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This page: updated 21st February 2022

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Robert Burns
Dumfries and Galloway

Robert Burns and Dumfries & Galloway

Robert Burns (1759-96), Scottish poet and writer of traditional Scottish folk songs, whose works are known and loved wherever the English language is read.

Early Life

Burns, Robert (1759-96)Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, January 25, 1759. He was the eldest of seven children born to William Burness, a struggling tenant farmer, and his wife, Agnes Broun. Although poverty limited his formal education, Burns read widely in English literature and the Bible and learned to read French. He was encouraged in his self-education by his father, and his mother acquainted him with Scottish folk songs, legends, and proverbs.

Arduous farm work and undernourishment in his youth permanently injured his health, leading to the rheumatic heart disease from which he eventually died. He went in 1781 to Irvine to learn flax dressing, but when the shop burned down, he returned home penniless. He had, meanwhile, composed his first poems.

The poet's father died in 1784, leaving him as head of the family. He and his brother Gilbert rented Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline, but the venture proved a failure.

First Vernacular Poems

In 1784 Burns read the works of the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson. Under his influence and that of Scottish folk tradition and older Scottish poetry, he became aware of the literary possibilities of the Scottish regional dialects. During the next two years he produced most of his best-known poems, including "The Cotter's Saturday Night," "Hallowe'en," "To a Daisy," and "To a Mouse." In addition, he wrote "The Jolly Beggars," a cantata chiefly in standard English, which is considered one of his masterpieces.

Several of his early poems, notably "Holy Willie's Prayer," satirized local ecclesiastical squabbles and attacked Calvinist theology, bringing him into conflict with the church.

Social Notoriety

Burns further angered church authorities by having several indiscreet love affairs. In 1785 he fell in love with Jean Armour, the daughter of a Mauchline building contractor. Jean soon became pregnant, and although Burns offered to make her his wife, her father forbade their marriage. Thereupon (1786) he prepared to immigrate to the West Indies. Before departing he arranged to issue by subscription a collection of his poetry. Published on July 31 in Kilmarnock in an edition of 600 copies, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was an immediate success.

In September Burns abandoned the West Indies plan; the same month Jean became the mother of twins. He moved in the fall of 1786 to Edinburgh, where he was lionized by fashionable society. Charmed by Burns, the literati mistakenly believed him to be an untutored bard, a "Heavens-taught Plowman." He resented their condescension, and his bristling independence, blunt manner of speech, and occasional social awkwardness alienated admirers.

While Burns was in Edinburgh, he successfully published a second, 3000-copy edition of Poems (1787), which earned him a considerable sum. From the proceeds he was able to tour (1787) the English border region and the Highlands and finance another winter in Edinburgh.

In the meantime he had resumed his relationship with Jean Armour. The next spring she bore him another set of twins, both of whom died, and in April Burns and Armour were married.

In June 1788, Burns leased a poorly equipped farm in Ellisland, but the land proved unproductive. Within a year he was appointed to a position in the Excise Service, and in November 1791 he relinquished the farm.

Later Songs and Ballads

Burns's later literary output consisted almost entirely of songs, both original compositions and adaptations of traditional Scottish ballads and folk songs. He contributed some 200 songs to Scots Musical Museum (6 vol., 1783-1803), a project initiated by the engraver and music publisher James Johnson. Beginning in 1792 Burns wrote about 100 songs and some humorous verse for Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, compiled by George Thomson. Among his songs in this collection are such favorites as "Auld Lang Syne," "Comin' Thro' the Rye," "Scots Wha Hae," "A Red, Red Rose," "The Banks o' Doon," and "John Anderson, My Jo."

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burns became an outspoken champion of the Republican cause. His enthusiasm for liberty and social justice dismayed many of his admirers; some shunned or reviled him. After Franco-British relations began to deteriorate, he curbed his radical sympathies, and in 1794, for patriotic reasons, he joined the Dumfriesshire Volunteers. Burns died in Dumfries, July 21, 1796.

A memorial edition of Burn's poems was published for the benefit of his wife and children. Its editor, the physician James Currie, a man of narrow sympathies, represented the poet as a drunkard and a reprobate, and his biased judgment did much to perpetuate an unjustly harsh and distorted conception of the poet.

Burns touched with his own genius the traditional folk songs of Scotland, transmuting them into great poetry, and he immortalized its countryside and humble farm life. He was a keen and discerning satirist who reserved his sharpest barbs for sham, hypocrisy, and cruelty. His satirical verse, once little appreciated, has in recent decades been recognized widely as his finest work. He was also a master of the verse-narrative technique, as exemplified in "Tam o'Shanter." Finally, his love songs, perfectly fitted to the tunes for which he wrote them, are, at their best, unsurpassed

The Legacy of Burns continues

With the efforts of the Burns Howff Club, Dumfries. Founded in the Globe Inn, Burns' favourite "howff", in 1889 the Burns Howff Club includes a programme of events developed to encourage Robert Burns enthusiasm amongst children.

The Club works to promote Robert Burns, Dumfries and the historic value of the contribution of Robert Burns to Scotland's national heritage. For more information visit www.burnshowffclub.org

On 25th January 2009, Dumfries celebrated the 250th birthday of Robert Burns with "Burns Light". Lantern processions inspired by the works of Robert Burns wound through Dumfries to meet at the Whitesands for live entertainment and a spectacular fire show featuring a wicker sculpture of Tam O'Shanter. Robert Burns' epic poem "Tam O'Shanter" is widely hailed as the Scottish bard's finest work. The wicker sculpture depicted the scene where the drunken farmer (Tam O'Shanter) on his horse Meg is pursued over the Brig o' Doon by the witch Nannie ("Cutty Sark").

View YouTube footage at: A Taste of Burns Light | The Burning of Tam O'Shanter | The Lantern "conga"

See the Photographs: - Flickr Burnslight photo album