A Short Biography of Robert Burns


Robert BurnsRobert Burns was born the 25th of January 1759, ten years after our city of Halifax was founded. The birth of Burns is a date we still celebrate, along with societies around the world. The sheer extent of this continuing fame 200 years after his death is a testament to the life and work of a giant of English literature.


Also known as Rabbie Burns, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and The Bard, he was born in Alloway, Ayrshire. He was the son of of Agnes (nee Broun) and William Burnes (who later shortened his name to Burns). The child was largely educated by his father, who also hired a schoolmaster named John Murdock to tutor him. Robert Burns had access to good books and was well read.


The family attempted to make a living at farming but spent most of their time toiling in poverty. Burns appears to have written his first poems as a young man on the farm. It was prophetic that his first effort at verse was inspired by his affection for a young woman. This passion of Burns (some might say a weakness) would be a central theme of his life. His love of women went beyond romantic attraction; he was an advocate for women's rights at a time when this position was not popular.


Burns' father died, penniless, in 1784 leaving him in charge of the tenant farm. His first child was born in 1785, the result of an affair with a household servant, Elizabeth Paton. Burns was already involved romantically at the time with Jean Armour, who bore him twins the next year. They declared themselves married but her father imposed on Jean to request an annulment.


Burns took up with Mary Campbell and decided to leave the country with her for Jamaica, where he hoped to achieve the success that eluded him in Scotland. To raise money for the trip he arranged publication of some of his work in nearby Kilmarnock. The edition "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" brought him considerable acclaim. The 1786 book was praised by critics and the public alike.


Burns moved to Edinburgh in 1786 where he mingled in literary society. However, financial security continued to elude him. He again tried his hand at farming at Ellisland, Dumfriesshire in 1788. His fame allowed him to overcome the opposition of Jean Armour's father's and he married Jean that year.


Monetary success again proved hard to find. Burns relocated to Dumfries in 1791 where he worked as an excise officer.


Besides his poetry, Burns devoted considerable time to composing and collecting traditional Scottish songs. He collaborated with music archivists and publishers James Johnson and George Thomson to compile large editions of tradiitonal and new songs. His "Auld Lang Syne" is still sung across the globe to celebrate the New Year.


Burns was a member of several Masonic lodges and was actively involved in Freemasonry.


Burns died in Dumfries, aged 37 in 1796. His death was attributed to the effects of rheumatic fever, but some critics (and he had many) blamed his fondness for drink as a contributing factor.


His Influence

The Bard lived in a time when Scottish culture was on the wane because of English influence. Social mores were heavily controlled by the Scottish Presbytarian church. Burns opposed both these authorities and celebrated the more humanistic qualities of individual liberty, equality and fraternity that drove the French Revolution. For this reason he has been called the first Romantic Poet.


In his time, Burns writing inspired a rebirth of Scottish cultural pride and enhanced the dignity of the common working man. His young contemporary Walter Scott vividly recalled the impression Burns made when the two met.


Burns work is still honoured today. In North America Burns inspired the likes of John Steinbeck (the title of his novel "Of Mice and Men" was from the poem "To a Mouse"), J. D. Salinger ("Catcher in the Rye" revolved around the Burns poem "Comin' thro' the Rye") and even Bob Dylan.


He has been popular in Russia before, during and after the Soviet era. The USSR issued a commemorative stamp of him in 1956.


The Scottish Televation Network STV declared in 2010 that a poll they had conducted placed Burns as the Greatest Scot.


Click here for some more information on the final days of Robert Burns.


Compiled by Stewart Cameron, Halifax Burns Club, December 2010






Burns Cottage










Cottage where Burns was born in Ayrshire. It had been built by his father and still stands today.



The original Kilmarnock edition of Burns poetry.


Burns Banknote














Scottish five pound banknote featuring Burns on the front and his poem "To a Mouse" on the back


Soviet Stamp

Soviet era, 40 kopek Burns stamp