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How Robert Burns Shaped the Scottish Identity

Robert Burns is called the Bard of Scotland, the Bard of Ayrshire and Scotland’s Favorite Son. This one poet is so fundamental to Scotland’s history and national identity that he is feted today with annual Burns Suppers. How does one man shape the character of an entire nation?

Robert Burns was notable in his time for writing in the language of the people. His first book of verse was entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect. His poems were written in a mixture of English and Scots. Among his most famous works are such Scots phrases as “Auld Lang Syne” and “Gang aft agley.”

By publishing his works in Scots, he lent legitimacy to the much maligned language. Scots was often denigrated as nothing more than a corruption of English. However, a popular volume of poetry in their native language accomplished many purposes. It recorded the language of the day; it preserved the Scots language, which was already beginning to be replaced with English; and it gave the language status as a literary language.

But Burns did more than just write in the language of the people. He collected the actual language of the people. He personally collected and published hundreds of folk songs from throughout Scotland, preserving the national language and heritage through song.

Finally, although Scotland does not have its own national anthem, Burns’s poem, “Scots Wha Hae” (“Scots Who Have”), long served as their de facto national anthem. The poem glorifies the Scots who had fought against England’s encroachments, gave their lives for their country and continued to serve it, ending with a cry to continue to fight tyranny. (“Scots Wha Hae” is still a popular song, phrase and sentiment in Scotland, but has since been displaced as the unofficial anthem by the Corries’ “Flower of Scotland.”)

Today, it is with good reason that Burns’ birthday is celebrated like the Scottish national holiday (more so than St. Andrew’s Day, the official Scottish national holiday). Few people have been so instrumental in preserving and esteeming a traduced culture as Robert Burns was.




To learn more about Robert Burns, read his collected poetry or Understanding Robert Burns:Verse, Explanation and Glossary by Robert Burns and George Scott Wilkie.

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