Ploughman Poet

The international appeal of Robert Burns

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There is a broad range of Burns works published in many different languages such as Georgian, Russian, Japanese, Estonian and Polish. This indicates that out-with the English speaking world, there exists a large and broad grouping of peoples who appreciate Burns work. It shows that you don’t have to be Scots to like Burns – you can be from anywhere on  earth and enjoy his masterpieces – for example I have noticed many different kinds of people in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This simply solidifies the notion that he touched many people’s hearts out-with his native Scotland.

The fact that a man who lived in the 18th century is still so popular today is astonishing. It proves that his works withstand the test of time. He has made Alloway a place of pilgrimage for many people from across the globe. He has been viewed with celebrity status for generations. He is probably the most important Scotsman to ever live and he was controversial in not bowing to authority; indeed he challenged it. He was never afraid to show his political views through his work. This is why many people still quote from his work today.

It’s just crazy to think that a humble ploughman from Ayrshire would turn out to be one of the most celebrated literary genii, and that he would make such a difference to humanity and influence many people’s thought processes for generations to come.

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Thrack Hooks

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Thrack Hooks, or sickles, were used by the young Robert Burns as he went about his daily agricultural duties. Born into a farming family and raised on a smallholding until the age of seven, his upbringing not only earned him the nickname of ‘Ploughman Poet’, but hugely influenced his later works, probably inspiring the love of nature apparent in poems such as ‘To a Mouse’. Sickles were used during the harvest to chop the stems of crops such as barley, wheat and corn, and it was with thrack hooks that, in 1774, a fourteen year old Robert removed nettle stings from the hand of his work partner, a local girl and ‘bewitching creature’ probably named Helen Kilpatrick. This awakened in him a ‘certain delicious Passion’ and inspired him to write his first song: ‘O once I lov’d a bonnie lass’ or ‘Handsome Nell’. Burns’s modest upbringing caused him to doubt his abilities as a poet, but after learning that a local farmer had written a song about his sweetheart, he decided to try it out himself… and never looked back! Unfortunately for our Bard, the lady in question did not return his feelings and the poem was not written down until twelve years later, on this very manuscript.

O once I loved a bonnie lass
Manuscript of the poem ‘O Once I loved a bonnie lass’

It is now part of the Stair manuscript collection, a group of eight poems and songs Burns copied and sent to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair in 1786, and remains a lasting legacy of the farm girl who inspired Burns to write.