Robert Burns: 5 Ways to Explore Scotland’s Poet

Robert Burns: he’s the national poet of Scotland. Whether you’ve been to Scotland or not, though, you’ve likely encountered the work of Robert Burns.

You may have sung Auld Lang Syne at the new year. Perhaps you’ve sent or received a card that said ‘my love is like a red, red rose.’ Those both come from Burns; there are many others.

On 25 January every year, in Scotland and all across the world where people love Scotland, or love a well turned phrase of poetry, the work, life, and memory of Robert Burns are celebrated.

Here are ways you can join in, in January and beyond.

Place

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, in the southwest of Scotland, in 1789. His parents were tenant farmers, but they insisted that their children have education and encouraged them to read. You may visit the cottage (usually; it’s closed for building works until late spring 2020) where Burns was born and nearby, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. At the museum you’ll find all sort of displays and exhibits about the life of Burns, his, books, his beliefs, and his family; there’ a cafe, too, a shop, and a children’s play area, as well as a path between cottage and museum where you’ll come upon artwork of characters from Burns’s poetry.

robert burns museum interior by B McCrorie

Whether you know a lot or a little about the man, you’ll find something of interest. If Tam o’ Shanter is a Burns poem you like, while in Alloway you may also visit the Brig o’ Doon and Alloway Auld Kirk, which both show up in the story.

brig o doon scotland by m gorman

Alloway isn’t the only place in Scotland associated with Burns. You will find many other places in Dumfries and Galloway and in Ayrshire, and in Edinburgh. As you travel around Scotland you will find plaques and signage in all sorts of places he traveled or wrote about. In addition there are 60 statues of the bard around the world, in Scotland as well as Toronto, Canberra, Paris, and Milwaukee, to name several, and there’s a replica of the Burns Cottage in Atlanta.

Poetry

It was as a poet that Burns became well known in his own time. Part of that was because he wrote mainly in Scots, making his poems accessible to all levels of society. part of it was because he wrote about all sorts of things: love, politics, the natural world, work a day life, history, farming all subjects which he treated with humor, joy, lyricism and gravity by turns as the subject or event struck him. He wrote hundreds of poems, and rewrote and edited more than three hundred folks songs too (more about those in a moment). Not all of these were terrific poems; there are some too which don’t reach beyond time and circumstance.

There are many which continue to resonate, though. Tam o’ Shanter is one; To a Mountain Daisy, To a Mouse, A Man’s a Man for a’That. are others. Another, which has perhaps been carried along by tide of circumstance as much as by poetry, is Address to a Haggis. Which brings to another way you may connect with the work and life of Robert Burns.

Food and drink

Address to a Haggis is more about the character and resilience of Scottish working folk than about the dish itself. When friends and then the wider world began to create events to remember and celebrate Robert Burns, though, this poem celebrating Scottish food as well as Scottish character offered a natural connection. So across the world on Burns Day and Burns Night, people eat haggis. It is often brought to the table to the accompaniment of bagpipes.

What is haggis, you ask? Parts of the animal leftover after the main cuts are taken away, mixed with oats and spices, and boiled. There are vegetarian versions which replace the meat with beans. Traditional side dishes are bashed neeps and tatties, other wise known as mashed turnips and mashed potatoes. Whisky is the traditional drink and there are a number of toasts at a traditional Burns supper. There’s dessert: cranachan is the usual choice. It’s made with raspberries, cream, toasted oats, honey, and whisky.

raspberries cranachan burns supper scotland

Of course you do not have to follow any aspects of the traditional menu to enjoy a Burns supper, and you can certainly celebrate Scotland’s national bard by enjoying poems of his other than that one about haggis. Or you can do what we usually do in my household, celebrate by enjoying the music of Robert Burns.

Music

This is likely how most people know the work of Robert Burns, from Auld Lang Syne if nothing else. Burns spent the last twelve years of his life working on two collections of Scottish folk music, which he was commissioned to do by James Johnston, who saw a need to make a record of Scotland’s culture as seen through folk music. There is debate and research about ow much and what Burns collected and how much he wrote and re wrote. Whatever you decide about that, it’s sure that this is one of his greatest contributions to ongoing Scottish identity and culture. Here are four recordings from Scottish musicians to explore.

On Songs of Robert Burns, Robyn Stapleton offers 12 well known and lesser known songs.
Jim Malcolm chose Acquaintance as the title of his collection of songs from Robert Burns.

Emily Smith and Jamie McClennan celebrate Robert Burns in their collectio albumn Adoon Winding Nith.

Eddi Reader includes songs of Robert Burns on many of her recordings. She’s also rleased a whole album of Burns songs Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns.

Learning

If you are inspired to learn more about the work, life, and music of Robert Burns, there are recordings including those mentioned above, editions of his own poetry (which has been translated into many languages), biographies, and films. One very good place to explore is an online course about Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow, o which is offered at no cost several times each year through FutureLearn.

Two reasons why you will want to explore the work of Robert Burns

Robert Burns had a gift for language and imagery, which can and have inspired many creative folk. He was also a believer in connection, respect, and the value of every person, and of the natural world. Those are all things worth learning about and reflecting upon through the work of Robert Burns, more than 200 year on from when he created his poems and songs.

Photograph of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum by Billy McCrorie; Photograph of the Brig o’ Doon by by Martyn Gorman photograph of statue of Robert Burns in George Square, Glasgow by Kerry Dexter

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