Ever wondered what ‘Burns Night’ is all about? What do you think of when you hear the phrase – people gathered inside, possibly around a fire, a hearty meal in the oven, alcohol flowing and music playing – but why? Did you know Burns Night is actually all about a fella called Robert Burns? Read on if you want to know more. This celebrated man was an incredibly talented Scottish poet and lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Worldwide, he is renowned for his poems and songs, written in both old Scots language and Standard English. You may even know one of his poems but not know it was actually Burns who wrote it.
Nicknamed ‘Robbie’ or ‘Rabbie’, Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759 in the village of Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland. He was brought up in a small farmhouse, which had been built by his father, William Burness. Burns later referred to his childhood home as the ‘Auld Cley Biggin’ – it is now home to the ‘Robert Burns’ Birthplace Museum’. Robert had a very modest start to life as the eldest of seven children. His father was a tenant farmer so the Burns family often suffered hard times, living in bleak poverty. Following in his father’s footsteps, the soon-to-be world-famous poet actually began his working life as a farmer. Despite this, his father recognised the value of education and consequently taught all his children how to read and write. Something that would be of incredible importance to Robert.
Some of the Scotsman’s most famous poems are actually about simple things he observed whilst going about his daily life on the farm. Once when ploughing out the fields, he turned over a field mouse’s nest with his plough and he wrote ‘To a Mouse’. Similarly, on observing head lice jumping around on a lady’s fancy bonnet in church, he later penned ‘To a Louse’.
Many literary scholars believe that ‘falling in love’ was the inspiration for most of his poems and ballads. At the tender age of 15, Burns wrote his first love song but it wasn’t until the grand old age of 27, that his poems were actually published. ‘A Red, Red, Rose’ is considered to be one of the greatest love poems of all time.
Robert married Jean Armour around the time of 1788. During this stage of his life, he was doing a lot of travelling around Scotland. He kept his days busy by collecting local folk songs and writing poems about his excursions. By many, Burns is regarded as a national treasure but sometimes, his progressive political views, made some people question his loyalty to the Scottish crown. He was occasionally forced into silence but today, we know that he was a champion for democracy and human rights.
Sadly, Burns died at the tender age of 37 on 21st July 1796 due to a long battle with his failing health. His funeral took place on 25th July, which was actually also the day his 12th child, Maxwell, was born.
The Robert Burns’ Birthplace Museum attracts 100,000 visitors every year and exhibits many artefacts that belonged to the beloved poet. The quills that he used to pen some of his most famous pieces of work are included in these artefacts.
To date, there are over 600 statues of Robert Burns around the world – of which 15 are in Scotland. This is an incredible amount for a non-religious person (only actually more of Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus).
Ever sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’? Well, this poem was written by Burns and is incredibly famous throughout the world. Usually sung at Hogmany/New Year’s Eve/31st December, it can even be found in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language.
So how did Burns Night come about? A few years after Robert’s premature death, his friends wanted to honour his memory by celebrating his life and his poems. They organised Burns Suppers to do just this and it is a tradition that has lasted hundreds of years. Today, ‘Burns Night’ is celebrated all over the globe on 25th January. Something called the ‘The Selkirk Grace’ starts off the night. This is a prayer which must be spoken before any food is consumed. An invited speaker then recites Burns’ famous poem ‘Address to a Haggis’. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland - a savoury pudding made from the lining of a sheep’s stomach (very like black pudding). Traditionally, a dram of Scotch whiskey is poured over the haggis before it is served. ‘Neeps’ aka turnips and ‘tatties’ aka potatoes are accompanied with the emblematic Scottish dish. The meal is usually washed down with more whiskey and the night draws to a close with guests singing and dancing to ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Sounds like fun, no?
So there you go - a quick history of Robert Burns and why we celebrate Burns Night. So, as the Scots say on 25th January - Sláinte Mhath (Good Health) to you all!