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An 18th century painting of Robert Burns

Burns Night 2024 | Who was Robert Burns? | Why do we celebrate Burns Night?

Robert Burns is credited with writing over 300 poems | Image: Shutterstock

What happens on Burns Night?

On 25th January each year, Scots across the globe come together to celebrate Burns Night. The annual tradition has grown since its inception in 1802 and is now a celebration of all things Scottish. But who exactly was Robert Burns, and why do we celebrate him?

Born in 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns was a poet and lyricist and considered to be a pioneer of poetry’s ‘Romantic’ movement. More affectionately known as Rabbie Burns, the Ploughman Poet, or the Ayreshire Bard, Robert was born of humble beginnings. The son of a tenement farmer, he was the eldest of seven children.

Robert Burns' birthplace in Ayr
Scottish Poet Robert Burns birthplace in Alloway, Ayr, South Ayrshire, Scotland | Image: Rodney Hutchinson /

Receiving relatively little formal education, Robert got the majority of his schooling from his father, who taught all his children reading, writing, history, geography, and arithmetic. Outside of his home, Burns was taught Latin and French, but his studies were often interrupted by the intensive manual labour of farm life.

Writing his first poem at 15, Burns was hooked. By the time of his death at the age of 37, Burns had written close to 350 songs and 320 poems, and he also contributed to many, many more. His humorous style, socialist themes, and understanding of the ‘average Scot’ popularised his poetry across all classes and backgrounds.

Burns Night

The first Burns Night was celebrated in July 1901. Five years after the poet’s passing, a group of his closest friends gathered at Burns Cottage in Alloway to celebrate his life. Feasting on haggis, tatties, and neeps and reciting Burns’ works, the group decided to gather annually to continue the tradition in celebration of their late friend.

Choosing to honour the poet’s birthday the following year, the tradition of Burns Night was born and is still celebrated in much the same way all these decades later. But what is it about Burns that has captured the imagination of his fans around the world? Here are five interesting facts about Robert Burns that show just how well his legacy has endured after all this time.

A Burns Night supper of Haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis with turnips and potatoes)
Haggis, neeps and tatties |

Pop Culture

From classic American literature to popular music, film, and television, the works of Robert Burns can be attributed to various forms of popular media today. Both JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men attribute their titles to the bard’s poetry, and Bob Dylan named one of his poems as the biggest source of inspiration.

Guinness World Records

Burns’ Auld Lang Syne features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the third most recognisable English language song in the world. From New Year’s Eve to graduations ceremonies in China, Auld Lang Syne has become synonymous with bidding farewell to a chapter of life and welcoming in the new.

Red Label

Robert Burns was the first person to have their face featured on the label of Coca-Cola. In 2005, Coca-Cola produced the special edition bottles of pop to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birthday.

Ode to a Bard

Following Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Burns is the third on the list of people who have the most statues dedicated to their memory. Over 60 statues of Burns can be found across the globe. The oldest one (carved in 1830) is situated on the other side of the world in Camperdown, Australia. Other monuments to the poet include a life-size replica of the cottage he was born in which was built in 1911 by the Burns Club of Atlanta.

Astronomical Success

Burns’ work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and in 2010 was even taken into space when astronaut Nick Patrick packed a book of his poetry for a two-week mission. In the duration of his space flight, Patrick travelled 5.7 million miles and orbited the earth 217 times, something Burns wouldn’t have even been able to dream of during his lifetime.

Address to a Haggis

Before the annual Burns Supper, family and friends traditionally gather together ansd recite Burns' Address to a Haggis. The poem was written in 1786 and celebrates the Scottish national dish. However, some historians believe Burns was being ironic in his praise for the meal and making fun of the people who held it in such a high regard.

The Address to a Haggis is recited as follows:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!

Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy of a grace

As lang ‘s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o’ need,

While thro’ your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,

An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:

Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,

Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve

Are bent like drums;

Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,

Bethankit hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

Wi’ perfect sconner,

Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view

On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,

As feckless as a wither’d rash,

His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,

His nieve a nit;

Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,

O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his walie nieve a blade,

He’ll make it whissle;

An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,

Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill o’ fare,

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies;

But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,

Gie her a Haggis!

Robert Burns Fast Facts

Name: Robert Burns

Nickname: Rabbie Burns

Birthday: 25th January 1759

Place of birth: Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland

Date of death: 21st July 1796 (aged 37)

Buried: Burns Mausoleum, St Michael's Churchyard, Dumfries

Best known for: Scottish poet and lyricist who penned works such as Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae, A Red, Red Rose and Address to a Haggis.

Literary movement: Romanticism

Wife: Jean Armour

Children: 12 (including 9 with his wife)

Interesting fact: There are more statues, memorials and monuments dedicated to Robert Burns than any other non-religious figure in the world, except Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus.