Born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759, Robert Burns was the first of William and Agnes Burnes’ seven children. His father, a tenant farmer, educated his children at home. Burns also attended one year of mathematics schooling and, between 1765 and 1768, he attended an “adventure” school established by his father and John Murdock. His father died in bankruptcy in 1784, and Burns and his brother Gilbert took over farm. This hard labor later contributed to the heart trouble that Burns’ suffered as an adult.
At the age of fifteen, he fell in love and shortly thereafter he wrote his first poem. As a young man, Burns pursued both love and poetry with uncommon zeal. In 1785, he fathered the first of his fourteen children. His biographer, DeLancey Ferguson, had said, “it was not so much that he was conspicuously sinful as that he sinned conspicuously.” Between 1784 and 1785, Burns also wrote many of the poems collected in his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which was printed in 1786 and paid for by subscriptions. This collection was an immediate success and Burns was celebrated throughout England and Scotland as a great “peasant-poet.”
In 1788, he and his wife, Jean Armour, settled in Ellisland, where Burns was given a commission as an excise officer. He also began to assist James Johnson in collecting folk songs for an anthology entitled The Scots Musical Museum. Burns’ spent the final twelve years of his life editing and imitating traditional folk songs for this volume and for Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. These volumes were essential in preserving parts of Scotland’s cultural heritage and include such well-known songs as “My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose” and “Auld Land Syne.” Robert Burns died from heart disease at the age of thirty-seven. On the day of his death, Jean Armour gave birth to his last son, Maxwell.
Most of Burns’ poems were written in Scots. They document and celebrate traditional Scottish culture, expressions of farm life, and class and religious distinctions. Burns wrote in a variety of forms: epistles to friends, ballads, and songs. His best-known poem is the mock-heroic Tam o’ Shanter. He is also well known for the over three hundred songs he wrote which celebrate love, friendship, work, and drink with often hilarious and tender sympathy. Burns died on July 21, 1796, at the age of 37. Even today, he is often referred to as the National Bard of Scotland.