About the Man

Scotland's best loved bard is famous for his political views, revolutionary behaviour, his love for the lassies and of course his world famous songs and poems.

© 2008 Alamo Burns Club.

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Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, in the tiny village of Alloway, Ayrshire, near to the town of Ayr on the West Coast of Scotland. 

His father William, was an extremely poor man and in 1750 had moved to the area in search of work, which he found at Doonholm market garden.
William Burnes, (note the original spelling, pronounced Burn-iss & later changed by Robert Burns himself) was then granted a tenancy or lease over a small area of farmland which he worked whilst continuing in his position as Head Gardener at Doonholm. He met and married Agnes Broun, (pronounced Broon, the old Scots for Brown) a local girl, and built a small cottage at the farm. 
(The cottage, now renamed "Burns Cottage", still stands to this day and is a key focal point for Burnsians, tourists & visitors from all over the world) 

 

 

 


 


Robert Burns (Robin or Rab but often now referred to as "Rabbie") was born in this sparse little cottage, the eldest son of a poor peasant farmer. Life was extremely harsh and the farm was not succeeding. Even as a small child he was to work long hours with his father, and many evenings were spent huddled round the fire listening to his mother's stories and his father reading from the bible. 

The little cottage was twice extended to accommodate a growing family, (eventually 4 boys & 3 girls) but in 1765 William Burnes was granted a lease over the nearby farm at Mount Oliphant. Later, in 1777, the family finally moved a few miles to Lochlie farm near Tarbolton.

William Burnes recognised the importance of Education and together with other friends, contracted the services of a local teacher, John Murdoch. At an early age, it was apparent to Murdoch that the young Robert showed the potential of a gifted scholar, ………but to what extent? 

For Robert, the combination of poverty, hard work on the farm, story telling, the influence of the Kirk , his studies, and a tremendous ability to observe life in general, was the making of The Man. He would develop a wicked sense of humour, a controversial frankness decrying hypocrisy, a tender & thoughtful creativity, an alleged thirst for drink, a deep Nationalist pride in his beloved Scotland, and an insatiable passion for Women. 

When his father died in 1784, Robert and his brother became partners in the farm. However, Robert was more interested in the romantic nature of poetry than the arduous graft of ploughing. Robert Burns had some misadventures with the ladies resulting in several illegitimate children, including twins to the woman who would become his wife, Jean Armour.

 

 

 

 

 

His first collection "Poems- Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - Kilmarnock Edition" (a set of poems essentially based on a broken love affair), was published and received much critical acclaim. He moved around the country, eventually arriving in Edinburgh, where he mingled in the illustrious circles of the artists and writers who were agog at the "Ploughman Poet."

In a matter of weeks he was transformed from local hero to a national celebrity, fussed over by the Edinburgh literati of the day, and Jean Armour's father allowed her to marry him, now that he was no longer a lowly wordsmith. Alas, the trappings of fame did not bring fortune and he took up a job as an exciseman to supplement the meagre income. Whilst collecting taxes he continued to write, contributing songs to the likes of James Johnston's "Scot's Musical Museum" and George Thomson's "Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs." In all, more than 400 of Burns' songs are still in existence.

Poet Robert Burns was 29, in the prime of his life and at the peak of his powers, when he came to Ellisland Farm in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

Some of Robert Burns' best-loved nature poems were inspired by the tranquil setting of Ellisland Farm, the last farm he worked before leaving for Dumfries.It was where he wrote a quarter of his full output which  included some of his best known works i.e. Tam O'Shanter, Auld Lang Syne, The Wounded Hare, Afton Water, The Whistle, John Anderson My Joe and many more. He worked the farm from 1788 until 1791.

The stony, infertile, poorly dressed and badly drained ground of Ellisland Farm turned out to be a ruinous bargain for Robert Burns who switched from arable farming to dairying and then decided to give up the land altogether as his career in the Excise looked more promising. At Martinmas (11th November) 1791 the Burns family left Ellisland Farm and moved into the town of Dumfries six miles away.

Robert Burns described Ellisland Farm as "the poet's choice" of the farms he was offered by Patrick Miller, his landlord. What he meant was literally that there he could find inspiration whereas he felt the other farms lacked soul.

 

The last years of Burns' life were devoted to penning great poetic masterpieces such as The Lea Rig and a Red, Red Rose.


