Rantin' Rovin' Robin – Happy birthday, Rabbie Burns!

Robert Burns. Image from Wikipedia
Robert Burns. Image from Wikipedia

Portents and prophecies

Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin' rovin', rantin' rovin',

Robin was a rovin' boy.

Rantin' rovin' Robin!

The story is told that, on the day the great Scottish poet Robert Burns was born in Ayr not far from the famous bridge of Doon, his father, in haste to find a doctor to attend the birth, happened upon a poor woman who asked for his help to cross the swollen river. William Burness (that's how he spelt his name at that time) was a good-natured, kindly man, and so he helped the woman, and took her to his home, seeing she was hungry and wet, and there the woman made a prophecy, which Robert later recorded in the song “Rantin' Rovin' Robin'”:

He'll hae misfortunes great and sma',

But aye a heart aboon them a';

He'll be a credit 'till us a',

We'll a' be proud o' Robin.

This happened on 25 January 1759, a day which has come, in the years since, to be celebrated as Burns' Night, wherever people of Scottish decent still remember the great poet of the people. And as one of such I remember Burns on this day every year, and so write this tribute to his memory with the Kenneth McKellar CD The Songs of Robert Burns playing on the hi-fi. (Some, knowing my love of jazz and other great music might be surprised at this – but I like McKellar and make no excuses!).

Kenneth McKellar sings one of Burns's best-known love songs

Update on Kenneth McKellar

Just three months after I first published this Hub the great Kenneth McKellar died at his daughter's home at Lake Tahoe in the United States.

He had been a frequent visitor to the United States during his singing career, singing mostly in small venues.

McKellar was born in Paisley, Scotland, where he was buried after his death at age 82. He died of pancreatic cancer.

McKellar's recording career spanned more than 25 years and he released more than 35 albums on the Decca label.

His recordings of Burns's songs are regarded by many as definitive.

Background of a great poetic imagination

Burns was born in a time of winter storms that even caused the clay bigging (cottage) to partly collapse a few days after his birth. His mother had to take refuge, with the new-born baby, in a neighbour's cottage, until theirs was repaired about a week later.

As the poet grew, he had to take on the heavy work of a farm labourer, working alongside his father and his brothers. Burns himself wrote about his father: “My father was of the north of Scotland, the son of a farmer and was thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large, where, after many years of wanderings and sojournings, he picked up a pretty large quantity of observation and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my little pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few who understand men, their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn ungainly integrity, and headlong ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying circumstances; consequently I was born a very poor man's son.”

The poet's imagination was also stirred by one of whom he wrote: “In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.”

The woman he referred to was the widow of his mother's cousin. Her name was Betty Davidson and she was dependent on her son, whose wife treated her very unkindly. So Robert's father, being the kindly man he was, took her into his home for some months at a time to live with his family.

From these humble yet fertile beginnings young Robert grew into a man beloved of his fellows and eventually a name throughout the world. Along the way he certainly fulfilled the prophecy made at his birth by the old woman: he made his people proud, but was also a “rantin', rovin'” man. He had a string of lovers which led many in the staid kirk (the Scottish church) to regard the poet as a dissolute man, given to womanising and carousing.

Burns could write exceptionally beautiful love songs, biting political satires and wonderful lyric poems celebrating the scenery of the country he loved so much.

The people's poet

The poet was also much influenced by the egalitarian ideas coming from the French Revolution, which confirmed his own dislike of those who put themselves up as better than others, as in this poem entitled “Address to the unco guid, or the rigidly righteous”:

O, ye wha are sae guid yoursel',

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye've nought to do but mark and tell

Your neebours' faults and folly!

The third stanza of the poem:

“Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,

And shudder at the niffer,

But cast a moment's fair regard,

What mak's the mighty differ;

Discount what scant occasion gave

That purity ye pride in,

And (what's aft mair than a' the lave)

Your better art o' hiding.”

Note: “niffer” means “difference” and “lave” means “the rest.”

John Anderson, my jo - a love poem

From such bitter, angry words he could turn so tender, as in this wonderful poem about love grown old, “John Anderson, my jo”:

John Anderson, my jo, John,

When we were first acquent;

Your locks were like the raven,

Your bonnie brow was brent;

But now your brow is bel;d, John,

Your locks are like the snaw;

But blessings on your frosty pow,

John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,

We clamb the hill thegither;

And mony a canty day, John,

We've had wi' ane anither;

Now we maun totter down, John,

But hand in had we'll go;

And sleep thegither at the foot,

John Anderson, my jo.

