Most of us understand the basics of Burns Night. Each year (exactly a month after Christmas – just when we all need to blow the January blues away) the Scots give us all an excuse for a big knees-up to celebrate the birth of Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns.
At this grey and drizzly time of year, the prospect of a raucous night sampling drams of whisky and linking arms in a reel with tartan-clad pals is the only thing lighting the way to February. It’s time to hail the bagpipes and practise reciting ‘A Red, Red Rose’ in your best Scottish accent (only please don’t look to Mike Myers in ‘Shrek’ for inspiration). With the comforting, carb-rich food (let’s face it – the January diet has long been abandoned) and ceremonial touches like piping in and addressing the haggis, there’s nothing not to like about Burns Night. Besides the general merry-making, it’s a chance to show appreciation for the Greatest Scot (as voted for by the Scottish public) – the man who gave us something to sing along to at the stroke of midnight each New Year’s Eve.
But it’s all too easy to pigeon-hole Burns as purely a talented wordsmith. His poetic finesse is indisputable, but beyond ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ – how much do most of us know about his poetry? This Burns Night, we’re reveling more enthusiastically than ever, but instead of admiring his verses, we’re looking at the man behind the quill. Join us in celebrating the other wonderful, lesser-known things about the Scottish Bard – and there are plenty to choose from. So as you raise your glass – or your kilt – to Scotland’s national treasure this Burns Night, keep these wee nuggets in mind:
1. He Was a Self-Made Grafter
Burns’ father was a farmer who taught himself to read and write. Whilst young Robert was lucky to receive some education, it was often sporadic and interrupted by farm duties, like harvest-time. He knew what it was to live in poverty and his health suffered as a result of early exposure to farm labour – he had a life-long stoop of the shoulders. Burns was a true grafter, building his writing, influential contacts and career piece by piece until days in the fields were a long-gone memory and his first volume of poetry was being snapped up across the land. Burns was the original ‘boy done good.’
2. He Made Love Not War
Burns fell in love… a lot. Whilst adultery isn’t something generally desirable in a national treasure (at least not in buttoned-up Britain) during his lifetime Burns fell in love with, married and had children by many women. Rather than being remembered as a scoundrel though, history – and the women themselves – recall him as a passionate artist… women were his muses, not concubines. Indeed, he once commented that, “The finest hours that e’er I spent were spent amang the lasses, O!” This sometimes over-zealous fondness for women led to the birth of at least 12 little Burnses and now there are over 600 relatives of Burns around the world… you might want to check your genealogy.
3. He Owned the Room
Once Burns’ success took off, he found himself rubbing shoulders with the aristocrats of Edinburgh society. But instead of suffering an inferiority complex, he owned every room he walked into... he was an 18th century Jay-Z. He stood strong and proud, didn’t say too much and was always dignified. A young Walter Scott encountered him at one of these gatherings, commenting later that “His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish. A sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which came…perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents.” Yes, Rabbie Burns had swagger.
4. He Believed in Power to the People
Way ahead of his time, Burns was thinking about – and speaking openly about – equal rights. He learned about the slave trade and wrote ‘A Slave’s Lament’ taking a keen interest in the abolitionist movement from its early days. Unlike other men of the time, he also believed women should have voices, were not merely property and deserved the same rights and freedoms as men. He supported the French Revolution and other revolts across Europe at the time… his forward-thinking beliefs weren’t always shared by the aristocrats in his circle (they wanted their necks to avoid the same fate as their French counterparts), but his passion for Scotland won their hearts.
5. His Candle Went Out Too Soon
At the age of just 37, Robbie Burns died. His professional future was at its brightest but his body was ailing – since his farming days, his heart had been weak. Following a tooth extraction (sorry, Dentist-fearers), he passed away at his home in Dumfries – tragically his last child, Maxwell, was born on the day as his funeral. As with all Greats who die young, we can only wonder what he may have gone on to achieve, both artistically and socially. His work influenced the Romantic poets of the next century and he instantly gained a place in the hearts of the Scottish people – the first Burns Night was celebrated just 6 years after he died and has been the brightest part of January – including the sales – ever since.