‘I am afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel.’
When Jeremy Paxman used that teasing phrase in his introduction to the 2008 edition of Chambers Dictionary, he found he had put his foot in a midgie’s nest. Scots were not amused.
Robert Burns (1759-1796), the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ whose 250th anniversary falls on 25 January 2009, is a towering figure in the national psyche of Scotland. Born in a poor clay cottage, sketchily educated and with a deep-rooted aversion to authority and the high-and-mighty, fond of high jinks in bed and bar, Burns lived fast (by the standards of a small-time rural Scots farmer of his era) and died comparatively young, having used his quick-witted poetic gift to excoriate the rich and well-born, satirise politicians, glorify the nation’s heroes, and make epic comic verse out of the drunken adventures of his friends. It was the perfect CV for a national poet.
Burns was brought up in the village of Alloway just outside the county town of Ayr, in a plain-living household among rural dialect speakers, and that earthy atmosphere informs all his best poetry. The family moved about from farm to farm around the Ayr district until Burns’s father William died in 1784. Robert went to farm at Mossgiel near the village of Mauchline, where he met local belle Jean Armour, his future wife and the mother of his nine children – the legitimate ones. Burns was never able to keep his winkie in his breeks. At Mossgiel poems poured out of him, among them ‘To A Mouse’, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and ‘To A Mountain Daisy’. In 1786 Burns produced his first volume, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which was an immediate hit with Scots of all classes. A head-turning winter in Edinburgh followed. The tall young farmer with the high forehead and big brown eyes – suddenly the darling of the chattering classes whom he had despised – would often camouflage his awkwardness by playing up his lack of polish and sophistication.
The next few years saw Burns’s best work, a flood of mock-epics, socialist polemic verse, love poetry and a torrent of songs still passionately sung by Scots today – ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Green Grow the Rashes-O’, ‘Scots Wha Hae wi' Wallace bled’ and dozens more.
Burns moved to the country around Dumfries near the Solway Firth, south-east of his birthplace, in June 1788, taking up the lease of the run-down farm of Ellisland. He found the landscape inspiring (it was here he wrote his comic masterpiece ‘Tam O’Shanter’), but the farm work was back-breaking and profitless. Next year Burns started working for the Excise as a gauger or tax-collector, a job that brought him more money and security. By 1791 he had moved into Dumfries, at first to Bank Street (‘Stinking Kennel’, as it was known), then in May 1793 to a better house in Mill Street. He joined the Dumfries Volunteers, sang French Revolution songs lustily (he was reprimanded by his boss and advised to be ‘silent and obedient’), made a drunken pass at his friend Mrs Maria Riddell that caused a long-lasting rift, continued an affair with Ann Park, niece of the landlady of his favourite pub The Globe, fathered more children on both sides of the blanket, and wrote ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.
By 1796 he had burned himself out and was ill with ‘flying gout’. A sojourn at the Brow Well on the shores of the Solway, involving daily chest-high immersions in the estuary, only worsened his condition, and he died of rheumatic fever in Dumfries on 21 July 1796, aged 37. A huge procession accompanied his body to St Michael’s Church, where he was buried to the strains of Handel’s ‘Dead March’- his future status as a Scottish icon assured.
Burns Country Trail
Alloway (B7024, south outskirts of Ayr) contains the Burns National Heritage Park (01292-443700; www.burnsheritagepark.com :
- Burns Cottage, birthplace of Robert Burns; museum with superb collection of manuscripts, letters
- Burns Monument and gardens
- ‘Tam O’Shanter’ sites – Tam O’Shanter Experience exhibition, Brig O’Doon, Alloway Auld Kirk with its occult gravestones
Tarbolton (B730/B744, 5 miles NE of Ayr):
- Bachelors Club, whitewashed thatched cottage where Burns danced, drank, debated and became a Freemason (01292-541940; www.nts.org.uk; signed off main street)
- Lochlea Farm, Burns’s home 1777-1784 (off B744 just north of Tarbolton; not open to public)
Mauchline (B743, 9 miles east of Ayr):
- Mossgiel, Burns’s farm 1784-6 (between A76 and A758; not open to public)
- Burns House Museum, Burns’s first married home (01290-550045; Castle Street)
- Poosie Nansie’s Tavern, Burns’s local – actually a brothel in his day; the pub was across the road (Castle Street)
- Mauchline Kirk where Burns did public penance for fornication; kirkyard has headstones and plaques of many locals immortalised in Burns’s poems, including Poosie Nansie, Godly Bryden, the Gallant Weaver, Holy Wullie and more (Castle Street)
- Burns Memorial Tower on A76 near Mossgiel (occasionally open; 01290-550045)
Kirkoswald (A77, 12 miles south of Ayr):
- Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, thatched house of ‘souter’ or cobbler John Davidson whom Burns featured in Tam O’Shanter (0844-493-2147; www.nts.org.uk)
- Robert Burns House, Burns’s last home; museum with mementoes, manuscripts etc. (01387-255297; www.dumgal.gov.uk/museums; Burns Street)
- Robert Burns Centre; permanent exhibition on Burns’s life in Dumfriesshire (01387-264808; www.dumgal.gov.uk/museums; Mill Road)
- Burns Mausoleum, St Michael’s Churchyard (St Michael’s Street)
- Burns’s first Dumfries home, now a flat (plaque on wall; private; above Burns Café, Bank Street)
- Globe Inn, Burns’s favourite pub (Globe Inn Close, off High Street)
Ellisland (signed off A76, 5 miles north of Dumfries)
- Ellisland Farm, Burns’s home 1788-91; museum, contemporary farming display, walks (01387-740426; www.ellislandfarm.co.uk)
Ruthwell (B725, 7 miles SE of Dumfries)
- Brow Well, 1 mile east of Ruthwell (signed), where Burns sought a cure for his final illness
Burns Fact File
- Excellent B&B in Burns Country: Heughmill, Craigie, by Kilmarnock, Ayrshire KA1 5NQ (01563-860389; www.stayprestwick.com), from £70 dble B&B
- Friendly welcome near Dumfries: Chipperkyle, Kirkpatrick Durham, Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway DG7 3EY (01556-650223), £90 dble B&B
Ayr and district: OS Landranger 70, Explorer 326, 327
Dumfries and district: Landranger 84, Explorer 313
World Burns Night, traditionally on 25 January, the bard’s birthday, will be a World Burns Weekend on 24/25 January. Celebrations include
- Ayrshire: Burns Night Supper, 22 Jan, at Burns National Heritage Park, Alloway (www.burnsheritagepark.com)
- Glasgow: Celtic Connections music festival with Burns flavour in Clyde Auditorium (www.celticconnections.com)
- Dumfries: Burns Light, 25 January – lantern procession, fire show, ceilidh (http://www.dgaa.net/)
- Edinburgh: World Burns Night celebrated at National Library of Scotland (www.nls.co.uk)
More on Burns 250 celebrations: www.homecomingscotland2009.com
Burns in the Bookshop
- Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Geddes & Grosset)
- The Life of Robert Burns by Catherine Carswell (Canongate Classics)
- On The Trail Of Robert Burns by John Cairney (Luath Press) – 5 Burns tours