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Robert Burns : His Influences

Robert Burns was clearly a gifted child, growing up in a time of rapid change in society, agriculture, and the arts. Peoples lives changed and their thinking changed also. He was one of the fortunate children of the period, introduced to reading which opened new ideas and opportunities to the young Burns.

His life in the farming community also shaped his character. Burns was exposed to the joyous idyll of an agrarian lifestyle, and also to the meanest states that poverty could bring. All around him were examples of successful enterprise and grinding poverty, and all forms in between. The reality of farm life shines through Burn's poetry, as does his growing awareness of the nature of Scottish society and the changes being wrought there.

Despite a life based in agricultural labour, Burns acquired a good education and enjoyed social life. Yet despite being described as the "Heaven-taught ploughman", for most of his life he was a working farmer who accessed learning through personal determination.

Robert Burns helped at his father's smallholding at Alloway (until 1766), and then at Mount Oliphant near Ayr (1766-1777). Then at Lochlie by Tarbolton he worked as an equal with his father and brother (1777-1784). When his father died he moved to Mossgeil near Mauchline and shared the tenancy with his brother Gilbert. At the moment Burns moved to Ellisland (1788) near Dumfries he was a sole tenant for the first and only time in his life.

Burns and the Church
In Burns' day Scotland was very religious, so much so that people were fined if they did not attend. Like other children he was taught to read the Bible and Catechism (questions and answers about the beliefs of the Church of Scotland). His writings show dislike for people falsely claiming to be very religious (Holy Willie's Prayer being a perfect example).

Burns is thought to have been initially influenced by Arthur Masson's Collection of Prose and Verse, an anthology with selections from Thomson, Gray, Shenstone, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Addison, and Elizabeth Rowe. Also, Murdoch, on his farewell visit to the Burnes household, left a translation of a French novel The School for Love. More importantly for the young Burns, his mother's love of folk song, and his exposure to the folk-tales of the maid, Betty Davidson, prepared the ground for his inspiration via the life of Hannibal and a history of Sir William Wallace. A range of other books were bought for the children by William Burnes and his wife, and so his young life was rich in literature. From the age of seventeen, when Shenstone's works were added to Burns's store, his reading was wide-ranging.

The Freemasons
Burns clearly enjoyed the Bachelor Club as an opportunity for discourse and presentation, and when he was inducted into the St David's Lodge of Tarbolton as a Freemason in July 1781 Robert Burns was made part of a learned society well versed in speech making and the organisation of social events (often involving music, poetry, and recitation). In this way he broadened his acquaintance to wider society, and found an audience for his poetry and songs.