His Heart Was in the Highlands

Robert Burns’ fierce pride, penetrating wit and perfect ear for language gave Scotland—and the world—an imperishable legacy of poetry and song

...The coward-slave, we pass him by,
    We dare be poor, for a' [all] that!...
  The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
    The Man's the gowd [gold] for a' that....
    A Man's a Man for a' that,

  For a' that, and a' that,...
  The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,

    Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie [fellow] ca' d [called] a lord,

    Wha [who] struts, and stares, an' a' that....
A prince can mak a belted knight,

    A marquis, duke, and a' that!;
But an honest man's aboon [above] his might,...
    It's comin yet for a' that,
  That Man to Man the world o'er
    Shall brothers be for a' that.

These lines are from "A Man's a Man for a' That." Robert Burns wrote this immortal paean to Thomas Paine's Rights of Man in 1795. It has since rung round the world, in every tongue—"the chosen hymn of all high-minded dreamers of a better day." Through such songs, Robert Burns has made acquaintance irresistibly with much of humankind—most famously, with his "Auld Lang Syne."

The Traditional New Year's Toast

Robert Burns was born in 1759, in the cottage his father had built. The lime-washed dwelling still stands in Alloway, scene of the rural family life Burns limned in "The Cotter's Saturday Night." The poem is dead accurate, down to his father's Bible readings. But very early Burns turned from the Calvinism that he came mercilessly to satirize. A "bonie, sweet, sonsie lass" had initiated him "in ‘a certain delicious Passion,...I hold to be the first of human joys." Burns struck a lifelong alliance between "Love and Poesy" and "committed the sin of RHYME." But he was also trapped early into marginal farming with his brother Gilbert.

Auld Lang Syne
(Original Scottish)

Auld Lang Syne
(English Translation)

L ater, he pursued the seemingly unlikely prospect of becoming an exciseman—a kind of tax assessor. And he turned to his great love of song. At many a stop at an inn, and on his highland journeys, he had long been gathering Scottish airs. These songs he restored—often setting new words to old tunes—until hundreds of songs filled six volumes.

But his rheumatic heart failed him at age 37. Burns died in 1796. He left great sorrow, but a blithe, larking spirit. Despite all, he inveighed against tyrannies and sang of hearts under love's thrall. Such auld acquaintance has never faltered, only grows more fond.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.