Who Was Robert Burns?

February 27, 2021 by
POSTED BY February 27, 2021

Robert Burns Night is celebrated in Scotland on January 25th. There are poems, whisky and even a poetic address to haggis. So who was Robert Burns – the man to whom Scotland owes this spectacle?

Without a doubt, this Scottish poet is one of the most famous personalities in Scottish history. Robert Burns embodies like no other the love for everything that fascinates visitors about Scotland. Breathtaking nature, exuberant sociability and high-strength drinks to start. A sense of humor, a freedom-loving spirit and, last but not least, ardent admiration for its (female) residents. Burns deals with all of this in his world-famous texts, which have lost none of their magic over the years. “Auld lang syne” is still sung at the end of the year in Scotland. Even Bob Dylan names Burns “Red, red rose” as his main influence.

Despite all this, Burns began life in surprisingly humble circumstances.

Portrait of Robert Burns

The wild life of Robert Burns

The early years in the country

Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759 in Alloway, not far from the West Highland Way, the son of a farmer. It was very important to this father that his children had a good education in addition to working on the farm. Robert’s literary talent first showed at the age of 15, when, as is so often the case, he was inspired by meeting a woman. The love poem “Handsome Nell” (the beautiful Nell) was created.

Whiskey, women and song

In the years that followed, Robert Burns worked hard to build his reputation as a free thinker, poet, connoisseur and philosopher. He was also certainly the least ideal son-in-law one can imagine. Burns had several illegitimate children and the parents of his great love, Jean Armor, did not agree to their marriage at first. He had to work hard for a living and he was constantly troubled by money. Nevertheless, he found time to write and wrote some famous works such as ” To A Mouse “, which show his great sensitivity and a philosophical spirit.

Scots – the language of the “Bard of Caledonia”

The majority of his poems are written in Scots. To this day there has been a lot of debate about whether it is a separate language or a dialect. The Center for Scottish Languages  promotes the Scottish language culture and argues Scots and English are as related as German and Dutch. That is to say, understandable, but independent.

This decision to write in Scots expresses Burns pride and homeland. Scots returned the compliment and voted him their most important national poet to this day. By the way, you will hear the locals pronounce his name “Rabbie Bans”.

My heart is in the highlands

The poem “My heart is in the highlands” inspired by a great love for nature transports the reader into the wild expanses of Scotland. When saying goodbye, the narrator asserts that the heart connection to this place will always remain.

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Hiking The West Highland Way

“ The odyssey of life where it drove me

I have always loved the mountains of the highlands.

My heart is in the highlands, My heart is not here

My heart is in the highlands and hunts the animal.

And chase the wild animal and follow the deer,

My heart is in the highlands wherever I go! “

Success and fame: the time in Edinburgh

Robert Burns was worried about money all his life. Once, desperation nearly drove him to the Caribbean, and thus into economic exile, on board a ship. But before it got that far, he followed another maddened inspiration: why not try to capitalize on his poetry? Said and done. So Burns set off for Edinburgh for the first time in his life and promptly became a celebrated star there. He found not only a publisher and the admiration of major critics, but also wealthy and influential friends. His first collection of poems “Poems – chiefly in the Scottish dialect” was a great success.

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Fife Coastal Path which starts just outside of Edinburgh

The rustic poet

Burns must have radiated something refreshingly rustic in the urban and intellectual center that Edinburgh was already back then. Not only did his poems often deal with rural life, Burns was also known for showing up everywhere in work boots instead of silk stockings. In the city he also joined a Masonic lodge. His egalitarian views and his commitment to social justice and freedom had already found expression again and again in his work.

But even if his fame grew, the windfall did not last long. After selling the rights to his lyrics, Burns was soon as poor as before and returned to his family.

The last few years in Dumfries

Burns spent the last few years of his life as an official in the British administration. The French Revolution broke out and Burns continued to excite with his sympathies for freedom and brotherhood, performing a constant act of balancing between his economic needs and his ideals. In the artistic field, he mainly devoted himself to music. Principally, documenting folk songs and writing song texts.

He fell ill at the age of only 37 and died shortly afterwards in 1796. Burns left 600 poems and songs to the world and to this day his importance and popularity is immense. Five years after his death, friends celebrated the first Burns Supper to commemorate their friend and established an integral part of Scottish culture.

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Speyside Way Whisky Trail Scotland

How do you celebrate Burns Supper?

A Burns Supper is a real spectacle, and not just because Scottish whisky plays a role in it. The combination of tradition, culture and pleasure make a Burns Dinner a special experience and connect people with the sparkling spirit of the poet and the delicacies of Scottish cuisine. The Scottish Tourist Office has fantastic tips on how to host your own Burns Supper. This evening essentially consists of the following elements:

#1 – Thanks

When all the participants have gathered, the Selkirk Grace, Burns Thanksgiving Prayer, is offered.

#2 – Addressing Haggis

One walks towards the meal. There are regional Scottish dishes such as neeps and tatties (beets and potatoes) and especially haggis. This sausage-like dish is praised before consumption by Burn’s humorous poem Adress to a Haggis and slashed open with a theatrical gesture. For vegetarians there is an alternative, meat-free recipe.

#3 – Toast and poetry

Speeches, a glass or two of whisky (plus a corresponding lyric toast) and poems by Robert Burns follow. You can change these elements one after the other as often as you like. 

#4 – Auld Lang Syne

At the end of the night everyone says goodbye, of course, with Auld Lang Syne.

In the footsteps of Robert Burns

In addition to enjoying Robert Burns poetry and celebrating Burns Night, anyone can also literally walk in his footsteps. Not only is it possible to visit the places where he lived and worked, the places of importance of his life also connect the most spectacular hiking routes on the island. On the West Highland WayHadrian’s Wall Path or many other trails in Scotland and Northern England, you can see the incredible nature that inspired so much of his poetry.

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Walking the West Highland Way to Loch Lomond, Scotland