This Day in Literary History
On January 25th, 1759, the legendary Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns was born in Alloway, South Ayreshire, Scotland. He was the oldest of seven children. Robbie, as he liked to be called, was born in a house that his father built. His father, William, was a tenant farmer.
When Robbie was seven years old, his father sold the family's small house (it would later become the Burns Cottage Museum) and moved them to the 70-acre Mt. Oliphant tenant farm Southeast of Alloway.
As a young tenant farmer, Robbie Burns grew up in an atmosphere of grinding poverty and grueling labor. Young Robbie's labors would leave him with a premature stoop and frail health that would ultimately and tragically cut his life short.
He and his siblings received little formal schooling. They were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and other subjects by their father, who also wrote a textbook for them called A Manual of Christian Belief.
Robbie Burns and his brother Gilbert attended some local schools, including a new "adventure school" founded by John Murdoch, who taught his students French and Latin in addition to English grammar and other subjects.
For the Burns siblings and other children of tenant farmers, harvest time meant leaving school and returning to full-time farming.
By the age of 15, Robbie Burns practically managed the farm himself. He was assisted by Nellie Kilpatrick, a girl his age with whom he fell in love. She inspired him to write his first poem, O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass.
Three years later, in 1777, disgusted by the poor working and living conditions at the Mt. Oliphant farm, Burns' father William moved the family to another tenant farm, this one in Lochlea near Tarbolton, where the family would stay until William died in 1784.
Robbie Burns found the conditions at the Lochlea farm better than Mt. Oliphant, though not exactly ideal. Against his father's wishes, he joined a country dancing school. He and his brother Gilbert founded the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club.
In October of 1781, Robbie was initiated into the St. David Tarbolton Masonic Lodge. When this particular lodge became inactive, Burns joined another one. He would remain an active Mason throughout his life, helping to run his lodge.
He would attain the rank of Depute Master, and in 1787 at the Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh, he would be toasted by the Grand Master, Francis Chateris, and named Poet Laureate - a title still honored by the Masons today.
In the summer of 1784, Robbie Burns became acquainted with a group of girls who called themselves The Belles of Mauchline. One member of the group was Jean Armour, the daughter of a fellow Mason. Robbie fell in love with her.
While they were courting, Elizabeth Paton, his mother's servant girl, gave birth to his illegitimate daughter. Within the next couple of years, Jean would become pregnant with Robbie's twin son and daughter. At this time, Robbie was also dating a girl named Mary Campbell.
Robbie wanted to marry Jean Armour, but her irate father forbade her from marrying him and sent her to stay with her uncle. Realizing that he was in no financial position to marry Jean, Robbie accepted an offer to work in Jamaica as the bookkeeper for a slave plantation.
He loathed slavery, (and later wrote a poem called The Slave's Lament) but he was desperate. Unfortunately, he couldn't afford passage on a ship to Jamaica. So, taking a friend's advice, to earn the money, he decided to publish a collection of his poems.
On April 3rd, 1786, Robert Burns submitted proposals to John Wilson, a printer in Kilmarnock, to publish his collection, Scotch Poems. The volume appeared three months later as Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
It was an accurate title, as Burns wrote poetry in a Gaelic dialect, in English, and in a combination of both languages. The book became an overnight sensation, and soon, Burns was famous throughout Scotland.
Robbie earned enough money to pay for his trip to Jamaica, scheduled for September 1st, but he postponed it when he learned that Jean Armour had given birth to his twin children. Two months later, he borrowed a horse and rode to Edinburgh, hoping to get his poetry collection published there.
It was accepted by publisher William Creech, who published it in a serialized format sold to subscribers. In Edinburgh, Burns found himself embraced by the city's literati and men of letters, who invited him to their gatherings. He met the then 16-year-old Sir Walter Scott, who described him this way:
His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents. His features are presented in Mr Nasmyth's picture but to me it conveys the idea that they are diminished, as if seen in perspective.
I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits ... there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.
By February of 1788, Robbie Burns, now a famous poet, was finally reunited with Jean Armour and his twin children. Her father relented and allowed them to marry. Robbie leased a farm near Dumfries and gave it a go.
He also worked for the Customs and Excise Department. Two years later, he gave up farming, wrote some of his best poetry, and embarked on a project to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs. He also wrote lyrics for Scottish folk melodies.
Unfortunately, Robert Burns' early life as a tenant farmer and its grueling labors had taken a toll on his health. It is believed that he suffered from a rheumatic heart condition that was aggravated by his drinking and possibly by an infected tooth that was extracted several months before his death.
He died in July of 1796 at the age of 37. To this day, Robert Burns remains Scotland's most famous poet, and every New Year's Eve, people around the world sing his classic song, Auld Lang Syne. In 2009, the Royal Mint issued a commemorative two pound coin featuring a quote from the lyrics.
Quote Of The Day
"My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed - which is generally the most difficult part of the business - I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes." - Robert Burns
Today's video features a full length BBC documentary on Robert Burns. Enjoy!