Teaching about Robert Burns
Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, was born in 1759, the son of an Ayrshire cottar. He developed an early interest in literature. Between 1784 and 1788, while doing farmwork, he wrote much of his best poetry, including “Halloween”, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” and the skilful satires “Death and Dr. Hornbrook” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer”.
In 1786 the “Kilmarnock” edition of Burns’ early poems was published, bringing with it fame and fortune, and the second edition brought him enough financial security to marry his mistress Jean Armour. The couple settled to a hard life in Ellisland with their four children, and to supplement their meagre income, Burns took a job as an excise man.
From 1787, Burns concentrated on songwriting, including “Auld Lang Syne” and “A Red, Red Rose”. In 1796, at the age of 37, he died, his health undermined by rheumatic fever.
Students should learn that:
Robert Burns wrote many poems and lyrics for songs.
Robert Burns is celebrated as Scotland's National Poet.
Many of the old Scottish words in Burns' time have disappeared from our everyday language but can be found in his poetry.
a) The subjects of many of Burns’ poems were taken from his own experiences of life: “To A Mountain Daisy” and “To a Mouse” were inspired by his work on the farm.
b) His “ghostly poems” were inspired by an old cousin called Betty Davidson.
c) His mother had a strong influence on him with her many tales and old folk songs.
d) Many countries have had Burns’ work translated into their own languages.
a) Read and discuss some of Burns’ poems and songs. When were they written? What motivated Burns to write them?
b) Make a list of Old Scottish words. Discuss the meanings, spellings and dialect.
c) Simplify the story of “Tam O’Shanter” for children and tell the sequence of events in a language which the children understand.
d) Make class/individual books about Robert Burns.
e) Copy out a Burns poem or verse and illustrate it.
Scholars View Robert Burns
Prof. Richard Finlay, the University of Strathclyde, says “Burns’ humanity has ensured he is revered not only in his own country but throughout the world. There are more statues to Burns in North America than any other writer. His sentiments still have an important resonance to this day as witnessed by the singing of ‘A Man’s a Man’ at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.”
Prof. Allan Macinnes, Aberdeen University: “Burns is our national poet but he epitomises the best of Scotland’s internationalist tradition. People sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ across the world.”
Prof. Tom Devine, University of Edinburgh: “Burns has continuing relevance because of his belief in democracy and equality. He is a man whose beliefs allowed him to be simultaneously admired in Soviet Russia and America, the centre of the Western World. He also epitomises Scotland, particularly in his humour and egalitarian spirit.”