. Burns, a Biography

Robert Burns
A Biography.

Robert Burns
Scotland's most celebrated literary figure, was born at Alloway (a mile and a half south of Ayr) on 25 January 1759, the eldest of seven children to William Burnes and Agnes Brown (or Broun).

The other children were Gilbert (1760-1827), Agnes (b1762), Arabella (b1764), John (1769-86), William (d1790) and Isabella (married name Begg). Agnes Brown was the eldest daughter of a tenant farmer; she could read a little but never learned to write. William Burnes (the "e" was dropped from the family name after his death in 1784) was also a tenant farmer's son, and worked as a gardener. He instilled religious belief in Robert. The boy's mother and her cousin's widow Betty Davidson ("remarkable," according to Burns, "for her ignorance, credulity and superstition") passed on to him the folk tradition that "cultivated the latent seeds of Poesy".

William Burnes came originally from Kincardineshire and had spent some time in Edinburgh (1748-50.) He worked on the laying out of what is now the Meadows. Intending to make his living as a nurseryman he obtained a plot in Alloway and became head gardener to Provost William Fergusson of Ayr. He built the cottage which was home to himself and his wife after they married in December 1757 and it was here that Robert Burns was born.

Burns Cottage
The house is a single-room thatched cottage with a barn and cowshed. It is now a museum and contains original manuscripts and other memorabilia. A monument nearby, erected in 1820, overlooks the old Brig o' Doon, immortalised in "Tam o' Shanter".

Burns was baptized at the Auld Kirk in Ayr, the Tam O' Shanter Museum in the High Street was formerly a brewery whose malted grain was supplied by Douglas Graham of Shanter, the model for Tam.

When he was six, Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert were sent to John Murdoch's school at Alloway. Murdoch found Robert a "very apt pupil", his early reading included Arthur Masson's "Collection of Prose and Verse" and the translation by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield of "The Wallace" by Blind Harry, one of the earliest literary works in Scots.

The boys left the school in 1768; Robert briefly boarded as a pupil of John Murdoch at Ayr Grammar School in 1773. Through Murdoch's influence Robert read Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Dryden, and rapidly learned French well enough to read literary works in the original, though with Latin he was less successful.

With the family too large for the small cottage in Alloway, and their needs too great for William Burnes to support them as well as he wished, Burnes decided to try his hand at farming, and between Martinmas 1765 and Whitsun 1777 he rented the farm of Mount Oliphant.

Burnes was prosperous enough to hire workers, but the soil was poor and according to Robert, "the farm proved a ruinous bargain." By the age of fifteen Robert was the farm's principal labourer, enduring constant headaches and "the unceasing moil of a galley slave". But through a customary piece of social engineering that coupled young men and women as partners in the harvest field, Burns encountered Nelly Kirkpatrick of Dalrymple, "a bonie, sweet, sonsie lass" a year younger than himself, who inspired his first song, "O, once I lov'd a bonnie lass", to a reel tune which Nelly liked to sing. Burns knew it was not great poetry, but understandably retained a sentimental affection for his first work, written for his first love.

William Burnes was aware of the need to maintain his gifted son's education, and in the summer of 1775 Robert was sent for a few weeks to the school of Hugh Rodger at Kirkoswald (10 miles south-west of Ayr). Burns was learning "mensuration, surveying, dialling etc.", but was also interested in thirteen-year-old Peggy Thomson. "I struggled on with my Sines and Co-sines..." he wrote, then, "I met with my Angel". He called her his Proserpine (quoting Milton's "Paradise Lost"), and though the relationship came to nothing, Burns later sent her an inscribed copy of his poems.

Douglas Graham farmed Shanter farm which was to be immortalised in the greatest of all poems. Tam's "ancient drouthy cronie" Soutar Johnie was modelled on John Davidson, a soutar being a shoemaker, and both he and Douglas Graham ("Tam") are buried in Kirkoswald churchyard.

In 1777 the family moved to a farm at Lochlea (two and a half miles north west of Mauchline).

