Robbie Burns Day
January 19, 2021

Ottawa Journal (January 19 – January 23, 2021)
David Tilson, M.P.

On or around the 25th of January each year, citizens of Scotland, expatriate Scots, members of Scottish societies, and even lovers of poetry gather to celebrate and honor the life of Robert Burns. He is also known as Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, or simply “the Bard.” Burns is considered to be Scotland’s national poet and is revered worldwide. In fact, Burns Night, which is celebrated on his birthday, is still more widely observed than Scotland’s official national day and is typically marked by a supper that pays tribute to Burns’ life and poetry. Renowned for both his original compositions and his refinement of existing Scottish works, Burns became famous for his poetic abilities in his own lifetime and is today seen as one of the most famous of Scots.

Born near a small town in south-west Scotland on January 25, 1759, Robert Burns was the eldest of seven children and the son of a self-educated tenant farmer. He received much of his schooling from his father and as a child was subject to much poverty and hardship. His first attempt at poetry, O, Once I Lov’d a Bonnie Lass, came when he was 15 years old and one year later, he met a girl in the village of Kirkoswald for whom he wrote two songs, Now Westlin' Winds and I Dream'd I Lay.

Burns had a reputation among local church goers for having casual love affairs and it was after the passing of Mary Campbell—a woman with whom he was having an affair during his relationship with Jean Armour—that he published his first collection of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect in 1786. The volume was a sensation and its publication has since been recognized as a significant literary event. From then on, Burns would go on to write some of his most famous poems and songs, such as Auld Lang Syne in 1788, which is often sung at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, Scots Wha Hae in 1793, which served as the Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for many years, and A Red, Red Rose in 1794.

Burns passed away in 1796, but only a few years later on the anniversary of his death, his friends organized a supper so that they could congregate, read his poetry, sing his songs, and have a meal in his memory. Since then, the Burns supper has become a long-standing tradition that takes place on the poet’s birthday ever year. The formal version of the supper commences with the saying of the Selkirk grace, a well-known thanks-giving in Scotland, which is followed by the entrance of the haggis and the recitation of Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis. After supper there are usually a number of toasts, speeches, and reading of Burns’ works with the event concluding with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

This year, 2009, is a special year, as it marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robbie Burns. If you are a lover of poetry, Scottish or not, then Burns Night is a time to celebrate and honor the life of one of the most famous and influential poets in the English-speaking world. Who knows, you might actually enjoy the haggis!