Robert Burns - the image-conscious ploughman poet
Scotland’s poet, Robert Burns, is celebrated worldwide. The wonder is that, given the struggle of farming, he had the energy to write anything at all.
Robert Burns holds a unique place in popular culture for the Scots. No other poet is celebrated and remembered with such enthusiasm every year on the anniversary of his birth: January 25 1759. (Aye, any excuse for a party in the depths of winter.)
The son of a tenant farmer, he cultivated his image as the unlearned ploughman poet, though his father had made sure he was really fairly well educated for the standards of his day.
But there is no doubt that his farming years were a time of relentless toil. Basically, the most remarkable – and sometimes forgotten – aspect of Robert Burns was that, in spite of the demands and the sheer drudgery of farming life, he still had the creative energy to produce some of the finest poetic literature in Scotland, as well as, later on, make a major contribution to the collecting and arranging of Scottish traditional song.
Burns as a young man
He was born in 1759 in a humble cottage which his father had built and by 1774 he was already working on his father’s farm near Alloway and had also begun to compose verse. Pictured here is a sketch of the original cottage, done in 1812. It is still a place of pilgrimage for Burns enthusiasts today. Compare that picture to Burns Cottage as it is today, (also pictured here) which you can see as part of a visit to the not to be missed Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayr. (Links below).
Seemingly already aware that he would not make a fortune by working the soil, in 1781 he trained as flax dresser. This process of preparing the fibres was known as ‘heckling’. (This trade seemed to have produced militant types – hence the use of heckling in British English to mean someone who shouts at a speaker during a public address.) This training was in a heckling-shop in Irvine in Ayrshire – you can still see the place today. Unfortunately, during a drunken carousal with the shop owner and his wife at Hogmanay, they accidentally set the shop alight. It was destroyed, thus ending his career in the flax business!
Something else to remember about Robert Burns. He was always a snappy dresser. As a young man he was the only one in the area who wore his hair long and tied, and he habitually wore buckskin breeches – definitely a cut above the average farm labourer. He was certainly aware of his image of a talented but poor poet.
Burns the farmer and poet
Oops. By 1785 Robert Burns was the father of a daughter to his mother’s servant girl, Betty Paton. It was also around this time that he met Jean Armour, the love of his life. By this time, too, his father had died, worn out with the struggle of farming. Burns, along with his brother Gilbert, had rented a farm called Mossgiel and they were fully engaged in heavy farmwork. In spite of the toil, Burns entered a time of vital creativity, writing famous works such as ‘The Address to a Mouse’, 'Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’.
The famous ‘Kilmarnock Edition’; – Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – set the poet on a course for fame when this collection of his verses was published in 1786. However, it was the Edinburgh edition published the next year with additional material (including some songs) which made his reputation beyond Scotland. Another publisher took it on in London, then there were pirated editions in Dublin and Belfast. Soon afterwards the collection was published in Philadelphia and New York! Robert Burns saw his success as a way of getting out of farming. He sought a position as an Exciseman, that is, a government officer with a role in policing the distilling industry.
The Women in Burns’ life.
This might need a paragraph or two….Robert Burns’ love life was very complicated. In the same year as he achieved his first fame as a poet, Jean Armour (later, his wife) produced twins. (Her father was so angry he served a writ on the poet – who also did penance in his own church.) There was also the mystery of Mary Campbell (Highland Mary). Robert Burns swayed between Jean and Mary – but Mary died in 1786 and all his writings about her suggest deep feelings of guilt. The song he wrote for her is called ‘Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary’ as at one stage they had planned to go to Jamaica.
So, his, uhmm, energies, were not wholly creative and literary. During his time being feted in Edinburgh as a literary success, he fathered a child to a servant girl called May Cameron. On his next visit to the capital the same thing happened with an entirely different Edinburgh servant girl!
Simultaneously, he was in a passionate relationship (by correspondence only!) with the respectable Agnes M’Lehose. Addressed as ‘Clarinda’, she was married but her husband was in the West Indies. Burns met with her on several occasions. (The passionate letters began when the poet twisted his knee falling from a coach and was unable to keep an appointment with her!) His great song of parting ‘Ae fond kiss’ was written for her before she rejoined her husband. She was incidentally very shocked to find out about Burns’ dalliance with various servant girls.
Let’s be plain about this: Robert Burns was being ‘lionised’ by Edinburgh literary society but he was hardly treated as a social equal – he was still patronised as the ploughman poet of humble origins. He therefore found his worldly pleasures elsewhere.
Shortly after, Jean Armour, back in Ayrshire, produced another set of twins by him! (Small wonder he contemplated emigration.) He eventually married Jean, tried farming one more time - at Ellisland near Dumfries - but in 1791 became an Exciseman, settling in the town of Dumfries in the south of Scotland where he died in 1796. He had nine children with Jean in total but managed another with the niece of the landlady of the Globe Inn in Dumfries. Jean brought up this one as well, remarking famously ‘Oor Rab should hae had twa wives’. (At least.)
Pretty soon after his death, Robert Burns’ statues started to spring up. Even the Vancouver Burns Fellowship helped erect a statue of Scotland’s national poet in Stanley Park, cast from the original moulds used for the Burns statue in Ayr. And it’s still going on. Pictured here is a (slightly spooky) statue of Burns sited by Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust on the path that leads to the Falls of Moness, above Aberfeldy in Perthshire.
Burns is the one on the left of the picture, by the way. He visited here in 1787 and was inevitably moved to verse. To this day, the roaring waters still ‘weets wi’ misty showers’ and Burns still haunts the place. Song-wise, the ‘Birks o’ Aberfeldy’ isn’t one of his best. It’s that awkward 5th at the end of Aberfeld-eeeee. Quite a leap. (Birks are birches, by the way.) Finally, sorry about the hat. Small wonder Burns is looking the other way. But it was a cold December day when we passed through.
The language of Burns
Many of Robert Burns’ best works are written in Lowland Scots. Not all of the vocabulary is in widespread use today but much is accessible for non-Scots with the help of glossaries. However Burns had read widely in English literature and was encouraged to write in ‘standard English’ by the Edinburgh literary set. The result was some of his worst poems! Nevertheless, works such as 'Tam o Shanter' modulate seamlessly from Scots into English and back with the reader hardly noticing.
Burns' use of language is just one topic covered in the totally splendid Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayr – a Scotland must see. That link takes you to the official National Trust for Scotland site. We have a page on it too, for an alternative experience of Robert Burns Cottage and Museum. (We loved the museum.) And you’ll find more on Robert Burns – especially on Burns poetry and the Burns Supper format here.