Today marks the birth of one of the most well-known romantic writers of all time, Robert Burns, or ‘Rabbie’ as he is affectionately known in Scotland. Perhaps romance is not what you would usually associate Burns with, but we only need to look at the end of When Harry met Sally to support this claim. At the end of the movie, Harry and Sally finally get together and they kiss at the turn of a New Year, to a chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ one of Burns’ most famous folk songs and, arguably, the unofficial anthem of Scotland.
When you look at it this way, it’s not hard to associate him with themes of love – both love for other people, and love of Scotland. Every January 25 in Scotland we celebrate Rabbie Burns night in remembrance of a writer that was a not only a literary marvel of his time but is still a cultural icon of Scotland today. If ever there was a man that truly captured the nation’s heart, it was Burns.
Frequently calling himself ‘Scotia’s Bard,’ Rabbie Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in the village of Alloway, near Ayr. He spent his early life living and working on the farm, with his parents recognising the importance of education, and making sure he learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and thanks to his mum especially, he had a good knowledge of traditional folktales and songs.
His first book of poetry was published in July 1786 when he was just 27 and was called ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’. The success of his book made Burns decide not to emigrate to Jamaica as was his intention earlier in life, which might have resulted in STV’s “greatest ever Scot” not having the impact of his work still felt today.
On Burn’s night, the bard is traditionally celebrated by a three-course meal, with the main course being a serving of haggis, neeps and tatties (or minced meat oats and spices, turnips, and mash potatoes). During the meal, the haggis is toasted with a reading of one of Burn’s most famous works, the ‘Address to Haggis.’ A wee dram of malt whisky doesn’t go down badly with it either. The wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes usually accompanies these events along with ceilidh dancing, and of course, the mandatory chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
During his lifetime, Burns encountered another infamous Scottish literary master Walter Scott, who in telling of his encounter with Robert, remarked:
“I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits … there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”
Nowadays both Burns and Scott are as much part of the Scottish consciousness as the likes of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie. They have certainly earned their place in Scotland’s rich and multi-layered history, and will likely be taught in school classrooms across the country for years to come.