Robert Burns (1759-96) is best known for his poems and songs that reflect Scotland's cultural heritage. He was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, the first of seven children belonging to William Burnes, a tenant farmer, and his wife Agnes Broun. Burns had little formal education, but he read English literature and absorbed the traditional, largely oral Scots-language folk songs and tales of his rural environment. He began to compose songs in 1774, and published his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. The work was a critical success, and its poems in both Scots and English, on a range of topics, established Burns's broad appeal. While building his literary reputation, Burns worked as a farmer, and in 1788 he was appointed an excise officer in Ellisland. He spent the final 12 years of his life collecting and editing traditional Scottish folk songs for collections including The Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Original Scotish [sic] Airs for the Voice. Burns contributed hundreds of Scottish songs to these anthologies, sometimes rewriting traditional lyrics and setting them to new or revised music.
Burns wrote this verse in response to a poetic epistle received from a tailor, Thomas Walker of Ochiltree. Walker had sent a friendly message in the beginning, but receiving no reply from Burns, wrote instead a censorious letter about the newly published Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Walker may have been encouraged by his friend in Ochiltree, William Simson, who had earlier been able to elicit a response from Burns. Burns himself never published the exchange and no manuscript is recorded in his hand, but both poems were printed together after Burns's death in Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns(1801). This contemporary manuscript copy contains several variants from the published text, including a substitution of the conclusion into a different stanza.