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The Longevity of Robert Burns

Tonight, Scots around the world will be celebrating the immortal memory of Robert Burns, our national poet. Burns made a remarkable contribution to the richness of humankind in his short time on Earth. Tributes to his legacy will touch on many aspects of his life. It made me wonder about his contribution to longevity.

Whilst Burns was a master wordsmith, I can’t help but use a few figures to highlight just how different life was in Burns' time. He was born into a farming community, in Ayrshire in lowland Scotland, on 25 January 1759. Burns lived for just 37 years. That sounds really short by today’s standards, but he actually outlived the then life expectancy, measured from birth, by around 5 years, those extra 5 years enabling him to pen some of his best works. (For the numerophiles, Scotland's first census in 1755 provided some remarkable insights into 18th century life, enabling an estimate of the then life expectancy from birth of 32 years. By contrast, the latest Scottish figures (2020-2022) for the life expectancy of Scots from birth are 76.5 years for men and 80.7 years for women.)

So, what did life look like in 18th century Scotland? There were high rates of infant mortality. There was no public sanitation. Healthcare was next to non-existent: it would be another two centuries before Alexander Fleming (also from Ayrshire) would discover antibiotics. And there was wide social inequality, with the poor struggling with an unhealthy diet, as highlighted in this line from a Robert Burns poem, recited to say grace before eating the haggis (a dish made from the cheaper parts of a sheep) at a traditional Burns night:

“Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.”

As for smoking, as a leading figure in the Scottish enlightenment, it is likely that Burns smoked tobacco, imported from the US, in a clay pipe in the coffee shops of Edinburgh. It is well documented that he enjoyed a drink, with Burns' favourite tipple being the “water of life”, also known as the “amber bead” or whisky.

Burns' contribution to Scottish culture was both huge and enduring. He was not just a poet, but also a prolific song writer. Some of Burns' songs become very danceable at a lung-busting Scottish ceilidh. He was a veritable 18th century Beyonce! You have probably heard - and ideally danced to - “Auld Lang’s Syne”, widely performed at New Year.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?

Now, I’m no Fred Astaire, but I love ceilidh dancing. I’m sure I am not the only bloke to find their confidence on the dancefloor at a ceilidh. From a health perspective, dancing is recommended for mental as well as physical wellbeing. So, thank you Rabbie for helping me to get over my two left feet.

Whatever you are up to this 25 January, please spare a few moments to Google Burns, and toast his remarkable longevity. As he said,

“Here’s to us, who’s like us Damn few, and they’re all dead.”
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