Robert Burns

(1759 - 1796) Born in Alloway in South Ayrshire in 1759, the son of a farmer, Scotland's national bard was the eldest of seven children. At this time Scotland was probably the most literate country in Europe and as a result Robert was well read and educated, despite regarding himself as a simple tenant farmer.

Burns was twenty-five years old in 1784 when he came to live in the town of Mauchline, the well read and well educated eldest son of his late father, William Burns. William Burns was from Kincardinshire and his mother Agnes Broun was from Maybole, Ayrshire. After leaving Alloway where he was born, his father had rented farms at Mount Oliphant and Lochlie, where Robert for years had done a man's work while still a boy and became a skilled ploughman. Although the family were poor, Robert's father, together with his neighbours, found enough money to pay a tutor, John Murdoch, to educate his sons. By 1784 Burns had also studied surveying, founded the Bachelor's club in Tarbolton with his brother Gilbert, joined a Masonic lodge, tried to follow a new career as a flax dresser in Irvine, fallen in love, taken dancing classes and written a string of poems and songs, mostly in praise of 'the lassies'. He was a skilled letter writer and his services were much in demand as a 'blackfoot' - writing letters on behalf of local suitors. In Burns' day Lowland Scotland had one of the highest levels of literacy in Europe. After his marriage to Jean Armour in 1788 (the couple had nine children), he eventually moved to Dumfries in 1791 but by this time was in poor health. Over the years many people of importance helped him gain influence and he soon became an established figure within Scottish society and regularly visited Edinburgh.

Burns and the Kirk:
In the 1780's the Presbyterian Kirk was a central part of rural life in South-West Scotland. The 'Kirk Session' expected the parish congregation to adhere to a strict religious moral code, attend Church and observe the Sabbath.

Burns was brought up in a religious household and knew his Bible well, but religious hypocrisy - and the struggle at the time between the 'New Licht' faction of the Kirk, who reflected the new liberal attitudes of the 'Enlightenment', and the die-hard Calvinist, hell and damnation, 'Auld Licht' church elders, provided the poet with inspiration for some of his most entertaining satirical works. Burns was a free spirit. His poems, which poked fun at the stern church elders, struck a chord with like-minded folk in the district and copies were in great demand. Among those who asked for a copy of 'Holy Willie's Prayer' was a young 'New Licht' minister at Tarbolton called the Rev. John McMath. Burns sent him a copy of the poem, but also enclosed with it a verse epistle containing this reference to the 'Auld Licht' brigade:

"But I gae mad at their grimaces, Their sighin, cantin, grace proud faces, Their three-mile prayers, an hauf-mile graces Whase greed, revenge, and pride disgraces Waur nov their nonsense,…

The epistle goes on:
"I own 'twas rash, and rather hardy, That I, a simple, countra Bardie, Should meddle wi a pack sae sturdy Wha, if they ken me, Can easy wi a single wordie Louse Hell apon me."

The sexual exploits of the poet and his young friends in Mauchline brought them before the Kirk Session, 'the houghmagandie pack' as Burns referred to them, to repent their sins. The rev. William Auld, 'Daddy Auld' was ordained at Mauchline in 1742 and was Parish minister during Burns' time there. Although an 'Auld Licht' he was described as 'kindly and courteous'. It was he who called Robert and Jean Armour to appear before the congregation but he allowed Burns to stand in his own pew while being rebuked from the pulpit, instead of in the 'creepy chair' - the place of repentance at the front of the church.

Brother Burns

Burns was a mason from the age of twenty-two. He was initiated on 4th July 1781 into St. David's Lodge, No.147, Tarbolton. He was elected Depute Master of St. James's Lodge (which had amalgamated with St. David's before later breaking away) on 17th July 1784, a position he held for 4 years. The club atmosphere of lodge meetings appealed to the sociable nature of the young poet, while the spiritual aspect of freemasonry was largely in tune with the moral teachings of his father. Freemasonry crossed social classes - this helped Burns to meet with some of the most influential men in Scotland. It is no coincidence that those who encouraged Burns to print his poems, the printers themselves, and many more of those who subscribed copies were all freemasons. In his poetry Burns refers many times to the sense of brotherhood which he found in Masonic circles. The verse below sums this up and was dedicated to Major William Parker, Master of lodge St. John Kilwinning in Kilmarnock, by whom Burns was received as a guest of the lodge in 1786.

