Scotland's National Bard
Whether you regard the work of Robert Burns as sentimental or as genius, no one can deny his iconic status in the world. And thanks to him the Scots language has a familiar and readily recognised brand. For whenever the subject of Scots comes up in lands unfamiliar with the language, a reference to the work of Burns often clarifies the identity of the language. Robert Burns – or Rabbie as he is known to Scots speakers – was born on 25 January 1759 at Alloway in Ayrshire, Scotland. This is why today we celebrate Burns Nicht on 25 January each year. His father, William Burns (1721-84), was a tenant farmer whose family origins lay in the North East of Scotland, and whose name was originally pronounced ‘Burn-es’ with an extra syllable. This is in keeping with the rule in Scots which makes the correct pronunciations of names like Geddes and Forbes ‘Ged-des’ and ‘For-bes’. Burns’s long-lived mother was Agnes Broun (1732-1820) pronounced ‘Broon’.
Robert grew up well-educated and tried his hand at several occupations, but he had a passion for the songs and poetry of his native language. In 1786 he wrote a collection of poems which he sent to a publisher, but he was seriously thinking of emigration to Jamaica where he felt there might be better opportunities for a person like himself whose lower social status stifled him in a class-ridden society. However, the publication of his ‘Kalmarnock’ poems in 1786 caused an immediate sensation and he was destined to remain in Scotland. During the next ten years Burns attempted to make a living as a writer. He had married his lover Jean Airmour but also had extra-marital affairs and fathered many children. He died on 21 July 1796 at the age of only 37. Politically, his songs and poems reflect a deep sense of the loss of Scottish independence and the threats to the continuance of Scottish identity, and, for these reasons, had to be careful during the 1790’s because of the war with France and ideas of ‘freedom’ being associated with the horrors of the French revolution. But most people probably think first and foremost of Burns poetry capturing the life and opinions of the ordinary people, and of common place things. Because we can identify with his day-to-day and informal observations we cherish Burns. His observations on life are universal.
Burns also did a great service to the Scots community by writing in the language when many people had abandoned it as a literary medium. He was not the first, but rather the most celebrated in a group of 18th century Scots who revived the literary fortunes of the tongue. Indeed, Burns acknowledged his debt to Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. It is often through the work of Burns that many people around the world first come into contact with the Scots language and for this reason alone Scottish people should continue to honour his memory.
If you would like to read more about Burns why not check out his entry at Wikipedia which also contains a Scots language translation.
If you would like to further investigate the dialect of Scots spoken where Burns was born and raised, why not check out 'The Dialect of Robert Burns As Spoken in Central Ayrshire' by Sir James Wilson (1923). This is available to read online at: http://www.archive.org/stream/dialectofrobertb00wilsuoft#page/n0/mode/2up