By Den Ardinger 32° K.C.C.H.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), know commonly as Rabbie Burns, was a man remembered worldwide for many things.

He was a Scottish poet, song writer, and a collector of ballads who wrote in English and the language of the Scots

He has been voted “the greatest Scot” being up there with William Wallace

His influence is worldwide and his image has appeared in paintings, statues, currency and postage stamps

And, to us of course, he is remembered as a Freemason

On January 25th we will celebrate 263 years since his birth.  So who was this man who accomplished so much before dying at the young age of 37?

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland on 25 January 1759.  He was the first of seven sons born to William Burnes (1721-1784) and Agnes Broun (1732-1820). His father was a tenant farmer and the family lived in poverty and hardship.  He lived in Alloway until the age of seven and it is now the Burns Cottage Museum.  They then moved to Mount Oliphant Farm which was a 70-acre tenancy southeast of Alloway.  He had little regular schooling and what he did have came from his father who was self-educated.  It was while living at the Mount Oliphant Farm in 1774 that he tried his hand at writing poetry after being encouraged by his friend Nelly Kilpatrick. 

Over the years the Burns family moved repeatedly but never could make a go of it.  In 1777, the family moved to a 130-acre farm at Lochlea near Tarbolton.  It was here he began writing songs and letters.  It was also in Tarbolton that he became a Freemason and was initiated into the Masonic “Lodge Saint David (Tarbolton) Mauchline 133” on 4 July 1781.  He was 22.  He was passed and raised on 1 October and this became, for all time, the Mother Lodge of Robert Burns.

It was at this time he met Captain Richard Brown who encouraged him to become a poet.  Continuing to write songs and poems, he wrote his first book in 1783.

After his father’s death in 1784, he met Jean Armour, the daughter of a stonemason from Mauchline.  She bore him twins in 1786 and they married in 1788.  Over the years they had nine children but only three survived infancy.  Robert was a ladies man, however, and during his short lifetime fathered twelve children to four different women.

Burns was not a successful farmer and always had financial difficulties.  He considered moving to Jamaica and to help raise money he sent a proposal to a printer to publish his Scotch Poems by subscription.  They were published in April 1786 and in July his work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published.  Both were highly successful and he quickly became known across Scotland.

With his popularity growing, he wrote more than ever.  He gave up farming in 1791 and moved to Dumfries and here he lived out his days.  He collected Scottish folk songs and often changed the lyrics.  Many of his adaptations are remembered to this day.  One of his most famous songs, played every year worldwide on New Year’s Eve, is “Auld Lang Syne” which he redid from the tune of “Can Ye Labour Lea”.

He was a heavy drinker and by 1795 his health was beginning to fail.  He died prematurely on 21 July 1796 at the age of 37 and was buried 25 July…the day that his last son was born.  He was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard in Dumfries.  Although he died with only one pound to his name, his influence has continued to grow and today he is regaled worldwide.  There are Burns clubs, Burns organizations, and Burns suppers in many countries.  His birthday, January 25th, is more celebrated in Scotland than the official St. Andrew’s Day.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And the days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet

For the sake of auld lang syne

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Picture Source: Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery