Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan o’ the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.
is recited and the haggis is toasted with a glass of whisky. The evening ends with a rousing rendition of ' Auld Lang Syne,' This year will be a little different as celebrations will be held at home, but despite lockdown the traditions will continue.
Robert Burns is not only Scotland’s best known poet and songwriter but one of the most widely acclaimed literary figures of all time. He is held in very special affection by millions around the world. Admired as the bard of freedom, liberty and the common good of humankind.
Robert Burns was in rural poverty on 25 January 1759 in the village of Alloway, two miles south of Ayr,the son of a poor tenent farmer, Jacobite in sympathies, who had moved from near Stonehaven in Kincardineshire. Burns had a fairly extensive education. He attended several schools and was given lessons from his tutor, John Murdoch, who introduced him to Scots and other literature in the English language.The farm his family worked on would provide enough to scrape through each year provided every family member worked as long and hard as they could.
Burns’s upbringing was one of hard labour and little leisure. His early teenage poems, written in his own Scots dialect, reflect the life he lived and are concerned only with the people and places he knew, not, as with popular contemporary poets, the triumphs of mythological heroes or the achievements of great classical civilisations. For Burns, poetry was not work, but a way of understanding life and of comprehending the beauties and evils he saw around him. In his life of labour and poetry, Burns came to develop philosophical understandings of the world around him. His poem ‘To a Mouse’ Shows this:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
This is of course the most famous example of Burns’s unique poetic understanding of life and humanity. The sympathy he has for the mouse whose house he has turned up while ploughing the field is developed into a reflection on his own lowly position and the now ‘broken union’ between living things. Whilst this poem is undoubtedly famous for its unique handling of Scots, its incredibly important and valuable message of compassion and unity is often ignored.
‘For Freedom, standing by the tree,
Her sons did loudly ca’, man.
She sang a sang o’ liberty,
Which pleased them ane and a’, man.
By her inspired, the new-born race
Soon drew the avenging steel, man;
The hirelings ran——–her foes gied chase,
And banged the despot weel, man.’
When Burns’ father died in 1784, worn out and bankrupt after 18 years of hard graft with little reward.As a result he satirised religion and politics that condoned or perpetuated inhumanity in his poetry as he became a rebel against the social order of the day.The women of his life during this time were also the subjects and inspiration of his prose.
On July 31 1786, as thought of emigrating, a volume of his poems was published in Kilmarnock, entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
It became an immediate success, and led to Burns moving to Edinburgh in November 1786.Newly hailed as the Ploughman Poet because his poems complemented the growing literary taste for romanticism and pastoral pleasures, Burns arrived in Edinburgh, where he was welcomed by a circle of wealthy and important friends.
The aristocrats belittled him though as the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ because they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that one of the poorest and lowest stood intellectually above all the expensively-educated young ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh. These “parcel of rogues in a nation”, who had already betrayed the Scottish people in 1707 and 1745 (when even Gaelic and tartan were outlawed), had abandoned the lowlands Scottish dialect and wanted Burns to do the same, to turn him into the bard of Scotland-in-Empire.
In The Cannongate Burns Andrew Noble observes, “Had Burns adhered to the social etiquette of Edinburgh’s genteel society, he probably would have written no poetry worth reading after 1787”. His burning desire for social justice and equality against class exploitation are made explicit in many of his poems. Although he became very successful, Robert never forgot his roots. His poems often reflected his love of farming and the difficulties faced by working-class people.
He was handsome and managed to combine his wit and wisdom with a down-to-earth attitude, which made him very popular in social circles.His love life was certainly complicated. In 1785, Elizabeth, his daughter by his mother’s servant Betty Paton, was born, shortly before he met Jean Armour. His relationships proliferated. Armour was pregnant with his twins in 1786, while Burns was also still devoted to Mary Campbell. Later he would have a relationship with Agnes McLehose, but turned to her maid Jenny Clow for a more physical relationship. Early in 1786, Burns signed “some sort of Wedlock” with Armour, but her father repudiated him and sent Jean away. They were married in 1788, and the Ainslie letter deals with his return to her from McLehose.
Struggling to make ends meet and trying to forget Jean in “dissipation and riot,” Burns agreed to take a post on a slave plantation in Jamaica. Lack of money and the “feelings of a father” when Jean gave birth led him to postpone and then abandon his emigration. It was at this point that he was encouraged first to publish his poems to finance the trip. This led to him being courted by the Edinburgh literary scene and groomed as a contributor to anthologies of Scottish song and verse like James Johnston’s Scots Musical Museum.
