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Robert "Rabbie" Burns: The National Bard of Scotland

Writing about fascinating figures from history never loses its charm.

Robert Burns, Scotland's hero.

Robert Burns, Scotland's hero.

Farmer's Son Robert Burns: "Robden of Solway Firth"

The man who’s known to the world as the Ploughman Poet, the National Bard, Robden of Solway Firth and most familiarly as Rabbie Burns was the first of seven children born to Alloway tenant farmers William and Agnes Burnes. The couple had land approximately two miles south of Ayr in Ayrshire, upon which can be found the Burns Cottage Museum today.

The surname was spelled with an “e”, but this was altered in 1786 to Burns for reasons best known to William Burns. Around Easter 1766, the Burns’ relocated to the 70-acre Mount Oliphant Farm to the southeast of Alloway.

Rabbie Burns Composes "Handsome Nell"

Life was hard, restricted by poverty but enriched by education which Mr. and Mrs. Burns realised was invaluable for their children to flourish. William Burns was self educated and he taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history and religious education. Robbie briefly attended a school but the farm demanded his attention.

Robert Burns first musical composition “Handsome Nell” was in honour of Nellie Kirkpatrick, a farm girl that the fifteen year old was besotted with in 1774. The following year he wrote two songs inspired by and for Peggy Thompson.

The Burns Cottage, Ayrshire.

The Burns Cottage, Ayrshire.

Ayrshire marked on a map of Scotland.

Ayrshire marked on a map of Scotland.

The Romantic Poet of Lochlea, Irvine and Mossgiel

At Whitsun of 1777 the Burns family moved to a one hundred and thirty acre farm in Lochlea. Here, Robert wrote four songs for Alison Begbie and he suggested marriage to her. She declined.

Late in 1781 he moved to Irvine to learn how to prepare flax to be woven into linen, an occupation known as a flax-dresser. On New Year’s night the flax and the business premises were destroyed by fire.

Robert Burns returned to Lochlea unsure what his future held. Captain Richard Brown encouraged him to write poetry in Scottish dialects.

This idea stalled with William Burns’ death; the family moved to Mossgiel near Mauchline. Robbie and his brother Gilbert farmed the land. His first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns, was born there in 1785. Her mother was Agnes Burns’ servant, Elizabeth Paton.

His poems, To A Mouse and Holy Willie’s Prayer were published that same year.

Long suffering Jean Armour.

Long suffering Jean Armour.

Burns' Next Conquests: Jean Armour and Highland Mary

In 1784 he had met The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour. He had twins, Robert and Jean, with her in 1786. Over the years she bore him nine children but only three lived past infancy. The couple entered into an unofficial marriage when Burns signed a document confirming that he’d “married” Jean.

That year, he fell in love or lust with Mary Campbell, immortalised in several works including Highland Mary. Romantic folklore states that they swapped Bibles and declared themselves to be married by the Water of Fail on the 14th May 1786. By October of that year Mary had succumbed to typhus although speculation arose that her death was a result of childbirth.

Jean Armour’s father tore up the written declaration of marriage between Burns and Jean. Robbie’s response was to stand in Mauchline Kirk for three consecutive Sundays so that he could obtain a certificate stating that he was a bachelor. He moved lodgings frequently to evade a warrant from Jean Armour’s father demanding a large sum of money or Burns’ imprisonment. His marriage to Jean was recognised by the Scottish kirk in 1788.

On the 31st July 1786 John Wilson published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect for three shillings a copy. It was acclaimed and became known as the Kilmarnock volume. At the age of twenty seven Robbie Burns was famous throughout Scotland.

More Infidelities and Tam o' Shanter

A second and expanded edition of his book was published by William Creech in Edinburgh on the 17th April 1787. In November 1786 Burns made the journey north east to Edinburgh by pony to escape the Armours’. This volume brought him international praise.

He was as busy in his love life as his career in the city. He had an affair with Margaret “May” Cameron before she joined her husband in Jamaica. She bore his child in 1787. He exchanged love letters with Agnes McLehose but she was resistant to his charms so he pursued her servant Jenny Clow who fell into his arms. Jenny gave birth to his son, Robert Burns Clow in 1788. The same year Burns left Edinburgh, having spent most of his £400-£500 earnings and he reconciled with Jean Armour, he took a lease on Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire and trained as an excise-man. He worked for Customs and Excise for a until his death. He gave up the farm in 1791 as one of his most popular works Tam O’ Shanter was published.

Ellisland Farm in a sketch by an unknown artist.

Ellisland Farm in a sketch by an unknown artist.

A Calmer Burns in Dumfries? No.

Relocation to Dumfries did not calm him. Another illegitimate child, Elizabeth or Betty, was born to a barmaid of The Globe Inn, Ann Park. Some people believe that Ann’s ghost haunts the inn. It’s a custom today that you may only sit in Burns’ old chair if you recite a line from a Burns poem or instead buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar.

Burns contributed lyrics to The Melodies of Scotland and A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. These confirmed his place in Scottish history. He wrote A Red Red Rose in 1794. This piece is also known as My Luve is Like A Red Red Rose.

Farewell to the National Bard of Scotland

His health began to fail and he aged prematurely. It has been speculated that his erratic behaviour was caused by bipolar disorder and that he suffered from a rheumatic heart condition. He died in Dumfries on the 21st July 1796, aged thirty seven. The funeral was held on the 25th July, the day that his son Maxwell was born to Jean Armour.

Robbie Burns was buried in a quiet corner of St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries but funds for a mausoleum on the church grounds were raised by his fans and in 1817 he was moved into the mausoleum. Jean joined him there in 1834.

In 2012 it was estimated that there were over 600 living descendants of Robert Burns.

The Burns Mausoleum in Dumfries.

The Burns Mausoleum in Dumfries.

Annual 25th January Burns Night Celebrations

The first Burns Club was founded in 1801 by Ayrshire merchants based in Greenock. It was known as The Mother Club.

Burns Night suppers are held annually on the 25thJanuary and the day can be considered a national day in Scotland. The first Burns supper was mistakenly held on 29th January 1802 but since 1803 it has been celebrated on the 25th. Burns suppers have remained largely unchanged over the centuries. There are welcomes and announcements followed by the Selkirk Grace, bagpipes are played, the traditional dish of Haggis is cut and Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” is recited. After dining, the toasts and replies are made. The iconic Burns’ composition Auld Lang Syne is sung to close the supper.

For some people Burns Night is a gathering of scholars and admirers but for others it’s an excuse for a drunken whisky fuelled evening.

"Cutting the haggis" at a Burns Night supper.

"Cutting the haggis" at a Burns Night supper.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle