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Robert Burns Lives!

The Life of Robert Burns
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Part I

 Introduction: Nearly a year ago I was asked by the editor of “An Biodag”, Meredith Shaw, to write a series of articles on the life of Robert Burns for this very noteworthy Clan Shaw newsletter. We agreed on four articles, one per quarterly issue, which would take a year to work through. The articles have taken on a life of their own and have become a series based more on the education, poetry and songs of Burns rather than on his life in general or the chronological events in his life. This wee series is in keeping with the theme Robert Burns Lives! that we started a few years ago. Our goal was for the column to “bring insights into Burns” - that it would be “a layman’s “Introduction to Robert Burns 101”, and it would be “a teaching column” for the man in the streets, not necessarily for the Burns scholar. I have taken a rather non-scholarly, non-classroom approach in writing these articles on Burns. This is the first of the four articles that appeared or will appear in “An Biodag” (“The Dagger”).

Shot not usually seen from the rear of the cottageLike many of us, Robert Burns was born into a family that had difficulty making ends meet.  The Burns family would, in today’s language, be below the poverty threshold. Once in a letter, he proudly proclaimed: “I was born a very poor man’s son”. They were what many in the South refer to as “dirt farmers”. The year of his birth was 1759, (January 25), a date now celebrated all over the world as people gather to pay tribute to their Scottish Bard, eat haggis, neeps and tatties, and toast Burns with words, whisky and wine on Burns Night.

Burns was taught old Scottish songs by his mother, Agnes Brown, and he learned stories from his mother’s cousin, Betty Davidson, who “was remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition”. The influence of these two women can be found throughout his writings. William Burnes, Robert’s father, saw to it that Robert and his brother Gilbert attended a small school in their town and was instrumental in hiring, along with some neighbors, one John Murdoch to teach their children the Bible and other literature to prepare them for life. This was a big step for Robert and his fellow classmates, and the Burns boys ranked near the head of their class, “even when ranged with boys by far their senior”.

Later, when Murdoch moved away, William Burnes spent his evenings instructing the boys. Their education continued in the village of Dalrymple, and later Robert spent several weeks with his old mentor Murdoch learning as much English as possible, as well as an introduction to French. He had the opportunity to study surveying one summer in Kirkoswald. There he found he made infinitely more progress in “the knowledge of mankind”, culminating in “swaggering riot and roaring dissipation”. The 16-year-old boy learned to “mix without fear in a drunken squabble”. By now, considering his station in life, Burns was considered a well-educated young man.

Ironically, as we look back on their education, Murdoch found that “Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable…” and that Gilbert possessed “a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit”. Little did Murdoch know that Robert would become a master of poetry, prose, and song, forever to be Scotland’s Bard, and his followers to this day “never tire of telling you that Burns has been translated into more languages than any poet writing in English, including a lad named William Shakespeare…”

Note how cottage conforms to the curve in the roadFrom farm to farm, almost like nomadic farmers or “share-croppers” as we called such people in the little Pee Dee area of South Carolina, William Burnes moved his family, his goal being to keep them all together. This proud man did not want his children to be “little underlings” in other people’s homes. By the time Burnes rented a farm in Mount Oliphant, which according to Gilbert were 70 acres of the poorest soil imaginable, William had four children.

Working in the fields with Nellie Kilpatrick, “a bonie, sweet, sonsie lass of thirteen”, Robert at 14 wondered why his pulse quickened “when I looked and fingered over her hand, to pick out the nettle stings and thistles”. Learning that the words of Nellie’s favorite song were written by a country laird’s son, Robert knew he could write better lyrics, and it was here that Robert “first committed the sin of RHYME”.

O once I lov’d a bonie lass,
An’ aye I love her still!
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast
I’ll love my handsome Nell.

During these early years Robert worked on the farm and at the age of 15 “became the farm’s principal labourer”. Doing a man’s work in a child’s body, Burns scholars insist the “strain of these years led to the rheumatic heart condition that resulted in the poet’s premature death’ at the age of 37. Again, not too much can be said about the poverty and hardship that dominated the Burns family. They were indeed dirt farmers and were dirt poor, as evidenced by the fact that Gilbert wrote: “We lived sparingly. For several years butcher’s meat was a stranger in the house…”

Burns Museum Shop at the same siteA few years later, wanting to give “my manners a brush”, Burns defied his father and enrolled in a country dancing school. He wanted more in life than walking behind a horse, and he helped establish a debating society, the Tarlbolton Bachelor’s Club, limited to 16 members, all bachelors. Each bachelor had to be a “professed lover of one or more of the female sex”. If your goal was to make a lot of money, you were not eligible for membership. Neither could you be mean-spirited. This young man who was becoming more and more a rebel wore his hair differently - his was the only tied hair in the parish. This is not the only time Burns rebelled against society, church, and the rich. Part II will take us into the early manhood of Robert Burns. (FRS: 8-25-05)


A Biography of Robert Burns, James Mackay

An Appreciation for Robert Burns, Sir James Fergusson

Robert Burns, A Life, Hugh Douglas

Robert Burns, David Daiches

Robert Burns, The Tinder Heart, Hugh Douglas

Robert Burns, A Pitkin Guide

Robert Burns’ Scotland, J. A. Carruth

            The Ranting Dog, The Life of Burns, John Lindsey

Return to October/November 2005 Index page  |  Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


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