It was here that Burns wrote some of the poems and songs that would appear in "Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" ( The Kilmarnock Volume ) his first book of poems. In the nearby village of Tarbolton, Robert and his friends David Sillar (1760-1830) and John Rankine of Adamhill founded (on 11 November 1780) the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club, a debating club of a kind popular at the time. Burns was elected chairman and membership was not to exceed sixteen people. The Bachelors Club is now a museum. The Freemasons met in the same premises (a hall adjoining an inn). Burns became a Freemason on 4 July 1781; their meetings were later held at James Manson's inn in Tarbolton (the site is marked with a stone). Burns's friend David Sillar (for whom Burns wrote "Epistle to Davie") was temporary schoolmaster in Tarbolton before the post was given to John Wilson, another member of the Bachelors' Club and the model for Dr Hornbook in "Death and Dr. Hornbook", whose house is near the churchyard. David Sillar's "Poems" were published in 1789 but made little impact; after Burns's death Sillar was a founder member of the Irvine Burns Club.

Burns worked in Irvine for seven months between 1781 and 1782 as a flax dresser, lodging at 4 Glasgow Vennel (now marked by a plaque), and at an address in the High Street where he became ill with pleurisy. The house caught fire during Hogmanay celebrations and Burns lost all his possessions. He moved back to Glasgow Vennel but his father's ill health forced him to return to Lochlea, where William Burnes died in February 1784 (he is buried in the churchyard of Alloway Kirk). Burns is commemorated in Irvine by a statue on Irvine Moor.

Robert and Gilbert rented from their lawyer friend Gavin Hamilton the farm of Mossgiel near Mauchline, where Burns lived until 1786.

A liaison with Elizabeth Paton, a farm servant, produced a daughter (Elizabeth Burns) in 1785, which he commemorated in "A Poet's Welcome To A Bastart Wean". Two other children were to result from affairs elsewhere, Jenny Clow in 1788 and with Ann Park in 1791, the latter child was named Elizabeth) but Burns's most enduring partner was Jean Armour (1767-1834), whom he met in Mauchline.
Jean Armour
Jean Armour was the daughter of a master-mason who issued a writ against Burns in 1785 when Jean first became pregnant. She gave him two sets of twins before their marriage in 1788. The first pair were split, a boy (Robert) went to Mossgiel and a girl (who soon died) went to Jean's family. Burns mentioned the child's death (apparently through accident or negligence) in a letter to a friend: "By the way, I hear I am a girl out of pocket and by careless, murdering mischance too, which has provoked me and vexed me a good deal."

Faced with legal action, Burns considered emigrating to the West Indies, and he may have been planning to elope there with Mary Campbell, the "Highland Mary" of Burns legend. Mary was born near Dunoon and was employed by Gavin Hamilton as a nursery maid in Mauchline, then worked as a dairymaid at Coilford House in Tarbolton (Burns's "Castle of Montgomery", burnt down in 1960). Burns seems to have sought solace with her while he was barred from seeing Jean Armour, and the couple are said to have exchanged Bibles on the banks of the River Ayr in May 1786. She inspired "The Highland Lassie O" and "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary", and died in Greenock in October 1786.

Burns had begun to keep a commonplace book (a literary sketchbook) in April 1783, and during the following four years he wrote many of his best works. "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" was first published on 31 July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock (the site of Wilson's printing shop in Star Inn Close is now marked with a granite slab). This "Kilmarnock Volume" contains many of Burns's finest pieces, e.g. "The Twa Dogs", "The Holy Fair",
Address to the Deil
The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie, Mailie's Elegy, The Auld Farmer's New Year Morning Salute to his Auld Mare Maggie,
The Cotter's Saturday Night
"To A Mouse"
and "To A Louse". Many of These poems can be found on the Analysis page of this web site

Praise of the Kilmarnock Edition by the blind poet Thomas Blacklock persuaded Burns to abandon his plans to emigrate to Jamaica. Henry Mackenzie, reviewing the collection in The Lounger, called Burns a "heaven-taught ploughman". We've seen that Burns's ambitious father had ensured his son was taught from books as well as from heaven, but Mackenzie's epithet stuck, and a myth was born. Jean Armour's father became less hostile to Burns, now that he was a famous poet.

Such was the success of the Kilmarnock edition that Burns, a new literary sensation, set out for Edinburgh (a two-day journey on a borrowed pony) to arrange printing of a second impression. Arriving on 27 November 1786 he stayed at Baxter's Close, and the Earl of Glencairn introduced Burns to the leading figures in Edinburgh's thriving intellectual and social scene, which was still in the midst of what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment. Burns played up his role of "ploughman poet", and the Edinburgh edition, printed by William Smellie and published on 21 April 1787 by William Creech, sold 3,000 copies. By the standards of the day, it was a phenomenal bestseller.

