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Robert Burns
1759 - 1796

Read more about The Life and Works of Robert Burns.......

Robert Burness was born in a small cottage in the parish of Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland on the 25th of January in the year 1759. His father, William Burness, was the son of a farmer in Kincardineshire. Due to the poverty of his own family in Kincardineshire the father moved south to Ayrshire where, in December, 1757, he married Agnes Brown.

Robert Burness was born into a large family, and was one of seven children. Robert was the eldest son of the marriage. He later shortened his surname to Burns.

Robert's father was a man of superior knowledge and was upright of a strong character. He took the perpetual lease of 7 acres of land at Alloway on which he built his own cottage and cultivated the remainder as a nursery. He struggled hard to maintain a reasonable subsistence for the family and to educate them. The father did give Burns some tutoring at home.

While at school Burns read widely, including the works of Pope, Ramsay, and "The Spectator". His early interest in the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare were the inspiration for his early writings of verse. He also picked-up a smattering of French and studied "practical mathematics" (a.k.a. land-surveying).

The early life of Burns was one of "toil and moil". The wolf was always at the door and although the family learned to be very thrifty, poverty, hard labour and anxiety continually pervaded his family life.

Before his father's death in 1784, Robert and his brother Gilbert took on the rental of another farm which they managed for four years.

At the age of 25, Burns became very popular in the local community for his poetry. He became a very fluent and vigorous talker. For a while he lead a fairly sober life and joined a society of freemasons. Burns really loved the women and he was loved in return by them. His many amorous exploits fired his poetry and song writing and his fame as a versifier began to spread throughout the nation.

Jean Armour, Burns' childhood sweetheart and a master-mason's daughter, found herself pregnant with twins. Robert and Jean agreed that, to give her some respectability and to make the children legitimate, they would get married. But they also agreed that to escape the call of security for maintenance for the children under threat of imprisonment, Burns would seek his fortune in Jamaica where he would work as an assistant overseer to a planter. It was hoped that this would allow Burns to raise the compensation payable to Jean.

Unfortunately, Jean's parents absolutely refused to hear of matrimony and persuaded Jean to relinquish Burns' written declaration of intended marriage. Burns regarded Jean as having renèged in love under this parental pressure. At this point Burns turned his affections to Mary Campbell, his "Highland Mary", but these affections came to nothing, for she died of a fever in Greenock.

Since Burns expected to be away from Scotland for many years - if not the remainder of his life - he resolved to leave behind him some record of how Ayrshire had been his inspiration for his poetic genius. In 1786 he published, at Kilmarnock, 600 copies of a small volume of his verses. The volume was very well received and earned Burns 20. As a result of this success, his friends persuaded Burns to abandon the Jamaican trip and to pursue better opportunities in Edinburgh.

He arrived in Edinburgh in 1786 and although he had no contacts at first, he very quickly became known by the leading people in fashion, literature and social rank. They were surprised at his brilliant conversational powers, his wit and his literary knowledge. During his two year stay in Edinburgh, Burns took the opportunity to visit many other parts of Scotland, and crossed the English border into Carlisle and Newcastle.

A 2800 copy edition of his poems was published in Edinburgh in 1787 for which he earned 600. Burns had now grown to become the convivial Ayrshire peasant poet - the centre of attraction at all the best social gatherings in Edinburgh.

Statue of Robert Burns and his dog Luath

In early 1788, Burns returned to Ayrshire and again met and married Jean Armour. They had four sons and one daughter (his daughter died at the age of three). He took a farm at Ellisland in Dumfries-shire where he exercised his skill as a ploughman. But Burns found it difficult to make a worthwhile income from the farm and decided to augment his income by taking the post of the local excise officer, for which he was paid 50 per annum.

After Burns had been on the farm for three and half years he found that his duties as excise man interfered with agricultural pursuits, so he gave up the farm and in 1791, moved to a small house in Dumfries where he remained for the rest of his short life.

Ill health, mental dejection and a continual shortage of money pervaded his life. His over-indulgence brought on many maladies and a fever struck him down. On the 21st of July 1796, at the age of thirty seven, Burns died, while his wife Jean was in confinement with their fifth child.

All Scotland rejoiced and was proud that such a famous poet of immense popularity had left a reflective legacy of his countrymen's ways of life, the Scottish character and the mind of the Scottish Nation.

Burn's poetry bequeathed to the Scots three precious gifts viz:-

  • a clarity of incisive expression
  • a priceless collection of singable songs
  • a sympathy with life so vivid and intimate as to fervently stir the imagination

Burns was five feet ten inches tall, with black curly hair and dark eyes. He had a quick temper, and although he wrote many songs, he had no technical knowledge of music and did not have a great singing voice. He regarded "Tam O' Shanter," which he wrote in a single day at Ellisland in 1793, to be his best work.

With the famed To a Mouse, To a Louse and Holy Willie's Prayer amongst his assets, not to mention the well-famed Auld Lang Syne and Scots Wha Hae, Burns is unequivocally one of the greatest poets of all time.

The Star o' Rabbie Burns

Words: James Thomson
Music: James Booth

There is a star whose beaming ray
Is shed on every clime.
It shines by night, it shines by day,
And ne'er grows dim wi' time.
It rose upon the banks o' Ayr,
It shone on Doon's clear stream.
A hundred years are gane and mair,
Yet brighter grows its beam.

Let kings and courtiers rise and fa'
This world has mony turns,
But brightly beams abune them aw'
The Star o' Rabbie Burns.

Though he was but a ploughman lad
And wore the hodden grey,
Auld Scotland's sweetest bard was bred
Aneath a roof o' strae.
To sweep the strings o' Scotia's lyre,
It needs nae classic lore;
It's mither wit an' native fire
That warms the bosom's core.


On fame's emblazon'd page enshrin'd
His name is foremost now,
And many a costly wreath's been twin'd
To grace his honest brow.
And Scotland's heart expands wi' joy
Whene'er the day returns
That gave the world its peasant boy
Immortal Rabbie Burns.


Examples of Burns' Poems

  1. Address To A Haggis
  2. Address To The Toothache
  3. Fareweel to A' Our Scottish Fame
  4. Highland Mary
  5. Holy Willie's Prayer
  6. Man Was Made To Mourn
  7. Tam Glen
  8. Tam o' Shanter
  9. The Cotter's Saturday Night
  10. The Farewell
  11. The Selkirk Grace
  12. To A Louse
  13. To A Mouse
  14. To A Mountain Daisy
  15. To Miss Cruickshank

Examples of Burns' Songs

  1. Ae Fond Kiss
  2. Auld Lang Syne
  3. Green Grow the Rashes, O!
  4. Is There, For Honest Poverty
  5. My Love is Like a Red Red Rose
  6. Scots Wha Hae
  7. There Was a Lad (was born in Kyle)
  8. Ye Banks and Braes

Scotland's National Collection of Robert Burns Treasures
Visit the 'Gateway to Scotland's National Collection of Burns Treasures'.......

Who are the Scots?

John Bain, a native of Fife, invented the dollar ($) sign at the University of St Andrews.

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