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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Cotter's Saturday Night', 'The

The poem by which, a handful of songs apart, Burns is probably best known, was written in the autumn of 1785 or early in the winter of 1785/6. Gilbert Burns recorded his recollections of its origin: 'Robert had frequently remarked to me that he thought there was something peculiarly venerable in the phrase, "Let us worship God!" used by a decent, sober head of a family, introducing family worship. To this sentiment of the author, the world is indebted for "The Cotter's Saturday Night". When Robert had not some pleasure in view in which I had not thought fit to participate, we used frequently to walk together, when the weather was favourable, on the Sunday afternoons — those precious breathing times to the labouring part of the community — and enjoyed such Sundays as would make one regret to see their number abridged. It was on one of these walks that I first had the pleasure of hearing the author repeat "The Cotter's Saturday Night". I do not recollect to have read or heard anything by which I was more highly electrified! The fifth and sixth stanzas and the eighteenth thrilled with peculiar ecstasy through my soul. The cotter in the "Saturday Night" is an exact copy of my father in his manners, his family devotion, and exhortations; yet the other parts of the description do not apply to our family. None of us were "at service out among the farmer's men". Instead of our depositing our "sair-won penny-fee" with our parents, my father laboured hard, and lived with the most rigid economy, that he might be able to keep his children at home, therby having an opportunity of watching the progress of our young minds, and forming in them early habits of piety and virtue; and from this motive alone did he engage in farming, the source of all his difficulties and distresses.'

The poem was first published in the Kilmarnock Edition, although manuscript copies were given to some of Burns's friends, notably John Kennedy. Henry Mackenzie saw in the poem a description of 'one of the happiest and most affecting scenes to be found in a country life... a domestic picture of rustic simplicity, natural tenderness, and innocent passion that must please the reader whose feelings are not perverted.'

Later critics, with more detachment, have however, drawn attention to the dichotomy between the English Augustan style in which some of the stanzas are couched, and the Scots vernacular style of the purely descriptive stanzas, modelled on Fergusson's 'The Farmer's Ingle'. David Allan, 'The Scottish Hogarth', illustrated the poem. In a letter to Thomson dated May 1795, Burns sent his grateful compliments to Allan, 'that he honored my rustic muse so much with his masterly pencil.'

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Robert Burns Store

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Complete Burns Songs

linn recordings of burns Linn Records have completed their landmark recording of all 368 Burns songs, available as individual CDs or a 12 volume presentation box set. We have full details. Click here...


Burns Music & Recordings
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Burns Chess Sets

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Scotweb Store

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