Robert Burns poems
Original Release: January 25, 2009 (UK)
Written by: Robert Burns
Produced by: BBC Radio Scotland

BBC Radio Scotland's Esme Kennedy and Dave Batchelor recorded performances by some of Scotland's best-loved actors and public figures of Robert Burns's works.

A team from the University of Glasgow provided the many guides featured at BBC Scotlands website and recordings from 716 works are available, many of which have now been associated with days of the year.

Robert Carlyle read a total of 7 poems and Robert was filmed while reading one of them and it aired on BBC Channel 2, on the program "The Culture Show Uncut". Some other actors were also featured reading one poem each.

Photo Gallery
Quotes from Cast & Crew

"It's a fitting tribute to Robert Burns on this landmark anniversary. I am delighted that in The Complete Burns we will be offering to Burns and to Scotland high-profile coverage and an authoritative legacy for future generations."
- Donalda MacKinnon, BBC Scotland head of programmes

O Leave Novels
Listen to Robert reading the poem

O leave novels, ye Mauchline belles,
Ye’re safer at your spinning-wheel;
Such witching books are baited hooks
For rakish rooks, like Rob Mossgiel;
Your fine Tom Jones and Grandisons,
They make your youthful fancies reel;
They heat your brains, and fire your veins,
And then you’re prey for Rob Mossgiel.

Beware a tongue that’s smoothly hung,
A heart that warmly seems to feel;
That feeling heart but acts a part –
‘Tis rakish art in Rob Mossgiel.
The frank address, the soft caress,
Are worse than poisoned darts of steel;
The frank address, and politesse,
Are all finesse in Rob Mossgiel.

More about the poem
These playful song lyrics warn the ‘Mauchline belles’ not to read novels as the sexuality implicit in Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison would fire them up and make them ‘prey for Rob Mossgiel’ – Burns himself!

Burns plays on his reputation as a womaniser and fornicator in these lyrics so that the whole piece becomes a masterwork of self-parody.

By Juliet Linden Bicket

The Battle Of Sherramuir

Listen to Robert reading the poem

“O cam ye here the fight to shun,
Or herd the sheep wi’ me, man?
Or were ye at the Sherra-moor,
Or did the battle see, man?”
I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran mony a sheugh ;
My heart, for fear, gaed sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods, in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

The red-coat lads, wi’ black cockauds,
To meet them were na slaw, man;
They rush’d and push’d, and blude outgush’d
And mony a bouk did fa’, man:
The great Argyle led on his files,
I wat they glanc’d for twenty miles;
They hough’d the clans like nine-pin kyles,
They hack’d and hash’d, while braid-swords, clash’d,
And thro’ they dash’d, and hew’d and smash’d,
Till fey men di’d awa, man.

But had ye seen the philibegs,
And skyrin tartan trews, man;
When in the teeth they dar’d our Whigs,
And covenant True-blues, man:
In lines extended lang and large,
When baiginets o’erpower’d the targe,
And thousands hasten’d to the charge;
Wi’ Highland wrath they frae the sheath
Drew blades o’ death, till, out o’ breath,
They fled like frighted dows, man!

“O how deil, Tam, can that be true?
The chase gaed frae the north, man;
I saw mysel, they did pursue,
The horsemen back to Forth, man;
And at Dunblane, in my ain sight,
They took the brig wi’ a’ their might,
And straught to Stirling wing’d their flight;
But, cursed lot! the gates were shut;
And mony a huntit poor red-coat,
For fear amaist did swarf, man!”

My sister Kate cam up the gate
Wi’ crowdie unto me, man;
She swoor she saw some rebels run
To Perth and to Dundee, man;
Their left-hand general had nae skill;
The Angus lads had nae gude will
That day their neibors’ blude to spill;
For fear, for foes, that they should lose
Their cogs o’ brose ; they scar’d at blows,
And hameward fast did flee, man.

They’ve lost some gallant gentlemen,
Amang the Highland clans, man!
I fear my Lord Panmure is slain,
Or fallen in Whiggish hands, man,
Now wad ye sing this double flight,
Some fell for wrang, and some for right;
But mony bade the world gude-night ;
Then ye may tell, how pell and mell,
By red claymores, and muskets knell,
Wi’ dying yell, the Tories fell,
And Whigs to hell did flee, man.

More about the poem
On 13 November 1715 the Earl of Mar led his Jacobite forces into battle with the Duke of Argyll’s Hanoverian troops at Sherrifmuir. Although both sides claimed victory, the outcome was indecisive. It did, however, bring the 1715 rebellion to an end.

Recognising that the battle was so inconclusive Burns wrote the song as an account of two shepherds advocating opposing views of the unfolding events.

The song was an adaptation of John Barclay’s broadside, ‘Dialogue between Will Lick-Ladle and Tom Clean-Cogue’. He composed it when he toured the highlands in 1787, and it was first published in The Scots Musical Museum (1790).

By Ralph Richard McLean

The Belles of Mauchline

Listen to Robert reading the poem

In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a’;
Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess,
In Lon’on or Paris, they’d gotten it a’.

Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland’s divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw:
There’s beauty and fortune to get wi’ Miss Morton,
But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.

More about the poem
First printed in 1800 in the Currie edition, this song is in praise of six of Mauchline’s most attractive young women, who have caught the poet’s eye. ‘Miss Miller’ is Helen Miller, sister of the ‘Merchant Master Miller’; the bridegroom of A Mauchline Wedding.

