More than 200 years after his death, Burns Night is still one of the most important occasions for Scots the world over.
His poetry is as loved now as it was when it spilled from the poet’s pen and, to many, Burns remains a true national hero.
Here we attempt to explain to the younger generation the pull of Robert Burns, who he was and why he still matters today.
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Why do we celebrate Burns Night?
January 25 was Robert Burns’ birthday. It has become an occasion to celebrate Scottish roots, identity and culture along with Burn’s poetry.
What happens on Burns night?
Haggis is at the centre of the Burns Supper and it is delivered to the table by the sound of bagpipes. Burns wrote a poem ‘Address to the Haggis’ more than 200 years ago in appreciation of the humble dish and it has been recited since the first supper was held by the poet’s friends in 1802, six years after his death.
It is served with neeps and tatties (turnips) which marks the poet’s life as a farming man. Songs and poems are also performed on the night, as well as speeches in honour of Burns. A glass of whisky may be served to toast the poet.
Is it only celebrated in Scotland?
No, Burns Suppers are held around the world, from Asia to Africa and America, given the millions of people with Scots heritage who have scattered across the globe.
Where was Burns from?
He was born in the village of Alloway, near Ayr in 1759. His father was William Burnes, a tenant farmer from the north-east of Scotland. His mother was Agnes Brown, an Ayrshire woman from a farming family. The cottage where he born is now a museum to the poet’s life and rural beginnings.
Did Burns go to school?
Burns, even as a child, did back breaking work on family farm and he received much of his education at home, mostly from his father, who wanted his son to have opportunities. He also saw a tutor in his village and his mum taught her son Scottish poetry and songs, which Burns fell in love with.
Was he a famous celebrity?
Sort of. His first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in July 1786 and it very quickly became a success, when Burns was just 27.
He enjoyed sudden fame in Edinburgh where the literary community took him to their hearts.
The great and the good were excited by the “heaven-sent ploughman” given his wit, good look and his sparkling conversation.
How down-to-earth nature and his way with words was like a breath of fresh through the capital’s high society.
A further edition of poems followed and Burns travelled around Scotland collecting songs and writing.
Despite the success of his written work, Burns still had to make a living for him and his family.
He sought a job as an exciseman and, with the help of his many influential friends, secured a job. Within a year, he was an excise officer at Dumfries.
Was he married?
Burns had a great desire for women and thought that being in love was the best human experience there was.
While his love life was often complicated and messy, it is true that his affairs inspired some of his greatest poems.
Burns married Jean Armour in 1788, when he was 29. By that time she had given birth to four of his children, two sets of twins, but one newborn died shortly after arrival. The couple had nine children in total although not all survived.
It is said Burns fathered up to 18 children with at least four different women.
Despite his affairs, Burns said Jean was the woman he loved the most and wrote 14 poems in her name.
Why is Burns still such a hero?
Burns had the talent of taking huge themes, such as love and nature, and summing them up in a few powerful lines.
No subject was too big or too small. He could write about God and the universe with as much impact as a poem about a little mouse in a field. Animals and the natural world were among his best loved topics.
Burns, who wrote in a mix of English and Scots, was also admired for the way he could communicate with people from all backgrounds.
While raised on a farm he was equally as comfortable in the posh salons of Edinburgh where he was undeterred by the usual barriers of wealth and class. He rose above them all and wasn’t worried to poke fun at those who deserved it.
His poetry is both funny and moving and sometimes startling in it ability to sum up a feeling in just a handful of words.