of the woman Shelley married, Mary, who at the age of sixteen wrote “Frankenstein” one of the greatest novels ever written. So much more than a horror story; an allegory against unfettered power and science without morality that’s even more relevant today. The influence of Burns on Mary Shelley was inevitable, her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft.

The 'Romantics'

George Gordon

Lord Byron

Percy Shelley

His "Masque of Anarchy" was written to protest the Peterloo Massacre which has its bi-centenary in 2019  

William Wordsworth

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

She wrote "Frankenstein" when she was only 16!

That influence continues today. Both Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen cited Burns as the poet who led them to become songwriters and his poems have inspired everything from pop to heavy metal, including Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden.

Edinburgh Hip Hop artist Drew Devine (aka 'Werd') raps Burns "To A Mouse"

You Tube

The great American novelists J D Salinger and John Steinberg were heavily influenced by him. Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men” takes its name from his poem To A Mouse”

               “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

               Gang aft agley,

               An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

               For promis'd joy! 

The theme of the novel, human kindness in the struggle against poverty and prejudice, are pure Robert Burns.


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Burns has not just influenced two hundred years of literature, the values he wrote about shaped modern democracy and he gave us one of its most poignant expressions that applies as much today –

“Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”

Abraham Lincoln loved the poet. He recited the his verse as he traveled the circuit from court to court during his days as a lawyer and the night he was shot at Ford’s Theater, he had a book of Burns poetry in his pocket. 

Nelson Mandela shared the books he was given during his 27 years imprisonment. He kept only two in his cell on Robben Island which he read constantly for inspiration. —“The Diary of Anne Frank.” and a volume of Burns poetry. 

For these reasons, Robert Burns is popular all over the world. Countless thousands of Burns Night celebrations take place in many continents from the USA, Canada and Australia to Iraq, Russia and Turkey (where incidentally haggis is also a national dish). There are towns named after him and over 60 known statues and memorials of him across the globe. He’s as well known and more popular than almost any other poet in history.

Poetry & Song

Burns wrote in English, Gaelic and Scots Dialect a kind of pidgin mix of English and Gaelic. Like Cohen and Dylan, he was primarily a song writer. In late 18th century Scotland few could read or write. Burns knew that writing songs in the language of the common people would ensure they became popular and known to most of his fellow Scots. He chose tunes that were already popular and gave them new lyrics and he was stunningly talented in choosing the music that best suited his words. The result is his best and most famous work.

Among these is the poem which, in many nations, heralds in the new year an honour not even Shakespeare can match. But Auld Lang Syne is not flippant nostalgia it’s an elegy to loss and the duty to remember. Its original tune, (not the sentimental pap William Shield set it to 50 years later) reflects the sadness that forced countless thousands to leave Scotland.

Paulo Nutini sings the original version of Auld Lang Syne

You Tube

Two old friends meet to share a dram or more, pledge their enduring friendship and not forget those they have lost. The opening lines are a challenge not a statement – “Should auld aquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, should auld aquaintance be forgot for auld lang syne – the passage of time? And in contains one of the most humane lines of poetry ever written –

                    “we’ll tack a cup o kindness yet”

Burns did not actually write "Auld Lang Syne". It's a song he heard an old man sing and copied down the words to send to the Scots Musical Museum. He was an avid collector and sent several hundred songs during his life. But he almost certainly 'improved' the lyrics and probably chose the original pentatonic folk tune it was originally set to. The line 'a cup o' kindness' is probably his.

Despite the dialect and more than two centuries passing his work is still painfully relevant. Take just two extracts from his polemic “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”

It was first published anonymously to prevent Burns arrest for treason! Not the only time he put himself on the line and risked the consequences!

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,

Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;

Tho' hundreds worship at his word,

He's but a coof for a' that:

For a' that, an' a' that,

His ribband, star, an' a' that:

The man o' independent mind

He looks an' laughs at a' that

Then let us pray that come it may,

(As come it will for a' that,)

That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,

Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.

For a' that, an' a' that,

It's coming yet for a' that,

That Man to Man, the world o'er,

Shall brothers be for a' that.

Alongside these vehement statements of moral and political principles, Burns wrote lovingly of Scotland and rightly too for it is a land of heart stopping beauty and centuries of crushing oppression.

He also wrote some of the greatest (arguably the greatest) love poetry ever penned and much of it as beautiful songs.

The Greatest Song of Lost Love and Despair:

Aye Fond Kiss

In 1787 the 28 year old Burns was a national celebrity and travelled to Edinburgh to promote his work where the handsome farmer poet enjoyed rock star status particularly with the Edinburgh ladies. Here he met and fell for Agnes McLehose known as ‘Nancy’, a strong, indpendent, educated woman who was separated from her husband James a Glasgow lawyer and abusive bully. Every bit his equal, the couple embarked on a lengthy and passionate affair but Nancy was too smart and to respectable to fall too readily to Burns charm.

The couple exchanged letters for over a year sometimes writing to each other twice in one day using, at her insistence, the psuedonyms 'Sylvander' and 'Clarinda' to protect their reputations. The passion of their relationship and her struggle with propriety is clear in their letters.

In 1791 angry at his failure to care for her servant he had got pregnant, Nancy ended their relationship in order to sail to the West Indies to try to retrieve her marriage. Burns response was to write for her possibly the greatest song of lost love and despair and his greatest work, “Aye Fond Kiss”

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

Ae farewell, and then for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,

While the star of hope she leaves him?

May no more cheerful twinkle lights me;

Dark despair around benights me.

I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy,

Nothing could resist my Nancy:

But to see her was to love her;

Love but her, and love for ever.

Had we never lov'd so kindly,

Had we never lov'd so blindly,

Never met-or never parted,

We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

Fare-thee-well, thou first and fairest!

Fare-thee-well, thou best and dearest!

Thine be ilka joy and treasure,

Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!

Ae farewell alas, for ever!

Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,

Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Eddie Reader - the best recording of Aye Fond Kiss from her album of Burns songs

You Tube

Nancy’s hopes of reconciliation were short lived. Her husband was still a brute and now cruelly working slaves. After a few months she returned to Edinburgh where she lived quietly and alone for the rest of her life.

Though they exchanged a few friendly letters the affair, such as it had been, was over. Burns died four years later with a picture of Nancy still in his possession but she lived on for over 40 years dying in 1841. Six months after her death, her nephew found Burns original copy of Aye Fond Kiss still in its envelope hidden inside her bible.

Like many women of her time and class, Nancy kept a diary. It details the daily life of a respectable Edinburgh woman and is now a valuable resource for historians and scriptwriters producing films set in the C19th. But among the details of Victorian life -- who came to tea, the arguments with the butcher, who married, who died -- is one exception. Every year on the 6th of December she wrote the same single sentence. “This day I shall ne’er forget for this is the day I last saw Robert Burns.”

So we should raise a glass to Robert Burns, to freedom, to justice, to compassion, to friends, to loss, to love and to Nancy.


Paulo Nutini sings a rousing angry version of Burns greatest song of protest and democracy, A Man's A Man For A' That

You Tube

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