The other belles mentioned in the poem are Helen’s sister ‘Miss Betty’, Jean Markland, Jean Smith, Christina Morton, and of course Jean Armour – ‘the jewel for me o’ them a” – who met Burns in late 1784 (which is probably the time around which this poem was written). Jean Armour was acknowledged as Burns’ wife in April 1788.

By Juliet Linden Bicket

The Jolly Beggars: Merry Andrew

Listen to Robert reading the poem

Sir Wisdom’s a fool when he’s fou;
Sir Knave is a fool in a session;
He’s there but a ‘prentice I trow,
But I am a fool by profession.

My grannie she bought me a beuk,
An’ I held awa to the school;
I fear I my talent misteuk,
But what will ye hae of a fool?

For drink I would venture my neck;
A hizzie’s the half of my craft;
But what could ye other expect
Of ane that’s avowedly daft?

I ance was tied up like a stirk,
For civilly swearing and quaffin;
I ance was abus’d i’ the kirk,
For towsing a lass i’ my daffin.

Poor Andrew that tumbles for sport,
Let naebody name wi’ a jeer;
There’s even, I’m tauld, i’ the Court
A tumbler ca’d the Premier.

Observ’d ye yon reverend lad
Mak faces to tickle the mob;
He rails at our mountebank squad, –
It’s rivalship just i’ the job.

And now my conclusion I’ll tell,
For faith I’m confoundedly dry;
The chiel that’s a fool for himsel’,
Guid Lord! he’s far dafter than I.

Thou Gloomy December

Listen to Robert reading the poem

Ance mair I hail thee, thou gloomy December!
Ance mair I hail thee wi’ sorrow and care;
Sad was the parting thou makes me remember-
Parting wi’ Nancy, oh, ne’er to meet mair!

Fond lovers’ parting is sweet, painful pleasure,
Hope beaming mild on the soft parting hour;
But the dire feeling, O farewell for ever!
Is anguish unmingled, and agony pure!

Wild as the winter now tearing the forest,
Till the last leaf o’ the summer is flown;
Such is the tempest has shaken my bosom,
Till my last hope and last comfort is gone.

Still as I hail thee, thou gloomy December,
Still shall I hail thee wi’ sorrow and care;
For sad was the parting thou makes me remember,
Parting wi’ Nancy, oh, ne’er to meet mair.

To a Louse

Listen to Robert reading the poem

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her –
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it –
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.

I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

More about the poem
Probably composed in 1785, around the same time as To a Mouse, ‘To a Louse’ also addresses lower creation in order to wean a moral lesson for mankind.

A particularly audacious louse has made its way onto the bonnet of a local beauty, Jenny, while she sits in church. The language Burns uses in addressing the louse is reminiscent of William Dunbar’s flytings and is highly effective in rendering the unhygienic vermin as an unwelcome guest on so fine a lady.

Jenny incorrectly believes that the winks and stares of the church congregation are in approbation of her ‘gawze and lace’ bonnet and vainly tosses her head.

The poet humorously laments that if we had the power to see ourselves as others see us, such ridiculous displays could be prevented. The poem’s linking of an observed experience, or exemplum, to a final maxim, or sententia, is typical of a Horatian satire.

By Megan Coyer

When Princes and Prelates

Listen to Robert reading the poem

When Princes and Prelates and het-headed zealots
All Europe hae set in a lowe,
The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown,
And comforts himsel with a mowe.

And why shouldna poor folk mowe, mowe, mowe,
And why shouldna poor folk mowe:
The great folk hae siller, and houses and lands,
Poor bodies hae naething but mowe.

When Brunswick’s great Prince cam a cruising to France
Republican billies to cowe,
Bauld Brunswick’s great Prince wad hae shawn better sense
At hame with his Princess to mowe.

Out over the Rhine proud Prussia wad shine,
To spend his best blood he did vow;
But Frederic had better ne’er forded the water,
But spent as he docht in a mowe.

By sea and by shore! the Emperor swore,
In Paris he’d kick up a row;
But Paris saw ready just leugh at the laddie
And bad him gae tak a mowe.

Auld Kate laid her claws on poor Stanislaus,
And Poland has bent like a bow:
May the deil in her arse ram a huge prick of brass!
And damn her in hell with a mowe!

But truce with commotions and new-fangled notions,
A bumper I trust you’ll allow:
Here’s George our gude king and Charlotte his queen,
And lang may they tak a gude mowe!

And why shouldna poor folk mowe, mowe, mowe,
And why shouldna poor folk mowe:
The great folk hae siller, and houses and lands,
Poor bodies hae naething but mowe.

More about the poem
‘Why should na poor folk mowe,’ often published under the more polite title ‘When Princes and Prelates’, was enclosed in a letter from Burns to his friend Robert Cleghorn (a co-member of the Edinburgh drinking club, the Crochallan Fencibles) on 12 December 1792. This song also appears in the collection of bawdy song The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799).

In this bawdy political song, Burns subverts the social hierarchy by pointing out that the so-called lower classes command a most powerful political weapon; what he considers to be their expert ability to reproduce.

In this particular song, the power and significance of sexuality and human reproduction is symbolised by the success of the French revolution. And so, the common masses surmount the European ruling class, who are portrayed as sexually and ultimately politically impotent.

For Burns, sex and reproduction are central to humanity, and therefore true authority lies with common man, united and made powerful by their sexuality. Burns’s reference to the common folk as ‘poor bodies’ is not intended to provoke pity.

Rather, this is a defiant song that advocates the triumph of sex over social class, and so common man is depicted as comparatively content when considered alongside the troubled monarchs of Europe and their unsuccessful battles with republican France.

By Pauline Gray