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.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

Scotland features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

20 picturesque Christmas destinations

20 picturesque Christmas destinations

Dreaming of a trip this Christmas? We're here to help. From glittering cities to a few snowy escapes, here are 20 classic destinations for a festive break. …

12 Dec 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
8 alternative UK winter breaks

8 alternative UK winter breaks

The UK gets pretty grim during the winter, with its dark, early nights and splutteringly cold weather. But if you can’t wait until spring to start having fun …

06 Nov 2017 • Greg Dickinson insert_drive_file Article
Sipping Speyside: on the whisky trail in Scotland

Sipping Speyside: on the whisky trail in Scotland

Whisky is much more than Scotland’s national drink – it’s blended deep into the country’s history and culture. Donna Dailey learns more and discovers th…

18 Oct 2017 • Donna Dailey local_activity Special feature
View more featureschevron_right