The History of Leith

January 24, 2007

Robert Burns: Scotland’s National Bard


Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1759 to William Burnes, a poor tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun.

The eldest of seven children, he spent his early years in a single-room thatched cottage with a barn and cowshed which is now a museum containing original manuscripts and other memorabilia.

A monument nearby, erected in 1820, overlooks the old Brig o’ Doon, immortalised in Tam o’ Shanter as the bridge where Meg’s tail was torn off by the chasing witch.

At the age of 15 Robert was the principal labourer on his father’s farm, enduring constant headaches and “the unceasing moil of a galley slave”. This prompted him to start writing in an attempt to find “some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances”.

It was at this tender age that Burns penned what is believed to be his first verse O, once I lov’d inspired by Nelly Kirkpatrick of Dalrymple, “a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass”.

Burns Night is on January 25
In 1777 the family moved to a farm at Lochlea, two and a half miles north west of Mauchline. Four years later Burns left for Irvine to work as as a flax dresser, lodging at 4 Glasgow Vennel and at an address in the High Street where he became ill with pleurisy. The house caught fire during Hogmanay celebrations and Burns lost all his possessions.

January 25. Robert Burns born at Alloway.

Works as a flax-dresser in Irvine.

Returns to Lochlea after the burning of the Irvine shop.

Father dies. Robert moves to Mossgiel.

Birth of Elizabeth, daughter by servant Betty Paton. Meets Jean Armour.

Kilmarnock Poems published. Affair with Jean Armour. Plans emigration to Jamaica.

Commissioned as exciseman

Tam o’ Shanter completed

Goes to Edinburgh

Accused of political disaffection during revolutionary commotion in Dumfries.

Second Edinburgh edition of Poems.

1795 Ill with rheumatic fever.

July 21 Burns dies at Dumfries.
July 25 Son Maxwell born on day of his funeral.

He returned to Lochlea just before his father’s death in February 1784. Robert and his younger brother Gilbert rented from their lawyer friend Gavin Hamilton the farm of Mossgiel near Mauchline.

A liaison with Elizabeth Paton, a farm servant, produced a daughter (Elizabeth) in 1785, which he commemorated in A Poet’s Welcome To A Bastart Wean. Two other children were to result from affairs elsewhere.

The woman who was to become his wife, Jean Armour, was the daughter of a master-mason who issued a writ against Burns in 1785 when Jean first became pregnant. She bore him two sets of twins before their marriage.

Faced with legal action, Burns considered emigrating to the West Indies, and he may have been planning to elope there with Mary Campbell, Highland Mary.

Burns seems to have sought solace with her while he was barred from seeing Jean Armour, and the couple are said to have exchanged Bibles on the banks of the River Ayr in 1786. She inspired The Highland Lassie O and Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary.

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was first published on July 31, 1786, by John Wilson of Kilmarnock in Ayrshire.

This ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ contains many of Burns’s finest pieces: The Twa Dogs, The Holy Fair, Address to the De’il and To A Mouse.

Praise of the Kilmarnock Edition persuaded Burns to abandon his plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Instead, he set out for Edinburgh (a two-day journey on a borrowed pony) to arrange printing of a second impression.

However, despite an enthusiastic reception in the capital city, Burns failed to find the patron who would have allowed the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ to devote all his time to writing. He had to return to farming.

Burns returned to Jean Armour, and they rented a room in Castle Street, Mauchline. They were married on August 5, 1788, and after already bearing four children, Jean went on to produce another five.

Burns took over the lease of Ellisland Farm, six miles north of Dumfries where he wrote Tam o’ Shanter, held by some to be Burns finest work.

Burns was appointed excise officer for Dumfries in September 1789 and was to hold the post until his death.

The family moved to Dumfries and lived at a house (now gone) in Bank Street. They then rented a larger house in Mill Hole Brae, renamed Burns Street, which is now a museum.

Burns was outspoken in his support for the French Revolution, and in 1795 he sent Thomson A Man’s a Man for a’ That, a song which echoes the radical ideas of Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights Of Man’.

At the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament on July 1, 1999, Sheena Wellington gave an unaccompanied rendition of the song in the chamber.

Burns health declined rapidly during his last years, and his doctor’s advice to bathe daily in the Solway Firth only accelerated the decline. His ill health caused financial difficulties which only made matters worse. He died of rheumatic fever on July 25, 1796, and was buried four days later in St Michael’s churchyard, while his wife gave birth to their ninth child.

At the funeral, 10,000 people came out to pay their respects to a man who has since become Scotland’s national Bard, and famous throughout the world.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
Robert Burns Memorial Lecture
New York January 13, 2004

Guide to a traditional Burns Supper

The ritual of the Burns Supper was started by close friends of Burns a few years after his death as a tribute to his memory. It is celebrated on the day of his birth, January 25, althought many contemporary events are planned around the date.

More than 200 years after Burns there are literally tens of thousands of Burns Suppers organised around the world run not only by ex-patriate Scots but also by admirers of the famous “ploughman poet”.

The venue, food, guests, and itinerary for the evening is often adapted to the local culture and circumstances, but the basic format has remained relatively unchanged since the end of the 18th century. It begins when the company are invited to receive the haggis.


Opening address by host

A few welcoming words start the evening and the meal commences with the Selkirk Grace

Some hae meat and cannot eat.
Some cannot eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

The company are asked to stand to receive the haggis. A piper then leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table, while the guests accompany them with a slow handclap. The chairman or invited guest then recites Burns’ famous poem To A Haggis. When he reaches the line “an cut you up wi’ ready slight”, he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife.


Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
The auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
‘Bethankit’ hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect sconner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit:
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

It’s customary for the company to applaud the speaker then stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.

The meal is then served.

The Immortal Memory

An invited guest is asked to give a short speech on Burns. There are many different types of Immortal Memory speeches, from light-hearted to literary, but the aim is the same – to outline the greatness and relevance of the poet today.

Toast To The Lasses

The main speech is followed by a more light-hearted address to the women in the audience. Originally this was a thank you to the ladies for preparing the food and a time to toast the ‘lasses’ in Burns’ life. The tone should be witty, but never offensive, and should always end on a concilliatory note.


The turn of the lasses to detail men’s foibles. Again, should be humorous but not insulting.

Poem and Songs

Once the speeches are complete the evening continues with songs and poems. The evening will culminate with the company standing, linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne to conclude the programme.

Source-Scottish Executive

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