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Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The life of Robert Burns

Portrait of Robert Burns

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns sits proudly atop the pantheon of Scottish poets. From ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to his ‘Address to a Haggis’, Burns’s work is intrinsically linked with Scottish culture. 

His journey from humble rural beginnings to international renown tells the story of a man inspired by nature, class culture and love.

Early life

Burns was born in Alloway in 1759, in a cottage that his father built. He was the eldest son of tenant farmers William Burnes and Agnes Broun, but despite their modest status Robert’s parents insisted he was educated. He was encouraged to read from an early age, and even attended one year of mathematics schooling.

The young Burns was more interested in things that gave him pleasure – poetry, nature, women, drink – than he was in farm work. When his father died in 1784, Robert and his brother Gilbert took over the farm, but within a few years they were in financial trouble. To make matters worse, Burns was already the father of an illegitimate child – the first of his 13 children.

Relationships with women

Burns pursued love as energetically as he did poetry, and his passion for women defined his life and work in equal measure. From his teenage years through the peak of his career, he engaged in many illicit relationships, sometimes overlapping with each other.

However, there was one woman who was a constant in Burns’s adult life: Jean Armour. They would go on to spend most of their lives together, but when they first tried to marry, Armour’s family tore up the contract. Outraged, Burns supposedly tried to flee to the Caribbean with another woman called Mary Campbell (also known as ‘Highland Mary’), but was eventually convinced to stay in Scotland as by then his poems were beginning to attract plenty of attention.

Work & inspiration

Despite his domestic chaos, Burns managed to publish his first collection in the summer of 1786 – it made him a literary superstar at the tender age of 27.

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the result of an incredible poetic outpouring between 1784 and 1786. It was made up of all manner of works, including poems like ‘To a Mouse’ and ‘Address to the Deil’, that reflected Burns’s upbringing, his connection to rural life and above all his interest in the human condition.

Robert Burns's first book ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’
A 1786 copy of ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ (Burns’s first book)

After the success of this first collection, Burns spent some time in Edinburgh before officially marrying Jean Armour in 1788 and moving to Dumfries. In 1790, he penned the great narrative poem Tam o’ Shanter, a mock-heroic tale about a feckless farmer, that was rooted in Burns’s love for Scottish culture. This work immortalised Alloway Auld KirkSouter Johnnie and the Brig o’ Doon.

Burns’s passion for Scotland and its cultural traditions came to the fore during the last decade of his life, when he worked on The Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs. Putting words to traditional folk songs as well as composing his own tunes, Burns contributed hundreds of songs and lyrical poems to these volumes, including ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘A Red, Red Rose’ and ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.

Did you know?

Burns’s handwritten manuscript of Tam o’ Shanter had several controversial lines that he was advised to take out before publication.

Death & legacy

Robert Burns died at the age of 37, in 1796, from a rheumatic heart condition. Jean Armour gave birth to their last son, Maxwell, on the day of her husband’s funeral.

Burns’s legacy lives on across Scotland and around the world – in many countries it’s now traditional to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ when seeing in the new year. Over the centuries, Burns’s work has inspired poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, and has seen him celebrated in songs, paintings and even stamps.

On 25 January 1859, on the centenary of his birth, memorial events were held all over Scotland, and now Burns Night is virtually a national holiday! In honour of our greatest poet, we sing songs, read aloud, drink plenty of whisky and address Scotland’s national dish using Burns’s own poem ‘To a Haggis’.

Fiddler on Burns Night
Musical entertainment is popular after the meal on Burns Night.