Robbie Burns: The man, his life and works

Haggis is on the menu for Burns Night
Haggis is on the menu for Burns Night
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Burns Night is annually celebrated in Scotland on or around January 25, commemorating the life of the bard Robert Burns, who was born on January 25, 1759. His best known work is, of course, Auld Lang Syne.

To mark the date, here is an edited extract from an Immortal Memory address (about 15 minutes) which Sedgeford writer and performer Gareth Calway will be giving as M/C of the Burns Night at Wolferton Social Club this evening:

Robbie Burns was born on January 25, 1759, the son of a small farmer. He was brought up in agricultural poverty and strict Calvinism. Overwork as a boy brought the first symptoms of the heart trouble that would kill him at 37.

On his father’s death in 1784, the 25-year-old went into subsistence farming with his brother Gilbert at Mossgiel and also sowed more than a few wild oats. Unfortunately for his reputation and purse, his unmarried sweetheart Jean Armour proved more fertile than the farm.

Burns had a weakness for whisky and wild wild women but he won’t be getting any stick from us for that on Burns Night. He copped plenty for it in his lifetime from the kirk. To which he responded with entertaining satires on Calvinist hypocrisy.

Burns published his first book – Poems, Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect – to raise money in 1786.

It made him famous in Edinburgh, where he was lionised by the fashionable as an untutored ‘ploughman poet,’ a misnomer he genially accepted but (like his year of fame) always saw through. Burns was in fact schooled and widely read, though largely self-taught.

With the proceeds of his first book, he bought a small farm in Ellisland and settled there with Jean, now his wife. They had four children and Burns became an excise man to supplement his meagre income. He developed a pronounced sympathy with the French Revolution based not on reading the political theory of the Enlightenment but on the personal experience of poverty, a sympathy which earned him British Government surveillance.

Poverty drove the Burns family from the farm to Dumfries in 1792 where he died in 1796, health undermined by rheumatic fever, heart broken by overwork (of all kinds) and his liver worn out with – well, let’s not go there tonight.

His poetic voice is hearty, generous, rollicking, tender, with a sympathy that encompasses humans of all types – from national heroes like Robert the Bruce to tavern roarers like – well, us.

Burns is not only the national poet of Scotland but a song-writer for all English-speaking people.

Wherever the world may be on New Year’s Eve, helped by a ‘wee dram’ and the reminder of mortality as time continues to wear awa’, men and women indulge their instinct of a common humanity, join hands and sing a song of Burns:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet

For auld lang syne…

Gareth Calway’s book ‘Doin different, new ballads from the East of England’ is on sale at Waterstone’s, Hanse House, True’ s Yard or via