"Within your dear Mansion may wayward contention, Or withered Envy ne'er enter; May secrecy round be the Mystical bound, And brotherly love be the centre"


Robert Burns and Irvine 

Although Scotland's national poet was born at Alloway near Ayr, he spent several months of his life in Irvine. In 1781, at the age of 22, Robert Burns arrived in the town to learn the trade of flax-dressing or heckling. He lodged with a relative of his mother, William Peacock, who ran a successful flax workshop in the Glasgow Vennel. His stay was short-lived and in March 1782, ill and disheartened by his experiences in the trade, he returned to the family's farm near Mauchline. 
Whilst living in Irvine, Burns was able to indulge his passion for books in William Templeton's bookshop near the Tron. He also composed a number of poems and ballads during his stay, although none of the significance that he was to pen in the next few years. The heckling workshop is now the Vennel Gallery for contemporary art, whilst his nearby lodgings are used by school groups and are open to visitors, by appointment.  

Robert Burns and Kilmarnock 

To commemorate the publication, in Kilmarnock, of the first edition of Burns' poems, a statue of the poet and his printer, John Wilson stands in the town centre close to the original site of Wilson's print-shop. A copy of this book is preserved within the collections of East-Ayrshire and can be viewed at the Burns House Museum in Mauchline, along with some of his original manuscripts. 



First Contact

Robert Burns' first contact with Dumfries and Galloway came in 1787 during a short tour of the Borders with his friend Bob Ainslie, a law student. Following the success of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems he found himself acclaimed as 'Caledonia's Bard' by Edinburgh Society.  The 3000 copies of the new Edinburgh edition were selling well and his fame had been further increased by an article about him in the 'Lounger', a weekly magazine. 

He arrived in Dumfries from Carlisle on 4th June.  Dumfries Town Council immediately made him an honorary burgess, little knowing that one day he would come here to live.

The main reason for his visit was to look at a farm offered to him by Patrick Miller, a director of the Bank of Scotland and chairman of the Carron Company in Falkirk.  Miller, an admirer of Burns, had recently purchased the estate of Dalswinton, 6 miles north of Dumfries.  He offered him the tenancy of one of the farms, Ellisland, on the banks of the Nith, at an advantageous rent:- seventy pounds a year restricted to £50 for the first three years.

 Burns had always been doubtful of earning his living by his pen and was looking for another means but when he saw the farm he was not impressed and was worried that the 'bargain' might ruin him.  In March 1788, despite his misgivings, he signed the lease.  Shortly before, however, he had written to Robert Graham of Fintry, a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise, that he "wished to get into the Excise".  Graham, another admirer, used his influence and arranged for Burns to receive a position in the Dumfries area as soon as one became available.

Ellisland ...

Burns arrived at Ellisland on 11th June 1788.  He was then 29 years of age. 

The farm was so neglected that it did not even have a farmhouse and he had to live in a hut at nearby Isle Tower until one was built.

The farm had been worked on the old 'run-rig' system which meant that the land was divided into narrow strips which were used for permanent crops.  These were raised in the middle and drainage was mostly by surface run-off between the rigs.  This gave the landscape a corrugated appearance.  There were no hedges so animals often strayed into the crops causing much damage.  Grazing land was shared between farms and the fields generally carried more stock than they could support.  Winter feed was always in short supply as there was little hay and no root crops such as turnip.

Burns could take comfort, however, in the knowledge that even if the farm was to fail he would soon have a job in the Excise to fall back upon.  His wife, Jean Armour, and their infant son Robert moved down from Mauchline in December to join him.  After many problems with the builders they moved into the new house in May 1789.  Their second son Francis was born in August, and a month later Burns began his excise duties.

Excise was a tax similar to V.A.T.  but collected at the point of manufacture or import rather than at the point of sale.  A wide range of goods was liable for it, mostly notably silk, tobacco and spirits.  Burns as a guager had to calculate and collect the tax due.  Thus in addition to improving a run down farm he had to travel over 200 miles per week on horseback collecting excise duties and complete the necessary bookwork during his evenings.  For this he received £50 per year plus £50 for every smuggler arrested and half of any goods seized.

Although he had two full-time jobs and his health was not good he found time to write many songs.  The long hours on horseback allowed him to work over verses.  He began to collaborate with James Johnson, an engraver who was producing an anthology of Scottish songs called the 'Scots Musical Museum'.  The second volume, virtually edited by Burns was published in 1788 and contained 40 of his own songs.  The third volume which appeared in the following year had 50 more.  He was also a prolific letter writer.  Burns must have been a man of considerable energies.

Fortunately in July 1790 he was transferred to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division which reduced his weekly mileage.  He was good at his job and popular with his superiors.  His standard of living on the farm was above average and he could employ farmworkers to help him with the improvements.

