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Robert Burns – An Introduction

Robert Burns, also called Rabbie Burns, was a poet, lyricist and ploughman who greatly influenced not only Scottish literature, but also other Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Robert Burns Engraving by William Harry Warren Bicknell

Burns was born on 25 January, 1759. Today his birthday is celebrated all over the world with a Burn’s Supper where the Scottish speciality, haggis, is served and his poems and songs are recited and sung. He died in 1796, only 37 years old. He had a great appetite for life – and women.

The sweetest hours that e’er I spent,
Are spent among the lassies, O.
(from the poem "Green Grow the Rashes O")

He created many poems and songs in both Scots and English helping to preserve the Scots language and showing that it was equally possible to express feelings and convey his message in Scots. He also collected and revised folk songs, but struggled on the edge of poverty for much of his life.

Scots and English are similar but different. Here are some Scots words from Burns' poems. Use "The Online Scots Dictionary" on scots-online.org to find the English equivalent: bonnie, bairn, sleekit, moose, gang, airt, brattle.


Birthplace of Robert Burns

Birthplace of Robert Burns

Burns was born in Alloway near Ayr, the oldest of seven children in a poor family. He was educated, but not regularly, from the age of six by a teacher who stimulated his interest in literature. In addition, he learned ballads and folk tales from his mother. He started writing poetry in his teens.
Burns trained as a ploughman and farmed together with his brother. Many of his poems deal with the countryside and the ordinary people. One of these is “To a Mouse”, about a farmer who ploughs up a mouse’s nest when turning over his fields before winter. Mice were not popular with farmers because the destroyed their crops, but the farmer in the poem addresses the mouse about the trials of life making the point that the animal has as much right to make a life for himself as people do. Listen to a few stanzas from the poem where Burns, the farmer, talks to the mouse.

"To a Mouse"

To a Mouse


Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

During his short lifetime, Burns had relationships with many women. In 1785 he met Jean Armour, who eventually became his wife and bore him nine children. For her he wrote:

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best:
(from "Of A' the Airts the Wind Can Blaw")

In addition, throughout his life Burns had affairs with several other women. Some of these liasons resulted in illegitimate children, all of whom he acknowledged. One special relationship was with Agnes McLehose, whom he met in Einburgh. This lasted from 1787 until 1791 when she left to join her estranged husband in the West Indies. He wrote many passionate letters to her addressing her as “Clarinda” and a beautiful farewell poem titled “Ae Fond Kiss” In the last stanza he says:

"Ae Fond Kiss"

Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.

The first edition of his poems was printed in 1785 in order to raise money to travel to Jamaica where he was offered a job. He hoped to do better there than he had done in farming. However, in the end he decided to go to Edinburgh and was feted by the literati of the time. There he met people who become his patrons and gave him some financial support. Burns also toured the Borders and the Highlands collecting traditional airs (songs). The second edition of his poems came out in 1787.
From 1788 until his death in 1796, he and his family lived in SW Scotland in and near Dumfries where he supported them by working both as a farmer and exciseman (collector of customs and excise payments). He wrote many poems at this time and worked on a collection of Scottish airs, composing songs based on old traditional tunes such as "A Red Red Rose" and "Auld Lang Syne". His death in 1796 was probably due to a rheumatic condition which had affected his heart. He died a pauper, but left behind a legacy of verse which has enriched the world of poetry and song.

The Themes in His Poems

Burns was a philosophical poet, a republican and an egalitarian. He was aware of the fight for the rights of the common man, e.g. in the American Revolution, 1776–1783, and the French Revolution, 1789–1799. His poems and songs include the themes of man and nature, equality, patriotism, and love and tenderness, as well as satire on certain aspects of society and Scotland’s cultural heritage.

His egalitarianism has made him a popular poet in Russia, which was the first country to produce a stamp in his honour, on the 160th anniversary of his death in 1956. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, "A Man’s a Man for a’ That" was sung. The last stanza indicates Burns’ hopes for the future of mankind.

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that).
That Sense and Worth o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er.
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
(bear the gree = will win the victory)

His patriotic poem "Scots Wha Hae" used to be the unofficial national anthem of Scotland. It is a rousing address to the Scottish army from their king, Robert the Bruce, before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314; the Scots were the victors and won their freedom from the English.

"Scots Wha Hae"

Scots Wha Hae
Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victorie!
Now’s the day and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power---
Chains and Slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha for Scotland’s King and Law,
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Free-man stand or Free-man fa’,
Let him follow me!

By Oppressions woes and pains!
By your Sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud Usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us Do ---- or Die!

Burns did not approve of the strict self-righteousness of some Presbyterian clergymen in Scotland and the satirical poem "Holy Wullie’s Prayer" reflects this. But perhaps Burns is most famous for his love songs, such as "A Red Red Rose", which is claimed to be Bob Dylan's greatest source of inspiration. Are there any more inspiring lines than these?

"My Love is Like a Red Red Rose"

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!

There are many other poems about love, lost love and tenderness – "Mary Morrisson", "Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon", "Whistle and I'll Come to Ye, My Lad", etc.

Scottish culture as manifested in the everyday lives of ordinary people occurs in poems such as "A Cottar’s Saturday Night", a description of a cottager coming home from the fields to his family on Saturday evening and looking forward to a day of rest on Sunday. Another such poem is "Tam o' Shanter" by Robert Burns, a tale of a farmer who gets into trouble because of drink and women. The poem ends with a warning to all men to curb their inclinations in those areas. Was Burns thinking of his own life?

Burns may have enjoyed many of the pleasures of life to the full, but if he had not been the kind of person he was, he might never have written the poetry and songs that he did. They represent a cultural heritage that Scots all over the world are so proud of, that they voted him the Greatest Scot.


  1. How do Burns' life and his works relate to the philosophy of the Romantic period?
  2. Here are some often used quotes from Burns. Can you explain these quotations in your own words ? If necessary, use "The Online Scots Dictionary" on scots-online.org to translate the Scots words.
    • The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men
      Gang aft agley
      ("To a Mouse")
    • O wad some Power the giftie gie us,
      To see oursels as ithers see us!
      It wad frae monie a blunder free us.
      And foolish notion;
      ("To a Louse")
    • The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
      The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
      ("A Man's a Man for A' That")
    • Man,--whose heaven-erected face
      The smiles of love adorn,--
      Man's inhumanity to man
      Makes countless thousands mourn!
      ("Man Was Made to Mourn")
    • Nae man can tether time or tide.
      ("Tam o’Shanter")
    • But pleasures are like poppies spread;
      You seize the flower, its bloom is shed.
      Or like the snow falls in the river,
      A moment white--then melts forever.
      ("Tam o’Shanter")
    • “Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
      To think how mony consels sweet,
      How mony lengthened, sage advices,
      The husband frae the wife despises.”
      ("Tam o’Shanter")
  3. "To a Mouse": Take the first two or three stanzas of the poem shown above and translate them into Standard English. Compare the two versions and comment on the effect of the language. How does it create authenticity and feeling?
  4. Analyse the poem "A Red Red Rose". Who is the speaker and to whom is the poem addressed? Comment on the use of rhyme, rhytm, images, etc. See the article "How to Work with Poetry (easy)".
  5. Listen to Edie Reader singing her version of "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose" on YouTube. Why do you think Bob Dylan has chosen this song as his greatest inspiration?

You will find the complete versions of some of Burns poems on the website "Rabbie Burns Poems".

Sist faglig oppdatert 21.12.2018
Skrevet av Anne Scott Hagen


Literature from 1780 to 1840


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