Burns died on 21st July, 1796 aged 37 at Dumfries in the South of Scotland. During his short life he would aspire to great things. After his death, he would become legendary, or as some would say, immortal. His immortality runs deep in the veins of all Scots, perhaps unknowingly, and he has evolved from mere man to being symbolic of all things Scottish. He is now one of the great cornerstones of modern Scottish History and the significance of his memory is celebrated throughout the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One such immortal memory was penned and delivered by Alamo Burns Club’s past President Andrew McKee (snr). A real insight of how Robert Burns’ life and work is interpreted by the individual and has provoked us to consider the truth and honesty within his work as it appeals to our common emotion of humanity and brotherhood.

“To receive any invitation to propose the immortal memory must be considered the ultimate accolade to any Burns enthusiast. Each having their own particular style and bias, they are actively encouraged to propose the toast in their own way.

The problem of doing justice to the toast however is left entirely to the individual, as one elder statesman once put it, ‘It is unfortunate considering enthusiasm moves the world that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth.’ Quite a cynical statement don’t you think, nevertheless I believe that they do speak the truth, at least the truth in so far as they themselves see it.

To draw an analogy, consider the story of the young shop assistant who when serving behind the counter of a bakers shop was asked by a customer one day if she was ever tempted to eat the cakes and much to her surprise the assistant replied, “ Oh no Mrs., That would be stealing, I just lick them!”

Now whether we appreciate honesty and truth to that degree is questionable, nevertheless it is probably true to say that it is only by tasting the fruit of the poets labour that you get the flavour of it and having done so the right to acclaim or criticize. As Scots we often reserve that right to criticize our countrymen, especially those we consider successful, it seems to be something in our psyche, this belief that alive you’re dangerous, dead you’re safe.

However, in Robert Burns we have some form of agreement and acceptance that as a poet he is high on the list of the world’s finest literary figures. Much has been communicated by his biographers, grateful as we are to some of those fine scholars but like Carlyle; I believe a well written life is probably as rare as a well spent one. In spite of this twa hunner years lang syne, the legacy of his written word still takes on a special meaning and significance today as it did in his own lifetime. To all who take the opportunity of removing their Burns books from the shelf, blowing off the dust and reading them, I would venture to say that this is due in the main to the poets remarkable ability to put them into an ordered manner through his chosen method of communication, poetry & song.

He became first ‘Burns the Poet’ and as his wordsmith powers increased, ‘Burns the Communicator’. Communicating for posterity not only vivid word pictures of his life and time, historic as they are, but more importantly his thoughts and feeling for what he considered injustices, mans inhumanity to man, as evidenced by these few lines from ‘Man was made to Mourne’;

 

Many and sharp the numerous ills,

Interwoven with our frame,

More pointed still we make ourselves,

Regret, Remorse and Shame,

And man whoes heaven erected face,

The smiles of love adorn,

Mans inhumanity to man,

Makes countless thousands mourn.

 

Quite an impressive observation by the poet and certainly a truism of the highest order. Reading our daily newspaper or by viewing those harrowing scenes, so graphically displayed on our television sets, of conflict and inhumanity in various parts of the world makes you realize that there has been little or no change since he put those words together and that as much as we commiserate our compassion takes a back seat as we become conditioned by this nightly onslaught.

However it does reinforce the argument that truth, honesty and consideration for our fellow men should remain paramount. Albeit the method of communicating those ideals held dearly by Robert Burns may have changed somewhat from the 18th century, nevertheless they have never diminished in their universal acclaim and as we gather round and pay tribute to his memory and the legacy of poetic works handed down to us, we may consider it prudent to reflect on those truths, however humbling by their honesty, and how more honest could he get as he informs us;

 

Its no in titles nor in rank,

Its no in wealth like lonon bank,

To purchase peace and rest.

 

Its no in makin muckle mair,

Its no in books its no in lear,

To make us truly blest.

 

If happiness hae not her seat,

An centre in the breast,

We may be wise or rich or great,

But never can be blest.

 

Great thoughts and as ever great thoughts always come from within. This bridge of communication erected by the poet strengthened by language and feeling was once described by the poet William Wordsworth as ‘the spontaneous over flow which takes its origin from emotion’. In essence why the poet is accepted world wide is by his foresight in recognizing through his sensitivity that people matter. People matter irrespective of their background or birthright. For whether you are an Ayrshireman an Aberdonian, from Paisley or Paris. Geographically we may be distant but under the skin we remain the same.

