The lyricist and poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) – also known as the ‘Ploughman Poet’ – is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Born to a humble farming family in Alloway, Scotland, though he received little education, Burns wrote more than 550 poems and songs that largely celebrated the beauty and power of nature as well as the struggles of common people.
In addition, his writing in the Scots dialect helped preserve and promote the Scottish language. Whether you’re a fan of Burns’ poetry or simply enjoy singing his famous composition ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on New Year’s Eve, there’s no denying the extraordinary impact that Burns has had upon the literary world. Today, he is remembered annually on 25 January through the customary eating of ‘haggis, neeps and tatties’ (haggis, turnips and potatoes), as well as the recitation of some of his most famous works.
Here are 10 facts about Scotland’s beloved national poet, Robert (‘Rabbie’) Burns.
1. He was raised in poverty
Burns was the eldest of seven children born to self-educated tenant farmer William Burnes and Agnes Broun. He was born in a house built by his father, which is now the Burns Cottage Museum, and lived there until he was seven. His childhood was characterised by moving from farm to farm, where the family lived in poverty.
Though a labourer, Burns received a rudimentary education from his father in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history and religion, though he spent some time at parish schools in between harvest season.
2. He wrote his first poem at 15
By the age of 15, Burns was a principal agricultural labourer. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick, who is thought to be his first romantic interest and muse. She inspired his first attempt at poetry, O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass. A year later, he went to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald where he met Peggy Thompson, for whom he penned the poems Now Westlin’ Winds and I Dream’d I Lay.
3. He was a freemason
Burns was initiated into the Masonic lodge at St David, Tarbolton, in 1781, aged 22. The fraternal organisation, which is known for its secrecy and ritual, influenced some of his later poetry and songs, such as those that appeared in a commonplace book in 1783.
4. He had 12 children
Burns is also remembered for his eventful romantic life. His first child was born in 1785 to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton, while he was simultaneously embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason. Armour became pregnant with twins in 1786. He signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father shunned him.
In spite of this, Armour and Burns were married in 1788, and she and Burns went on to have nine children in total, three of whom survived infancy. Burns had extra-marital relationships, however, and had two further children via Ann Park and Janet ‘Jennie’ Clow.
5. He was the ‘people’s poet’ of Russia
Burns was a committed anti-establishment figure, and his works often reflected his views. He advocated for the rights of the working class and was a Radicalist (an early form of left-wing liberalism), as expressed covertly through Scots Wha Hae. He was also known for his commentary on patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender, religion, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality and the benefits of socialising through carousing, drinking Scotch whiskey, and so on.
As a result of his views, he became the ‘people’s poet’ of Imperial Russia, where his work was translated extensively. The USSR honoured him with a commemorative stamp in 1956, and he remains popular in Russia today.
6. He helped to preserve Scots dialect and folk songs
In addition to writing in the Scots dialect, Burns worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding and adapting them for works such as The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Many of his most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. Auld Lang Syne, for instance, is set to the original melody of Can Ye Labour Lea, while A Red, Red Rose is set to the tune of Major Graham.
7. His work inspired significant poets
Classified as a proto-Romantic poet, Burns’ work significantly inspired the Romantic movement in Scotland and England, since it heavily celebrated and drew upon nature as a source of inspiration. He particularly inspired the famed poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and later Hugh MacDiarmid. Both during his life and after his death, the Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns, calling him a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’.
More broadly, he was beloved by the Scottish people, and after his death in 1736, his funeral procession in Dumfries was attended by thousands of people.
8. He may have suffered from manic depression
The strong emotional highs and lows that characterise Burns’ poems have led to some suggesting that he suffered from manic depression, a hypothesis which has been supported by analysis of various samples of his handwriting. Indeed, Burns himself referred to suffering from episodes of what he called ‘blue devilism’.
9. He has more than 900 living descendants
Though Burns died at just 37 from rheumatic fever, his five surviving children of twelve mean that, as of 2019, he has over 900 living descendants. The most famous of these is American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, who is his great, great, great nephew.
10. He was the first person to ever appear on a Coca-Cola bottle
Scotland’s Bard has been commemorated in many ways over the years, in ways that have been both conventional – he appears on the Scottish £5 note – and surprising. For instance, in 2009, he became the first person to appear on a commemorative Coca-Cola bottle. He is also remembered for the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, which offers visitors a glimpse into his life.