For most of us who grew up in Scotland, Burns Night means a few very specific things – it means digging out your tartan, it means haggis, neeps and tatties, it means a nip of whisky and a fair deal of talk about sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beasties. Robert Burns is a likeable character, and not least because he left us with the excuse for an annual party that completely eclipses even our national saint’s day in popularity.
You probably know about Burns’ background as a humble farmer. You might know about his scandalous history with women (he fathered at least 13 children – only nine of them with his wife, Jean Armour, and only five of those while they were married!) What you might not know is how a very Scottish spirit of enterprise shaped his life, and his enduring success as a writer.
Wherever Burns went throughout his early life, a love for literacy, ideas and new endeavours followed. In 1780, when he was 21, Burns and a group of friends founded the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club – the first rural debating society in Scotland. It was a place for the young men of the village to gather, and, according to its official aims, “improve their minds with meaningful discussion’’. Many of the topics taken to the floor were lighthearted, but the club would also debate on subjects of politics, education and everyday society. Members were encouraged to speak from the heart, to entertain and persuade and even argue with each other – all skills that the young Burns would take forward with him as his career as a poet progressed.
In fact, Robert Burns had never intended to make his living as a writer. Like the rest of his family, he considered himself a farmer first. Unfortunately, like the rest of his family, he also struggled to make ends meet. His first endeavour, to turn a profit from the family farm with his brother Gilbert, was a complete failure. It was out of financial desperation that Burns agreed to publish his poems – while facing legal action from Jean Armour’s father, and at that point still intending to take work on a plantation in the West Indies (which certainly would have lent him a very different legacy).
Burns’ first published poetry collection was an overnight hit, and confronted him with a dilemma. Would he take the money he’d raised and follow his original plan to move overseas, where a job was secured and waiting for him? Or would he take a gamble – move to the city, work on a second volume, and hope to replicate his first success?
You already know the answer, of course.
Burns moved to Edinburgh in 1786. He didn’t know anybody in the city, had no letter of recommendation to introduce him to employers, and had even borrowed the pony that carried him there. It’s easy to think in retrospect that his success was assured, but it certainly wouldn’t have looked that way to the 27-year old Robert. Though he’s a national institution now, it’s perfectly possible that he would never have secured his lasting legacy without the inspiration and development he went through among his peers in Edinburgh.
What can be learned from this view of Robert Burns as we look back from 2019, kitted out in our (locally woven) tartan, raising our (independently distilled) whiskies to toast the (high street butcher’s) haggis? Perhaps nothing we don’t already know. He was a product of his environment, and that’s part of his enduring appeal when it comes to celebrating Scotland. Then again, it’s worth remembering just how vital the entrepreneurial spirit has always been in this country.
It’s not all about buzzwords, designed pathways and optimisation. There is a certain spark in the Scottish national character, and a certain desire to fan it into a flame. We have always recognised the importance of education. We have always been willing to see what our communities are missing and fill in the gaps ourselves. We have always – admittedly, sometimes to our detriment – been willing to drop everything and seize big opportunities when they knock. Robert Burns, like his home country, was intelligent, inquisitive, daring, often impulsive, and always creative, and it’s difficult not to like that about him.
After all, we’d like to think, he reminds us of ourselves.