‘My Father Was a Farmer’: A Poem by Robert Burns

‘My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O, / And carefully he bred me in decency and order, O’: so begins this poem, ‘My Father Was a Farmer’, written to the tune of ‘The Weaver and His Shuttle, O’, in which Robert Burns (1759-96) reflects on the fact that he, like his father, was bred for labour and toil.

My Father Was a Farmer

My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border, O,
And carefully he bred me in decency and order, O;
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing, O;
For without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding, O.

Then out into the world my course I did determine, O;
Tho’ to be rich was not my wish, yet to be great was charming, O;

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‘Tam o’ Shanter’: A Poem by Robert Burns

Robert Burns’s poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ follows the titular hero, an Ayrshire farmer fond of drink and spending time with his mates, and not so fond of getting home to his increasingly impatient wife. The name of the tea clipper the Cutty Sark comes from this poem (it’s the nickname of Nannie Dee in Burns’s poem), while the name of the poem’s hero (if ‘hero’ is quite the word) has been applied to the hats or caps worn by Scottish men ever since.

Tam o’ Shanter

‘Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke.’
Gawin Douglas.

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,

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‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’: A Poem by Robert Burns

Also known by its first line, ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ (i.e. ‘for all that’) laments the fact that equality does not exist among men. The poem ends with the heartfelt call ‘That man to man the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that.’ The poem was sung at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

A Man’s a Man for A’ That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!

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‘To a Mouse’: A Poem by Robert Burns

The full title of Robert Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’ is, in fact, ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field. The poem inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men with its line, ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft agley’ (that is, often go awry).

To a Mouse

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

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‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’: A Poem by Robert Burns

‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ shows just what a great satirical poet Robert Burns could be. Like John Betjeman’s later poem ‘In Westminster Abbey’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ – a poem from 1785 – uses the form of a prayer to expose religious hypocrisy and ruthless self-preservation – here, the self-preservation of ‘Holy Willie’, a church elder.

Holy Willie’s Prayer


Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering, which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to
liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline-a Mr.Gavin Hamilton-Holy Willie and his

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