For many, Robert Burns (also known as Rabbie Burns) is synonymous with Scotland: Not only is he considered the country’s national poet, but in a 2009 STV poll, he was even voted the greatest Scot over iconic warrior William Wallace.
Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25, 1759, Burns wrote poetry about his life as a peasant farmer and his love of women, among other topics. And though he was dubbed “the heaven-taught ploughman,” Burns was neither uneducated nor a ploughman. Here are nine facts about his short life and enduring poetry.
1. Robert Burns wrote his first poem when he was just 15.
As might be expected of a teenager, Burns’s first composition was about a romantic crush. “Handsome Nell,” which Burns called his first “sin of rhyme” in a 1787 letter to Dr. John Moore, was penned in 1774 at Mount Oliphant farm, where the Burns family lived and worked as tenants. In 1783 he described the composition as “puerile and silly,” but was nonetheless “pleased with it, as it recalls to my mind those happy days when my heart was yet honest, and my tongue was sincere.”
Burns credited his initial interest in poetry to another woman, specifically “an old Maid of my Mother’s [Betty Davidson]” who told “tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.” These stories, he said, “cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy.”
2. Burns was a Freemason.
In 1781, at the age of 22, Burns joined the Masonic Lodge St. David, Tarbolton. He was a Freemason for the rest of his life, and in 1787, Francis Charteris, the Grand Master of Scotland, praised Brother Burns as “Caledonia’s bard.” (Caledonia is the Latin name for Scotland that was used by the Romans, which later took on poetic connotations.)
3. He almost moved to Jamaica to work at a sugar plantation, but the success of his poetry stopped him.
Burns struggled to make a living as a farmer, so in 1786, he decided to take a job as a bookkeeper at a sugar plantation in Jamaica that ran on the forced labor of enslaved people. He published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (now usually known as the Kilmarnock Edition) that year to raise money to fund the journey—but when the volume was an instant hit, he decided not to emigrate.
Burns was well aware that, had he gone to Jamaica, he would have been involved in the harsh realities of slavery; his willingness to work on a plantation stands in contradiction to the egalitarian beliefs he expressed in his poetry, most famously in “A Man’s a Man for A’ That.” To those who admire Burns, the dichotomy is troubling. “I like to think that had he ever gone, he would have turned straight back once he’d realized what it involved,” Jackie Kay, Scots Makar from 2016 to 2021, told the BBC. “I can't reconcile my version of Burns in my head with a man that would have comfortably been an overseer.”
4. Burns wrote more than 700 poems and songs.
The BBC puts Burns’s total number of works at 716. The Scottish bard’s best-known composition is “Auld Lang Syne,” which has become the unofficial anthem of New Year’s Eve celebrations worldwide. Burns claimed that he merely “took it down from an old man,” but experts think that he added his own creative flair to the lyrics.
5. Burns worked as an exciseman, or tax collector.
Towards the end of his life, Burns was no longer making enough money from writing, so he took a job as an exciseman. When his support for the revolutionaries in the French Revolution and American Revolutionary War jeopardized his job, he joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, a military organization formed in case of invasion, to prove his national loyalty.
6. Burns fathered 12 known children by four different women.
Burns was a womanizer, and several of his sexual exploits resulted in pregnancies. He had two illegitimate daughters named Elizabeth—one born to Elizabeth Paton in 1785 and the other to Ann Park in 1791—as well as an illegitimate son named Robert, born 1788, with Jenny Clow.
Burns also had nine children with Jean Armour, whom he married in 1788; only three of them survived childhood. His last child, Maxwell, was born on July 25, 1796—which happened to be the day of his father’s funeral. Maxwell lived just three years.
Incidentally, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger is related to Burns—his aunt is the great-granddaughter of Burns’s younger brother Gilbert.
7. Burns died on July 21, 1796.
The poet was just 37 years old when he died. Though many have said that alcoholism led to his death, experts believe his symptoms indicate that he likely succumbed to heart failure brought on by rheumatism. Burns was buried in a modest grave in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries, but in 1813, his admirers—including writer Sir Walter Scott—began raising money to build a grand mausoleum in his honor. It was completed in 1817.
8. Burns Night is celebrated on January 25—the poet’s birthday—with a Burns supper.
The first Burns Night supper was held on the fifth anniversary of Burns’s death and was attended by nine of his friends. They gathered at Burns’s birthplace in Alloway to eat haggis, recite his work, and toast their departed friend—a speech that would become known as the Immortal Memory. The celebration was then moved to his birthday and grew in popularity. Today, Burns Night is celebrated worldwide.
Proceedings kick off with the saying of the Selkirk Grace, which, according to The Scotsman, is “a short prayer, originally said in the Lallans dialect of lowland Scotland, which gives thanks to God for the meal about to be eaten.” The haggis is then brought out to the accompaniment of bagpipes, and Burns’s “Address to a Haggis” is recited. Once the haggis, neeps (mashed turnip), and tatties (mashed potato) have been eaten, the Immortal Memory is given, along with readings of his works. The event then finishes with everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
9. One celebration combines Burns Night with the Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year sometimes falls very close to Burns Night, which led to Vancouver-born Todd Wong combining the events into one celebratory dinner in 1998. He called it “Gung Haggis Fat Choy,” a combination of the New Year greeting in Cantonese—Gung hay fat choy, which means “wishing you great happiness and prosperity”—and haggis, the Scottish dish eaten on Burns Night.
The event started with just 16 of Wong’s friends, but now hundreds of people celebrate each year, tucking into a fusion of Scottish and Chinese food, like haggis and shrimp wontons. “Gung Haggis is not just a dinner, it’s a place for people born of multi-ethnicity and is inclusive so that people born outside of Scottish and Chinese cultures can still celebrate Canada’s pioneer history and culture,” Wong told Rice Paper magazine in 2021.