Burns in Edinburgh

Robert Burns
and Edinburgh

Stroll down the Royal Mile

Burns arrived in Edinburgh on 28th November 1786, and took up quarters in Baxters Close in the Lawnmarket, ( now demolished ) with John Richmond, a. clerk of his acquaintance whom he knew in Ayrshire. At that time Edinburgh was carefree, squalid, venerable, and literary ( what's new ) with every family of quality in Scotland in residence.

The brilliant society of the capital welcomed the rustic poet, introduced as he was by noblemen and learned professors. Henry MacKenzie in the Lounger (the then equivalent of the Scotsman newspaper) wrote so glowingly of his poetic genius that the doors of Edinburgh were flung open to him.

The attention he received from all ranks and descriptions of persons, would have turned any head but his own. Burns independent spirit and strong intellect carried him safely through the Edinburgh period.

He wrote, Too surely do I see that time when my novelty as a poet will recede. Edinburgh was a triumph for Burns. It was a centre of conviviality, but it was also a dangerous place for a peasant to be at large in, (so be warned, tourists.) Yet freemasons welcomed him, the Caledonian Hunt assumed him, and the Crochallan Fencibles enrolled him, but he did not forget the purpose of his visit to the capital.

The second edition of Burns poems was published on the 21st April 1987 by Creech. It was dedicated to the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt. There were 1500 subscribers who called for 2800 copies.

After some tours, he returned to Edinburgh to settle with Creech. Full Burns tours of Scotland described. His prophetic words were fulfilled. The scenes of the sunburst of his brief hours fame were gone but his under lying vein of commonsense had enabled him to guage the duration and extent of his popularity. However, to the ordinary honourable citizens he was still The King o' men for a' that.

We start our Burns tour of Edinburgh at Lady Stairs house, off Lawnmarket, and just down from the Castle. Now a museum for Burns and R.L.Stevenson ( Not the Castle - Lady Stairs House.) The Burns museum is on the upper floor.

After visiting this, return to Lawnmarket and walk downhill to Canongate Churchyard. ( or the Tolbooth tavern if you prefer.)

On the way the following places are of interest.

No. 447 Lawnmarket. Baxters Close. (Demolished, and is now Deacon Brodies tavern) where Burns dwelt on his arrival.

The new County Buildings mark the line of Liberton's Wynd where Johnnie Dowies tavern stood. This was patronised by Fergusson the poet. Burns frequently met Willie Nicol, Allan Masterton and other friends here.

Burns Window in St. Giles. Enter through the west door, in Parliament Sq. through the double doors and about turn. The window is directly above this door and it caused a great deal of comment and controversy when installed. It probably still does and is certainly not to be missed.

No. 243 High St. Anchor Close. ( With plaque.) contained Dawny Douglas's place of the Crochallan Fencibles. The club was originated by William Smellie in 1718. This was a convivial club for gentlemen which met in Dawney Douglas's tavern. It's name derived from a Gaelic Air Crodh Chailein or Colin's Castle which was Douglas's favourite. The fencibles part of their title was in mock imitation of the fencible regiments being raised because of the American War of Independence. Each member bore some pretended military rank. There was a major, a colonel etc. Smellie was Hangman and in this capacity it was his duty to drill any recruits. This he did by subjecting them to severe insults to try their temper. Although he introduced Burns to the Crochallans he did not spare his protege. However Burns must have acquitted himself well in the battle of wits as it became a favourite amusement of the members to pit poet against hangman to enjoy the verbal contest.
Smellie edited the first Encyclopaedia Britannica and wrote much of it himself.

Also in this close was William Smellie's printing office, where Burns read the proofs of his poems. The first Edinburgh Edition, printed by Smellie was oversubscribed and had to be reprinted immediately. The type was reset and an error crept in to the Address to the Haggis where Scotland wants nae Stinkin' ware (instead of skinkin'.) This second form of the first Edinburgh edition has become known as the Stinkin' Burns

No. 146 High St. Bells Wynd, where James Johnson the engraver, produced the Scots Musical Museum to which Burns contributed nearly 200 songs without fee or reward.

No. 132 High St. Stevenlaws Close, where Allan Masterton, one of the heroes of Willie brewed a peck of maut lived. Allan Masterton wrote the tune for this himself. He also wrote the music for other Burns songs, Strathallans Lament, The Braes o' Ballochmyle, The Bonnie Birks o' Ayr. Burns wrote Ye Gallants Bright I Rede Ye Right for Mastertons daughter Ann.

No. 182 Canongate. St John St. The Canongate Kilwinning Lodge of Freemasons, met in the turreted building on the right through the arch. See this link for the controversy on whether Burns was made Poet Laureate of this lodge.

Canongate Churchyard. ( Opposite Huntly House Museum ) The board at the front shows the notables to be found here, but the two of most interest to us are the monument Burns erected to Fergusson ( sited back left of church corner ) and Clarinda ( sited back right of church, against the outside wall.)
Patrick Millar of Dalswinton, laird of Ellisland and Professor Dugald Stewart are also buried here.

So ends our stroll down history's lane. All you ancient, trusty, drouthy, cronies may now retire to the bar (if you're not already there.) Make it the Tolbooth tavern next door to Canongate Churchyard and soak up the atmosphere.

Further areas of interest are -
Take a run past Calton Hill where Burns Monument stands. It is imposing and graceful. Grecian in character consisting of 12 Corinthian pillars on a circular foundation supporting a cupula surmounted by Griffins. It was erected in 1831 from the designs of Thomas Hamilton.

Of course, there is also the National Gallery, where you can see the original Nasmyth portrait of Burns and the Edinburgh Burns Statue. This statue was the last work of Flaxman, the sculptor, who did not live to finish it. It is of white marble and represents the poet contemplating the Daisy's fate. This statue was originally placed within the Burns monument but when this space was found to be too cramped it was moved to the Edinburgh University Library. Dr John Lee, the Principal, objected to this on the grounds that Burns did not have a college education and it was removed.

Not to outdone by its great neighbour, Leith has a very fine statue of Burns, the work of D.W.Stevenson. This can be found at the foot of Leith Walk. This statue was unveiled on 15th Oct 1898. Bronze roundels and panels were subsequently added to the pedestal by private individuals. A replica of this statue was erected in Newcastle on 13th Jan 1901 and another in Toronto on 21st July 1902.

General's Entry (called after General Monk) in the Potterow, was the residence of Clarinda. The house stood on the site of Marshall Street School. Better known as Clarinda's home is 14 Calton Hill (with plaque) where she lived for 25 years and died on Oct 22nd 1841.

Burns also lived in St James Square for several months in 1787. This is just off Princes Street.

Sciennes Hill House. (Braid Place, Causewayside) This was the residence of Professor Adam Ferguson and here the meeting of Burns and Scott took place. This was permanently displayed on canvas by Hardie. The picture is now on display in the Chambers Institute, Peebles.

Old Calton Burying Ground. This interesting God's Acre contains the unmarked grave of Willie Nicol.

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