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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 1
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot

Background of the Times in Which Burns Lived, Loved and Wrote

Before we jump head long into Burns the poet or Burns the man, I feel it is necessary to give consideration to some of the events that took place prior to and during his lifetime. Time does not permit the opportunity to go into great detail of these events, and neither can we touch on all of them, but a thumbnail sketch of some of the more important ones will, I hope, whet your appetite for further independent study as your time and interest allow.

Some of these events transpired in the fifty years or so prior to Burns birth: the Presbyterian Church of Scotland became "the" church for the country. (The Kirk publicly disciplined Burns, and it had a profound effect on him the rest of his life. Read "Holy Willie’s Prayer" considered by Burns to initially be unprintable. Burns scholar Kenneth Simpson says it is "the most powerful indictment in world literature of bigotry and hypocrisy". Follow up by reviewing "The Twa Herds" and "The Ordination" to catch a glimpse of how all of this affected his relationship and views on the Kirk.) Next, Scotland’s independence as a nation ceased with the 1707 Union with England. (The Earl of Seafield called it "the end of an auld sang", but in 1715 the first rebellion, or "Rising" as some prefer to call it, came and went like a mere flicker in the night.

A few years later witchcraft executions were halted. (James Mackay writes that Betty Davidson, who lived with the Burns family, "kept the children amused and spellbound with what Robert was later to describe as ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches…and other trumpery’.") [Note: Mackay is another Burns scholar you will want to become immediately acquainted with as you study Burns.] Burns’ "Halloween" is another good source. Then in the mid-1720s, Allan Ramsay came on the scene with his poetry that greatly influenced Burns. David Daiches dares to write "the movement of Scots poetry in the eighteenth century is from a Ramsay to a Burns" which, I believe, history has proven to be true.

Once again "the end of an auld sang" reared its ugly head for the last stanza with the 1745 Rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Culloden put an end to the Stuarts quest to regain the thrones of Scotland and England. Scottish scholar Duncan Bruce stated in an interview with me sometime back that "Culloden just hastened the end of the clans. The clan system was outmoded and near collapse when Charlie came, I believe". Burns later wrote: "The injured Stewart line is gone, / A race outlandish fills their throne; / An idiot race, to honour lost - / Who knows them best despise them most". See his "Fareweel to a’ our Scottish Fame" where he said, "I’ll mak this declaration: / ‘We’re bought and sold for English gold’ - / Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!" Yet Burns, like many, only flirted at being a Jacobite intellectually. Also see "Charlie, He’s My Darling / My darling, my darling / Charlie, he’s my darling - / The Young Chevalier!"

Robert Burns was born in 1759.
MacKay points out that Session clerk David Tennant "laconically noted the details in his parish register: ‘Robert Burns, lawful son of William Burns, in Alloway, and Agnes Brown, his spouse, was born January 25, 1759; bapd. 26, by Mr William Dalrymple. Witnesses: John Tennant and Jas. Young’."

Continuing with background information: as the poems of Robert Fergusson came to Edinburgh, Burns became a lover of everything he wrote. Yet, Fergusson "was not patronized and petted by the literata" as Burns later was. America made an announcement to the world on a piece of paper called the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (See "Ode For General Washington’s Birthday"), and the results of that war of liberation are well known and documented. Then by the mid-1780s, the poems began to really flow from the young poet’s hand: "Holy Willie’s Prayer", "To A Louse", "To A Mouse", "The Cotter’s Saturday Night", "The Twa Dogs" and "Address to the Deil", among others.

1786 saw the Kilmarnock Edition of Burns’ poems published, and his plans to leave the country for Jamaica were put aside permanently. (It is mentioned in the Autumn 2002 issue of Burns Chronicle, a Robert Burns World Federation publication that you need to know about, that one of the Kilmarnock editions recently sold for £20,000 in London, a record price in the United Kingdom. In 1996 a copy sold for $36,000 in America. So, be careful what you throw out of your Scottish grandfather’s attic! Or, if you have an elderly Scottish neighbor, you might want to be a little nicer or even offer to cut his grass.)

Burns made his first trip to Edinburgh to see about publishing another issue of his poems, and a whole new world was opened to him. For the first time in his life, the scent of money was in the air, and that scent became a reality when the First and Second Edinburgh Editions were published. (Enquiring about Robert Fergusson, one author says that Burns "prostrated himself on the grave of Fergusson and kissed the sod". Whether he did or not, he asked about "my elder brother in misfortune, / By far my elder brother in the muse". According to Mackay, Burns found that young Fergusson lay in an unmarked grave, and he paid for a marker to eventually be made, a great story for a later date.) More importantly, Burns now turns his attention to collecting Scottish songs after meeting James Johnson, a music publisher. This task would consume him until his death. In his classic book, Robert Burns, David Daiches writes that at this time Burns "worked less as Robert Burns than as the embodied spirit of Scottish song".

