Burns Night approaches! On 25th January, households and Burns Clubs all over Scotland and the wider world will come together to celebrate the life and legacy of Scotland’s national poet: Robert Burns.
So, in celebration of this famous poet, lyricist, activist, and whisky drinker, here are some things you may not know about Robert Burns.
1. He had a short career as an Exciseman
Along with his literary conquests, Robert Burns briefly worked as an Exciseman in Dumfries. The profession was very much at odds with Burn’s political scotch whisky opinions. He often seemed to hold disdain for Excisemen and his profession despite the high salary.
For example, Burns even penned a poem titled The Deil’s Awa wi’ th’ Exciseman (1792) (anglicised: The Devil Has Taken The Exciseman).
He also referred to the paper on which he wrote to a friend as “wretched paper, which was originally intended for the venal fist of some drunken exciseman, to take dirty notes in a miserable vault of an ale-cellar”, further showing his discomfort with the profession.
Burns was often regarded as an outspoken advocate for the working class and held strong opinions about the taxes levied at working Scottish distillers.
You can read more about Robert Burns’ Excise career here.
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2. Some of his most famous poems sing the praises of scotch whisky
In Tam O’Shanter Burns likens whisky to liquid courage and bravery, writing:
“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn [whisky]!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny [tuppenny ale], we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!”
In John Barleycorn, Burns personifies whisky as the eponymous character, characterising him as a courageous and jolly man who brings joy and prosperity to Scotland. The last three stanzas read:
“John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!”
3. He wrote the famous New Year song Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne was written by Robert Burns in 1788, although the Scots-language poem was based on an earlier Scottish folk song. Auld Lang Syne bears similarities to the ballad Old Long Syne by James Watson, printed in 1711, particularly in the first verse. However, Robert Burns is credited with the writing of the song as we know it today.
In the English-speaking world, Auld Lang Syne is often sung at the end of the year and the start of the next. Some cultures sing Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day. It is also sung at graduations, guiding/scouting events, and funerals.
4. Burns Night, a celebration of the life of Robert Burns, is held on 25th January in Scotland
Burns Night is held annually on 25th January to pay homage to his literary and cultural impact on Scotland and the legacy he left behind.
The traditional celebration began when a group of Robert Burns’ friends gathered on 21st July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death aged 37, to remember their friend. Today, the national celebration is held on Burns’ birthday.
The Burns Night celebrations vary from household to household, and some are held in a more formal setting such as Burns Clubs across the country.
Traditionally, there will be a feast of haggis, neeps, and tatties, washed down by a dram of scotch whisky, and a number of recitations of Burns’ poetry. One such poem is called Address to a Haggis (1786), a sort of love-letter to one of Scotland’s most famous dishes.
To bring the night to an end, the company will stand together and sing Auld Lang Syne.
5. A number of whisky expressions are named after him
Robert Burns is considered a scotch whisky hero, thanks to his advocacy for the industry and his praise for the drink throughout his life. As such, a number of whisky expressions have been bottled in his honour.
One such bottling is the Macallan Robert Burns Semiquincentenary Bottling. This whisky was released in 2009 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. The Macallan whisky was bottled in a crystal decanter and included in the box is a Burns poem and a map of ‘Burns Country’. Only 250 bottles were ever released.
More affordably, Arran has released several bottles celebrating Scotland’s national bard, including this Arran Robert Burns World Federation.
How will you be celebrating Burns Night?
Burns Night will be held on 25th January 2024 in houses and Burns Clubs across Scotland as well as other countries such as Canada and various places in Asia. So, how will you be celebrating?
The Lasting Legacy of Robert Burns
The lasting cultural and literary impact of Robert Burns on his home country cannot be understated. His command of the Scots language and references to Scottish culture have made him a beloved figure in history.
Romantic poets and writers such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley credit Burns with having a huge influence over their work. Burns is considered to have been one of the pioneers of the romantic literary movement.
And, of course, Robert Burns was known for his love of scotch whisky. Every year on Burns Night drams are raised in his honour and toasts are made to this famous whisky drinker and Scottish cultural icon.