Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787

Born 25 January 1759
Died 21 July 1796 (aged 37)
Language Scots language
Nationality Scottish
Literary movement Romanticism

Robert Burns


A poor tenant farmer but was able to channel his intellectual energy into poetry and song to become one of the most famous characters of Scotland’s cultural history. A man, best known as a pioneer of the Romantic movement for his lyrical poetry and his rewriting of Scottish folk songs, many of which are still well known across the world today. We are not talking about anyone else but Robert Burn. Robert Burn, a poet whose passion, humanity, and scorn for repressive social conventions made him an icon and an inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism – although his ghostly tale of Tam o’ Shanter was just a bit of fun.

Early Life

Robert Burns was born in 1759, in Alloway, Scotland, to William and Agnes Brown Burnes. He is considered the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scots bard. He was also famous for his amours and his rebellion against orthodox religion and morality.

His father died in 1784, worn out by the struggle to keep farm after farm going, leaving Burns as head of the family. This seemed to free him in some way and the next few years became a period of high creative energy, producing poems such as ‘To a Mouse’. He also developed a satiric strain and circulated caustic poems on local contemporaries.

Development as a poet

Burns developed rapidly throughout 1784 and 1785 as an “occasional” poet who more and more turned to verse to express his emotions of love, friendship, or amusement or his ironic contemplation of the social scene. But these were not spontaneous effusions by an almost illiterate peasant. Burns was a conscious craftsman; his entries in the commonplace book that he had begun in 1783 reveal that from the beginning he was interested in the technical problems of versification.

Love Life

In the years 1784 to 1788, Burns engaged in simultaneous illicit relationships that produced several illegitimate children. In 1785, he fathered his first child, Elizabeth, born out of wedlock to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton, while at the same time he was courting Jean Armor. When Jean became pregnant, her father forbade the two to get married, and Jean honored her father’s wishes, at least temporarily. Enraged at Jean’s rejection,  Burns began wooing Mary Campbell and considered running away with her to the Caribbean. However, Mary suddenly died, changing his plans.

Amidst the domestic chaos in Burns’s life, in July 1786, he published his first major volume of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Critics praised the work, and its appeal spanned different classes of Scottish society. With this sudden success, Burns decided to stay in Scotland, and that November, he set out for Edinburgh to bask in the glory.

Working On Songs

Burns wasn’t just known for his poems. He was also a prolific songwriter and we often remember songs more easily than we do poems. He adapted the words of old Scottish folk songs and contributed over 300 songs to the Scots Musical Museum.

One of his most famous poems was ‘Auld Lyne Syne’ which is set to the music of a traditional folk song. This song is now sung all over the world to herald the New Year and is taken to mean ‘long, long ago’ or ‘days have gone by’.

In terms of songwriting ability, he is perhaps the nearest thing Scotland has to Lennon and McCartney. Bob Dylan cites ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ as his greatest lyrical inspiration. Burns was also musical himself and played the violin, the guitar, and the stock and horn. There is also strong evidence that he could read music.

Increasingly seeing himself as ‘Scotia’s bard’, Burns embarked on several tours of Scotland, to observe the country (though as a farmer he was more interested in crops than scenery) and to absorb its history and traditions including its songs.  He became almost obsessed with songwriting from this period on rescuing traditional songs, rewriting their words, writing new words. He was blessed with an amazingly retentive memory. And apart from his narrative verse masterpiece ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ (1788), he devoted the rest of his life to Scottish song, contributing to two main collections, the Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Scottish Airs.

Challenges and Death

There was, however, the problem of earning a living. Through a friend, he was offered the tenancy of a farm in Dumfriesshire. He also, though a radical by inclination, took the King’s shilling and accepted a post as an Excise officer.  The farm was not a success and he had to fall back on the excise work, moving with his family into the town of Dumfries in 1791.

The next few years were marked by increasing ill-health the heart trouble he had suffered since his hard farming days allied with a rheumatic condition and despite a course of water treatment, he died in Dumfries on 21 July 1796, at the age of thirty-seven.

His last poem – song, rather – was written for the girl who nursed him at the end (‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’) and his last child was born on the day of his funeral.

Burns has been described as a chameleon, that is, he was able to change his personality to suit the company or situation. This is best seen in his letters, where he adapts his tone to suit his correspondent, while never deviating from his lively, humorous, and intelligent self. What enabled him to do this was his innate sympathy – or empathy – with people (indeed, all living creatures). He may have been admired by some more for his conversation than his poems, but it is the poems that live on and the poems which have made him such a universally loved figure, not only in the West but in countries such as Russia and Japan.