Voted “Greatest Scot of All Time,” poet Robert Burns won a 2009 ballot over “Braveheart” William Wallace, penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming, “Dr. Who” star David Tennant, magnate Andrew Carnegie, and comedian Billy Connolly. Poor Sir Sean Connery, Bond credentials and all, didn’t make it into the top ten finalists. Painting by Alexander Nasmyth
What vaulted the Bard of Ayrshire to this pinnacle were poems and lyrics like Tam o’ Shanter, “My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose,” “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” the annually inevitable “Auld Lang Syne”—and hundreds of others that embody and preserve Scottish heritage. This tragic figure lived his entire life on the edge of poverty and died at age thirty-seven on the same day his wife gave birth to his fourteenth child.
Born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759, he was the first of seven children of a tenant farmer who moved from farm to farm and never had much success. Robert was mostly home-schooled. His father died in bankruptcy in 1784, and he and his brother continued to work their farm, with back-breaking labor and little to show for it, except Robert’s contracting rheumatic fever, which brought about his premature death following the extraction of a tooth.
Something of a tomcat when it came to romance, Burns dallied with a number of local women and fathered his first child in 1785. One biographer said of him, “It was not so much that he was conspicuously sinful as that he sinned conspicuously.” In 1786 Burns married Jean Armour and took a low-paid position as an excise officer. He scrabbled all his life to support his rapidly expanding family, while devoting all his spare time to ballads, songs, poems, and letters to his friends.
Raised as a liberal Calvinist who never really accepted the notion of predestination of the select, he confided his religious views in a letter to a friend:
“I am in perpetual warfare with that doctrine of our Reverend Priesthood, that 'we are born into this world bond slaves of iniquity and heirs of perdition; wholly inclined to that which is evil and wholly disinclined to that which is good until by a kind of Spiritual Filtration or rectifying process Called effectual Calling & etc.-' I believe in my conscience that the case is just quite contrary. We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good for it, until by dashing a large mixture of base Alloy called Prudence alias Selfishness, the too precious Metal of the Soul is brought down to the blackguard Sterling of ordinary currency...”
Never very firm in his religious beliefs, Burns vacillated on the subject of an afterlife. “Jesus Christ,” he once wrote, “thou amiablest of characters, I trust thou art no Imposter, and that thy revelation of blissful scenes of existence beyond death and the grave, is not one of the many impositions which time after time have been palmed off on a credulous mankind.” One commentator called Burns “a wistful agnostic.”
Burns’ death on July 21, 1796, has been the subject of much speculation. His earliest biographer, Dr. James Currie, blamed it on excessive drinking and womanizing that led to venereal disease. Though there is no question Burns seldom said no to a “wee doch and dorris,” evidence indicates that his death was caused by bacterial endocarditis acquired with the extraction of a tooth and introduced into his bloodstream by a heart valve damaged by rheumatic fever.
As he lay ill, knowing that he was dying, his wit and sense of humor did not abandon him. When he looked up and saw his friend and physician, Dr. William Maxwell, at his bedside, he said, "Alas! What has brought you here? I am but a poor crow and not worth plucking." Maxwell described Burns’ last moments: “When his attendant, James Maclure, held a cordial to his lips, he swallowed it eagerly - rose almost wholly up - spread out his hands - sprang forward nigh the whole length of the bed - fell on his face and expired.”
Burns’ funeral five days later was attended by a large crowd of mourners and he was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries. Through his twelve children who survived to adulthood, Burns now has more than 600 living descendants.