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Robert Burns: The Highland Connection

Robert Burns is a world-renowned poet and songwriter. Often titled Scotland’s ‘National Bard’, he was born on 25 January 1759 in a thatched cottage in Alloway, not dissimilar to our wee thatched cottage here in Glencoe.

He lived in various parts of Scotland, including Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire and Edinburgh, but he also travelled more widely which included embarking on a Borders, West Highland and Highlands tour which you can find more information about here.

Unfortunately, he didn’t visit Glencoe (as far as we know!) – but his admiration for the Highlands is evident through his works, most notably in ‘My Heart is in the Highlands’:

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,

The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth ;

Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,

Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;

Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,

Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

The romanticisation of the natural beauty found in the Highlands region is clear. Burns had a deep admiration and connection to nature and the land having been brought up on a farm and worked several farms himself as an adult, and is often nicknamed “The Ploughman Poet”. His famous ‘To a Mouse’ poem reflects and ponders on humanity’s impact on animals and the natural world, ideas which were much ahead of his time. It is also worth noting in the second stanza on the second line “The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth” which could be a reference to the clan systems that were historically found in the area which held notions of honour, kinship and hospitality very highly.

Burns actually wrote (or rewrote/rejigged) 27 works with a Jacobite theme, a theme which is found in our museum collections and stories. We have numerous Jacobite objects, from a chair belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie to a sword found on the battlefield at Culloden, on display in our museum. Then of course there is one of the most harrowing events in Scotland’s past - the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 where at least 30 people were murdered, an event which is widely regarded as a Jacobite symbol and was used to rally support. You can see a list of Jacobite themed Robert Burns works here.

One of the more famous pieces is 'Ye Jacobites By Name' an atmospheric song that criticises rather than praises the Jacobite cause. Burns is known to be a complicated character: his personal and political beliefs are hard to pin down, but generally speaking he was a pacifist. This song has a universal message - to question being told to go to war. Interestingly this song is thought to be a reworked version of an English anti-Jacobite song, but it is Burns’ rendition that has endured. This song has been sung by Scottish folk band The Corries – who incidentally also sang a song called ‘Massacre of Glencoe’.

Another Highland connection is the infamous love story between Burns and “Highland” Mary, a love affair which has become legend. The exact details are debated but it is thought that the romance took place during the spring and summer of 1786. Very little evidence survives regarding her identity, but Highland Mary is believed to have been a servant from Campbeltown whom Burns met while she was working in Ayrshire. It is thought that the two lovers would rendezvous on the banks of the River Ayr. The story goes that the pair planned to immigrate to Jamaica together. However, after travelling back to her parent’s home in Greenock, she died of typhus on the way back to meet with Burns. One thing is clear though - The Bard was creatively motivated by her and the relationship as ‘Highland Lassie O’ and ‘To Mary in Heaven’ are thought to have been inspired by her. Furthermore, many artists have been inspired by the romance and there numerous paintings, statues and other memorabilia depicting the two lovers. Below is an image of the Henry William Midwood painting titled 'The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary'.

Burns has played a part in the romanticisation of the Highlands. Literary works have had a powerful cultural influence in shaping contemporary understandings of the Highlands (and Scotland more generally). In Burns’ works he often refers to Scotland’s bonnie natural landscapes – of which some of the best examples are found in the Highland regions. Furthermore, in his sentimental ‘Lovely Lassie of Inverness’ based on the Battle of Culloden, he laments the tragic history of the Highlands. This plays into the pervasive idea that the Highlands are a place of wild ruggedness, with a bloody and war-torn past. Romantic poets, after Burns’ time, were also inspired by the Highlands, including William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. This is unsurprising as it is a place steeped in myth, beauty and rich culture – the exact qualities which attract tourists today as families learn about Nessie, hike Munros, Instagram glens and visit museums.

The Bard died on 21st July 1796 at only the age of 37. He accomplished so much in such a short lifespan and had a massive cultural impact, by celebrating Scots language and preserving folk songs, and becoming one of the first poets to write in an accessible way for lower classes. He really was the "people’s poet". Who knows what wonderous things he would have gone on to create had he lived a longer life, one can only wonder… This Burns Night, no matter where you hail from, take time to "backward cast yer e'e" on one of Scotland's finest.

Photo credit: National Trust for Scotland, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, To see the painting in person, visit the historic cottage where Burns was born and a museum dedicated to his life and work, visit

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