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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burns, Robert (1759-96)

Robert Burns, Scotland's greatest poet, was born on 25th January 1759 in a two roomed thatched cottage at Alloway, near Ayr, where his father, William Burnes, ran a small market garden. Old Burnes — the poet was the first to drop the 'e' from the spelling of the family name — had come out of the north-east the descendant of a long line of more or less unsuccessful farmers. But 18th Century Ayrshire, lying along the southern shores of the Firth of Clyde, in which he ultimately settled, though today one of the most fertile and economically best balanced counties in Scotland, was then scarcely less backward than Kincardineshire, from which he came.

The underlying trouble was the shortlease system by which farmers held their farms. A farmer who spent money improving his land was liable to find his rent had been put up when the lease came to be renewed, because the value of the landlord's property had been increased. So small farmers did their best to scrape as good a living out of the impoverished soil as they could, the members of their families labouring for the common weal.

Old Burnes was one of these struggling unsuccessful farmers. When Robert was 7, William found that his nursery and his gardening could no longer support his growing family. So he and his wife Agnes set up home in the farm of Mount Oliphant, a few miles from Alloway. It was while the family was at Mount Oliphant that Robert got much of his schooling — William had the traditional Scots respect for education, and saw to it that his children got the best that was available to them in the limited circumstances of the time — at Alloway, Dalrymple and Kirkoswald. By Whitsun 1777, however, when William Burnes freed himself from the sterile burden of Mount Oliphant, just in time to escape total ruin, Robert had started to labour with his father in the fields, had gained his first insight into the problems of the peasantry, and had probably already done that damage to his heart which resulted in his early death.

The farm of Lochlea, to which William Burnes next moved, lies midway between Tarbolton and Mauchline. The adolescent Burns attended a young man's debating society and a dancing class in Tarbolton, the latter in 'absolute defiance' of his stern Calvinist father's wishes. So long as he lived, however, the old man managed to hold in check the ardently expanding temperament of his most gifted son. But in February 1784, worn older than his years, William Burnes died, after victoriously concluding a long drawn out dispute with his landlord which went the length of the Court of Session. Robert and his brother Gilbert then became partners in the farm of Mossgiel, which they rented from the Ayr lawyer Gavin Hamilton when it became obvious that their father was unlikely to live much longer.

Gilbert Burns remained at Mossgiel during the remainder of his brother's days, though he was only able to weather one particularly severe crisis with the aid of a loan from Robert. But the poet spent less and less time over farm concerns and more and more on literature and the lasses. In the series of great satires which he produced during 1786, he thundered against the hypocrisy of the extreme narrow 'Auld Licht' sect of the kirk, using their purely local squabbles to reflect his humanity and concern for universal values. He also started a series of ardent philanderings. Over the years, Burns's pre-marital affairs resulted in a fairly numerous brood of illegitimate children; but also in the warmest, richest, most tender and most sensuous love songs that any poet has given to the world.

His seduction of Jean Armour, a Mauchline mason's daughter, and the repudiation of him which her outraged parents insisted upon, threw him into an emotional tangle which it is now impossible to sort out with any certainty. He may well have married her by declaration — valid under Scots Law until 1939 — before her parents moved her to Paisley, away from him. At any rate, his entanglement with 'Highland' Mary Campbell, whom he invited — in verse — to flee with him to Jamaica — that unsavoury haven of 18th Century Scots in trouble! — ended with her mysterious death at Greenock in 1786, Jean Armour thereafter bore twins, and Robert rode off to Edinburgh to be lionised, the triumph of his 'Kilmarnock Poems', published earlier that year, having made him a celebrity, the so called 'ploughman poet' without whom a smart party in the capital was not considered complete. In Edinburgh he had his affair with Agnes ('Clarinda') Maclehose, summed up so poignantly in the song 'Ae fond kiss'. There too he met the engraver James Johnson, then planning to publish his Scots Musical Museum as a permanent repository for Scots folk song. Fortunately Johnson invited Burns's aid. Burns soon became virtually editor of the Museum, and during the last ten years of his life, 'Tam o' Shanter' apart, he poured all his rich genius into the moulds of songwriting and songrepairing prepared for him by Johnson and, later, by another editor, the dilettante clerk, George Thomson, with his Select Scottish Airs.

But after a while, Edinburgh soon grew tired of Burns and left him with the problem of earning a living unsolved. In April 1788 — after having seduced her once again, and wrapped his intentions and actions in further epistolatory mystifications to his friends — Burns suddenly acknowledged his marriage to Jean Armour. From June 1788 until November 1791, Burns farmed Ellisland in Dumfriesshire, latterly holding at the same time an Excise appointment. Thereafter, until his death in July 1796, Burns lived in Dumfries, working as an officer in the Dumfries Port Division of the Excise. He died, not as his unctuous 19th Century biographers tried to make out, from excesses either of wine or of women, but from some form of endocarditis, established at Lochlea when the boy had to perform the labours of a man.

Burns was acquainted with the work of his Scottish predecessors, Barbour and Blind Harry, Dunbar, Henrysoln and Lyndsay, the Makars of the 14th to the 16th Century. But it was the work of the poets of the 18th Century Scots Revival, notably Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, which most strongly influenced Burns technically. He reached maturity when the verse forms and colloquial temper of the Ramsey-Furgusson school were both to hand and already popular. He established himself as a poet to be reckoned with just before the old agrarian way of life of Scotland, which had lasted more or less unchanged since medieval times, began to recede before the double pressure of the Industrial Revolution and the advance of Englishry. Thus, before it was too late, Burns in his poetry caught and fixed the old Scotland for all time.

His best poems, the satires and epistles are those firmly rooted in the Scottish vernacular tradition; his poorest, those in which he strove to imitate the English Augustans. As a songwriter his lyric gift was unsurpassed. The peasant obscenities of an earlier, coarser age he excised (preserving them however, in his private collection of bawdry, The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Professor Egerer claims that only six of these poems are by Burns, which may or may not be so, but he obviously rejoiced in the genre.); the banalities of less gifted songsters he warmed into life. His sensitive ear was keen to detect the potentialities and possibilities of the national airs sent to him by Johnson and Thomson. His song work kept him constantly occupied until a few days before his death.

Because he has preserved so much of the richness of Scotland's past, and because he possessed the gift of stating the commonplaces of life in a way which makes them significantly memorable, Burns has been all but idolised in Scotland. Much of the idolatry is foolish in the extreme, and is bestowed on him by people totally unable to appreciate the fine qualities of his work, or, indeed, literature of any kind, but who see him either as a sort of emotionally charged national symbol, or an excuse for a good annual 'binge'. Burns nights, held round about 25th January all over the world, are notable perhaps only occasionally for the wisdom of the speeches or the abilities of the performers: but they help to keep interest in Burns, and indeed, the Scots tongue alive.

But in spite of the stupidities and the platitudes they produce, at least they help periodically to focus attention for a little while on Burns, the poet. Some of those who are thus induced to investigate Burns's poems, having had their interest awakened at a Burns Supper, may read on and read again often for sheer disinterested pleasure. In the long run, the poetry is what really matters.

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