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Robert Burns 1759-1796

Biography

Scotland's Bard Robert Burns' championing of traditional folk forms and Scottish dialect has elevated him to hero status in his homeland, where his life and works are celebrated every year on 25 January - Burns Night.

Born in Ayrshire in 1759, Burns' family were cotters, farmers who rented their land. He had hoped to escape labouring by emigrating to Jamaica, but when he was 25 his father fell ill and he was forced to work the land. But he gained a sound education through reading and had written poetry since his schooldays. His first collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, published in 1786, was an instant success, propelling Burns into the limelight.

Burns recognised "the fire of native genius" in the expressive language he heard everyday, and wrote principally in Scots. He drew heavily from life, whether he was writing about a tipsy farmer, or - as in To a Mouse - a ploughman coming across a mouse's nest. In that poem Burns was keen to emphasise that we share common experiences with the most lowly - "The best-laid plans o' mice an' men/ Gang aft agley" (ie. often go awry). This phrase would later be borrowed by American writer John Steinbeck for his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.

An avid collector of old songs, Burns refreshed and rewrote more than 200 lyrics including Auld Lang Syne. His book The Merry Muses of Caledonia finds Burns at his bawdiest, and he was often plagued by romantic, financial and rakish complications. He died of rheumatic fever, aged 37, in 1796.

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Related Links

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BBC Robert Burns site

Celebrity readings and more about Scotland's Bard.

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BBC Off By Heart

Vernon Kay reads Burns' A Red, Red Rose (Flash).

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