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  • Robert Burns

  Poetry and Songs

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  Burns Supper


  Robert Burns - His Life (Overview)

There are so many written stories and recorded facts concerning Robert Burns that a major book is required to consider it all. Here we provide a brief overview of his life, and the inks on the left explore his Poetry and Songs, his influences, the Scotland that he knew, and the ritual of the Burns Supper. Enjoy !

Burns Ancestors
The Glenbervie Kirkyard in the county of Kincardine contains a graveyard where two renovated tombstones celebrate the origins of the Burness family who farmed in that area. William Burness was the son of the farmer at Clouchinhill, near Stonehaven, and travelled to Edinburgh, and then into Ayrshire where he and his wife settled in the "auld clay biggin" where Robert Burns was later born. After Burns passed away, the graves of his ancestors were restored with their original inscriptions:

• In memory of William Burnes, tenant in Bogjorgan, who died, 1715; and Christian Fotheringham, his wife. This tomb of the great grand-uncle of the poet Robert Burns, restored by subscription, 1885.

• In memory of James Burnes, tenant in Brawlinmuir, died 23rd January, 1746. Margaret Falconer, his wife, died 28th December, 1749. This tomb of the great grand-parents of the poet Robert Burns, restored by subscription, 1885.

The Early Years
Robert Burns was born into a family affected by poverty. His Gradfather, Robert Burness, lost Clochanhi farm and his sons scattered in search of their own adventures. Burn's father settled in Alloway in Ayrshire, with a smallholding of seven and a half acres where he built a two-roomed cottage of clay and thatch before marrying Agnes Broun, the daughter of a local farmer. Agnes gave birth to Robert on 25 January 1759, and throughout his youth she sang folk-songs to him, and read extracts from her Bible. Robert later wrote that this, and the stories from his mother's maid, cultivated the "seeds of Poesy".

From the age of six years, Robert was educated at the local school in Alloway with his younger brother Gilbert, and his joy in reading started early since he later wrote "The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were The Life of Hannibal and The History of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough that I might be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest". Robert continued his love of literature despite his father's unwise venture into larger scale farming which was continually troubled and left them hungry at times. His brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in threshing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principle labourer on the farm.

At the age of fourteen, Rober worked at the harvest beside a girl called Nelly Kirkpatrick, and he wrote of how he wondered "why my pulse beat such a furious ratann when I looked over her hand, to pick out the nettle-stings and thistles".

Growing to Manhood
At sixteen Robert started more intensive schooling in mathematics at Kirkoswald, near Turnberry, and following that he joined his father at Mount Oliphant, where he worked until their lease was terminated. His father then became the tenant of 130 acres at Tarbolton (Lochlea) where for four years the family were settled and happy. Here, Burns found another way to develop his art when the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club was formed in 1780 to meet once a month and debate any subject except religion. Burns stated "Every man proper for a member of this Society must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex." His experience of the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club, and his ensuing membership of St David's Lodge Freemasons, opened new vistas to Burns.

The Emerging Poet
During the next period his family and farm were beset by problems, and Robert wrote to John Murdoch that he felt sent into the world to see and observe, and the joy of his heart was to "study men, their manners and their ways". He followed the habit of compiling knowledge and ideas in a "Commonplace Book" and in the one he wrote between 1783 and 1785 he reflected on the death of his father, and the grief of his family. His world clearly changed when he met Jean Armour during the summer of 1784. She was nineteen years old and it is said that at a dance she overheard Burns say he wished to find a girl who would show him affection. A few days later she asked him whether he had found the girl he was looking for yet, and by the following summer he was recalling in his Commonwealth Book:

When first I came to Stewart Kyle
My mind it was nae steady,
Where e'er I gaed, where e'er I rade,
A Mistress still I had ay:
But when I came roun'by Mauchlin town,
Not dreadin' anybody,
My heart was caught before I thought
And by a Mauchlin Lady

However his first child was not born to Jean Armour but to Elizabeth Paton, and it was reared by Agnes Burness at Mossgeil. Soon after, Jean Armour was pregnant and her father agreed to let her marry Robert, yet in parallel he was having a relationship with Mary Campbell. His love affair with Mary is shrouded in secrecy and romantic legend, and after her untimely death he commemorated their parting in one of his greatest songs, Ae Fond Kiss . . .

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly!
Never met - or never parted,
We had ne'er been brokenhearted.

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, Alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee. . . .

Robert Burns found a printer in Kilmarnock to publish his first set of poems which were paid for by subscription of admirers. This was his 'Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect', and the copyright and profit paid for the upkeep of his daughter by Elizabeth Paton. Jean Armour had later given birth to twins, and Mary was pregnant around the same time. It is thought Mary died in childbirth, which devastated Burns. The troubled life and loves of Burns lit the fire in the belly of Scotland's greatest bard, and he was soon honoured by The Grand Lodge of Scotland who toasted him as "Caledonia's Bard, Brother Burns" shortly before he was accepted into Canongate Kilwinning Lodge. Burns then visited Edinburgh with a view to publishing his second book of poems. The Kilmarnock edition elevated Burns to be Caledonia's Bard, and the Edinburgh edition showed him to be a poet worthy of international attention.