The communicatory powers of Burns transcend the artificial barriers of colour, class or creed and unite us in amicable kinship.

Although this principle may not apply in all situations there is a growing belief that there is much to gain and very little to lose by giving greater publicity to his underlying principles and ideals. The concept and feasibility of brotherhood on a global scale may yet be achieved through our younger generation and in place of Burns the Communicator we may yet see Burns as the vehicle of communication, after all the technological age is upon us , communication has never been easier. We can now access the satellite communication system or, through the use of that swiftly multiplying phenomenon of computer wizardry the internet, gain entry and transmit information or receive it indirectly through an e-mail address.

Create our own website giving those who are computer literate instant access to over 2000 pages of Burns information which previously was unobtainable.

Even though the works of the poet have been translated into more than 40 different languages it has been estimated, however accurately, that 75% of the worlds population may have access to this means of communication within the next decade and it makes you wonder just how small this world of ours will become with everything instantly at ones disposal. Yet surprisingly there is still a demand for the printed page. Articles and books continue to be written by the academics communicating still further additional and fresh insight to this world of Burns.

The Burns Chronicle, for instance, the official organ of the Burns Federation, covers over 50 academic articles including Burns in Esparanto, another written in English by a German professor in Taiwan and more from two doctors in India on an article which appeared in a Madras newspaper and what’s more and particularly pleasing, sales have been generated as far apart as the U.S. , Australia, China and Japan. Proof positive if not absolute that the Ayrshire vernacular, or Scots tongue, is no handicap or hindrance to communicable speech or the works of Robert Burns. The Scots English having that unique ability to convey meaning and expression.

Thomas Crawford in his book ‘A Study of the Poems and Songs of Robert Burns’ states that Scots English, opposed to English English, must be read aloud by a Scot for its full emotional meaning to be apparent.

Whatever the merits or demerits of whether emotion is communicable by the written word the Poet, it can be reasoned, does it remarkably well. For who can stand unmoved, particularly those of Scots extraction, when reading or listening to ‘Scots Wha Hae’, this theme of liberty the poet suggested roused his rhyming mania or his impassioned plea to mankind that;

 

For a that an a that,

Its comin yet for a that,

That man to man the world oer,

Shall brithers be for a that.

 

There are no ifs or buts in those lines, he categorically asserts that in time all will be reconciled to this ideal and yet 200 years on since Burns made his prediction we are still no further forward in achieving his aim.

Our politicians, of whatever colour, prevaricate as to their course of action in making this world a better or safer place to live in. We as parents are concerned for the future of our young people. Perhaps we who consider ourselves as the older generation and regard with little reverence the ancient idea of humanity should be considering the method and means to communicate these ideals still worthy of consideration by our young, after all it is to them and those who may follow that we look to continue our traditions and values, to maintain and keep in good order this bridge to millennium and beyond.

The importance of this course of action was made quite forcibly recently when by chance I came upon an anonymous collection of verse which made such an impression on me because they convey the purpose of Burns’ aims & ideals.

Although not by Burns I’m sure they will suffice in making the point.

 

An old man travelling a lone highway,

Came at evening cold and grey,

To a chasm vast deep and wide,

The old man crossed in the twighlight dim,

The sullen stream had no fear for him,

But he turned when safe on the other side

And built a bridge to span the tide,

Old man said a fellow pilgrim near,

You are wasting your strength by building here,

Your journey will end with the ending day,

You never again will pass this way,

You’ve crossed this chasm deep and wide,

So why build this bridge at eventide.

The builder lifted his old grey head,

Good friend in the path I have come he said,

There followth after me today,

A youth whose feet must pass this way,

This chasm that has been as nought to me,

To that fairhairded youth may a pitfall be,

He too must cross in the twighlight dim,

Good friend I have built this bridge for him.

 

I believe these words echo if not give purpose to the philosophy of Robert Burns and to our own basic beliefs that what we do today should only enhance their tomorrow.

Robert Burns by his own design and pattern of communication, however sentimental, has provoked us and others into considering the truth and honesty within his work as it appeals to our common emotion of humanity and celebration of his ability to do so.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Burns Cottage” in Alloway, Ayrshire.

As seen today.

‘Bonnie’ Jean Armour 1765~1834

Portrait by John Alexander Gilfillan in 1822

Robert Burns 1759~1796

Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787

THE ALAMO BURNS CLUB www.alamoburnsclub.org.uk