Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, near Ayr, on the 25th of January 1759. He was born in poverty, his father, a small farmer, was a hard-working man and he took great trouble to give his children education. By the age of eighteen Burns had acquired a good knowledge of English literature, Greek, Latin and French. More than that, he was greatly interested in trigonometry. Robert owed much to his father who was described by Thomas Carlyle as “a man of thoughtful intense character… valuing knowledge, possessing some and open minded for more…”

Although his mother was uneducated, Burns, nevertheless, inherited from her a great love for the rich tradition of Scottish balladry.

Robert Burns at early age worked on the family farm. Despite the desperate hardship of the farm — where by the age of thirteen Burns did most of ploughing and reaping and threshed the corn with his own hands — he would always have a volume of Scottish ballads ready to read in any spare minute.

It was the combination of hard labour and poor food that caused his heart attacks which troubled him during all his life and from which he died.

In 1781 Robert went to Irvine to train as a flax dresser — linen was one of the profitable branches of the Scottish economy in the 18th century. Burns worked with his father and brothers. But in 1784 his father died, and Burns moved to Mossgiel where he again tried to make a living as a farmer. During this period he met his future wife Jean Armour, but they couldn’t marry because of the objections of her father.

Fortune was against Burns. As a farmer he was very unsuccessful. Thus Burns decided to emigrate to the West Indies. His most brilliant poems appeared in 1785-86. He published them in August, 1786 in Kilmarnock under the title “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”. That volume contained some of his most popular early songs, as well as “To a Mouse”, “To a Mountain Daisy” and others.

Although Burns never received more than £ 20 for his book, it was a great success, being admired by everyone from ploughboys to the educated circles of Edinburgh.

Burns was so encouraged by such a warm reception given to his poems that he decided to move to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland since 1452. Robert Louis Stevenson said that “no situation could be more commanding for the lead city of a Kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects”. Edinburgh lies between the Pentland Hills and the Firth of Forth — a situation which gives a different view from whichever point of the compass the arrivals approach.

Meanwhile, a second edition of Burns’s poems appeared. The publication brought the author sufficient financial security to allow him to return to Ayrshire in 1788 where he produced two of his best-loved works, “Auld Lang Syne” and “Tam o’Shanter” — his last major work and many would say his masterpiece.

In “Tam o’Shanter” Tam went to a pub in Ayr and stayed there till midnight. While returning home, he saw lights in the church at Alloway. He decided to look inside the church. There were devils and witches in the church. Unfortunately, they no­ticed Tam and ran out of the church. They wanted to catch Tam, but Tam, trying to escape, rushed to the bridge over the river Doon. There on the bridge, one of the witches seized the tail of Tam’s horse. But she could do nothing, because the witches couldn’t swim. Thus Tam and his horse were safe.

Now Burns had the opportunity to see more of his native land which he so dearly loved. He travelled a lot and enjoyed the lovely landscapes of the Highlands. He was greatly impressed by the historic places and all their splendid beauty. Many of his fine poems appeared: “My Heart’s in the Highlands”. Burns sang the beauty and the glory of his native land.

In 1789 Burns bought a farm of his own on the banks of the river Nith. But the farm again caused only a disappointment and suffering. By this time Robert Burns was married to Jean Armour and having lost his money felt compelled to take up a position as an Excise Officer. Burns held the position of the exciseman for his district until his death. But he continued his literary work as well. For the next few years Burns’s major literary activity was his work on J. Johnson’s “Scots Musical Museum” and G. Thomson’s “Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs”.

Working without payment, Burns collected old songs and wrote more than two hundred of his own. During that period of time his most popular songs appeared. The world famous “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” was among them.

Although all the songs became instantly popular and are still appreciated throughout Scotland, the reaction of different critics and writers was not positive at all. Stevenson called the Burns’s period of writing these songs the years spent in “whittling cherry stones”.

By 1790 Burns’s health was beginning to suffer, partly because of his heart disease and partly because of his job. He had to travel a lot on behalf of the Excise. In 1794-95 he was a very sick man, and on the 21st of July, 1796 he died.

Robert Burns belonged to the Age of Enlightenment. He was among those who openly protested against the social order. It is important to remember not only his own social background, but also that Scotland was a poor country. His hatred of injustice is not born of a fashionable 18th century intellectual radicalism, but is firmly rooted in personal experience. Millions of people in Scotland and all over the world love Burns’s poems and songs. The readers feel his great love for people and his deep faith in human decency.

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