In 1787, the 28-year-old Robert Burns was suddenly greeted with a “celebrity” status. The second Edinburgh edition of his poems had fetched him a quite a generous pot of money and it had also made him famous, with the wealthiest of Scottish society taking a keen interest in him. “He was the lion of Scottish literature, everyone wants to meet him,” said Professor Nigel Leask, chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow.
Born into a family of farmers and ploughmen, young Burns had to participate in hard physical labour on the family farm. This took its toll on the boy, who increasingly diverted his attention towards the passions of poetry, nature, drinking and women, which would characterise the rest of his life. Illicit relationships and fathering illegitimate children ran parallel to a productive period in his working life. His correspondence with Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose resulted in the classic ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.
“I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.”
As a poet he recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the particularities of his inspiration, becoming finally the National Poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scots bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song, as he does in “The Answer”:
“Ev’n then a wish (I mind its power)
A wish, that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast;
That I for poor auld Scotland’s sake
Some useful plan, or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.”