I think there are few poems of love more tender and moving than this.

Robert Burns with Highland Mary
Robert Burns with Highland Mary

The lovers

As mentioned before, Burns's loves were many. One of the most famous of these was his love “Highland Mary”, who was Mary Campbell of Dunoon. Burns first saw her in church at Tarbolton where he was living. They agreed to marry and Mary made plans to go back to her family at Campbleton in Kintyre to arrange for the wedding. Before she left, the story goes, on 14 May 1786, the lovers met for a solemn and tender farewell on the banks of the Ayr: “The lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook; they laved their hands in the limpid stream, and, holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to each other.” Burns wrote the song “The Highland Lassie” for Mary:

She has my heart, she has my hand;

By sacred truth and honour's band,

'Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,

I'm thine, my Highland Lassie, O!

Sadly, it was not Burns who was laid low by “the mortal stroke,” but Mary, who died shortly after this touching river-side parting, having contracted typhus from nursing her brother when he had the disease.

Burns had children by a number of women and was finally married to Jean Armour who bore him nine children, of whom only three survived beyond infancy.

The title page of my rather battered copy of Burns's poetry
The title page of my rather battered copy of Burns's poetry

Burns Night

Burns also had a great sense of humour and could write about mundane things as well as great love, as in this “Address to the Toothache” which many, I think, will identify with:

My curse upon thy venomed stang,

That shoots my tortured gums alang

And though my lugs gi'es mony a twang,

wi' gnawing vengeance;

Tearing my nerves wi' bitter pang,

Like racking engines!

Most people surely know “Auld Lang Syne” but I wonder how many know about the poet who wrote it? He was certainly a poet of far more than just that one song, and he is revered in many countries around the world as the “peoples's poet” for his humble origins and egalitarian bent.

So this evening, raise a glass of Scotland's finest and toast the great Rabbie Burns:

Let kings and courtiers rise and fa'
This world has mony turns,
But brightly beams abune them aw'
The Star o' Rabbie Burns.

(From The Star of Rabbie Burns by James Thompson)

Much of the information for this Hub I have gleaned from the Introduction to the 1897 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, which is the only copy I have of his works.

More by this Author

Comments 30 comments

VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 6 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Robert Burns was one of my favorite poets when I was a teenager in High School; I still have the High School textbook where his poems are included, after 35 years. :)

Enjoyed reading the bio about this poet.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks, Violet. Glad you enjoyed the Hub. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, I appreciate it.

Love and peace


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK

We celebrated Burns Night at the weekend with a vegetarian haggis. I'm not sure what Rabbie would have made of it, but I've no doubt he had a sense of humour! Thanks for posting this, as it's always good to re-visit those poems.

Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

Wonderful tribute to a great poet. Thanks .

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Hi Tony - I'm a great fan of Burns, and have often contributed to the Burns supper entertainments. Unfortunately, Doha has no such opportunity, so this year it's a quiet toast at home.

Great hub - a worthy tribute. And Kenneth McKeller is a fine traditional performer too.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Amanda - a veggie haggis?! I can hardly imagine it. Was it nice?

Dim - thanks

Para - as always, your visits mke me proud!

Thanks everyone for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace


r@b999 6 years ago

There will never be another to equal the great man that was Rabbie Burns.I enjoy reading about him & I enjoyed reading your hub, well done.


Ken R. Abell profile image

Ken R. Abell 6 years ago from ON THE ROAD

Very interesting & informative Hub. Thank you for the education. I must confess that I am largely unfamiliar with his poetry. Missed him in all my literary wanderings.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Robert - there will never be another, indeed. Immortal Rabbie Burns!

Ken - glad you have found him - he's worth the reading of!

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate if very much.

Love and peace


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 6 years ago from UK

The veggie haggis was delicious. We bought it ready-made from Waitrose, but we've had a home-made version in years gone by. It may not be authentic, but we still raised a toast to Rabbie Burns!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Amanda - I'm sure the toast was authentic, bless you! Do you have a recipe for the veggie haggis? I would be interested to try it sometime.

Thanks for dropping by again.

Love and peace


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Then let us pray that come it may,

(As come it will for a' that,)

That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,

Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.