...  a Ruinous Affair

Burns' neighbour at Ellisland was Robert Riddell of Friars Carse.  Riddell allowed him to use the Hermitage, a small summer house on the estate, in which to meditate and compose poetry.

Through Riddell, Burns met Captain Francis Grose who was compiling a book on the antiquities of Scotland.  Burns asked him to include an illustration of Alloway Kirk.  Grose agreed provided the poet would contribute a 'witch story' to accompany the drawing.  The result was 'Tam O'Shanter', the tale of a farmer who when returning home late after a night's drinking, met with some witches.  The poem was written in a single day on the banks of the Nith and is arguably his best work. 

Whilst at Ellisland he was invited by Patrick Miller, his landlord, to go out in his small experimental steamboat on Dalswinton Loch.  The boat, which was fitted with an atmospheric engine designed by William Symington, had two hulls and was the first paddle propelled steamboat in the world. 

It was during his time at Ellisland that he had an affair with Anna Park, niece of Meg Hyslop, the landlady of the Globe Inn, Dumfries.  The result was a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1790.  Jean, with considerable understanding adopted the baby as her own.  Nine days later she herself gave birth to their third son, William Nichol Burns.

Although Burns was relatively happy at Ellisland, producing some of his best songs such as 'Auld Lang Syne',' Willie Brewed a Peck o' Maut' and 'John Anderson My Jo', the farm itself was a disaster.  The soil was exhausted and would not support either crops or dairy cattle.  By 1790 Burns had decided that the farm was an altogether "ruinous affair" and the following year after auctioning the stock and crops he moved with his family to Dumfries.

Bank Street, Dumfries

Dumfries in Burns' day was a lively town of some 5600 inhabitants, living in houses of sandstone or red brick.  It was described at the time as "beautiful and advantageous ...  neat ... well built ...  well lighted and neatly paved."

He moved into a small flat in Bank Street, then called the Wee or Stinking Vennel.  Below him was the office of his Excise superior and friend, John Syme.

Burns was soon playing a full part in town life.  His burgess ticket presented four years previously allowed him to claim reduced fees for his childrens' education.  In February 1792 he was promoted to the Dumfries Port Division with an increase in salary to £70 a year.  This allowed him more leisure time and the days in Bank Street were a period of prolific song writing for him.  In August Volume IV of the 'Scots Musical Museum' was published, containing another 50 of his songs.  His favourite walks in town were beside the Nith, upriver to Lincluden and along the Dock to Castledykes.

Mrs Burns described his domestic habits:- "Burns was not an early riser excepting when he had anything particular to do in the way of his profession.  Even tho' he had dined out, he never lay after nine o'clock.  The family breakfasted at nine. If he lay long in bed awake he was always reading.  At all meals he had a book beside him on the table.  He did his work in the forenoon and was seldom engaged professionally in the evening.  He was fond of plain things and hated tarts, pies and puddings.  When at home in the evening he employed his time in writing and reading with the children playing around him.  Their prattle never distracted him in the least."

He made many friends in the town, Dr Maxwell was one, he had been in the Republican army in the French Revolution and was one of the guards at the execution of Louis XVI.  Burns made many visits to Ryedale, the home of John Syme who had the sinecure of Collector of Stamps for Dumfries and their close friendship brought him much pleasure.  Another friend was Burns' supervisor Alexander Findlater, a minister's son who later became the Collector for Glasgow, a top position in the Excise.  Despite their friendship Findlater checked Burns' work strictly. 

Among his women friends was the beautiful Maria Riddell, wife of Robert Riddell's younger brother Walter.  She lived at the estate of Goldielea, near Dumfries, which her husband renamed Woodley Park after her maiden name.  Burns wrote her many letters and often visited her. Goldielea still stands today, in an imposing setting.

In Dumfries his favourite inn or "howff" was the Globe in the High Street.  The innkeepers were Mr and Mrs Hyslop.

Burns - the Revolutionary?

In February 1792 Burns was one of a party of Excise officers and Dragoons who seized the brig 'Rosamund' which was attempting to smuggle goods at Sarkfoot near Gretna.  As the party approached, the smugglers opened fire with grape shot.  Fortunately the ship was so high in the water that her big guns could not be used. Reinforcements were called and a boarding party, including Burns, waded chest deep in the strong tide towards the vessel.  At the last moment the crew ceased their fire and escaped across the sands to England.

The vessel and its contents were confiscated and sold by public auction on the 19th April at the Coffee House, Dumfries.  As a democrat Burns was an open supporter of the Revolution then taking place in France and the tradition is that he purchased four carronades, a kind of small cannon, and sent them as a gift to the Revolutionaries.  This was a dangerous act as Britain and France were on the brink of war. 

