This Sunday, 25 January, marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns (1759-96), Scotland's most celebrated poet. He gave us poems and songs such us O, my Luve's like a red, red rose, and Comin Thro' the Rye, not to mention the Address to a Haggis (which is traditionally eaten at Burns Suppers at this time of year to honour his birth). He wrote in the Lowland dialect and is remembered for phrases like "Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us," "A man's a man for a' that." and (to a mouse) "We sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie."
The spin-doctors of the time hailed Burns as the "Poet Ploughman" and he did indeed work on the land in his native Ayrshire.. But he was well educated, at home, and at a local school. At that time, and particularly in Scotland, even the poorest families strived to give their children the best education they could afford – something that is often forgotten today amid the propaganda for universal state education.
Probably before his twenties, indeed, he had already read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published just a few weeks after Burns was born. Smith's humanity, evident in this work, obviously struck a chord in the young Burns; the book was, he wrote, a great influence on his life. He admired Smith, and wrote of The Wealth of Nations, "I could not have given any mere man credit for half the intelligence Mr Smith discovers in his book." Like Burns, Smith was of course also fascinated with language, and Burns must have known of Smith's lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres, even though these were not published until after Smith's death.
Smith too appreciated Burns's talent, and ordered an advance copy of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. When Smith was appointed a Scottish Commissioner of Customs, he was able to recommend Burns as a Customs Officer in Dumfries – and probably did. But it seems that the two never met. Burns did arrange to pay a visit to Smith in 1787. But by that time, Smith was unwell (he died in 1790) and had to leave the day before to seek medical treatment.