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The Life of Burns

5037iThe Scottish poet, Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759 in the “auld cley biggin” that is now known as Burns Cottage. The day of his birth is celebrated today throughout the world as Burns Night, with Burns Suppers, poems and songs, and remembrance of Scotland’s National Bard. The celebrations go further than a simple appreciation of Burns poems and songs – great as they may be. Burns has come to be a symbol for Scotland and a global brand for the Scots themselves.

Burns was voted the Greatest Ever Scot by television viewers in a 2009 poll and Burns’s song Is there for Honest Poverty was chosen  to open the new Scottish Parliament. Yet, behind the global brand, lies a complex and surprising man, who grew from the obscurity of a small, West of Scotland village, to become perhaps the first modern celebrity. Key dates in Burns's life are listed below. To find out even more, have a look at our selection of pages about Burns on the Web.


Burns key dates


1759 Born in Alloway on 25 January
1765–8 Burnes family move to Mount Oliphant Farm, near Alloway
1766 Burnes family move to Mount Oliphant Farm, near Alloway
1774 Writes his first song, O once I lov’d [a bonnie lass]
1777 Burnes family move to Lochlea Farm, near Tarbolton
1781 Becomes a Freemason
1781 Moves to Irvine to learn flax-dressing (preparing flax so it can be made into linen)
1784 His father, William Burnes, dies. The family move to Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline
1784 The family change their name to Burns
1785 Meets Jean Armour. Becomes a father for the first time, to Elizabeth, born to maidservant Elizabeth Paton
1785–6 Has an affair with Margaret Campbell (‘Highland Mary’)
1786 The first edition of Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect is published in Kilmarnock
1786 Abandons plans to emigrate to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. Instead, travels to Edinburgh to look into publishing a second edition of his poems
1786 Enters into ‘a form of wedlock’ with Jean Armour
1786 Becomes a father to twins Robert and Jean Burns, born to Jean Armour
1787 Second edition of poems is published in Edinburgh. Meets James Johnson and agrees to contribute to The Scots Musical Museum
1787 Tours the Highlands, Stirlingshire and the Borders, collecting local songs and airs
1787 Becomes a father to a child, born to Edinburgh servant girl May Cameron
1787 Meets Agnes McLehose (‘Clarinda’)
1788 Marriage to Jean Armour is officially recognised by the Kirk
1788 Becomes a father to twin daughters, born to Jean
1788 Moves to Ellisland Farm, near Dumfries
1788 Becomes a father to Robert, born to Edinburgh serving maid Jenny Clow
1789 Becomes a father to Francis Wallace Burns, born to Jean
1789 Begins work as an Excise officer
1790 Writes Tam o’ Shanter
1791 Becomes a father to Elizabeth (‘Betty’), born to barmaid Anna Park
1791 Moves to Dumfries
1791 Becomes a father to William Nicol Burns, born to Jean
1792 Becomes a father to Elizabeth Riddell Burns, born to Jean
1792 Begins work on A Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs with George Thomson
1794 Becomes a father to James Glencairn Burns, born to Jean
1796 Dies in Dumfries, at the age of 37
1796 Robert’s youngest son, Maxwell Burns, is born to Jean on the day of the poet’s funeral. Jean is unable to attend the funeral service



Robert Burns poetry is at the core of his lasting fame and some samples of his earliest, finest and best-known poems can be found here.

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