Robert Burns lived from 25 January 1759 to 21 July 1796. He is regarded as Scotland's national poet: an icon who has loomed large in Scottish culture and consciousness ever since his early death at the age of 37. Arguably his best known work is the song Auld Lang Syne: a long established feature of New Year celebrations in every corner of the world settled by the Scottish diaspora (which means, in effect, every corner of the world). The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Burns is known by a surprising variety of names and titles. Sometimes simply referred to as Burns or The Bard he is also known as Rabbie Burns; Robbie Burns; Scotland's favourite son; the Ploughman Poet; or the Bard of Ayrshire.
Burns was born in a cottage in Alloway in Ayrshire. He was the son of William Burnes, who was employed as a gardener by the Provost of Ayr but also tried his hand at farming. Burns started his education at John Murdoch's school in Alloway before going to school in Ayr, though family financial problems meant Burns had to leave school to work as a farm labourer. In practice much of his schooling seems to have come from his father.
In 1781 Burns went to work as a flax-dresser in Irvine, but he was soon out of work after an over-exuberant celebration of Hogmanay by the staff, including Burns, resulted in the works catching fire and being destroyed. He and his brother returned to farming near Mauchline.
But by now Burns had established the three loves of his life: wine, women, and song. The relationship with his first love, Nelly Kirkpatrick, produced a song entitled O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass, set to a traditional tune. Meanwhile he was busy fathering eight illegitimate children by five different women.
On 31 July 1786 Robert Burns published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. This collection of verse contained many poems that were later to be regarded as classics. The success of Burns' first collection was one of the factors which led him to abandon plans to emigrate to Jamaica to become a bookkeeper on a plantation (in the process leaving one of his true loves, Mary Campbell, waiting for him in vain on the dockside at Greenock). It seems to have been with good reason that a poem Burns inscribed on the window of the Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk began: "Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn, That never did a lassie wrang."
Instead, Burns moved to Edinburgh. Here he was commissioned by publisher James Johnson to assist in the editing of a vast collection of Scottish folk songs, The Scots Musical Museum. This was published in five volumes over the course of sixteen years. In all some 150 of Burns' own songs were included, most notably Auld Lang Syne, based on a traditional folk song.
In 1788 Burns moved back to Ayrshire and married Jean Armour. The following year he took up an appointment as an Excise Officer in Dumfries to supplement the family income, and also rented a farm. Tam o' Shanter, which appeared in 1790, is possibly the best known and most enduring of his poems. Burns gave up farming in 1791 to concentrate on his writing and his Excise duties, though around this time he rejected offers of a post on the London-based Star newspaper; and declined to pursue the chance of becoming Professor of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh.
As a major contributor to the definitive collections of Scottish songs then being assembled, Burns was becoming increasingly well known by the mid 1790s. Ironically, however, his heavy drinking and his unpopular support for the French Revolution was at the same time undermining some of his more locally-based following not to mention his health. Burns died of rheumatic fever on 21 July 1796, at the same time as his wife was giving birth to their ninth child. His growing fame and success at least afforded his widow and children a degree of comfort he had himself never quite attained.
How do you judge someone's success or their degree of their fame? Well if you take the number of statues erected as a reasonable indicator, then Robert Burns has probably done rather better than most sons of Scottish farmers. There are statues of him in places you might expect, like Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Irvine and Glasgow. But it is more surprising to find them in Montreal, in Sydney, and even in London. And the town of Burns, in Allegany County, New York State, is named after him.
On a larger scale, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has been created in Alloway, and museums dedicated to him exist in Kirkoswald, Tarbolton and Mauchline. Dumfries is an essential port of call for anyone on a Robert Burns pilgrimage. Here you find the Robert Burns Centre, as well as The Globe Inn, his favourite pub; Robert Burns House, the house in which he spent the last three years of his life; the nearby Burns Mausoleum. Nine miles south-east of Dumfries is Brow Well, where Burns unsuccessfully sought a cure for his final illness.
Meanwhile, every year on Burns' birthday, 25 January, Burns Clubs across the globe gather at Burns Suppers on Burns Night (or Burns Nicht) and proclaim his Address to a Haggis before eating haggis. As a result, his is generally regarded to be the second most celebrated birthday worldwide. Now that's fame!