Circadian Poems

A place to celebrate poetry, poets, and the creative spirit.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Celebrating the Life and Genuis of Robert Burns -- Part One

Celebrating the Life and Genius of Robert Burns

By Colin Galbratih

Sitting on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea is a small, seemingly insignificant island. This island is divided into three parts, England, Wales and in the north, Scotland.

There are 5 million in Scotland; five million people forming a nation which has a national history and pride to rival any other nation in the world. Whether in politics, sports, the arms or the arts, Scotland has produced many fine men and women who have fought long battles, invented world-altering machines, and created beauty beyond all recognition.

Yet there is only Scot who has an annual national day of celebration. It has lasted hundreds of years and is as strong now as it was back in the late 18th Century. This celebration is for a young man who was not a Royal, nor was he a Nobel Prize winner. His name is Robert Burns, and he was a poet.

Robert “Rabbie” Burns was born in a small cottage in Alloway, near Ayr, on 25th January 1759. Born to William, a farmer and gardener to the Provost of Ayr, he sometimes attended John Murdoch’s School in Alloway, but in the main, grew up under the influence of his father’s teachings in traditional school subjects. Scottish Calvinism played a huge part in his upbringing; his father once wrote a pamphlet for his children called A Manual of Christian Belief. Conversely, he was also responsible for instilling in Robert, a spirit of tolerance and understanding as well as gentle rebellion.

The family was poverty-stricken and it was financial stress that eventually forced Burns to start work on the family farm. He was generally uninspired, though time spent hard labouring introduced him to Nelly Kirkpatrick who lived nearby; his first love. She inspired him to write his first song to the tune of a traditional Scottish reel called, O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass.

O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass

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

As Bonnie Lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw,
But for a modest gracefu' mein
The like I never saw.

A bonny lass I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e,
But without some better qualities
She's no a lass for me.

But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a',
Her reputation is compleat,
And fair without flaw;

She dresses ay sae clean and neat,
Both decent and genteel;
And then there's something in her gait
Gars only dress look weel.

A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart,
But it's innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.

Burns worked through a succession of labouring jobs that would contribute to his stooped posture later in life, and from 1783 he began to write poetry regularly. His verse came in traditional style using the Ayrshire dialect of Lowland Scots, which many people to this day still find difficult to translate.

When his father died in 1784, Burns, who was only 25, and his brother Gilbert, rented a farm near Mauchline to live and work. It was always going to be an uphill struggle to keep financially afloat and Burns didn’t help matters by fathering eight children with five different women over the next decade. One of these women, Jean Armour, would eventually become his wife in 1788.
Burns’ first collection to be published was Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in July 1786 by a local printer in Kilmarnock. This book contains many of his best work, including the famous "To a Mouse", "The Holy Fair", "The Twa Dogs", "The Address to the Deil", "Hallowe'en"", The Cottar's Saturday Night", and "The Daisy".

To a Mouse
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie

O what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle !
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
Wi' murd'ring pattle !

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
has broken Nature's social union
,An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal !

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve ;
What then ? poor beastie, thou maun live !
A daimen-icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request ;I'll get a beleesin' wi' the lave,
And never miss't !

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin !
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin' !
An' naething, now, to big a new ane
O' foggage green !
An' bleak December's winds ensuin'
Baith snell an' keen !

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste.
An' weary winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash ! the cruel coulter past
Out-thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble !
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld !

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain :
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy.

Still thou art blest compar'd wi' me !
The present only toucheth thee :
But oh ! I backward cast my e'e
On prospects drear !
An' forward tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

The success of this book convinced Burns to scrap immediate plans to emigrate to Jamaica, where he intended to become a bookkeeper on a plantation. Instead he travelled to Edinburgh and quickly became a well-known figure amongst the higher cultural circles and his profile was raised significantly.

He found work editing a collection of Scottish folk songs entitled, The Scots Musical Museum, which was published in five volumes over the next sixteen years. Burns contributed over 150 songs, including one of unknown origin called "Auld Lang Syne".

Burns and his wife Jean moved to Mauchline, where in 1790 he produced Tam o' Shanter, which was first published merely as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk. He was offered a job with The Star newspaper in London and was also provided the opportunity to become a candidate for a newly-created Chair of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. He refused them both.

The growing Burns family gave up the farm in 1791 and moved to Dumfries. Burns had been requested to furnish words for The Melodies of Scotland, and he responded by contributing over 100 songs, many of which form the basis to the claim of which his immortality now rests.
Burns Statue, Dumfries

Burns went on to contribute a further 114 songs to A Select Collection of Scottish Airs, but he received very little payment for his efforts. In 1795 he was inspired by the events of the French Revolution to write For a' that and a' that; his cry for human equality, which he lost many of his closest friends over, as they took strongly opposing views.

For a' that and a' that

Tho' women's minds, like winter winds,
May shift, and turn, an' a' that,
The noblest breast adores them maist-
A consequence I draw that.

For a' that, an' a' that,
And twice as meikle's a' that;
The bonie lass that I loe best
She'll be my ain for a' that.

Great love I bear to a' the fair,
Their humble slave, an' a' that;
But lordly will, I hold it still
A mortal sin to thraw that.


But there is ane aboon the lave,
Has wit, and sense, an' a' that;
A bonie lass, I like her best,
And wha a crime dare ca' that?


In rapture sweet this hour we meet,
Wi' mutual love an' a' that
,But for how lang the flie may stang
,Let inclination law that.


Their tricks an' craft hae put me daft.
They've taen me in, an' a' that;
But clear your decks, and here's -
"The Sex!"I like the jads for a' that.


By early 1796, Burns’s health was giving way to concern. Some commentators of the time spoke of his premature ageing and fits of despondency, to which he had suffered continually throughout his life.

On 21st July 1796, Robert Burns succumbed to rheumatic fever and died. He was 38 years old.
As he was being laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Michael’s Chapel in Dumfries, his wife Jean was giving birth to their ninth child. News of his death spread quickly across the nation and within days money started to pour in from all over Scotland to help support his widow and children.

Continued tomorrow . . .

Colin Galbraith has seen many poems of his poems published. His first chapbook, Brick by Brick, was published in April 2005 and a second chapbook about the recent Edinburgh Festival, Fringe Fantastic, was published in December, 2005. He can be contact through his website: or his daily blog:


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