Scotlands History

Robert Burns

Robert Burns, the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, is Scotland’s most famous poet, her undisputed national bard. He may have been born in rural poverty, the son of a tenant farmer; but he was also a true son of the Scottish Enlightenment - intelligent, articulate, well read and educated.

Burns’s ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ (1786) were well received in their Kilmarnock edition: all 612 copies sold out in a few weeks. This encouraged the poet to take his work to Edinburgh and mix with the leaders of literary society. He also launched a new Edinburgh edition of his work, which paid him enough money to go on tours of the Borders and Highlands. Meanwhile his work was acclaimed by the reviewers, and he became something of a celebrity overnight.

Burns’s poetry was written from the heart in Scots as well as English; and it is accessible to all, whether the ‘common man’ or the literati. Indeed, in spite of its use of Scots, its appeal is universal: Burns’s work has probably been translated more widely than any other Scottish writer’s.

Perhaps his most famous verses are his love songs, such as ‘Ae fond kiss’ and ‘O my luve is like a red red rose’, but there are also the more serious public poems, asserting the democratic and universal brotherhood: ‘Auld lang syne’ and ‘Is there for honest poverty?’

It has to be remembered that these were written at the time of the French Revolution, which gave an edge to the poet’s social critiques.

  • Portrait of Robert Burns

Click on the image to view a larger version.

A thumbnail image of The Cast

Burns songs performed by The Cast

Six of Burns's songs performed by 'The Cast' (Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis, two of Scotland's finest contemporary folk musicians).

Detail from an interactive map showing tags in Ayrshire

Burns map

Browse our interactive map to visit the places that were important to Robert Burns during his lifetime.