|Burns sculpture in New Cumnock
by the talented Kirti Mandir
WE HAIL him as Scotland’s favourite son, our National Poet, the People’s Poet, the Poet of Humanity, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard.
In the mid 1700s, they called him the Poet Ploughman, and he quite liked that title, for it recognised him as something more than a peasant – he had recognition as a writer and an audience that wished to hear his words.
Times were harsh for the gardener’s son born in Alloway on 25 January 1759. Despite a brief appearance in mainstream education, his father had the foresight to educate him at home, teaching him maths, languages and English.
By his late teens Robert Burns was fluent in French, spoke Latin, studied philosophy, politics, geography, theology and the Bible. He was an accomplished mathematician and in later years added significantly to his impressive list of subjects.
Although he worked hard on the family farm, Burns was more a thinker than a labourer – an anachronism of his timeline. He therefore turned to the secular devotions of poetry, nature, drink and women: softening the harsh reality of a physical lifestyle.
A young Burns stumbled upon poetry when, at the tender age of 15, he met his first love of many, Nelly Kirkpatrick, who inspired him to write a song entitled O Once I lov’d a Bonnie Lass. Not one of his most erudite works, but one that released the raging floods of his imaginative genius that remained with him throughout his short life.
Women provided the stimulation for much of Burns’ genius and the stimulus for his desires. He managed to sire 12 children to countless lassies and twins to the curvaceous brunette who he later went on to marry.
Poor Jean Armour, she must have despaired at his philandering tendencies and his chronic adulterous behaviour, but her’s is another story.
Burns was a man of profound thought and an incurable romantic who saw the world around him as a blank canvass to paint his ardent ideals upon. Through countless lines, he turned the humble into heroes; small animals into socialist champions; blushing young lassies into pastoral pleasures; ploughed fields into stunning landscapes; and everyday objects into icons of national pride.
He often turned his obsessions towards the plight of the ordinary man and poignant political social comment that he wrote in the vernacular, often leading to a few raised eyebrows and some gasps of outrage by those members of society who found his satire a little too biting.
His first published works, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect: Kilmarnock Edition, saw the light of day on 31 July 1786.
With a growing movement towards romanticism in art and literature during that time, Edinburgh’s literati applauded him and an Edinburgh edition was published soon after. The work was considered to be one of the greatest poetical collections ever written. Its appeal was obvious not only to the educated, but importantly, to the common man, just like Burns himself.
With his new-found celebrity status, Burns moved to the city where he was swept around the circles of the important and the wealthy. No longer a lowly wordsmith he took it upon himself to go some way into preserving an important part of Scotland’s cultural heritage. To do this, he embarked on a few tours of Scotland, gathering up old Scottish folk songs and re-working them. Auld Lang Syne and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose are just two such songs that started life as fragments of unpublished lyrics before being given the golden Burns’ treatment.
His celebrity status didn’t last, however, and 18 months later he found himself actively seeking employment.
Burns moved to Ellisland Farm near Auldgirth where he wrote some 130 ~ about a quarter ~ of his songs and poems, and 230 of his 700 letters in the space of three years.
The hard soil of the Nith Valley proved too difficult to farm, however, and, almost completely broke, he took a job as an exciseman in Dumfries in 1789.
Burns moved into a first floor tenement flat in the town with his wife and family and spent most of his time at his favourite howff – the Globe Inn – where he would apparently share a few jars with his drouthie cronies before lumbering home to bed.
A lot of controversy and conflicting information surrounds the death of Robert Burns. It has been said that his dissolute lifestyle eventually came back to claim its tithe. Whether it was rheumatic fever, heart failure, pneumonia or indeed the consequences of too much secular excess, a chilly dip in the Solway Firth on his physician’s instructions didn’t do him any good and possibly finished him off.
Burns’ son Maxwell was born on 25 July 1796.
On that day 10,000 people lined the streets of Dumfries for the funeral of a man they had come to love for turning their lives into lines.
Burns died four days earlier, aged 37.
There is a star whose beaming ray
Is shed on ev’ry clime
It shines by night, It shines by day
And ne’er grows dim wi’ time
It rose up on the banks of Ayr
It shone on Doon’s clear stream
Two hundred years are gane and mair
Yet brighter grows its beam
THE STAR O’ROBBIE BURNS, Words by James Thomson
Brighter grows its beam.
Robert Burns has achieved immortality: his eternal lines have influenced a nation as well as important poets, writers, artists and politicians. They have travelled across the continents to stir the collective soul of men throughout the world: he is a symbol of freedom of speech and a champion of the common man.
Over two centuries on, his voice grows even stronger and his legacy brighter. Unlike the dwindling flame of the traditional skills of Scotland’s cultural heritage, Burns’ lessons are handed down through the generations and are perhaps even more relevant today than they were in his lifetime: the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
He has taught us that Scotland has never needed the heads of foreign monarchs or statesmen to call itself a nation; for the true power has always lain in the hearts of its people and the spirit of the ordinary man.
So raise your glasses and revel in his legacy: to the glorious memory of Scotland’s national bard – a poet, a lyricist, a lover, a father, a humanitarian, a revolutionary, a socialist icon, an 18thcentury rock and roller, but also just a man who had a way with words, for a’ that.