230px-PG_1063Burns_NaysmithcropOn 21 July 1796, Robert Burns, the Ploughman Poet, died in Dumfries at the age of 37.
The son of a poor tenant farmer, Burns seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of Scotland’s greatest poets. He was born in South Ayrshire, and the backbreaking work he was made to take on at an early age left him with a premature stoop and weakened health. He was educated mainly by his father, a self-educated man himself, and eventually attended Dalrymple Parish School during the summer.
In 1774, he started writing poetry, inspired by a young woman helping with the harvest to write ‘O, Once I Lov’d a Bonnie Lass.’ He continued writing while he and his family struggled to make a living at farming, moving from one failed venture to the next. In the mid-1780s, after the family moved to Mauchline, his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton, gave birth to Burns’s first child, around the same time a local girl, Jean Armour, became pregnant with his twins. He and Jean were married in 1788 and had nine children together, though only three survived infancy.
Desperate to make some money now that he had kids to support, Burns accepted an offer to go work as a bookkeeper in Jamaica. As he lacked the funds to get there, a friend suggested he publish his poems in order to raise cash for the passage. Burns published his Scotch Poems on 14 April 1786, and on 31 July Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was released. The work was an immediate success throughout the country, so much so that Burns . postponed his emigration to Jamaica and instead went to Edinburgh, where Poems was republished in 1787. He was happily received by the city’s men of letters—this being the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, there were plenty of them about—and was invited to aristocratic parties and made an impression on a 16-year-old Walter Scott. He also fathered yet another child on a servant while he was in town.
He returned to Ayrshire (and Jean) in 1788 and took a lease on a farm near Dumfries, wisely also training as an exciseman in case the farming didn’t work out. He wrote ‘Tam O’Shanter’ in 1790, the same year he turned down a job in London, working for The Star newspaper, and also declined the Chairmanship of Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh. He ditched the farm in 1791, moved to Dumfries, and contributed over 100 songs for The Melodies of Scotland. He also contributed to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice and to James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum, placing him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns set about collecting and preserving Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising and adapting them.
As he became more famous, his health began to fail, and he started to age prematurely and went through periods of depression. He died just a few days before his last son, Maxwell, was born and was buried in St Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries. His wife erected a simple slab of freestone, which some felt was insulting to his memory. He was eventually moved to an elaborate mausoleum in the same cemetery in 1815.

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