The Story of Burns Night
On or around January 25, his believed birthday, the life and work of Scottish poet Rabbie Burns is celebrated with a ritual of food, drink and poetry.
The Burns’ Supper was started by friends of Burns, a few years after his death in 1796, as a tribute to his memory, but it has also become a celebration of Scottishness, and, increasingly in Northern Ireland, America, and Canada of Scottish ancestry. It is important to note that Burns was also a Freemason and many of these celebrations are open to the public locally at Masonic Lodges.
Wherever you are, and however Scottish you are, you can join in with our recipes for the supper and a selection of the great man’s poems and songs.
Northern Ireland has its own tradition of poets in the Burns’ style, the weaver poets of Antrim and Down.
Who Was “Rabbie” Burns?
Born on 25th January 1759, in the parish of Alloway, Ayrshire, Burns was the eldest of seven children to William Burness and Agnes Brown (or Broun). Well educated in a variety of subjects, from Scottish history and folklore to literature, Burns was forced to assist his father in working on the family farm, and took over at 25 when his father died in 1784.
By 28, Burns was beginning to be well known in his literary career; In 1786 he published “Poems: Chiefly in Scottish Dialect”, which was expanded in 1787 and again in 1793 (Ibid.). Beginning in 1786, Burns would spend much time in Edinburgh among the elite and intellectuals of Scottish society, although Burns felt that they were only patronizing him because his soul of literary genius lied within the body of a country bumpkin. He returned to Ayrshire and unsuccessfully tried farming; in 1791 he became an exciseman, or customs agent, and joined the local yeomanry unit, the Dumfriesshire Volunteers. However, the physical and mental toll of his hard life, plus growing financial burdens, weakened him, and in 1796, Burns died of rheumatic heart disease, caused by his lack of a healthy diet in his younger years.
However, physical and financial matters were not the only things that troubled Robert; The Kirk of Scotland (The Presbyterian Church) and it’s opposition to his lifestyle was another. In particular, Burns’s sexual escapades caused much hostility between him and the church. Burns fathered a number of illegitimate children, including one by his future wife, Jean Armour, the daughter of a Master Mason. Burns wanted to marry Jean; her father refused and Burns and Jean appeared for penance in church to “receive public reproof for the sin of fornication” Burns would continue his rampant sexual activities right up until several years before his death. He never stopped his literary war against Scottish Calvinism, and lampooned it in a number of poems, including “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, “The Holy Fair”, and others.
Besides his rather libertine actions with women, Burns was also a political radical, and a rather strange mix at that. From reading Scottish history, Burns became an ardent nationalist, writing many romantic ballads about Scottish attempts to secure their independence from the English, from Robert the Bruce to Bonny Prince Charlie. This can be seen in poems like “Scots wha Hae”, “Charlie is My Darling”, “The White Cockade”, and many others.
Burns combined his Jacobite sympathies of the past with Jacobin politics of the present. He vocally supported the French and American Revolutions, which aroused suspicion of his loyalties, especially when in the service of His Majesty’s government as an exciseman, although Burns did recant his French tendencies when Britain and France went to war in 1792 . And while Burns may have been inspired by the French Revolution, his involvement in Freemasonry certainly played a large part in his opinions in favour of both secular and religious equity
He was only 37 when he died of heart disease but in that last year of his life he had written some of his most-respected works, such as The Lea Rig, Tam O’Shanter and O, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.