Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Presented by Linda McGregor to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club,
October 30, 2018

The contribution of Burns to thought and literature has been negatively affected by a cult of exaggerated admiration epitomised in Burns’ Suppers which are held the world over on January 25th.

There are many myths and legends about his life. I am now going to focus on his life history and an analysis of a few poems.

Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire in South West Scotland to William Burns and Nessie Brown. He was the eldest of six children. William Burns was a self-educated Scottish peasant who was very well read and particularly knowledgeable about the Presbyterian Bible. He was a puritanical man who surprisingly married Nessie Brown, a dark haired beauty who loved to sing and dance. The combination of influence of a stern father and a fun loving social mother had a significant effect on Robert.

William Burns built his own home which is now the Burns Cottage museum. However, despite his education he was not a successful farmer and Robert Burns grew up in poverty and hardship and did a lot of heavy manual labour from a very young age. He had very little formal education but his father taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history. He and his brother Gilbert did go to school for a short time to learn Latin, French and mathematics. They went on alternate weeks as the family could not afford to have both boys absent from the farm work. Home schooling was tough in those days! Robert was an avid reader and by age fifteen was writing his first love poems, mainly to various young girls.

Against his father’s wishes he joined the country dancing group and the Masonic Lodge at age 22. The Masonic Lodge was very supportive of his poetry writing and in many ways responsible for his success. He was befriended by a Captain Richard Brown who encouraged his poetry writing and in 1783 a book of his poems and songs was published and it sold for three shillings a copy. It was entitled the Kilmarnock volume and included “Ode to a Mouse,” “Ode to a Mountain Daisy” and “A Cotter’s Saturday Night.” These poems were chiefly in the Scottish dialect. This book was very successful and he toured Scotland to promote his book.

In 1786 he went to Edinburgh which was the site of literary excellence at that time. He was presented well and was treated as an equal by the aristocratic men of letters and he became a much sought-after presenter at social gatherings. With James Johnson he developed the Scots Musical Museum which was a collection of many bawdy songs which included “Auld Lang Syne” and “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” Despite his success he remained very attached to his childhood and the rural life and wrote many poems in the praise of nature, thus becoming known as the Ploughman’s poet. His early poverty led him to become a supporter of the French Revolution which was based on the inequalities of the era. His wide reading made him aware of the limitations of the aristocracy and the wrongs of the feudal system.

[Four poems were presented with Linda’s translations that illustrate Robert Burns’ beliefs and the wrongs of the feudal system of Scotland at that time: “Ode to a Mouse,” “Ode to a Louse,” “Address to a Haggis” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”]