His behaviour caused further concern when on the 30th October 1792 he apparently joined in a chorus of 'Ca Ira' the song of the French Revolutionaries, after a gala performance of 'As You Like It' at the newly opened Theatre Royal.  This was another dangerous act for a government officer.

Someone denounced him to the Excise Board as disloyal and he had to defend himself to Graham of Fintry.  He denied that he had joined in and said that although he had been in the Pit when the song started he himself had never "opened his lips." He added that he was attached to the British Constitution "next after my God." He was allowed to keep his job but was told to be "silent and obedient."

Nevertheless, 1792 was a good year for him.  The Royal Company of Archers made him an honorary member in April and in November Jean gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  His song writing was prolific and included 'The Deils Awa Wi' the Exciseman', 'Duncan Gray' and 'The Lea Rig'.

Mill Street, Dumfries

In May 1793 the family moved to a better quality house in Mill Street (now Burns Street). Their standard of living was good and they employed a maid servant. The house had two bedrooms, a parlour, a kitchen and even a small study.  It was well furnished and carpeted.  Wellwishers would often send Burns game or country produce and occasionally, barrels of oysters.  He was always anxious that Mrs Burns should be well dressed. She was one of the first women in Dumfries to have a dress of gingham, at that time an expensive material.

Burns had a great curiosity about Scotland and this prompted him, in July 1793, to embark on a tour of Galloway with his friend John Syme.  They set out on two highland ponies,  passing through Castle Douglas, Crossmichael with its attractive church, Parton and on to Kenmure Castle at the head of Loch Ken, where they spent three happy days.  This was the home of the Gordons of Lochinvar whose ancestors had helped Mary Queen of Scots.  The travellers then went on to Gatehouse where they stayed at the Murray Arms and returned via Kirkcudbright.

He was now writing songs for a new book 'A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs' produced by George Thomson, a clerk to the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Art and Manufacture in Scotland.  This task was to occupy him for the remaining years of his life.

In September Burns wrote to Thomson describing his method of song composition:- "My way is this:  I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the Musical expression;  then chuse my theme;  begin one Stanza;  when that it composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out, sit down now & then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy & workings of my bosom;  humming every now & then the air with the verses I have framed:  when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, & there commit my effusions to paper:  swinging, at intervals on the hindlegs of my elbow chair by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes.  - Seriously, this at home, is almost invariably my way."

Song writing gave him great enjoyment and in all Burns, provided over one hundred songs for Thomson.  Songs written in Mill Street include 'My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose',' A Man's A Man for A' That' and 'Scots Wha Hae'.

A Scandal and a Debt

His days at this time were spent stamping leather, guaging malt vats, noting the manufacture of candles and granting licenses for the transport of spirits.  Usually dressed in a "decent suit of dark clothes" he had a distinguished head with large dark brown eyes and a high forehead.  His features were a little coarse and he had a slight stoop but at nearly 1.8m (5' 10") in height he must have cut a good figure in town. 

At Christmas 1793 he dined at Friars Carse with the Riddells.  After dinner the men discussed the legendary Rape of the Sabine Women by the Romans.  They decided to act out the scene to the women.  The inebriated Burns acted out his part with Maria Riddell as his 'victim'.  He so offended her with his behaviour that he was asked to leave.  The next day Burns tried to apologise but this was not accepted.  The loss of this friendship was a great blow to him.

Britain and France were now at war.  The chief consequence of this for Burns was that there was less trade and his excise income was reduced. In May 1794 Patrick Miller's son offered him a job as a journalist in London but Burns refused as he saw his future firmly in the Excise and he still had strong doubts about earning a living from his pen.  Just before Christmas of that year his superior, Findlater took ill and Burns was appointed acting Supervisor for Dumfries.  This put Burns on the 'collector's list' and made him eligible for promotion.  He wrote that he looked forward to the life of "literary leisure" that the sinecure of Collector could one day give him.

In the new year, however, he fell behind with his rent and wrote to his landlord Captain John Hamilton:-"It is needless to attempt an apology for my remissness to you in money matters:  my conduct is beyond all excuse. - Literally, Sir, I had it not.  - The distressful state of Commerce at this town, had this year taken from my otherwise scanty income no less than £20.  - That part of my Salary depended upon the Imports, & they are no more, for one year.  - I enclose you three guineas:  and shall soon settle all with you."

The Captain, a friend, made light of the debt, asking Burns why he was avoiding him and inviting him to his house. 

