Robert Burns, also known as Robbie Burns or Rabbie Burns (1759-1796), was the son of a poor Scottish farmer. He is often referred to as “The Ploughman Poet”, and is regarded as Scotland’s most famous bard.
On January 25, Scots and people of Scottish descent around the world celebrate their famous son on Robert Burns Night. Many of Burns’ poems have become perennial favorites, and many of these are enjoyed on Burns night by those celebrating Scotland’s famous son.
The BBC reports that according to a poll conducted before Burns Night in 2012, Scots chose as their favorite Burns poem “Tam O’Shanter”, a narrative poem about a man who saw visions of witches and warlocks after he stayed too long drinking at the local pub. This is a cautionary tale about the evils of drink which concludes:
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d,
… Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare
The second most popular choice in the poll was “A Man’s a man for a’ that”, which celebrates the dignity of the working poor and the universal brotherhood of man by arguing that a man’s worth should not be measured by his wealth.
The third choice identified by the poll was Burns’ address to that most Scottish of dishes, the haggis, which praises the haggis with its “honest, sonsie face” as the “Great chieftain o the puddin’-race”. In the poem Burns compares other gourmet dishes unfavorably with the humble haggis, and enthuses “O what a glorious sight, Warm-reekin, rich!”.
This poem and the haggis are both an integral part of Burns Night celebrations. Bagpipes are played as the haggis is carried in on a platter to the waiting diners, followed by a reading of the “Address to the Haggis”.
Burns often used humble subjects to address universal themes. In “To a Mouse”, a farmer expresses regret for destroying the home of a little mouse as he ploughed his field. This charming poem contains the famous lines “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley” which inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s famous Great Depression-era novella. Another pair of famous lines coined by Burns are contained in “To a Louse”, the poet’s rant upon seeing a louse on a lady’s bonnet:
O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
In the last ten years of his short life, Burns dedicated himself to preserving many traditional Scottish songs, and wrote down over 300, including “Auld Lang Syne” and the sweetly beautiful “Red, Red Rose,” which begins,
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
In the song, the lover pledges to love his “bonnie lass” until the seas run dry and the rocks melt in the sun.
These and other favorite Burns poems are read with delight at Burns night celebrations around the world every January 25.