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Robert Burns: His Life and Legacy

Posted on 12 Dec 2022


Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns as he’s affectionately known in Scotland, was a poet and lyricist. But to many, he’s so much more than that. Robert Burns is an inspiration, a cultural icon and a hero. Not only is he Scotland’s national poet and possibly the most famous Scottish poet to have ever lived, but he’s also a symbol of Scottish national identity. From his early life to his lasting legacy we’re talking all things Robert Burns. Hear his story now. 

Table of Contents:

Who is Robert Burns?

Robert Burns is a beloved Scottish poet who is celebrated every year on Burns Night. He wrote over 550 poems and songs in his lifetime. Some of Robert Burns’ most famous pieces of work include:

  • To a Mouse (1785)
  • Address to a Haggis (1786)
  • Auld Lang Syne (1788)
  • Tam o’ Shanter (1790)
  • A Red, Red Rose (1794)

He’s regarded as an icon of Scottish culture not only because his works celebrated Scotland but also because it’s thought that truly Scottish literature ceased with him. This is largely to do with the period Robert Burns was writing in. In 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England in a historical moment known as the Union of the Crowns. At this point, there was a shift and English was seen as the more genteel language over Scots. By the time Robert Burns was writing, traditional Scottish dialects were already slipping into obscurity. But Rabbie Burns immortalised and honoured some of these dialects by writing in a mix of Scots and English. Some consider his poems the Scottish literary peak as everything following Robert Burns was either an imitation of his work or is written in English. Rabbie Burns is also admired for his character. He’s thought to be the picture of Scottish high spirits with his ‘kirk-defying’ heavy drinking and womanising!

The Early Life of Robert Burns

Robert Burns was born in a small village called Alloway, near the Ayrshire coast in southwestern Scotland. His birthday was the 24th of January 1759 and he was the eldest of seven children. His father was a tenant farmer who did back-breaking work to try and make a living off the land. Alongside helping his father on the farm, Robert Burns spent his childhood reading, writing, learning French and studying Scripture. This early exposure to culture sparked the creative fire in Robert Burns. Rarely having time to sit and ponder poems, he would compose them in his head as he toiled. 

In 1784, Robert Burns’ father died. Despite all his hard work and relentless effort, he died a penniless and bankrupt man. Seeing how his father had struggled and was beaten down deeply affected Robert Burns’ life view. He rebelled against the social order of his day and was a bitter satirist of any inhumanity he perceived in political or religious policies. 

With the death of his father, Robert Burns became head of the family. Together, he and his brother continued to run the farm. However, only two years later Rabbie Burns was facing significant financial troubles. Not only was the farm majorly unsuccessful but he had made two women pregnant. At this point, Burns decided to do the only thing any reasonable man would do - move to Jamaica! To try and make money for the journey, he published his first collection Poems in the Scottish Dialect in 1786. His poetry was an immediate success. So successful in fact that Dr Thomas Blacklock persuaded Burns to stay in Scotland and in 1787 an Edinburgh edition of the poems was published. 

Rabbie Burns’ Development as a Poet

When in Edinburgh, Rabbie Burns was included as a guest at many aristocratic and literary gatherings. He made a striking impression. Not just with his poems but with his good looks, charm and most of all with his way with the ladies. He had multiple amorous affairs which resulted in a total of 12 children with 4 different women by the end of his life. It was during his time in Edinburgh that Robert Burns also met James Johnson, a music seller who loved old Scottish songs. Burns and Johnson shared a determination to preserve these traditional songs and worked together on The Scots Musical Museum. In total, Burns is thought to have contributed a whopping 200 songs to this collection. 

Increasingly seeing himself as the bard of Scotland, Rabbie Burns embarked on tours of the country. He travelled around Scotland, absorbing its history, traditions and songs. All of this experience was an inspiration for his poems and lyrics. He saw it as his mission to celebrate Scotland and its cultural heritage in his work. 

Much of Robert Burns’ work was a labour of love. This left him with little funds and eventually he had to return to work. After trying once more as a farmer and failing yet again, Robert Burns had no choice but to work for the crown, collecting taxes as an Excise officer.

The Death of Robert Burns

Now living in Dumfries with his family, Robert Burns descended into ill health. It’s thought that a number of factors (including looking after four young children and long journeys to collect taxes in poor weather) took their toll and aggravated a rheumatic heart condition. His health worsened and Robert Burns died on the 21st of July 1796 aged just 37. 

Robert Burns was buried on the 25th of July 1796, the very same day that his last child Maxwell was born. Originally he was laid to rest with a simple slab of stone marking his grave. In September of 1817, he was moved to a more elaborate resting place. Robert Burns is buried in St Michael’s churchyard in Dumfries under the Burns’ Mausoleum with his widow Jean Amour. 

What is Burns Night?

Burns night is a celebration held across Scotland and beyond in honour of Robert Burns. The first Burns supper was held in 1801 when a group of Burns’ close friends got together to mark the fifth anniversary of their friend’s death. They had such a good evening they decided to repeat the event the following year. However, they decided to change the date to Robert Burn’s birthday instead. The tradition stuck and spread. Now, thousands of people celebrate Burns Night on the 25th of January across the world - from Inverness to Aberdeen to London and beyond. The tradition is to get dressed up in your clan tartans and enjoy a riotous meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, one of the most classic Scottish foods. This is accompanied by lots of poetry recitals, toasts, cheer and bagpipes if you’re lucky.


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Why is Rabbie’s Named After Robert Burns?

If you are unfamiliar with the nickname for the great Robert Burns, our name may seem unusual. We have mistakenly been called ‘rabbits’, ‘rabbis’, and a few things we daren't mention. But across Scotland, Rabbie Burns is a hero and there's a good reason why we have taken his name as our own. 

Rabbie Burns told the tallest tales. He roved all over the land. He loved nature. And he was never afraid to indulge in a bit of the local tipple. Long story short, Rabbie Burns embodies everything we’re passionate about. Our driver-guides are full of stories and poetry. Our small-group tours cover Scotland far and wide. We travel responsibly with respect for our beautiful planet. Plus, we’re not scared to have a little fun while we explore. The name Rabbie’s couldn’t be more fitting. 


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Discover Burns’ Country with Rabbie’s 

Learn more about Robert Burns by exploring the country he loved on board a Rabbie’s tour. From the magical Highlands to the glorious Lowlands and Borders, we offer a wide range of trips. What’s more, our multiple departure points are all easily accessible via train, which makes exploring Scotland and the rest of the UK a breeze. Our friendly driver-guides are armed with fascinating stories, captivating legends and historical knowledge to make your Scottish tour even more memorable. Book a tour today and buckle up for the adventure of a lifetime. 

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