Who was Robbie Burns?

Poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) remains so beloved that over two hundred years after his death, he was voted Greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a 2009 national poll. Burns achieved eminence in his lifetime and beyond by embracing and expounding upon traditional Scots culture. Celebrated annually on January 25th, Burns Day toasts the man whose poetry, marked by extraordinary sincerity, tenderness, and humor, endures as a cultural touchstone for Scots around the world. This year, Les Délices marks Burns Day with The Highland Lassie, a collection of 17th and 18th century Scotch songs filmed in Cleveland’s historic Dunham Tavern.

Burns family home as it looked in the 18th cent.

Robbie Burns Birthplace & Museum as it is today









Robert “Rabbie” Burns was born to a family of poor tenant farmers in Allway, Scotland during a turbulent period in Scottish history. (The family homestead is pictured above as it was during Burns’ lifetime on the left and today, as the Robert Burns Birthplace & Museum on the right.) Young Burns was educated at home by his enterprising father, who instructed his children in reading, arithmetic, geography, and history. Following sporadic bouts of institutionalized learning, Rabbie Burns tilled the soil at a string of unsuccessful tenancies alongside his father and brother. At each farm, the unlucky Burns family endured bad harvests, severe manual labor, and growing insecurity brought on by the industrialization that was quickly changing the prospects of small-time farmers. It was only after his father’s death that Rabbie, then 25, developed a reputation as a rhymer, circulating verses by manuscript and recitation. In 1786 he published his first poetry collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect with funds he amassed by collecting subscriptions, an 18th century style of crowd-funding whereby individuals purchased the book before its initial printing. The book was a success and the profit enabled Burns’ move to Edinburgh. The move was an escape from the unsuccessful farming adventures and complicated romantic entanglements and Burns was embraced by Edinburgh literati as a star on the rise. In an excellent, unattributed biographical essay on Burns for the Poetry Foundation, the author writes of Burns’ first book of poems:

“ÔÇïÔÇïPoems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (an undistinguished title used often before and after as a title of local poets’ effusions) was a success. With all its obvious contradictions—untutored but clearly lettered; peasant but perspicacious; conscious national pride (“The Vision,” “Scotch Drink”) together with multiple references to other literatures—the Kilmarnock edition set the stage for Burns’s success in Edinburgh and anticipated his conscious involvement in the cultural nationalistic movement.”

The same Industrial Revolution threatening the agrarian lifestyle of the Burns family also enabled cheap printing. This tool simultaneously encouraged assimilation to the English culture and language and provided the opportunity for Scottish writers to foment political rebellion and self-consciously work to transmit and preserve Scottish identity. Burns soon became an active force in this loosely-organized movement of Scottish nationalists.

When Burns encountered James Johnson, a struggling music engraver, in the Crochallan Fencibles, a mid-brow Edinborough social club of writers and thinkers, both of their lives were forever changed. Johnson shared with Burns a vague, unrealized ambition to collect and publish all of Scotland’s songs. The project eventually became The Scots Musical Museum and Burns became an enthusiastic supporter and contributor to the collection of six volumes. Their project was time-sensitive; the creep of English custom and language was steadily starting to dominate. The song collecting was an attempt to capture an effusive, largely oral tradition by fixing it to paper.


In all, Burns contributed hundreds of songs and edited many more. Burns’ work on Musical Museum inspired more songwriting, with significant contributions to other publications of Scottish song, including A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice and The Melodies of Scotland. In addition to contributing his own lyrics, Burns worked as a prototypical ethnomusicologist, collecting folk songs from around Scotland to promote Scottish cultural heritage.

Burns’ health deteriorated quickly and he died at age 37. Songs had become the main focus of his writing life and his best-remembered poems were written to accompany traditional tunes, including “A Red, Red Rose,” “Auld lang syne,” and “The Battle of Sherramuir.”

Listeners will hear Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose” along with many more tunes collected in The Scots Musical Museum in The Highland Lassie, premiering January 20th on Marquee TV. Don’t miss this celebration of the permeable borders between folk song and art song, between country dance and cotillion.