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Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 16:49 GMT

Burns for beginners

If you spot a Scottish colleague sloping into work late on Tuesday morning, looking a little the worse for wear, you can probably blame Burns.

Monday night is Burns Night, an occasion when millions of Scots, at home and abroad, get together for a hearty knees-up in the name of their national hero.

Worldwide there are about 400 Burns clubs, and more than half-a-million Burns Suppers are held every year. But these annual celebrations are only the tip of a commemorative iceberg.

Selling the memory

Burns's home town of Alloway, in Ayrshire, is almost wholly given over to the memory of the man, in the form of the Burns Heritage Park. His portrait adorns tins of shortbread, tea towels and chess sets, as well as countless books.

Clearly Robert "Rabbie" Burns is big business. But to many, Scots included, he remains little more than a familiar name associated with a handful of hazy facts.

Here BBC News Online presents a beginners' guide to the National Bard of Scotland.

The bare facts

Burns was born in Alloway, 75 miles south west of Edinburgh, on 25 January 1759, the son of a dirt poor market gardener and a peasant woman who had never been taught to write her own name.

He went on to a variety of professions including farmer, excise officer and, most notably, poet.


Robert Burns is famed for his poetry and songs and has been called Scotland's answer to Shakespeare. He found himself the toast of Scottish society after publishing his first edition of poems in 1786.

[ image: Burns has been called the Scottish Shakespeare]
Burns has been called the Scottish Shakespeare
One of his earliest verses was a song called Handsome Nell, which was inspired by his picking thistles out of the fingers of his harvest-field partner Nelly Kilpatrick.

The romantic sentiments set a precedent for much of his future work, which was in large part inspired by his womanising (see below). The tone varied wildly, as can be witnessed in titles as diverse as My Love is Like a Red Rose and The Fornicator.

But Burns was a highly adaptable writer, able to turn his attentions to subjects as broad as mice (To a Mouse), lice (To a Louse) and Haggis (Address to the Haggis).

His ardent patriotism also found its way into verse, in My Heart's in the Highland's and Lament of Mary, Queen of Scots, on the Approach of Spring.

[ image: A haggis, complete with neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes)]
A haggis, complete with neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes)
The long-held theory that he penned Auld Lang Syne, received a knocking last year when it was claimed the famous tune was actually written by the English composer William Shield.


Burns's excessive drinking was no secret. Although the official reason for his death was rheumatic heart disease, it is often attributed to the bottle. A close friend is alleged to have said he was burnt to a cinder (presumably with drink) while critics and obituary writers labelled him a "drunkard".

Defending his penchant for a tipple or two, William Hazlitt argued that alcohol actually fuelled his purple prose.


Nothing short of extensive. His biographer Hugh Douglas says Burns fathered a "dozen or so children, in and out of marriage".

He has been called a sexual opportunist and another of his biographers, Ian McIntyre, remarked he was "incapable of addressing a woman, on paper or in the flesh, without placing a hand on her thigh".

He sired twins by Jean Armour and later married her, but inbetween had a string of liaisons which included the daughter of a sea-captain, Mary Campbell, immortalised in his poem Highland Mary, as well as numerous prostitutes.


As a young man Burns was assumed to be a Tory, because of his affection for the Jacobites. Tory prime minister William Pitt called his the sweetest verse since Shakespeare.

His mix of sentiment and wit, and his unashamed national pride, strongly endeared him to his fellow countrymen. Late in life he turned radical, and is said to have expressed vocal support for revolutionary France.

Then, the year before he died, Burns returned to patriotism. He would be heartened to know that millions of toasts will be made in his memory.

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