Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, was born on the 25th of January, 1759.
A’body kens Robert Burns, regarded by most as Scotland’s national poet and one of very few people or personages, like Royalty as in ‘the King’, to be known simply by designation – he is ‘the Bard’. Just a mere twenty-five days ago, many folks the world over would’ve been signing their drunken hearts out to the words of a song penned ‘lang syne’ by Robert Burns. A lot of those poeple, whether or not they’ve got the excuse of being a foreigner, would’ve gotten some of the words wrong. Typically, folks sing about auld acquaintance being forgot “for the sake of auld lang syne,” which is a shame, because Burns never wrote that line.
Burns’ line at the end of verse one reads “And days o’ lang syne”; that at the end of verses two and five “For auld lang syne”; and for verses three and four it’s “Sin auld lang syne.” In Scots, the words ‘syne’ and ‘sin’ are used as adverbs, conjunctions or prepositions with several meanings, such as next; afterwards; since; ago; etc. In the context of Burns’ song, ‘lang syne’ means ‘long ago’. In the context of the fourth verse, the lines “But seas between us braid hae roar’d – Sin auld lang syne” means “Broad seas have roared between us since times long past’ (in the days when ‘we two used to wade in the brook…’).
Burns is rightly celebrated home and away, near and far. He is by far, the best known of the many poets who have written in the Scots language. Indeed, he is probably the only Scottish poet of whom the majority have heard. Although much of his writing is in English, his first work was published on the 31st of July, 1786, when Burns was twenty-seven, and entitled ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’. That simple unbound book, covered in unassuming “plain blue wrappers” and now famous as ‘The Kilmarnock Edition’, was the catalyst for Burns’ celebrity status. The book was published by John Wilson at Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, at a time when Robert Burns and a brother, Gilbert, rented the farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline. Burns’ celebrity got him out of there on a trip to Edinburgh in late November of 1786, after many of the limited edition of 612 copies of ‘Poems’ had reached the socialites of Edinburgh and been met with curious amazement. The landed gentry and literati were equally astounded at the quality of Burns’ work and the fact that he was ‘merely’ a farmer.
Burns became known as the ‘Ploughman Poet’, preceding his overlapping contemporaries, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ (James Hogg) and the ‘Weaver Poet’ (Robert Tannahill) in being granted such a humble moniker. Robert Burns was born Robert Burnes (or Burness) on the 25th of January, 1759 and thereafter became known, variously, as Robert Burns (he changed the spelling himself), Robden of Solway Firth, and the Bard of Ayrshire. Robert was born in the village of Alloway and his first exposure to ballads and stories came from listening to old Betty Davidson. Her story telling struck an elemental chord, which was later to chime and rhyme in monumental fashion. When he was six, Robert was taught for a while by a man called Campbell, in a wee school at Alloway Mill. When the teacher left, Robert’s father clubbed together with some neighbours and employed a man called John Murdoch to teach their children. After the Burneses flitted to Mount Oliphant, in 1766, Robert and his brother Gilbert continued to attend Murdoch’s school, for two years, until Murdoch moved to Carrick. After that, Robert’s father undertook his sons’ education, during and after the day’s work on the farm until, when Robert was about thirteen or fourteen, he and Gilbert went to the Parish School of Dalrymple. They spent a summer quarter there, to “improve their handwriting” and later, Robert spent three weeks in Ayr, reunited with Murdoch, who coached him in grammar and a bit French.
Burns’ education owed much to his father, to Murdoch and to his own reading. Murdoch taught him mathematics, English and grammar as well as French (good enough to be able to read), and lent Robert the works of Pope, Addison, Swift, Steele and Shakespeare. Murdoch also lent him the ‘Life of Hannibal’ and he got the ‘Life of Sir William Wallace’ from a blacksmith; whom we should perhaps thank for ‘Scots, Wha Hae’. Robert’s father borrowed Salmon’s Dictionary for his sons and instructed them in Geography; Natural History; Astronomy, out of Derham’s ‘Physico and Astro Theology’; and Theology, from Ray’s ‘Wisdom of God in the Creation’. Burns himself got hold of the novels of Richardson, Fielding and Smollett, and the works of the historians, Hume and Robertson. He also learned a bit Latin, from Ruddiman, but perhaps not much more than the ability to read phrases such as ‘Amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all). Burns was also familiar with the ‘Life of Thomas Davidson, the Scottish Probationer’ and acquainted with Stackhouse’s ‘History of the Bible’.
Burns then, was much more than a ploughman who turned his hand to a wee bit poetry and versification. He was able to draw from an impressive list of sources and notwithstanding he was the son of a poor farmer, he was “a genius of the highest intellect”. He was certainly not out of place amongst the illustrious names of Scotland’s second ‘golden age’ (the first being in the 15th Century). The hundred years say, between 1730 and 1830, was a period known as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ and it produced such great poets, artists, philosophers, men of letters, scientists, engineers and architects as James Hogg, Robert Tannahill, Henry Raeburn, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Walter Scott, John Gibson Lockhart, James Hutton, John Playfair, Robert Adam, Robert Stevenson, &c.
When Burns went to Edinburgh in 1786, it was as a peer amongst such men; men who were responsible for making 18th Century Edinburgh the most distinguished intellectual centre in Europe. Burns wasn’t a great philosopher like David Hume, nor a scientist such as James Hutton, but his brand of philosophy has stood the test of time just the same. His contribution to the arts and humanities is no less valid, nor should it be valued any less, than say, Adam Smith’s ‘invention’ of economics. Robert Burns was peculiarly responsible for a revival of Scottish-ness, helping to rediscover Scotland’s traditions, its literature and its folksongs, and developing those sources in his own unique style.
“Rabbie was a fairmer’s loon
Liltin’ rhymin’ lovin’ rovin’
Heid and shouders a’ aboon
Liltin’ rhymin’ Rabbie.”