The Dumfries Volunteers

As if to prove his loyalty he joined the Dumfries Volunteers, founded in 1795 to counter the threat from France.  Its commanding officer was Arentz Schulyer de Peyster, a Dutchman who had fought in the American War of Independence.  He had married the daughter of a former Provost of Dumfries and had retired to the town. 

Some time before, Burns had lost the friendship of Mrs Dunlop, an Edinburgh correspondent, because of his political leanings and he now sent her this song, the 'Dumfries Volunteers':  

 "Does haughty Gaul invasion threat? 

Then let the louns beware, Sir!

There's WOODEN WALLS upon our seas,

And VOLUNTEERS on shore, Sir: 

The Nith shall run to Corsincon,

The Criffel sink in Solway

Ere we permit a foreign foe

On British ground to rally! 

We'll ne'er permit a foreign foe

On British ground to rally! "

This song became popular throughout Britain.

The Final Years

His quarrel with Maria Riddell began to resolve itself.  His health, however had begun to deteriorate seriously during the year.  As a youth he had been the chief labourer in his father's farm at Mount Oliphant, Ayrshire.  The effort of ploughing the farm's rough ground had placed a great strain on his heart and the result of this was now causing him increasing suffering. He wrote to Maria Riddell that he was "so ill as to be scarce able to hold this miserable pen to this miserable paper." He believed he had rheumatic fever.

Nevertheless he continued to take a keen interest in the town's affairs and wrote to the provost, David Staig about an anomaly in a tax on beer which was losing the Town Council money:

"I have been for some time turning my attention to a branch of your good towns revenue, where, I think, there is much to amend:  I mean the 'Twa Pennies' on Ale.  The Brewers ...  within the jurisdiction pay accurately;  but three Common Brewers in the Brigend, whose consumpt is almost entirely in Dumfries, pay nothing;  Annan Brewer, who daily sends in great quantities of ale, pays nothing:  and of all the English Ale, Porter, &c, scarcely any of it pays ...  Your brewers here, the Richardsons, one of whom, Gabriel, I survey, pay annually in 'twapennies', about thirty pounds, and they complain, of the unfair balance against them, in their competition with the Bridgend, Annan and English Traders."

The Provost was so impressed that the Town Council agreed to levy a more equal tax.

In May 1795 Alexander Reid painted a portrait of him.  Burns described it: 

"there is an artist, of very considerable merit, just now in this town, who has hit the most remarkable likeness of what I am at this moment that I think ever was taken of anybody.  It is a small miniature ..."

Brow Well

The war with France was causing food shortages in Britain.  The harvest of 1795 had failed and in March 1796 there were serious food riots in Dumfries. 

Gradually during the year Burns' health became poorer and in April he was unable to continue with his Excise duties.  His wife Jean was pregnant again and Jessy Lewars, the sister of an Excise colleague, came to help in the house.

His friend Dr Maxwell mistakenly diagnosed his illness as "flying gout" and prescribed sea bathing as a cure.  On 3rd July, barely able to stand, Burns went to Brow Well, a hamlet on the shores of the Solway, nine miles to the south east of Dumfries, which had a reputation as a spa.

Each day he waded out shoulder deep into the cold sea water.  This can only have made his physical condition worse.  As his salary had been reduced because he could not work, he became obsessed with the fear of poverty and when a solicitor sent him a letter for non payment of a tailor's account for his Volunteers uniform, a terror of dying in a debtor's prison gripped him.  In his depressed state he wrote to George Thomson for money: 

"A cruel scoundrel of a Haberdasher, to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying has commenced a process and will infallibly put me into jail ...  Do for God's sake send me [£5]."

He realised death was close and wrote to his wife's father asking him to send Mrs Armour to Dumfries.

During the following week the Solway tides were not suitable for bathing so on 18th July he returned to Dumfries.  As he got out of the cart at the foot of Mill Street "he seemed unable to stand upright ...  those who saw him then expected never to see him in life again."

To keep the house quiet his children were sent to stay with a colleague.  Syme and a number of friends came to see him.  On the morning of Thursday 21st July he became delirious.  His children were brought to see him for a last time and shortly afterwards he lapsed into unconsciousness and died.  He was just 37 years old. 

The Funeral of Robert Burns:

Robert Burns died at his home in Dumfries on 21st July 1796 and was buried in St. Michael's churchyard three days later. One observer estimated that the crowd in the streets and in the churchyard numbered "above twelve-thousand. Men from the Cinque Ports Cavalry and the Angus-shire Fencibles lined the streets and the band of the Cinque Ports Cavalry played Handel's Dead March. The Dumfries Volunteers carried the coffin and also provided a firing party at the graveside. In 1815 the poet's remains were interred in a purpose-built mausoleum in the same kirkyard.

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