Burns’s association with slavery is problematic for those who do not view him historically, but his poetry attests to an aspiration for freedom globally. The final lines of For a’ that and a’ that are justly celebrated:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Its comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
Burns also wrote movingly of The Slave’s Lament:
The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
And I think on friends most dear with the bitter, bitter tear,
And Alas! I am weary, weary O!
Burns reached his highpoint in support of the French revolution, not just in fiery words, but in deeds – sending them four cannon as the British bourgeoisie started its anti-Jacobin war (‘Napoleonic’) in support of the reactionary aristocratic regimes of Europe. With widespread starvation and troops sent against food riots in Dumfries, he helped form a branch of the underground ‘Friends of the People’ and teamed up with the working-class London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen – his poems particularly inspiring many Ulster Protestants to rise up for Irish independence. Andrew Noble writes: “The real war fought by Pitt and Dundas was not against France per se. Their battle was an ideological war against the domestic pro-democracy movement in Britain and in Scotland in particular, where they feared a mass rebellion or outright revolution”.
In December 1792 Pitt declared martial law and unleashed a wave of repression. That same day Burns was the first to be investigated for his support for the revolution (singing the revolutionary anthem ‘Ca ira’ in a Dumfries theatre). Yet the next day Burns answered with ‘On The Year 1793’. When Paine’s The Rights of Man sold 15,000 copies, the publisher was arrested. A declaration of loyalty and blacklisting were introduced, trade unions made illegal and opponents deported. Reformers and democrats were portrayed as terrorists and traitors.
Conservative ‘Burnsians’ foster the myth that Burns then became a Hannoverian loyalist or a coward, abandoning radical writings. In fact, this is when he established safe routes to publishers in Edinburgh and London to anonymously publish his clearest revolutionary anti-war propaganda poems. These and others were suppressed or denied by the literary establishment for 200 years until Patrick Scott Hogg published Robert Burns: The Lost Poems in 1997. Just months before his death in 1796 Burns confirmed, “If I must write, let it be sedition”. When he received the letter from his employers, the Commissioners of Excise, forbidding his political views, he immediately scribbled “the creed of poverty” on the envelope in defiance.
Burns knew he was being spied on. As a cover, he joined the Dumfries Volunteers and wrote a few token loyal poems, later to be picked up by his enemies. Yet despite the terror, Burns couldn’t ignore provocation nor resist ridiculing the ‘Loyal Natives’, a bunch of subservient thugs also in the Volunteers. Following one of their grovelling toasts in a pub one night he caused uproar with his own sarcastic: “May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause!” On another occasion: “May the last king be hung in the guts of the last priest!”
Burns had a heart of gold, but he was no softy. His most explicit call to revolution and a classless, peaceful society, ‘Why Should We Vainly Waste Our Prime?’ (drafted by an English radical and crafted by Burns), is determined and uncompromising:-.
WHY should we idly waste our prime
Repeating our oppressions?
Come rouse to arms! ’Tis now the time
To punish past transgressions.
’Tis said that Kings can do no wrong —
Their murderous deeds deny it,
And, since from us their power is sprung,
We have a right to try it.
Now each true patriots song shall be:
‘Welcome Death or Libertie!’
Proud Priests and Bishops well translate
And canonise as Martyrs;
The guillotine on Peers shall wait;
And Knights shall hang in garters.
Those Despots long have trode us down,
And Judges are their engines:
Such wretched minions of a Crown
Demand the peoples vengeance!
To-day ’tis theirs. To-morrow we
Shall don the Cap of Libertie!
The Golden Age we’ll then revive:
Each man will be a brother;
In harmony we all shall live,
And share the earth together;
In Virtue train’d, enlighten’d Youth
Will love each fellow-creature;
And future years shall prove the truth
That Man is good by nature:
Then let us toast with three times three
The reign of Peace and Libertie!
His correspondence with Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose resulted in the classic Ae Fond Kiss. A collaboration with James Johnson led to a long-term involvement in The Scots Musical Museum, which included the poems including Auld Lang Syne. In just 18 short months, Burns had spent most of the wealth from his published poetry, and in 1789 he began work as an Excise Officer in Dumfries. His increasingly radical political views influenced many of the phenomenal number of poems, songs and letters he continued to pen. Burns’s social consciousness and faith in humanity are reflected in the following poem ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, a poem that focusses on the divide between rich and poor and the need for systematic change across the world.
Is there for honesty poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that,
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A price can mak a belted knight,
A marquise, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that,
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that.
