Robert Burns

25th January 1759 to 21st July 1796
Robert Burns

Robert Burns is regarded as Scotland’s national poet and lyricist, who authored poems ranging from the profound to the bawdy, and whose influence is felt worldwide.

Robert Burns was raised in hardship and poverty on a series of farms. While trying to pay for passage to return to work in Jamaica, Burns sent some of his poems to publishers. They were instantly successful, and he came to Edinburgh to follow a literary career, where he was accepted by the establishment. Burns wrote in English and Scots, and it is largely through his poems that Scots is known internationally, particularly Auld Lang Syne, which is sung every year around the world on New Year’s Eve.

Burns had great romances which inspired many of his poems, many of which were given directly to the women he was wooing. He was considered by critics a proto-romantic poet, and after his death he himself was romanticised by the literary establishment as a self-educated country boy. However, his work also had a distinctly socialist bent, covering issues such as slavery, class inequality, gender roles, Scottish patriotism, radicalism, anti-clericalism, and poverty, and contemporary appreciation of Burns has done much to disperse the cloying romanticism surrounding perceptions of his work.

He recorded and preserved hundreds of Scottish folk songs, making him one of Scotland’s most important lyricists.

Burns was influenced by Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, who both wrote in Scots, and influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge an Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hugh MacDiarmid, who sought to dismantle what he saw as the sentimentalised culture of Scottish literature, was also hugely influenced by Burns.

He is memorialised with a statue in Leith. There is also a bust in the Scottish Portrait Gallery, and part of his poem To a Louse is inscribed in the wall of the Scottish Parliament building:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!