Biography of Robert Burns

 Robert Burns

Robert Burns is Scotland’s National Poet who lived during the eighteenth century.

When and Where was he Born?

25th January 1759, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland in a cottage built by his father.

Burns Birthplace
Burns Birthplace, Alloway near Ayr, Scotland (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Family Background:

Robert Burns was the eldest son of seven children of a poor tenant farmer, William Burnes and Agnes Brown. His father was to become head gardener to Provost of Ayr, William Ferguson.

Education:

John Murdoch’s School, Alloway. Ayr Grammar School, the School of Hugh Rodger at Kirkoswald and a hired teacher at home.

Timeline of Robert Burns:

1760: Birth of his brother Gilbert.

1762: Birth of his sister Agnes.

1764: Birth of his brother John.

1765: Burn’s father rented the farm of Mount Oliphant in order to make a living for his large family. Robert Burns works as a labourer in the fields but the soil was very poor.

1777: The family moves to another farm at Lochlea. He writes many of his poems “Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” here.

1780: Burns and his friends David Sillar and John Rankine found the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club, a debating society on 11th November and he is elected as chairman.

Robert Burns Statue
Statue of Robert Burns in Central Dumfries (copyright Anthony Blagg)
Bust of Robert Burns in church
New bust of Burns erected in St Michael’s Church, Dumfries (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1781: Robert Burns becomes a Freemason on 4th July with meetings being held at James Manson’s inn in Tarbolton. He finds employment as a Flax dresser in Irvine lodging at 4 Glasgow Vennel.

1784: Death of his father. Burns rents the farm of Mossgiel with his brother Gilbert.

1785: Birth of his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth to a farm servant Elizabeth Paton. Birth of illegitimate child to Jean Armour the daughter of a master mason who issued a writ against him. Jean was to carry two sets of twins before their eventual marriage. He threatens to escape legal action by emigrating to the West Indies possibly with Mary Campbell of Dunoon, a dairy maid, as he was barred from seeing Jean.

1786: Death of Mary Campbell. The first appearance of the ” Kilmarnock Edition” published by John Wilson. Praise for this work by the blind poet Thomas Blacklock encouraged him to forget his plans for emigrating to Jamaica. Jean Armour’s father reviewed his opinion of him now he had become a famous poet. He borrows a pony to travel to Edinburgh on 27th November to arrange for a second printing and was introduced to the leading people in the city’s intellectual and social life by the Earl of Glencairn. Burns had been dubbed “The Ploughman Poet”, despite his schooling and he played this up to further his reputation.

1787: The second impression of the Kilmarnock poems is published on 21st April selling 3,000 copies which made it a phenomenal bestseller for the day. His printer William Smellie introduces him to the Crochallan Fencibles, a drinking Club at Dawney Douglas’s Tavern in Anchor Close. Despite his Edinburgh success he could not find a patron. He tours the Borders and then returns to Edinburgh in October to arrange the first publication of a collection of traditional Scottish folk songs which eventually ran to six volumes, entitled “The Scots Musical Museum”. (“Old Lang Syne” appears in Volume 5). He meets Agnes M’Lehose, a surgeon’s daughter on 4th December who has become estranged from her husband. The two continued a written romance for three years.

1788: He marries Jean Armour in Gavin Hamilton’s House, Mauchline. The birth of illegitimate child to Jenny Clow. Burns and his wife rent a room in Castle Street, Mauchline which is now called the Burn’s House. In June he takes on the lease of Ellisland Farm, north of Dumfries.

1789: Burns is appointed as Excise Officer for Dumfries, a post he held until his death.

1790: He writes “Tam O’ Shanter” at Ellisland Farm.

1791: Birth of an illegitimate child to Ann Park. Birth of son William Nichol to Jean. The farm was not a financial success and the family had to leave, moving to a house in Bank Street, Dumfries. They next rent a larger house in Mill Hole Brae.

Burns House, Dumfries
The House in Dumfries where Burns died (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1794: Birth of his Son James Glencairn.

1795: Burns was a supporter of the French Revolution and even used some of Tom Paine’s radical words from “The Rights of Man” in “For a’ That and a’ That”. (it has been suggested that this should be used as a Scottish National Anthem).

1796: Birth of his son James Maxwell who was born on the day of Robert Burn’s funeral.

When and Where did he Die?

21st July 1796, Dumfries, Scotland of rheumatic fever.

Age at Death:

38.

Burns Statue, London
Statue of Robert Burns in Victoria Embankment Gardens, London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Written Works:

1774: “Handsome Nell”.
1777: “One Night as I Did Wander”.
1782: “John Barleycorn”.
1784: “Ballad on the American War.” “Green Grow the Rashes O”.
1785: “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, “To a Mouse.”
1786: “Kilmarnock Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”. “My Highland Lassie O”, “The Brigs of Ayr”. “Address to a Haggis.”
1790: “Tam O’ Shanter”.
1793: “Poems”. “Songs”.
1795: “For a’ That and a’ That”.
(1800): “Works – With Life”. “New Poems and Correspondence”.
(1801): “Poems ascribed to Robert Burns”.

Marriage:

1788 to Jean Armour in Gavin Hamilton’s House, Mauchline.

Site of Grave:

St. Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries, Scotland. (Re-interred in a domed mausoleum in 1815. This was paid for by public subscription started in 1813).

Burns original grave
The site of Robert Burn’s original grave and the Mausoleum in which he was re-interred in 1815 
(copyright Anthony Blagg)
Burns tombstone
Tombstone in Mausoleum 
(copyright Anthony Blagg)
Burns Mausoleum
Robert Burn’s Mausoleum, Dumfries (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

AYRSHIRE:

Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
Monument in Alloway (erected 1820).
Tam O’ Shanter Museum, High Street, Alloway.
Ayr Old Kirk. (where he was baptised).
Bachelor’s Club, Tarbolton.
Burns Monument, Irvine Moor.

DUMFRIES:

Burns House Museum, Burns Street.
Ellisland Farm, Holywood Road.
Mill Hole Brae, Museum.
St. Michael’s Church, (his pew is marked with a plaque).

Robert Burn's pew
The pew which was sat in by Robert Burns and His wife at St Michael’s Church, Dumfries. 
Jean worshipped there for over thirty years after the poet’s death (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Burns drank at the Globe and the Hole in the Wall.

Globe Inn, Dumfries
The Globe Inn, Dumfries. Robert Burn’s Favourite Howff (or meeting place) (copyright Anthony Blagg)

The Burns Howff Club was formed in the Globe Inn in 1889, and meets on the 25th January each year to celebrate the anniversaryof the birth of Robert Burns with a “Burns Supper”

EDINBURGH:

The Writers Museum, Lady Stairs House, Lady Stairs Close, Lawnmarket, EH1 2PA.

GLASGOW:

Burns Collection, Mitchell Library.

KILMARNOCK:

Star Inn Close, (Granite slab marks the site of Burn’s printer).

Further Information:

The Burns Society, 
c/o David Troyear
, 7 Market Avenue, Chichester
, West Sussex
, PO19 1JD.

Burn's Writing Desk
The original writing desk is still displayed in his study (copyright Anthony Blagg)