Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns, famed as Scotland’s national bard or the ploughman poet, is renowned for verses such as ‘To a Mouse’, ‘Address to a Haggis’, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, ‘A Red, Red Rose’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.


However, the popular perception of Burns can mask a complex and at times contradictory character with a rich and varied legacy of poems and songs, from the tender and sentimental to the cuttingly satirical and politically radical. Here, we take a brief look at some lesser-known facts about the man and his work…

The myth of the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’

A number of myths surround Robert Burns. One of the most enduring of these is the idea of the "heaven-taught ploughman".

This phrase was first coined in 1786, in an early review of Burns’s poetry by Henry Mackenzie, one of the leading critics in Edinburgh at that time. Such gentlemen critics viewed Burns as an "original genius" and prodigy due to his humble status, rural background and supposed ‘lack’ of formal education.

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While Burns himself often played up to this image of the "simple bard / unbroke by rules of art", he was in fact a highly well-read and cultivated individual. The young Burns was schooled by a private tutor, John Murdoch, who had been hired by Burns’s father. Despite occasional claims to possess little learning, Burns elsewhere parades his education; in a famous letter to author and travel writer Dr John Moore of August 1787, for example, he displays a strong familiarity with literary greats such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Locke, Alexander Pope and Tobias Smollett. He also left an extensive library when he died.

Another myth that grew up around Burns was his reputed fondness for drink. We know that Burns was a convivial character, as celebrated frequently in his poems and songs. However, in the wake of his death in 1796, biographers began to exaggerate Burns’s ‘intemperance’.

In 1797, a memoir by the journalist Robert Heron made inflated claims about Burns’s supposed moral dissipation, while the editor of the influential and highly successful first collected works of the poet, James Currie, attributed Burns’s death to alcoholism. These myths may reflect the biographers’ sympathies more than those of their subject: Heron was prone to dissipation himself; Currie was a physician and teetotaller.

One ‘myth’ that may have more of a foundation in fact is Burns’ famed weakness for the opposite sex. Burns fathered some 13 children to at least five different women. The majority of these children were born out of wedlock, although some were legitimised when Burns finally made Jean Armour his wife.

His famous affair with Agnes McLehose, or ‘Clarinda’, produced a renowned series of love letters as well as one of the finest love songs ever written, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. However, in this case his love didn’t stop him from seducing McLehose’s maid, Jenny Clow, who had a child to the poet in 1788.

A portrait of Robert Burns on horseback
While Burns often played up to this image of himself as the ‘simple bard’, he was in fact a highly well-read and cultivated individual. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Poet or songwriter?

Burns is known the world over as a leading poet, yet much of his prodigious output consisted of songs. Burns lived a short yet productive life, squeezing much of his major work into a mere decade, from the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in Kilmarnock in 1786 to his death in Dumfries 10 years later.

Much of this energy, particularly towards the latter end of his career, was spent collecting, reworking, and writing new lyrics for existing songs. Indeed, Burns was one of the leading songsmiths of his day with an output to rival Lennon and McCartney (although he didn’t actually write the music). Burns was the main contributor to editor James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, a leading collection of Scots songs from the period.

He also worked with editor George Thomson, who produced the more ‘polished’ multi-volume A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, which even included arrangements by celebrated contemporary European composers such as Hadyn and Beethoven.

While we might think of Burns’s songs as ‘folk music’ and, while they often celebrate ‘ordinary’ life, these songs would have been consumed by, and played in the homes of, polite middle-class audiences. The resulting performances would have been very different to those recordings of Burns we are familiar with today.

‘Scots Wha Hae’

A number of Burns’s most famous songs have existed in different versions at one stage or another. Some of Burns’s songs would also have sounded different in his own day not simply because of the manner and context in which they were performed, but because they were linked with different tunes at different times.

The lyrics Burns wrote for his rousing patriotic anthem ‘Scots Wha Hae’, for example, were originally set to the tune of a drinking song, ‘Hey Tutti Tatie’, and indeed this is the tune with which we associate the song today.

However, George Thomson, an editor known to interfere and ‘polish’ Burns’s work, selected what he thought was a more appropriate song, ‘Lewie Gordon’, for the initial publication of ‘Scots Wha Hae’, forcing the poet to add extra syllables to the final line of each verse. It wasn’t until much later on that Thomson had a change of heart and published the song with Burns’s original choice of tune.

‘Auld Lang Syne’

There are numerous different versions of perennial New Year favourite ‘Auld Lang Syne’ too. In the 18th century there were two melodies associated with the song, only one of which is the version we sing at New Year.

This familiar version is a much played and much covered tune, but not one that has always been inextricably linked with Burns’ lyrics nor with New Year celebrations. It has acted in the past as the national anthem of Korea and the Maldives, and is the tune for a graduation song in Japan, ‘Hotaru no Hikari’, also used to signal closing time in some Japanese stores.

As well as being an integral part of Burns Suppers, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was a favourite of Union forces in the American Civil War and was also sung by troops in the First World War during the famous Christmas truce of 1914.

Although we might expect that the association of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with the turning of the year is tied to the importance of ‘Hogmanay’ in Scottish culture, its festive associations have undoubtedly been driven by US popular culture in the 20th century. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was a favourite part of the New Year repertoire of the Guy Lombardo band in New York, and a seminal recording of their version became the soundtrack to the ‘dropping of the ball’ in Times Square.

The status of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as the anthem for New Year has been further boosted by numerous cover versions, including artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, BB King, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and Mariah Carey, not to mention key celluloid moments from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to When Harry Met Sally (1989).

