The Life of the Great Poet Robbie Burns

Sep 5, 2017

The great poet Robbie Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in a small farmhouse on the wild and windy coast of Ayrshire, Scotland.  The child of self-educated tenant farmers, he spent his youth working long days on the families’ hardscrabble farms, then reading and dreaming by candlelight far into the long nights.  He would die at only 37 years old, succumbing to rheumatic fever, and leaving behind many a lass’s broken heart. 

But in between, he became the national bard of Scotland, the beloved Ploughman Poet, writing a host of poems and songs that are still cherished throughout the world.

Burns found his true voice in the Scots language and dialect, writing in words that did not come from the classical dictionary, but rather from everyday speech.  Some best-loved works include "A Red, Red Rose"; "A Man's a Man for A' That", "To a Mouse"; "Tam o' Shanter"; and "Ae Fond Kiss".

He also toured the Highlands and the Scottish Borders collecting old Scottish tunes to which he set his verses, thus helping to preserve the songs and keep a cultural tradition alive.

His words about the human spirit and condition, about nature, love, life and death, are as meaningful now as two centuries ago. His poems touched on themes of injustice, hypocrisy, the hard life of the countryman, radicalism, anticlericalism, sexuality, gender roles, Scottish cultural identity and man's inhumanity to his fellow man. He wrote scathing satires and tender love songs delivered in a direct, playful, yet sympathetic voice that spoke to all walks of life.

Throughout his life Burns identified with the poor and the downtrodden and spoke for them. Inequality angered him. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the French revolution before it turned into a blood-bath, and supported the American Revolution and it’s ideals as well.

Now, every year on the night of Burns' birthday, January 25, Scots all over the world celebrate his life and work by hosting Burns Suppers, a tradition begun by Burns friends just a few years after his death.

A dram or two of Whisky is the favorite libation at Burns Suppers…And, of course, the centrepiece is the iconic haggis, or as the bard himself described it, the 'great chieftain o' the puddin'-race'.

The evening begins by saying the 'Selkirk Grace', and the 'Ode to a Haggis' is recited as the haggis is marched in and dramatically sliced open, all accompanied by bagpipes. Champit tatties and neeps – or what we’d call mashed potatoes and turnips – traditionally accompany the haggis.

After dinner, a guest makes a speech commemorating Burns and proposes a toast to the great man, known as the Immortal Memory. A toast is then made to the lassies' in recognition of Burns' fondness for the fairer sex, and a female guest may reply with a bawdy toast to the laddies'.

After more music, song, and poetry, as the evening draws to a close, everyone joins hands and sings the song most associated with Burns, the beloved “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that has been translated into over thirty languages.

But the most important thing about a Burns Supper is to enjoy – with gusto. After all, the man you're paying tribute to was certainly not averse to a wee party himself.

For Celtic Cultural Association, with thanks to Scotland.org, this is Kate Scuffle.  Slainte.