Robert Burns was born in Alloway about two miles south of Ayr, in South-west Scotland on January 1, 1759. His parents, Agnes Broun and William Burnes(s) were poor. They were a tenant farmers who, like traditional Scots, greatly valued education. They did their best to ensure Robert got a good education.
They hired a tutor and William also educated Robert himself. Robert was also an avid reader. He was familiar with traditional tales and local folk lore about devils, witches, warlocks brownies and fairies.
Most of Robert’s early poetry was written so that it could be sung to traditional Scottish tunes.
When he was 18 the family move to a larger farm in Lochlie but the hard physical work of the farm took its toll on Robert. He developed his interests in poetry, nature, drink and women which remained his passions throughout his life.
He spent some time learning surveying, became chairman of a local debating society and joined the local Masonic lodge. Then he worked in Irvine for a while as a flax dresser. He formed a friendship with a fellow who introduced him to the idea of illicit love.
He had relationships with various women. These included Elizabeth Paton, Ann Park and Jenny Clowe all of whom had children by him.
Robert also fathered twins with the woman who would become his wife, Jean Armour. During a difficult patch in their relationship Robert had an affair with Mary Campbell and planned to emigrate to the West Indies with her. In order to raise the fare he decided to try to sell a collection of his poems. The book was very well received but Mary, (“Highland Mary” in his poem) died. Robert remained in Scotland.
He returned to Lochlie when his father became ill and his father died when Robert was 25. Shortly after this Robert took a lease on another farm near Mauchline in Ayrshire with his brother, Gilbert.
Robert used his Masonic connections to publish his book, “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”. This was published in 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock and also achieved great critical acclaim. He went to Edinburgh as a result of the success of this second collection. Indeed, a second edition was published with futher assistance from Masonic brethern. In Edinburgh he also began collecting Scottish folk songs and ballads. Burns consistently refused payment for this work. He considered it a patriotic duty and an honour.
The funds accrued from the second edition of his poetry allowed him to lease Ellisland Farm in Nithsdale in Ayrshire. When he was 29 Jean Armour joined him there as his wife.
Although he continued to write poetry and collect songs throughout his life, Burns also worked as an excise man in Dumfries from 1789. This was also achieved by assistance from his Masonic connections.
Burns died in 1796 aged 37 yet on his birthday each year people meet to celebrate his poetry all over the world.