William Smellie introduced Burns to the Crochallan Fencibles, a drinking club which met at Dawney Douglas's Tavern in Anchor Close. A bawdy song anthology, "The Merry Muses of Caledonia", was circulated among them in manuscript, resurfacing in 1800 and republished in modern times.

Despite his success, Burns failed to find a patron in Edinburgh. After a summer spent touring the Borders with some of his new friends he returned to Edinburgh in October, staying in a house on the south west corner of St. James's Square. Here he began to work on editing a collection of traditional Scottish folk songs for the Edinburgh publisher James Johnson. Eventually running to six volumes, "The Scots Musical Museum" (published 1787-1803) was to include about 160 songs by Burns himself. "Auld Lang Syne" appears in volume 5.

On 4 December 1787 Burns met Agnes ("Nancy") M'Lehose (1759-1841) in the Edinburgh house of a mutual friend. Glasgow-born Agnes was a surgeon's daughter who had become estranged from her husband after the birth of her fourth child. Burns adopted the Rousseau-esque strategy of writing love letters to her under the name "Sylvander", to which she replied as "Clarinda". It was for Agnes M'Lehose that Burns wrote the song "Ae fond kiss", published in the "The Scots Musical Museum" in 1792. Their affair seems to have remained confined to paper, and the correspondence continued until 27 December 1792.

Burns and Jean Armour rented a room in Castle Street, Mauchline, in what is now Burns House. They were married in Gavin Hamilton's house (next to Mauchline Tower) on 5th August 1788, and after already bearing four children Jean went on to produce another five. These included Francis Wallace (b1789), William Nicol (b1791), James Glencairn (b1794), and James Maxwell (b1796), who was born on the day of Burns's funeral and died before his third birthday. Four of Burns's children, and many characters who appear in his poems, are buried in Mauchline churchyard, which was the setting for "The Holy Fair". Poosie Nansie's Tavern in Loudoun Street features in "The Jolly Beggars".

In June 1788 Burns took over the lease of Ellisland Farm, six miles north of Dumfries. It was here that he wrote "To Mary in Heaven" in memory of Mary Campbell, and (in 1790) "Tam o' Shanter", held by some to be Burns finest work, which was published as an accompaniment to an illustration of Alloway Kirk in Grose's "Antiquities of Scotland" (April 1791). Burns also continued to collect or create songs for "The Scots Musical Museum", including Auld Lang Syne. and O my luve's like a red, red rose. The farm (which is now a museum) was not a financial success, and Burns left with his family in November 1791.

Burns was appointed excise officer for Dumfries in September 1789, and was to hold the post until his death. After leaving Ellisland, the Burns family moved to Dumfries and lived at a house (now gone) in Bank Street. They then rented a larger house in Mill Hole Brae, now renamed Burns Street, which is now a museum.

Jean Armour would live here until the end of her days. In old age she recalled the domestic routine: "The family breakfasted at nine. If [Burns] lay long in bed awake he was always reading. At all his meals he had a book beside him on the table... He dined at two o'clock when he dined at home; 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 about him. Their prattle never disturbed him in the least."

When not at home, Burns enjoyed the drink and company to be found at the Globe and the Hole in the Wall (Queensbury Square). The family worshipped at St. Michael's Church, where their pew is marked with a tablet.

The Fife-born music publisher George Thomson enlisted Burns's help in compiling "A Select Collection Of Scottish Airs" (published 1793-1841), whose six volumes were to include 114 songs by the poet. Burns was working on items for this collection right until his death. Thomson commissioned leading European composers to set many of the poems, notably Haydn and Beethoven, however the venture was not a financial success.

Burns was outspoken in his support for the French Revolution, and in 1795 he sent Thomson "For a' that and a' that", a song which echoes the radical ideas (and even in places the words) of Thomas Paine's "The Rights Of Man". With its sentiments of universal equality (couched, of course, in 18th-century masculine terms) the song has often been suggested as an appropriate Scottish national anthem; and at the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999, Sheena Wellington gave an unaccompanied rendition of Burns's song, inviting the assembled throng to join in.

Burns health declined rapidly during his last years, and quack remedies did little to help. His ill health caused financial difficulties which only made matters worse. He died of rheumatic fever on 21 July 1796, and was buried four days later in St. Michael's churchyard, while his wife was in labour with their ninth child. Burns was reinterred in a domed mausoleum in 1815.

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