Robert Burns was born in Alloway, near Ayr. The son of a poor farmer, he nonetheless received a literary education, and was also much influenced by the popular tales, ballads and songs of Betty Davidson, an old woman who lived with his family.
His father died bankrupt in 1784, leaving Burns to try to farm for himself. With his brother Gilbert, he took a small farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, but his husbandry was beset by problems. As his farm went to ruin in 1785, he produced a prolific output of poetry celebrating love, lust and country life. Poems written in this year include the Epistle to Davie, Death and Dr Hornbook, The Twa Herds, The Jolly Beggars, Halloween, The Cotter's Saturday Night, Holy Willie's Prayer, The Holy Fair and The Address to a Mouse.
Also in 1785, Elizabeth Paton, who had been a servant girl on his father's farm, gave birth to Burn's first illegitimate child, whom he welcomed in a poem. Around the same time, his entanglement with Jean Armour (1767-1834), the daughter of a stonemason, began. But when Jean's father refused to accept him as a son-in-law, despite the fact that Jean was pregnant by him, he took up (1786) with a Mary Campbell ('Highland Mary'), who died not long after their liaison had begun.
He decided to emigrate to Jamaica and, having produced a further output of verse, much of it satirical in nature, he published the famous Kilmarnock edition of his poetry, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), to try to raise money for his journey. This edition includes the well-known poems The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil and To a Louse; Address to the Unco Guid and Address to a Haggis were among the poems added to the 1787 Edinburgh edition.
The praise and admiration that his poetry received from country folk and the Edinburgh literati alike persuaded Burns to stay in Scotland, and he was greeted with acclaim on visiting Edinburgh in the winter of 1786. After a Highland tour, he returned to Edinburgh and began the epistolary flirtations with 'Clarinda' (Agnes Maclehose).
In 1788, he 'fell to his old love again' and married Jean Armour. He leased a farm at Ellisland, near Dumfries, and in 1789 was made an excise officer. From 1788 until 1792 he worked on James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803), collecting, editing, writing and rewriting songs and music for the six-volume publication. The best-known songs accredited to him therein include John Anderson My Jo, Ae Fond Kiss, Ye Jacobites By Name, The Banks o' Doon, Afton Water, A Red Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne. Many of his songs also appeared in George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (5 voles, 1793-1818).
In 1790, by which time his farm was failing, he wrote his long narrative poem Tam (No Suggestions). He left his farm in 1791 and moved to Dumfries, flirted with the sentiments and fervour of the French Revolution, continued collecting and writing Scottish songs set to traditional airs, expressed radical opinions and made himself unpopular with the local lairds. He died of endocarditis induced by rheumatism, and is buried in Dumfries.
Commonly regarded as the national poet of Scotland, Burns also has an international reputation for both the lyrical quality of his poems and songs, especially those written in his native Scots, and for his championing of the common man. Known variously as a kind of rural Don Juan, a rebel against extreme Calvinism and religious orthodoxy, and as 'the ploughman poet', he is the object of celebratory Burns Suppers held annually worldwide on his birthday (25 January).