For a' that, an' a' that,

It's coming yet for a' that,

That Man to Man, the world o'er,

Shall brothers be for a' that.

Thanks Tony, it was nice to hear Kenneth McKellar again.

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

Hi Tony, I like the poet here, I also wrote an article song for New Year -- " Auld Lang Syne" by Robert Burns, I remember now, its his bday yesterday, Thanks, Maita

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

I also link my Auld Lang Syne article with this one, Thank you Tonymac, Maita

donna bamford profile image

donna bamford 6 years ago from Canada

Enjoyed this and the MdKeller. Good essay. You have a talent for interesting profiles! Will find more. Time well spent.

Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

Thanks for the Hub Tony

I love Robert Burns, a legend he is and interesting to read about his life and exploits.

Here are two songs I really like, interpretations of his words. I don't know if you have seen these before.

'Ae Fond Kiss' by Karen Matheson and Paul Brady


'Now Westlin' Winds' by Dick Gaughan


Fantastic music

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Shinkicker - you are a true friend! Thanks so much for your kind words and the fantastic links - love them!

Love and peace


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

My faves from Bobby Burns are "To a Mouse" and "My Heart's in the Highlands." I'm fascinated with just about anything having to do with Scotland - the land of my ancestors.

I really enjoyed this!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ah yes, the "tim'rous beastie" and the "birthplace of valour, the country of worth." Great poems both. Have you heard the setting of the latter by Arvo Part, by the way? A great surprise it was to me, but it's lovely.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Love and peace


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

A fig for those by law protected

Liberty's a glorious feast

Courts for cowards were erected

Churches built to please the priest

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

"Liberty's a glorious feast!" Indeed. Thanks for sharing this stanza.

Love and peace


lightning john profile image

lightning john 5 years ago from Florida

This a great piece on a brilliant man. Very interesting story on how the midwife spoke these words on his future.

I think there is a special energy in the air at time of birth and she surely picked up on it. Very nice.


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

Tony, I loved your hub, partly because it brought back a memory of a time I stayed at a B and B in Scotland. I went to see the grave and was horrified that it was a grand edifice, one that probably had Burns turning over in his grave. I also bought a book of his poetry. Later I had someone staying at the B & B read some of the book. What a delight it was hearing Burns' poetry read in a Scottish accent!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

LJ - thanks for stopping by. Yes the time of birth does produce a lot of energy and surely she picked up on that.

Thanks for stopping by - I really appreciate it.

Love and peace


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mysterylady - thanks for stopping by and leaving a great comment. I think you have a point about his f\grave, not that I've been there, but he certainly wasn't one for big show, as far as I can tell.

Thanks again for the comment.

Love and peace


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

Tony, I get a "Writer's Almanac each day. I thought you might be interested in the following (sent on January 25th):

It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns, (books by this author) born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He farmed, worked as a tax collector, and wrote poems. And he spent more than a decade gathering traditional Scottish folk songs, humming the airs and making sheet music out of the tunes, and writing lyrics to a lot of the tunes, as well.

He went about songwriting in a very ritualistic manner, making sure that his mood was right and his muse was present. Before he started making up words to go with a folk tune, he said he tried hard to discern the "poetic sentiment" that would correspond to the "idea of the musical expression" of the tune. He would ponder this for a while, and then he would write the first stanza, which was always the hardest part. After that he would get up from his desk, go outside, walk around, sit on the ground sometimes, and look for things in nature that he said would be "in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom." And he would hum whatever tune he was working on.

Then, when he could feel his Muse starting "to jade," he'd go back to his desk and start writing furiously while rocking back and forth on the back legs of his chair — swinging at intervals that matched for him the rhythm of the song he was trying to write out.

He composed hundreds of songs and poems. Among his most famous are Auld Lang Syne; A Red, Red Rose; Ae Fond Kiss; Tam O'Shanter; To a Mouse; A Man's a Man for A' That, and The Battle of Sherramuir.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mysterylady - thanks so much for that wonderful comment. I would like to get that Almanack too - is it an online thing?

Thanks again - wonderful stuff!

Love and peace


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

I get the Writer's Almanac each day in my email. I just checked it out and there is a place to click on to forward it. It is free, and I love it. Send me your email address and I'll try to forward it to you. Then I think you'll be able to subscribe.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mysterylady - thank you, have just sent emial!

Love and peace


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

Did you get my email, and were you able to sign up for Writer's Almanac?

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article