Happy Birthday to “the Ploughman Poet” of Scotland

In other words: Robert Burns. Or, as they say in Scotland, “Rahbbie Barrrrrrrrns.”


Robert Burns is a national hero in Scotland, his works are known by heart, and festivals go on in his name. Right now in Scotland, people are standing up and proclaiming his verses into crowded pubs, while everybody chants along in unison. I love that.

He was born poor, in the middle of the 18th century. He had a lot of brothers and sisters, and his parents were farmers. Yet his father decided that Robert, his eldest, should have a bit of an education. A tutor was hired, and Robert, in between the farm chores and hard work, learned how to read and write. And a whole world opened up to him through language. Writing came naturally to him. He started writing poems and songs almost immediately, some of which are still famous today (although “famous” doesn’t quite cover it. These works have seeped into the culture to the level that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets have. Total absorption.)

Robert Burns was a wild man, a person who loved pleasure, loved fun. He loved women. He loved scotch. He had many illegitimate children. He loved life, basically. All of this shows in his work which sparks with humor, sentiment, love, wit.

Burns wrote about how he, a farmer’s son, with informal education at best, had started to write. Where did the writing bug come from? And why?

Here is Burns’ answer to that question:

For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.

Burns hated the climate in Scotland, and yearned to get the hell out and go someplace warm. But this ended up not being his fate. He eventually got married (to one of the chicks he had knocked up) and when his poems started being published, in collected works, he became famous in Scotland. He wrote in their voice, he wrote in their dialects, he wrote about THEM. He became known as “the Ploughman Poet”. With this fame, he decided to stay in Scotland.

He was prolific. Nobody even knows how much he actually wrote because there are probably lots of traditional songs and verses out there which he DID write, but which cannot be pinned down to him. As it stands, there are over 400 Robert Burns known songs in existence. He was a celebrity in his own time. But the fame he achieved in his own lifetime is nothing compared to the Rahhhbie Barrrrrns frenzy that goes on now.

The lyrics Robert Burns wrote have lasted generations. Some of them are so engrained in our culture that we can’t even imagine that one person even penned them at all. They seem to have just descended upon us, whole, from Olympus, or something. But no … someone actually WROTE these things.

Like “Auld Lang Syne” for example.

He also wrote this simple little love lyric, one of his most famous I suppose (outside of Auld Lang Syne, I mean). It’s so famous that it can be hidden in a cloud of canon-respectabiity, which isn’t its thing at all. It’s still fresh, it’s still emotional. I love it for its simplicity, its openness, its unembarrassed joy.

My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!

One of the reasons why Burns is so cherished and revered in Scotland is because of how he put the voices of Scots, the accents, into his poems. He is THEIRS.

He died at 37. Over 10,000 people showed up at his funeral!!

So I suppose it would be highly appropriate to end this commemorative post in honor of this extraordinary writer with his own words, words we all know (at least the chorus) by heart:

Auld Lang Syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

This entry was posted in On This Day, writers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Happy Birthday to “the Ploughman Poet” of Scotland

  1. peteb says:

    Hmmm.. not a very successful ploughman by most accounts.. nor successful when he when to work in town either, a slight problem with the shop burning down.. and he was an excise man at one point too.

    But prolific, certainly, and his decision to write in the Scots dialect – and no small amount of talent – was, arguably, a major part of his success.

    Another interesting snippet – on the day of his funeral his wife, Jean, whom, as I understand it, he had intended to emigrate to Jamaica with (using the proceeds of his first published work and before his fame) gave birth to his last child.

  2. red says:

    Yes – he was going to move to the West Indies or something, I believe? Nice and warm and tropical. Ah well. Better to be a famous poet in a chilly wet climate I suppose. Close to the native inspiration.

  3. peteb says:

    Well.. I mean.. “You like my poems!?! You REALLY like them!?! I’m STAYING!!”

    “What rain?”

  4. red says:

    heh heh heh heh heh