Robert ‘Robbie’ Burns: A Man’s a Man for A’That!

By Brian McGowan

This month we cross the Irish Sea to Scotland, and the birthday celebration of its most beloved bard, Robert Burns. 

Burns, still widely and wildly celebrated 261 years after his birth, is one of the enduring cultural icons of Scotland. His birthday, Jan. 25, 1759, is celebrated wherever the Scottish diaspora has taken the sons and daughters of Alba. 

Each year on his birthday a “Burns Dinner” is celebrated, an event renowned for the cooking of Scotland’s national dish, the haggis, praised in Burns’ “Address to a Haggis.” Always the first item on any Burns Dinner program, in Burns’ favored Scots dialect, it opens with: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race.” Translated: “Good luck to you and your honest, plump face, great chieftain of the sausage race.”

Burns was a native of Ayrshire, in southwest Scotland. His parents were simple folk. His father, William, was a hard-working farmer who never seemed able to make ends meet. Eldest of seven, Burns was raised in relative poverty, though his father, a self-taught man, took great interest in teaching his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history. 

In 1774, at 15, Burns worked beside a female farmhand and had his first taste of love. This encounter led to his first poem, “Handsome Nell.” Its subject, Nelly Kilpatrick, the same age as he, must have exuded considerable charm. Burns would later recall her as a “bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass.” But alas, she would marry another.

Burns kept at his writing while continuing to farm, and tried his hand at other trades as well. He even considered working as a bookkeeper on a Jamaican sugar plantation. All the while he wrote poems and songs, and slowly gained some small measure of repute as a clever wordsmith.

To finance his passage to Jamaica, a friend suggested he put some of his poems into a book. The collection, published in 1786 and called “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,” was an immediate success, and all plans for leaving Scotland were abandoned. Overnight he went from unknown to a favorite across the country.

By the end of the year, he was established in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. A second edition of his work was in print, and he was on his way to becoming one of Scotland’s legends.

No effete, Burns had a prodigious talent for wooing and winning women over, and incorporated many of them into his poetry and songs. In fact, Kilpatrick was but the first in a long line of romances Burns fell into. By one count, he had serious involvements with at least nine women, three of whom bore him children. By the time of his death in 1796, he was father to at least 12 children. Nine of the 12 were borne by Jean Armour Burns, the only woman with legitimate claim to the title “Mistress Burns.”

“Tam o’ Shanter” is considered to be his masterpiece. Other gems still in popular use are “A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s A Man for A’ That,” “Comin’ Through the Rye” and the immortal “Auld Lang Syne.” All by their beauty raised the common dialect of the Scots to an art form. He is also the source of common sayings in use to this day. Who has ever heard the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” without knowing exactly what it meant?

A life of early hardship and subsequent fast living caught up with Burns, but it is more likely a rheumatic heart condition stilled his pen on July 21, 1796. He was only 37. He may also have suffered from some form of manic depression, which he characterized as “blue devilism.”

He is buried in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries, where he and his family had lived since 1791, and where Jean Armour Burns joined him in 1834, after carefully cultivating his fame in the decades after his death.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.

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