"Tam O Shanter" was written in 1790 and "Ae Fond Kiss" in 1791. France experienced the fall of the Bastille, and the world witnessed the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French Assembly, with a little help, I might add, from Thomas Jefferson. The following year, in 1792, Thomas Mann published his Rights of Man, another impact on Burns. He begins work for George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Airs. Also, 1792 saw the world shocked and repulsed by the massacres in Paris. The King and Queen of France were executed in January 1793. There was a new weapon on display in Paris, the gullitine, which rolled more than a few heads out into the streets. The next month England was at war with France. (Burns was investigated because his pen seemed to align himself with the French, and the threat of the loss of his job nearly frightened him to death. Burns later joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers to affirm and to dispel any doubts regarding loyalty to his country. Further reading should include "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?) Do not overlook the trial of Thomas Muir in Edinburgh and its implications. The Second Edinburgh Edition is published. (Interestingly, for me, nine Shaw families were subscribers to the Second Edition.) Then came a poem from Burns that is a favorite of my fellow Burnsian Richard Graham, Chieftain to the Clan Graham, called "A Red, Red Rose".

The song collecting, writing and rewriting continued over the years and saw "Scots, Wha Hae" published anonymously in 1794, followed by "For A’ That, An A’ That" in 1795, and in 1796 Burns wrote "O, Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast". Let’s not forget "Auld Lang Syne", either. (Magnus Magnusson, called the "smartest man in Britian", says "A Man’s a Man for A’ That" is "the most internationally reknown of all Robert Burn’s songs". Far be it from me to disagree with someone of Mr. Magnusson’s stature, but I’ll cast my vote for "Auld Lang Syne" as international song of all times!)

Robert Burns dies in 1796.
(Interestingly, Burns wrote on departing a Highland host, "When Death’s dark stream I ferry o’er / [A time that surely shall come], / In Heaven itself I’ll ask no more, / Than just a Highland welcome.")

Many books have been written on the above subjects. Unfortunately, space limits us to this brief sketch. It is up to you to follow up with trips to the library and bookshops for further reading - and study. If your local library does not have the book you are looking for, ask them about their inter-library loan program that allows them to find book(s) you want from participating libraries throughout the United States. It may take a little time, but the wait is worth it. Do not be discouraged, and do not give up. One step at a time will eventually get us to our destination.

You will do yourself a disservice if you do not find Robert Burns by David Daiches and read the chapter entitled "The Scottish Literary Tradition". It is 31 pages of background joy on Burns’ life. Remember this is a self-study for those of us new to Burns or those who want a refresher course. It is just a little exercise for lay people in Burns 101. There will be nothing new to this study. After all, what is there left to say or write, surely not much, that has not already been said about the "heaven-taught ploughman", as Henry Mackenzie called him in 1787. Yet, as G. Ross Roy says, "any student of Robert Burns will know that the writing about the poet seems to be without end…". You will need a good Scots dictionary, and I recommend you find a copy of Chambers’ The Concise Scots Dictionary (ISBN 0-08-028491-4) for ready reference.

Please continue to write me via email or snail mail, and let me know how you are doing in your study of Burns - what you like, what you want more of, what you do not like, what you feel will help you and me in this task that is a simple labor of love for our poet, Robert Burns. Some of you have already contacted me, and I can tell this will be an active and lively group. And, remember, we’ve just begun! Simply put, your desire to learn about Burns and his poetry will dictate your level of commitment to this course of study.

If you have or know others who have written articles on Burns and would like to see them considered for publication in this column, please let me know. For those who do not have email, my mailing address is: Frank R. Shaw, 1320 Twelve Oaks Circle, NW, Atlanta, GA, 30327-1862, USA. Also, check us out on under The Family Tree masthead. All of our articles on Burns, various book reviews, chats with authors, as well as other articles will be found there. Plus, there is a vast wealth of information on Burns to be found on electricscotland, compliments of Alastair McIntyre, Web Site Host. Finally, Robert Burns once said: "I rhyme for fun". I suggest we follow his advice. Go have fun!


Bonnie Prince Charlie, Moray McLaren
Bonnie Prince Charlie, A Biography
, Susan Maclean Kybett
Burns, A Biography of Robert Burns, James A. Mackay
Burns A – Z, The Complete Word Finder, James A. Mackay
Charles Edward Stuart, David Daiches
Love & Liberty, Edited by Kenneth Simpson
Ordnance Gazetteer - Scotland, Vol. IV, Edited by Francis H. Groome
Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Robert Burns, The Third Edition, London
Prince Charles Edward, Andrew Lang
Robert Burns, David Daiches
Robert Burns, The Complete Poetical Works
, James A. Mackay
Robert Burns, Selected Poems, Edited by Kenneth Brown
Robert Burns, Select Poems & Songs, Edited by Thomas Keith
Scotland, The Story of a Nation, Magnus Magnusson
The Concise Scots Dictionary,
Chambers Publishers, Editor-in-Chief, Mairi Robinson
The Mark of the Scots, Duncan Bruce
The Poetry of Robert Burns
, Volumes I and III, Edited by W. E. Henley and T. F. Henderson (Centenary Edition)
The Scottish 100, Duncan Bruce


Return to Frank's Index Page | Return to Burns Index Page


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