Robert Burns was the first of seven children – he had three brothers and three sisters. He was born in a two room cottage in Alloway, near Ayr, to William and Agnes. William Burnes (Robert and his brother Gilbert changed the spelling of their surname after their father’s death) was a market gardener. Long lived Agnes – who survived both her husband and her famous son - came from farming stock.
William Burnes believed in the value of education. Robert learned reading and writing from John Murdoch at Alloway Mill. By 1766 William knew he needed to move to provide space for his growing family, and chose a nearby farm that provided more space but poor farming. Robert and his brothers benefited from home schooling once their teacher moved on, with injections of more formal education when their father could manage the cost in both money and time – the boys helped work the farm which provided the family’s income.
Robert Burns was a lover of life, of words, of music and of women. Robert’s poetic leanings had their roots in his first love – Nelly Kilpatrick. He heard her sing a song by a local man and felt sure he could do better – the result My Handsome Nell. Another big love in his life was Mary Campbell, with whom he made plans to emigrate to Jamaica – their goal was thwarted by Mary’s early death. Robert had several children – both in and out of wedlock. His key love, a woman he married twice, was Jean Armour; the ups and downs of their relationship offered fertile soil for Burns’ poetic muse.
Burns is frequently associated with song. Many will sing the new year in with Auld Lang Syne - the words are usually attributed to Robert Burns, though, as with his magnificent poem John Barleycorn, it seems likely that his version drew on older songs and writings. He wrote song and poetry, loved old Scots songs and melodies and researched the songs both sung and remembered by people of his time. My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose is another Burns classic – the refrain is one you may well have heard:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
It is likely that the hardship of Burns’ early years hastened his death – he took his last breath on 21 July 1796. Yet in his thirty-seven years he had achieved more than many people allotted his years two or more times over. He achieved success in his lifetime and lasting acclaim. His memory is not just in poetry and history books – it comes to life every year through events such as Burn Suppers and the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
Eddi Reader has recorded many Burns songs - her songs may appeal if you love Burns’ poetry, if you know little and want an easy way in or if you are thinking of hosting a Burns Supper - Sings the Songs of Robert Burns.