Robert Burns's Ayrshire
"There was a lad was born in Kyle"
Robert Burns was born, as his own poem tells us, on 25th January 1759 at Alloway, where his father William was tenant farmer of a 7-acre holding. His early education came at a school in the village established by the initiative of his father and some neighbours. In 1766 the family moved to the larger farm of Mount Oliphant, near Alloway and by 1774 Robert was working on the family farm and making his first attempts at poetry. The family moved to Lochlie farm, near Tarbolton in 1777 and while at Tarbolton, in 1780, Robert Burns founded the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club to provide diversion "to relieve the weary man worn down with the necessary labours of life." After a spell learning flax-dressing in Irvine Burns returned to Tarbolton and in 1783 he and his brother Gilbert took a lease of Mossgiel Farm, near Tarbolton, and moved there in 1784. Mossgiel would be his home until he moved to Dumfriess-shire in 1788 and it is associated with many of his most familiar poems.
Mount Oliphant and Lochlie
The early poems written between 1774 and 1784 include some conventional Augustan verse in standard English as well as glimpses of the poetry in Scots for which he would become internationally renowned. One early poem reflects his familiarity with the countryside of the Kyle district of Ayrshire, the cycle of the seasons and the joys of love.
Now westlin' winds, and slaught'ring guns
Bring Autumn's pleasant weather;
The moorcock springs, on whirring wings,
Amang the blooming heather;
Now waving grain, wide o'er the plain,
Delights the weary Farmer;
The moon shines bright, as I rove at night,
To muse upon my Charmer
The move to Mossgiel saw the development of Burns's poetry and of his complicated private life. In 1785 Elizabeth Burns was born, his daughter by his mother's servant Betty Paton:
Welcome! My bonie, sweet wee Dochter!
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for…
In the same year he met Jean Armour who he would eventually marry in 1788:
In Mauchline there dwells six proper young Belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a'
But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'.
Burns's troubles with religion and the religious establishment date from this period and poems such as the "Address to the Unca Guid" reflect these tensions.
Oh ye wha are sae guid yourself,
Sae pious and sae holy.
Ye've naught to do but mark and tell
Your neebours' fauts and follies.
However Burns also wrote poetry from a love of the countryside of his birth and upbringing and felt that there had been a poetic neglect of the area. As he wrote in May 1785:
Ramsay an' famous Ferguson
Gied Forth an' Tay a lift aboon;
Yarrow an' Tweed to monie a tune,
Owre Scotland rings,
While Irwin, Lugar, Aire and Doon,
In poems such as "To a Mouse" he uses the commonplace event of his plough turning over the mouse's nest in a field at Mossgiel to reflect on much deeper issues:
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice and Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' leave us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.
However unconventional Burns's own private life might have been he delighted to celebrate the virtues of the simple life of the farming folk he moved amongst. A poem like "The Cotter's Saturday Night" is a moving, if perhaps idealised, account of the hard but dignified life of the Ayrshire peasantry Burns knew so well and from which his pen would, he hoped, afford him a degree of liberation.
From Scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs,
That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad,
Princes and lords are but the breath of kings,
"An honest man's the noblest work of God
In "The Twa Dogs" he looked at this issue of the honest Ayrshire countryman and the contrast with the landed gentry:
Our Laird gets in his racked rents
His coals, his kane, and a' his stents;
He rises when he likes himself;
His flunkies answer at the bell….
Contrasted is the condition of:
A Cottar howckan in a sheugh,
Wi' dirty stanes biggan an dyke,
Bairan an quarry, an' sic like
Himsel, a wife, he thus sustains,
A smytrie o' wee, duddie weans,
An' nought but his han'-daurk, to keep
Them right and tight in thack an' raep.
The Kilmarnock Edition 1786
In July 1786 a volume of Burns's poems was published at Kilmarnock. The year had been a troubled one – he had parted from Mary Campbell, had considered emigration to Jamaica, had got Jean Armour pregnant with twins and done penance at the kirk for fornication.
The Kilmarnock Edition contained such works as "To a Mountain-Daisy" in which, as in "To a Mouse," the quotidian events of a farmer's life provide the point of departure for a consideration of deeper issues than the fate of the "Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow'r" – not least his own destiny:
Such is the fate of simple Bard,
On Life's rough ocean luckless starr'd
Unskilful he to note the card
Of prudent Love,
Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
And whelm him o'er!
In a lighter vein he could illuminate the foibles and follies of his neighbours:
Lament 'im Mauchline husbands a'
He aften did assist ye;
For had ye staid whole weeks awa'
Your wives they ne'er had miss'd ye.
Ye Mauchline bairns as on ye pass,
To school in bands thegither,
O tread ye lightly on his grass,
Perhaps he was your father.
The Kilmarnock Edition Poems, mainly in the Scottish Dialect made Burns's reputation and in November he travelled to Edinburgh to make arrangements for a second edition. In December 1786 Henry MacKenzie reviewed the Kilmarnock Edition in The Lounger and did much to establish Burns in Edinburgh literary society. MacKenzie's famous comment about the "uncommon penetration and sagacity" with which "this Heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners" set the tone. MacKenzie's kindly view, informed as it was by his own much higher social status, overlooked, or chose to overlook the fact that Burns was neither a ploughman, nor unlettered, but it became the standard response to his poetic gifts.
The Edinburgh Edition 1787
William Creech, a leading Edinburgh publisher and bookseller, brought out an enlarged edition of Burns's poems in April and Burns spent large parts of the year touring in the Borders, and in the Highlands.
Burns was offered the lease of Ellisland Farm near Dumfries by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton and moved there in June, ending his physical association with the Ayrshire of his birth, childhood and early manhood. Ayrshire still continued to be a potent force in his imagination – poems such as "The Banks o' Doon" emphasise this:
Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care…
In "Tam o' Shanter" he retells in sparkling verse a traditional tale of witches gathering in "Alloway's auld haunted kirk" and gives it immortal life through the figure of Tam:
Weel mounted on his grey mare Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning oe'r some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
A splendid set of paintings of Tam o' Shanter by the contemporary artist Alexander Goudie is on display at the Rozelle Gallery in Ayr, and other elements of Burns's life are displayed at the Burns Heritage Park at Alloway, the Tarbolton Bachelor's Club, Burns House Museum in Mauchline, and Soutar Johnnie's Cottage in Kirkoswald.
Burns died at Dumfries in July 1796, aged 37.
Brian D Osborne
There is a wide choice of editions of Burns's poems available and an equally wide range of biographical and literary studies. The following is a very brief selection of what is available.
- Add to BasketBurns Country - - Paperback
In one sense, perhaps the whole of Scotland can be regarded as Burns country. Using photographs drawn from a range of private and public collections, this book celebrates a landscape whence sprang some of the most famous lines in Scottish literature.
- Add to BasketThe Complete Poetical Works Of Robert Burns, 1759-1796 - - Hardback
This new edition of the poetical works of Robert Burns incorporates the results of research into the life of Burns & his associates for the first time, examining parish registers of births & marriages, kirk session records & private diaries
The author John Cairney is best known for his portrayal of Robert Burns in the 1969 television adaptation called the Robert Burns story. In this text he visits over 100 places connected with Burns to provide a new challenge trail for Burns fanatics.
- Add to BasketSelected Poems - - Paperback
Fourteen of the best-loved and best-known of Burns's poems are here available in a single pocket-sized volume with a Scots glossary and some of the poet's own notes. From 'Tam o' Shanter' to 'My Love is Like a Red Red Rose' to 'To a Haggis' - here is the essential Burns.