The eldest of seven, Robert Burns was born in Alloway on January 25, 1759. His tenant farmer father’s bankruptcy had a profound effect on the boy, leaving him with an antipathy towards authority. After the death of his father, Robert, now head of the family, moved them to a farm at Mossgiel where he began to write in earnest: his first volume, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in 1786. The book proved immensely popular with ordinary Scots and Edinburgh literati alike, with Holy Willie’s Prayer attracting particular attention. The object of Burns’ poetic scorn was the kirk, whose ministers had condemned him for fornication.
Burns spent the winter of 1786–87 in the capital, but despite his success he felt financially trapped, unable to leave farming. His radical views also landed him in a political snare, his recourse being to play the unlettered ploughman-poet who might be excused impetuous outbursts and hectic womanizing. He made useful contacts in Edinburgh, however, and was recruited to write songs set to traditional Scottish tunes: works including Auld Lang Syne and Green Grow the Rushes, O. At this time, too, he produced Tam o’ Shanter and a republican tract, A Man’s a Man for a’ That.
Burns fathered several illegitimate children, but in 1788 married Jean Armour, a stonemason’s daughter with whom he already had two children, and moved to Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries. The following year he was appointed excise officer and could leave farming. But his years of labour, allied to a rheumatic fever, damaged his heart, and he died in Dumfries in 1796, aged 37.
Burns’s work, inspired by romantic nationalism and tinged with wry wit, has made him a potent symbol of “Scottishness”. Today, Burns Clubs all over the world mark the poet’s birthday with the Burns’ Supper, complete with haggis, piper and whisky – and a ritual recital of Ode to a Haggis.