Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland to a poor farming family, his parents made sure that he was well educated as a child. In 1783 he started composing poetry in a traditional style using the Ayrshire dialect of Scots. These poems were well received locally and in 1786 they were published in the volume, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect by a local printer in Kilmarnock. This volume made him famous in Scotland overnight and as a result he spent several years in Edinburgh society. However the fame was not accompanied by money and he found it necessary to return to farming. However that too proved unprofitable and in 1789 he entered government service working for the Customs and Excise service.
He died at the age of 37 as a result of a weak heart brought on by years of poor working conditions on the farm dating back to his childhood. Within a short time of his death, money started pouring in from all over Scotland to support his widow and children.
His memory is celebrated by Burns clubs across the world; his birthday is an unofficial "National Day" for Scots and those with Scottish ancestry, celebrated with Burns suppers.