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Burns: Poet, Humanitarian & Skirt Chaser

The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor

Is king o' men for a' that

- Robert Burns, A Man's a Man for a' That (1795)

Robert Burns (1759-96) continues to hold a sentimental spot in the national consciousness of Scotland. When the new Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, his A Man's a Man for a' That was sung. In recent years, Ayrshire has begun to host an annual music and cultural festival, Burns an' a' That (www.burnsfestival.com), to celebrate his life using contemporary Scottish culture. The only slightly surprising matter is why Scotland is reluctant to make Auld Lang Syne - surely one of the most recognized songs in the world - its national anthem.

Born on a night so gusty that part of the family cottage came down, he was the son of a simple and pious gardener/tenant farmer who nevertheless encouraged the boy to read and seek an education. So Burns did learn to alliterate, rhyme, and later compose lyrical poetry. But he was, by trade, a hard-working if largely unsuccessful farmer and ended his life employed as a tax collector. Now the world knows him as the author of poetry, often set to song, and acclaimed narrative masterpieces, such as Tam O'Shanter. Of it one contemporary critic wrote that Burns displayed "a power of imagination that Shakespeare himself could not have exceeded." In his short life, he wrote hundreds of poems and songs.

But Burns was also a prodigious pursuer of women who fathered numerous children, legitimate and otherwise. He died at 37 of presumed heart disease in the southern town of Dumfries, distinguished even then but resolutely destitute. Almost immediately, however, contributions to his widow and family were made from across Scotland. Burns was buried with some ceremony on the very day that his wife Jean delivered their ninth child.

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