Name: Robert/Robbie/Rabbie Burns, AKA The Ploughman Poet, The Bard of Ayrshire, Scotland’s Favourite Son
Age: 37 (1759–1796)
Cause of death: Unknown, but possibly rheumatic fever. Or ‘a dissolute lifestyle’, if you believe contemporary rumours.
Spouse: Jean Armour (1765–1834), mother of nine of Burns’s children.
There were more? Three more, all illegitimate.
Where did he get his energy from? He liked a drink.
How do we know? There’s a clue in his poem ‘Scotch Drink’, where he eulogises alcohol’s possibilities as an ‘emotional lubricant’: ‘Food fills the wame [belly], an’ keeps us leevin; / Tho’ life’s a gift no worth receivin, / When heavy-dragg’d wi’ pine an’ grievin; / But, oil’d by thee [Scotch drink],/ The wheels o’ life gae down-hill, scrievin [careering], / Wi’ rattlin glee.’
That sounds a bit irresponsible Not all of his contemporaries approved of Burns’s ‘well-lubricated’ lifestyle. But he wasn’t an advocate of reckless boozing, as his famous poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ shows.
(image: creative commons)
What happens to Tam? After a long evening of ‘bousing at the nappy’ (boozing on strong ale) the incorrigible souse very nearly comes to a sticky end after drunkenly cat-calling a witch, while she is engaged in a satanic bagpipe fest. As he makes his narrow escape, his horse’s tail is wrenched off by the furious witches.
What’s the moral of the story? ‘Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d, / Or Cutty-sarks [short skirts] run in your mind, / Think ye may buy the joys o’er dear; / Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.’
It doesn’t sound like he took his own advice No, not really. In his poem ‘No Churchman Am I’, he reassures us repeatedly that ‘a big-belly’d bottle’s a cure for all care’. And he did like the ladies – 12 children in 11 years.
So what’s Burns Night all about? First organised by his friends on the anniversary of his death, Burns suppers are now celebrated on or around his birthday, the 25th January. The evening is a celebration of his life and, as such, involves food (haggis), banter, and lots and lots of whisky.