Tonight is Burns Night, but before we address the haggis and pour an Uisge-Beatha , take a moment or two to reflect on Scotland’s Bard by reading this article by Lily Ratcliff, Visitor Services Facilitator at MUSA and English Literature student at the University of St Andrews.
Despite dying at the young age of 37 years old, Robert Burns (1759-1796) is one of the most famous Scots in history. The impact of the life and works on Scotland, literature and the world, has been irreversible and inspirational to many. Burns’ Night, that takes place annually on the 25th January, also Burns’ birthday, embodies a sense of patriotism, brotherhood and kindness, that is layered throughout most of Burns’ writings; it is a night of pure celebration and togetherness that was founded upon the intent to commemorate the man and his talent.
Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, to tenant farmers, Burns’ origins were humble. However, his father, William, despite their weak financial situation, highlighted the importance of a good education and prioritised ensuring that all his seven children should be able to read and write. From a young age, Burns’ showed his poetical skills, writing at just 15 years old his first set of love poems. It would not be for around another ten years until Burns reached some success, with the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1786, which helped him to rise to fame. His popularity amongst the Edinburgh elite and his reputation as a romantic poetic, launched him into national celebrity status.
With a focus upon the man as well as the writer, Burns’ personal life was not an unescapable topic of discussion both before and after his death. His fathering of 12 children, nine with his wife Jean Armour, and multiple lovers, many who feature in his writings, has become a much focused upon theme by viewers of his works, such as ‘A Red, Red Rose’ (1794) and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (1791). However, there are aspects of his life that are to be equally recognised for their importance in our understanding of the man and his times. For example, around 1786, Burns was offered the position to be a Bookkeeper on a slave plantation in the Caribbean, through historical records, evidence suggests that Burns didn’t take the position due to several factors, one of the main reasons being his egalitarian views and abolitionist stance, an opinion that would have been quite premature in a period where the transatlantic slave trade was booming and Britain received a profitable income from the barbaric but lucrative business of slavery, until its total abolition in Britain and The Empire in 1833. ‘The Slave’s Lament’ (c.1792) is attributed to Burns, and depicts the tragic narrative of a stolen slave from their homeland and life in the New World, and is to be acknowledge as an early abolitionist work.
With this year marking 221 years since his death, the importance and longevity of Burns’ writings and public interest in his life is remarkable. The relatability and transcendence of his works has served as inspiration for writers across the decades. From John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men(1937) being inspired by the second-to-last stanza of ‘To a Mouse’, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”, to ‘Gung Haggis Fat Choy’ a hybrid of Chinese New Year and Robert Burns Day, celebrated in Vancouver since the late 1990s; Burns’ is more than just a national poet for Scotland but rather he is an international symbol of the impact of Scottish traditions across the globe, friendship and human understanding. In his First Epistle to J. Lapraik, st. 13 (1786), Burns wrote: ‘The social, friendly, honest man, Whate’er he be, ‘Tis he fulfills great Nature’s plan, And none but he!’, which perhaps best encapsulates the essence and significance of Burns’ the man and treasured poet.