Burns Night 2021: Who was Scottish poet Robert Burns?

Roisin O'Connor
·2-min read
Robert Burns  (Getty Images)
Robert Burns (Getty Images)

The legacy of Scottish poet Robert Burns will be celebrated tonight despite the ongoing lockdown, likely with plenty of haggis, tatties, neeps, and a few drams of whisky.

Each year, Burns Night pays homage to the 18th Century writer on his birthday (25 January) and celebrates his literary talents.

The tradition began a few years after Burns died in 1796, when his friends decided to commemorate his career each year on the date of his death (21 July).

Burns wrote hundreds of poems and songs during his lifetime, many of which are still recited today. He was a key source of inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism, renowned for his astute political commentary, and as a pioneer of the Romantic literary movement.

Born on 25 January, 1759, in the Scottish village of Alloway, Burns was raised on a farm by his parents, William Burnes and Agnes Broun.

He later took over the running of the farm when his father died, and began writing while he was still working in the fields.

Legend has it that Burns was still holding his plough when he composed “To a Mouse”, after accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest.

Also known as Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, the Ploughman Poet and by various other epithets, Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

His influence on fellow writers and artists was extensive. His poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” was the inspiration for JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, while a line from the penultimate stanza of “To a Mouse” provided the title for John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Among the musicians he is said to have inspired are Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson.

A lifetime of drinking combined with a weak heart meant that Burns only lived to the age of 37. He died on 21 July, 1796, from rheumatic fever. By the time of his death, he had 12 children by four different women.

In 1817, when his coffin was dug up in order for his remains to be reinterred beneath a more fitting memorial, The Scotsman observed that the “chief characteristic of Burns was his nationality.... He was utterly and intensely, before and beyond everything, a Scotchman”.

Among his best-known works are “A Red Red Rose”, “To a Mouse”, and “A Man's a Man for A' That”.

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