Rabbie Burns is the national poet of Scotland, and tomorrow is his birthday! On 25 January, Scots celebrate Burns Day, or Burns Night, in honor of the man who wrote numerous poems and songs in the Scots dialect. You yourself may even be familiar with some of them!
I’ve created some various images and videos to celebrate the work of Robert Burns, but before diving into his writing, it’s important to know a bit of history about the bard who will be celebrated in Scotland come tomorrow.
Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Ayrshire and was the oldest of seven children. Born into a poor home, the son of farmers, he was still taught to read and write. He wrote his first love poems at age fifteen, but it was not until he was twenty-seven that he had his first book of poetry published, all written in the Scottish dialect, which was a huge success. While he wrote many poems about love, he was also known for writing about issues of equality and egalitarianism. In addition to being an accomplished writer, he also fathered twelve children in his short life.
This is a very brief introduction to the national poet of Scotland. Though he only lived 37 years, he created a vast portfolio that still inspire people to this day. To honor his contribution to Scotland and its voice, as well as his renown as a poet, I wanted to share some fun facts and even poems of his—some that are famous and maybe some that aren’t, but all that celebrate him.
A Red, Red Rose
A Red, Red Rose is probably among Burns’ most famous poems, having inspired many others after him. Bob Dylan has cited it as among his favorites and a source of inspiration.
I’ve included the full poem here and you can read it in all its Scottish glory. Though I don’t find the writing of this poem to be very challenging to read, if you’re not familiar with the Scottish dialect, try reading it out loud with the best Scottish accent you can. Don’t worry about making it accurate or sounding silly; just give it a try to help work through the dialect if you’re not familiar with it.
In English class, if we were reading a work that was written in an dialect and accent, I’d read it out loud with as close to the dialect as I could. While my classmates would laugh, my teacher would insist that this was the best way to read. It’s so you can hear the words in as close to the voice as possible.
So don’t worry about making it perfect. Just do as best as you can.
My Heart’s in the Highlands
My Heart’s in the Highlands is probably my favorite poem by Robert Burns, for obvious reasons. The first time I heard it was during a work placement where I worked with a Gaelic TV station. I would watch their archive material to determine if any of it might be good for conversion to print and publication. The clip I found had a woman singing the song, and to this day, I can still remember it. Sadly, I can’t find it!
But it is a beautiful poem, one that talks of the longing of a place, so I very much relate to it. It’s a short read, but lovely. Full poem can be found here on Bartleby.com.
Auld Lang Syne
I had originally stated in this infographic that Robert Burns had written Auld Lang Syne, as that’s a common mistake. Many attribute Auld Lang Syne to Robert Burns, but he’s not actually the writer of the song; he found the song and sent it to the Scots Musical Museum in order to preserve it. So while Burns is not the writer, he strove to save the song from being lost to time. Because of that, we still think of and sing it (or mumble it) at New Years.
And because it was a Scottish writer that worked to preserve the song, the Scots is strong in the song—which is why most people struggle to understand the words. The phrasing “Auld Lang Syne” can be translated to “for old times sake”.
Address to a Haggis
Address to a Haggis is also among the more well-known of Burns’ poems. It’s one that is read at Burns Night celebrations—obviously, just before dining on the classic Scottish dish of haggis. This one’s a bit longer, but definitely worth a read. I’ve found a version of the poem where you can read the original Scots, but with a translation next to it, in case you struggle to interpret.
Give it a read today to honor Scotland’s national poet. Again, try to read it in a Scottish accent to get the dialect correct if you can. If you can’t have haggis (because, like me, you’re in the States and it’s outlawed here), then maybe toast the address with some whisky, or if you can, serve up some neeps and tatties!
A Man’s a Man For A’ That
A Man’s a Man For A’ That is another piece by Robert Burns, and it’s a beautiful ode to the belief that we are all united by our humanity and all are equal. It was actually sang at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 because of its themes of egalitarianism between mankind. I’ve also read that Abraham Lincoln was inspired by Robert Burns’ work; could it have been these Scottish writings that stirred and moved one of American’s most famous presidents to continuously push for more equality between men of all races?
Above is a video I created of the Corries, a duo of Scottish musicians, singing A Man’s a Man For A’ That. I’ve added the lyrics to the video, so that you can read while listening to the words, which may make easier to decipher the Scots.
Alright, I wasn’t planning on including this factoid, but I am such a massive fan of Halloween that I felt like I’d be being untrue to myself for not acknowledging it. Burns also wrote a lengthy poem about Halloween, and it is actually one of the first poems written in English to have been about Halloween—which is especially exciting (to me, anyway) because Halloween is actually a Scottish word.
Why is all this exciting to me? Well, as this website proclaims: I am a massive Albaphile (Scotland lover) and Halloween is my favorite holiday, so if it made my heart soar to discover that Scotland’s national poet wrote a poem about my favorite holiday, you can only guess my level of excitement when I learned that Halloween is actually a Scottish word. Those Scots, man. They’re just awesome.
Scotland.org: The History and Words of Auld Lang Syne
The Corries Compact Album (and their official website)
Interesting Literature — A Short Analysis of Robert Burns’ Halloween
Interesting Literature — A Short Analysis of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne
Visit Scotland — About Robert Burns