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Burns suppers – or Burns Nights –
are held all over the world on the bard’s birthday, 25 January, where Scots gather to celebrate, sing, recite poetry, enjoy the unmelodious skirl of the bagpipes, the bronchial wheeze of the accordian, and inexplicably - even to many Scots themselves - eat haggis.Who better to explain Robert Burns (1759-96) to the Sassenachs than our very own Edwin Moore author of Scotland - 1000 Things You Need to Know, in this entry taken from his book:
Burns was born in Ayrshire, worked as a labourer on his father’s farm, and later on became an excise officer. A convivial drinking companion, Burns soon acquired a reputation as a man ‘who loved mankind in general, and women in particular.’ He became famous in 1786 with the publication of the ‘Kilmarnock edition’ of his poems, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Burns went to Edinburgh to prepare a revised edition, and became the toast of polite society. Scott, then a young boy of 16, described him as having a unique ‘glowing eye’. Many of Burns’ best poems were written while he was still in his 20s: ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, ‘The Twa Dogs’, ‘The Jolly Beggars’, ‘To a Mouse’. The first of these is written in ‘standard’ English, the others in Scots, which remained far and away his best medium. Burns wrote some really dull verse in the standard poetic diction of the day – ‘Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?’ – is an especially dire example – but rarely struck a duff note when writing in Scots. A bigger problem for Burnsians is his rather startling willingness, before the success of his poems, to go off to Jamaica to work on the Scottish slave plantations there. Said Burns:
‘But before leaving my native land, I resolved to publish my poems. I weighed my productions as impartially as was in my power; I thought they had merit; and it was a delicious idea that I should be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears—a poor negro-driver—or, perhaps, a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits. . . I was pretty confident my poems would meet with some applause; but, at the worst, the roar of the Atlantic would deafen the voice of censure, and the novelty of West Indian scenes make me forget neglect.’
Burns’ willingness to work on one of the fearsome Jamaican plantations is not at all easy to explain. Like most men and women of his day he knew the arguments for and against slavery, and even the irascible William Creech, Burns’ Edinburgh publisher, campaigned vigorously against slavery. Burns did write (in 1792) an antislavery poem, ‘the Slave’s Lament’, and in 1795 wrote the great celebration of equality, ‘A Man's a Man for a' that’,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
But Burns shares his birthday with another prolific Scot – Corvus author Gordon Ferris, whose Number 1 Bestseller e-book The Hanging Shed has been followed by a string of successes, with not a single 'Wee sleekit , timorous cowering beastie' in evidence:
and for a more modern take on Burns Night as the bane of every schoolchild's January - in particular mine - read here