With Burns Night upon us people across the world indulge in a wee dram and toast the lads and lassies in the name of Scotland’s most beloved poetic writer, but how much do people really know about the man who has become a legend in his native country and beyond? We take a look at 10 things you may not know about Scotland’s national Bard and help to highlight the complexity of a very varied, inspired but flawed genius.
1. Robert Burns was not the name that Scotland’s national poet was born with or likely referred to by his family, or indeed, usually, himself. His father’s family name was Burnes with an ‘e’ and he is more likely to have been referred to as ‘Robin’ as a child. This fact was immortalised in both the auto-biographical poem A Cotter’s Saturday Night and the song Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin.
He would also invariably sign letters Rab, Rob, Robin or even ‘Spunky’. While he did sometimes use Robert he almost certainly never referred to himself as ‘Robbie’ or ‘Rabbie’. In spite of this ‘Rabbie Burns’ is one of the most popular epithets used for the poet in Scotland today.
2. Most with a vague knowledge of the Bard are aware that Burns was a prolific womaniser, but what is less well known is that he fathered at least 12 children to 4 different women, 7 of which were illegitimate at the time of their birth.
4 of his children, therefore, with Jean Armour, (who was later to become his wife), were, at first, conceived outside of wedlock. This was an open ‘secret’ and in the 1700’s this kind of scandal would have been enough to destroy the good reputation of most men. With Burns, however, it seems he was not only permitted to marry the mother of his children, after siring 4 illegitimate children, but it simply added to his ‘loveable rogue’ mystique and popularity as the rampant infidelities mounted up.
3. The words Burns and poverty have become synonymous and the ‘ploughman poet’ was, in fact, a somewhat terrible farmer who was forced in later years to accept other jobs at which it is well documented he was incredibly unhappy and underpaid.
In spite of Burns’ regular financial problems the poet felt profoundly uncomfortable about making money from his art, particularly when adapting Scots songs. In a letter to publisher and civil servant George Thomson, Burns once wrote that: ‘to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, etc, would be downright sodomy of the soul.’
4. As a national emblem Burns has, at one time or another, been claimed as something of a patron saint for almost all political persuasions. Most common perhaps has been his adoption as a poster boy for independence by Scottish nationalists but it is entirely unclear what Burns’ true feeling on Scottish independence might have been.
At a time when many Scots were reeling from the newly constructed U.K union, Burns poems such as Scots Wha Hae and Such A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation, (with the famous line ‘We’re bought and sold for English gold’), became popular, but he was also responsible for the lines:
‘Be Britain still to Britain true, Amang ourself united;
For never but by British hands maun British wrongs be righted!”
The man himself was not particularly vocal on the subject. Burns was a Protestant, (generally pro-union at the time), and prominent Freemason, (who regularly toast the monarch), served for a time as a U.K tax-collector and was once at least tempted by the prospect of a move to Jamaica as a slave-owner of the British Empire.
5. The iconic portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787 has been a mainstay in the national consciousness of Scots and of the world for over 200 years but recent discoveries have unearthed secret masonic symbolism in the painting of the young man who set Scotland’s literary world alight.
Secret letters and numbers as well as a comet, (representing the masonic blazing star), are thought to be hidden in the painting. The tradition of hiding coded messages in paintings stretches back at least as far as the Renaissance when Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo inserted secret codes and even musical scores into their famous masterpieces.
6. In 2009, for the Scottish government’s ‘Homecoming’ events, a report on Burns mooted the very real possibility that Robert Burns suffered from bipolar disorder and that this informed much of his life and works.
The studies conducted by the National Trust for Scotland focussed on his handwriting and content of his letters but the claims were highly controversial. Even those responsible for the research conceded that there was not enough evidence to support the bi-polar diagnosis but it seems likely that Burns did, at least, suffer from some form of depression and attempts to dismiss this were viewed as part of an institutionalised stigma surrounding mental health conditions by some.
7. Burns had a little known side-line…in cheese-making. In fact he was likely to have been the first person to introduce dairy farming to the area of Dumfries.
He is also thought to have been the first man to have grown swedes, (turnips), in Scotland, which accounts for the ‘neeps’ in the neeps n’ tatties consumed with a hearty haggis meal on Burns night.
While neither venture was ultimately particularly successful it shows the creativity and entrepreneurialship of the man who would make the world sing every New Year’s Eve.
8. Burns is almost as big in China as he is in Scotland and is possibly even bigger in Russia.
Burns was named ‘the people’s poet’ of the former Soviet republic after his poems had been translated into Russian prior to the Revolution and had allegedly helped to inspire millions of Russians to rise up against their imperialist masters.
Poems of equality inspired by the romantic revolutionary period, such as A Man’s A Man and The Rights of Woman, have been considered radical socialist polemics by some over the years who have used them to help further their political cause.
9. Robert Burns’ work helped to end slavery in America. In spite of Burns’ own moment of weakness with regards the slave trade, (when he nearly moved to Jamaica as a cotton plant trader and slave owner with ‘Highland Mary’), he was generally known as fundamentally opposed to the concept and this was borne out in his poetry.
Burns was hugely popular in America during the civil war on both sides of the divide. In fact he had well-known sympathies in his lifetime for the cause of the initial American revolution.
Soldiers from both sides would sing Burns songs and carry Burns poetry into battle. He was of particular inspiration to both the anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglas, and abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln – who quoted Burns regularly and is thought to have been buried with a copy of his works.
10. Burns can easily be considered today to have been the world’s first ‘rock star’, (to use a modern parlance). His fame and popularity has outstripped even the most accomplished poets of his or any other generation and his influence on the pop-culture revolution of the 20th century was profound.
He has been cited directly as a huge influence in the lives and works of Michael Jackson, J.D Salinger, Tommy Hilfiger and Bob Dylan who once described My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose as his ‘greatest source of inspiration’.