Burns was also acutely conscious of the environment and the delicate ecological balance between human activity and nature. Now Westlin Winds (1775), surely one of Burns’s most beautiful songs, captures this extremely well. It is also both a love song and a condemnation of blood sports. In the song Burns refers to “slaught’ring guns” and “Tyrannic man’s dominion!”
Dick Gaughan - Now Westlin Winds
His love of nature and animals is also revealed in poems such as The Wounded Hare (1789). In a letter to Alexander Cunningham (4 May 1789) he writes of his views on blood sports, saying: “Indeed there is something in all that multiform business of destroying for our sport individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, that I could never reconcile to my ideas of native virtue and eternal right”. The natural world and the environment feature strongly in Burns’s work. If he were alive today he would surely be concerned about current threats to the environment.
Burns’s last few years were blighted by poor health but just a few weeks before his death aged only 37 on 21 July 1796, an ailing Burns defiantly writes: “If I must write let it be Sedition, or Blasphemy, or something else that begins with a B, so that I may grin with the grin of iniquity and rejoice with the rejoicing of an apostate angel”
One of the last people to meet Burns before his death was the reverend James MacDonald. In a manuscript, cited by Burns scholar Robert Crawford, MacDonald reveals that Burns talked to him about his staunch republicanism and radical politics. Crawford remarks “this is Burns the spirited rebel, Bard of Sedition, even Blasphemy”
On the 21st of July Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, died at the young age of 37. In a world where famine and disease frequently wreaked its havoc, early death was often common. However, for those who lived past the diseases of childhood, long life was a definite possibility. So, even in the eighteenth century, Burns’s death seemed premature and tragic. His funeral was held four days later, the very same day his youngest son, Maxwell, was born.
Burns’ stature owes much to the huge range of his songs and poems, some of which are still familiar nearly two hundred and fifty years after his birth. In fact, there would be few English speaking people who do not recognise “Auld Lang Syne”
His popularity is also linked to his association with a brand of socialism radical for his time and timeless in its understanding of the plight of the common man. Burns would have naturally understood these issues having experienced hardships not untypical for the ordinary man of the eighteenth century.jjjj The poetry of Burns has lasted the test of time because what he had to say remains highly relevant. We still live in a world of class oppression, where people are violent towards each other. It’s clear that capitalism Burns screams a challenging questioning of th isunjust social order in 'Man was made to mourn':
When chill November’s surly blast
Made fields and forests bare,
One evening as I wandered forth
Along the banks of Ayr,
I spied a man, whose aged step
Seemed weary, worn with care;
His face was furrowed o’er with years,
And hoary was his hair.
Young stranger, whither wand’rest thou?’
Began the reverend sage;
’Does thirst of wealth thy step constrain,
Or youthful pleasure’s rage?
Or haply, pressed with cares and woes,
Too soon thou hast began
To wander forth, with me to mourn,
The miseries of man!
‘The sun that overhangs yon moors,
Out-spreading far and wide,
Where hundreds labour to support
A haughty lordling’s pride;—
I’ve seen yon weary winter-sun
Twice forty times return;
And every time has added proofs
That man was made to mourn.
‘O man! while in thy early years,
How prodigal of time!
Mis-spending all they precious hours,
Thy glorious youthful prime!
Alternate follies take the sway,
Licentious passions burn;
Which tenfold force give Nature’s law,
That man was made to mourn.
‘Look not alone on youthful prime,
Or manhood’s active might;
Man then is useful to his kind,
Supported in his right:
But see him on the edge of life,
With cares and sorrows worn;
Then age and want—oh, ill-matched pair!—
Shew man was made to mourn.
‘A few seem favourites of fate,
In pleasure’s lap caress’d;
Yet think not all the rich and great
Are likewise truly blest.
But oh! what crowds in every land,
All wretched and forlorn,
Through weary life this lesson learn,
That man was made to mourn.
‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame;
More pointed still we make ourselves—
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heaven-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,—
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
’See yonder poor, o’erlaboured wight,
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful tho’ a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.
‘If I’m designed yon lordling’s slave—
By Nature’s law designed—
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty or scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?
‘Yet let not this too much, my son,
Disturb thy youthful breast;
This partial view of humankind
Is surely not the last!
The poor, oppressed, honest man,
Has never, sure, been born,
Has there not been some recompense
To comfort those that mourn.’u
All in all Burns has become the personification of Scottish identity and the Immortality that Burns has rests in his work that was so deeply imbedded with hope foe change, that continues to be studied , celebrated and preserved the world over, And so this Burns’ Night will raise a glass and drink a toast to Robert Burns .immortal bard of freedom.