Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Robert Burns (1759 –1796)

Robert Burnes was born in Alloway Scotland in 1759. The oldest of seven children to William Burnes (1721–1784) and Agnes Broun (Brown). William Burnes was a cotter (small farmer) and built the cottage where the family lived. In 1766 Robert’s father sold the cottage and took a tenancy at Mount Oliphant farm near Tarbolton. The young poet grew up in abject poverty and worked manual labour on the farm. Burns received little regular schooling but instead was educated in the basics by his father. For a short time he did attend an adventure school run by John Murdoch where he studied Latin, French, and mathematics. Ages 13, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School in 1772, later he lodged with Murdoch for a short time to study grammar, French, and Latin. By the age of 15, he was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant but in 1775 he completed his formal education with a tutor at Kirkoswald. Whilst times were hard the old Scottish belief in education proved fertile.

Robert was a sociable young man and loved girls and poetry with the same fevour. His first known muse was Nelly Kilpatrick who helped in the harvest of 1774. Burns wrote "O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass" in her honour. A year later he met Peggy Thompson , to whom he wrote two songs, "Now Westlin' Winds" and "I Dream'd I Lay". The young Burns joined a country dancing school in 1779 before forming the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club with his brother Gilbert, the following year. Robert Burns was initiated into the masons at the Masonic Lodge St David, Tarbolton, in 1781, when he was 22. He left the farm to become a flax-dresser but after the shop caught fire and burnt to the ground Burns was left to come home to the farm again.

Burns was encouraged him to become a poet by Captain Richard Brown and started to write poems and songs ina commonplace book in 1783. He fell in love with Alison Begbie and wrote her four songs but despite his infatuation, she rejected him. William Burnes' died in 1784 and Robert and Gilbert made an ineffectual struggle to keep on the farm. When it failure they tried another farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. During the summer of 1784 Burns came to know a group of girls known collectively as The Belles of Mauchline, one of whom was Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline. Burnes was incurable romantic and lothario he loved to play the field. While courting Jean he made his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton pregnant with his first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns. Then in 1786 Jean Armour, fell pregnant with twins. Despite intention to marry Jean’s father objected and sent his daughter away to live with her uncle in Paisley. Eventually the couple was married in 1788 and Jean bore him nine children, but only three survived infancy.

When financial difficulties eventually forced the poet to consider alternative employ and accepted the position of a bookkeeper on a slave plantation in Jamaica. At the time he was head over heels in love with Mary Campbell and dedicated the poems "The Highland Lassie O", "Highland Mary", and "To Mary in Heaven" to her. His song "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary, and leave auld Scotia's shore?" suggests that they planned to immigrate to Jamaica together. However Mary caught typhus while nursing her brother and died in 1786. Burns had insufficient funds to pay for his passage and was advised by a friend to publish his poems. Burns sent proposals for publishing his Scotch Poems to a local printer in Kilmarnock. The volume of works by Robert Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect became known as the Kilmarnock volume. It sold for 3 shillings and contained much of his best writing, including "The Twa Dogs", "Address to the Deil", "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night", "To a Mouse", "Epitaph for James Smith", and "To a Mountain Daisy", many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

When Dr Thomas Blacklock a well known critic wrote to Burns expressing admiration for the poetry in the Kilmarnock volume he suggested an enlarged second edition. Blacklock encouraged Burns to abandon his plans to emigrate and go to Edinburgh instead. Naïve in the way of business and keen to amass enough cash to live in the city Burns sold his copyright to Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect to William Creech for 100 guineas. His reputation as a man of letter preceded him and he was soon a guest at aristocratic gatherings, where he bore himself with unaffected rustic dignity. The new edition of his poems brought Burns £400. He embarked on a relationship with the separated Agnes "Nancy" McLehose (1758–1841), with whom he exchanged passionate letters under pseudonyms "Sylvander" and "Clarinda"'. When it became clear that Nancy would not be easily seduced he moved on to Nancy’s domestic servant , Jenny Clow (1766–1792), who bore him a son, Robert Burns Clow, in 1788. He also had an affair with another servant girl, Margaret "May" Cameron. His relationship with Nancy concluded in 1791 with a final meeting in Edinburgh before she sailed to Jamaica for what turned out to be a short-lived reconciliation with her estranged husband. Before she left, he sent her the manuscript of "Ae Fond Kiss" as a farewell.

Burns started to contribute to The Scots Musical Museum and in the first volume in 1787 there were three songs by Burns published . The second volume contained 40 song and eventually Burns was responsible for about 200 songs in the whole collection. In 1788 he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire. He also trained as a exciseman (a gauger ) as a hedge against incase another failure at farming. He was appointed Customs and Excise officer in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791.

Burns wrote "Tam O' Shanter" in 1790 by the banks of the River Dee. He gave up the farm and moved to Dumfries. During this time he made major contributions to George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia , a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century.

Burns was skilled in writing not only in the Scots language but also in the Scottish English dialect (Lallans) of the English language. Some of his works, such as "Love and Liberty" (also known as "The Jolly Beggars"), was written in both Scots and English for various effects. His themes included republicanism and Radicalism, which he expressed covertly in "Scots Wha Hae", Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth). Despite his enormous popularity Burns's political affiliation and support for the French Revolution alienated him from many of his influencail and affluent friends. In an attempt to prove his loyalty to the Crown, Burns joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in March 1795 but his health began to give way and the Bard died in 1796 aged 37.

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism, and a cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world. The Robert Burns a club was set up "To cherish the name of Robert Burns; to foster a love of his writings, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature." The first one, known as The Mother Club, was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. Soon Burns Clubs were set up across the Globe. Burns Night (Burns Super) is a celebration of the Bard’s birthday, on the 25th January. Over the centuries the format of Burns suppers has changed little and starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with the Selkirk Grace.

After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis, when Burns's famous "Address to a Haggis" is read and the haggis is cut open. The event usually allows for people to start eating just after the haggis is presented.

At the end of the meal, a series of toasts and replies is made.

This is when the toast to "the immortal memory", an overview of Burns's life and work, is given.

The event usually concludes with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne".

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