Burns was not actually the first Scottish poet to write a version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. A keen collector of Scottish songs who often reworked existing works, Burns built upon earlier versions of the poem, which included a version ascribed to Sir Robert Aytoun and another to Edinburgh poet Allan Ramsay.

Burns retains little from his predecessors other than the famous opening line "Should auld acquaintance be forgot", instead updating the song for the modern age and a new era of travel. Its central toast to and remembrance of parted friends and loved ones has since made it a particularly appropriate song with which to celebrate the new year.

'It's A Wonderful Life' poster
The poster for the 1946 Frank Capra movie 'It's a Wonderful Life', which was one of the films that boosted the status of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as an anthem for New Year. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The ‘patriot bard’

Burns is celebrated as Scotland’s national bard, and the ‘cult of Burns’ is an integral part of Scottish cultural identity. Inspired by 18th-century poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, Burns became the leading voice in the ‘Vernacular Revival’ of Scots language poetry in post-Union Scotland. He was also one of main collector and editors of traditional Scottish music.

As a self-professed patriot and ‘sentimental Jacobite’, Burns venerated national heroes such as Robert the Bruce, William Wallace and Bonnie Prince Charlie. We can also see a central part played by Burns in the ‘invention’ of Scottish national identity in the Romantic period and beyond, from the ‘romanticisation’ of the Highlands (which he toured in 1787) through to the making of national symbols out of whisky and haggis.

It is perhaps for such reasons that Burns has been appropriated as a leading icon of the tartan tourist industry. However, his iconic status as ‘alpha Scot’ may conceal a more nuanced Scottishness. Burns wrote and spoke very well in English, the language of his schooling and of the Presbyterian religion in which he was raised.

He composed cultivated letters on the model of the finest examples Augustan prose, and his favourite authors included English authors such as Joseph Addison and William Shenstone as well as ‘Anglo-Scots’ James Thomson and James Beattie. The patriot bard sang about and against such things as the Union of 1707 and the deposed Stewart monarchy, but he also wrote the ‘pro-British’ song ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’, named after the volunteer regiment in which he served as part of a wider British response to the threat of French invasion in the 1790s.

Burns the radical, the socialist, the nationalist, the…?

The poet and critic Edwin Muir (1887–1959) once remarked that Burns is "to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious".

Such mixed messages as people find in Burns’s writing have encouraged different groups to attempt to appropriate him for different cultural and political purposes, including recruitment into the British Army during the First World War through to the referendum for Scottish Independence in 2014, in which both sides claimed that Burns would have voted for their side if he were still alive.

We may ask which way Burns would have voted were he around today, but we often forget that political life was very different in the poet’s own day, that party politics was not as ideologically polarised as today, and that Burns would not even have been entitled to vote in what was still a pre-democratic country. Alas, we may never know how Burns would have felt about Brexit.

Burns’s own political views are difficult to unpick, although he has been frequently appropriated for progressive politics, even to the extent of being hailed a proto-socialist or celebrated in such places as the former Soviet Union. We divine progressive values in his celebration of ordinary life and his satire of social hierarchy, as exemplified in the radical anthem ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’.

An early version of this song appeared in the short-lived radical Glasgow Magazine of 1795, when the mood for political reform was high, and the repressive measures enacted against ‘sedition’ excessive. Though a friend to reform, Burns published his sentiments anonymously: as an exciseman and therefore a government employee, he had to maintain an outward show of loyalty to King George.

‘A Man’s a Man’ was later sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, showing how a song that challenged the political establishment of his own day could be appropriated to speak for the political establishment of another time.

The bawdy bard

A number of Burns’s poems and songs were suppressed during his lifetime, and not just for their political content. These include songs on more risqué topics.

Burns wrote a considerable number of ‘bawdy’ or obscene verses which were not published while he was alive, and which had a less than straightforward route to publication. Earlier editors such as James Currie, for example, tried to distance the poet from his pornographic poems, while obscenity laws (which were not relaxed until the late-20th century) prevented their widespread publication.

Even though standards may be relatively lax today, Burns’s bawdy poems still have the power to shock with their explicit language and frank description of sex. One important collection of the bard’s bawdry was The Merry Muses of Caledonia, penned by the poet for the Crochallan Fencibles, a male drinking club to which Burns belonged and which met at a tavern in Anchor Close in Edinburgh.

Containing titles such as ‘The Fornicator’ and ‘Nine Inch Will Please a Lady’, The Merry Muses was not published in Burns’s lifetime and for a long time only appeared in privately published volumes to be circulated among a "discreet" male audience.

Abraham Lincoln
US president Abraham Lincoln was a big fan of Burns and could recite lines of his poems by heart. (Image by Getty Images)

Burns’ reputation

Although most closely associated with Scotland (and even the stereotypical trappings of Scottish identity), Burns’s reputation is international. There are statues of Burns all over the world, in places as far afield as North America and New Zealand. His likeness has appeared on bank notes, postage stamps, and Coca Cola bottles, and an edition of his poems has even been sent into space.

Burns has had many admirers, from other poets and writers through to world leaders. For example, US president Abraham Lincoln was a big fan of Burns and could recite lines of his poems by heart. He has had many poetic imitators, while novels have been named after his work, most famously the modern American classics Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck, which takes its title from ‘To a Mouse’, and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), after a line in ‘Comin thro the Rye’.

Facts courtesy of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. Many of the ideas presented here are explored further in the online courses run by the Centre and in their AHRC-funded research project Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in January 2017