Very few Scots do not have a favourite Burns poem. We all of course know the story of Robert Burns. Burns the farm hand and poet. The man who fathered at least seventy illegitimate children. The poor man, who squandered what little he had on hard drink and women. And ultimately Robbie Burns, who wrote beautiful romantic prose, but died an ugly paupers death brought on by alcoholism, and at just 33 years old. Only in Scottish folklore could a man who is said to have led such a life become a national hero. Only in Scotland could we get the life of one of our own so wrong!
Reader, attend! whether thy soul Soars fancy's flights beyond the pole, Or darkling grubs this earthly hole, In low pursuit: Know, prudent, cautious, self-control Is wisdom's root.
Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759 in Alloway, the son of William and Agnes (nee Brown). He was named after his uncle, who with his father had left their native Aberdeenshire some years earlier. Roberts father, William, had lived and worked for a while as a gardner in Edinburgh, and indeed for two years was employed in landscaping what is now the Meadows area of the City. He moved on to Ayrshire, where he attempted to establish a market gardening business on a 15 acre site by the Ayr-Maybole highway, on which he built a cottage. In time he met and married Agnes Brown, a woman of sound Presbyterian values.
Robert was the oldest of seven children, four of whom were born at the cottage built by his father in Ayrshire. Although his fathers plans for a market gardening business never came to fruition, he was well employed and in a good position to care for his family. The often favoured view that young Robert had in some way had a deprived childhood could not have been further from the truth. Indeed in these days when infant mortality was extremely high, it is a remarkable testimony to the care and attention lavished on the Burn's children that the first fatality in the family did not occur until 1785, when Robert's youngest brother John died at sixteen years old.
William Burns was anxious that his children receive a sound education, and was instrumental in establishing a school at Alloway Mill. Along with four other parents, he employed a teacher of English, John Murdoch, to tutor his eldest sons Robert and Gilbert. Many years later, Murdoch wrote an account of his time at the Alloway Mill, including the statement that: "My pupil, Robert Burns, was then between six and seven years of age..Robert (and his brother Gilbert) were generally at the upper end of the class, even when runged with boys by far their seniors." Murdoch was impressed by the young Robert Burns, and his grasp of reading in particular, although of his writing he commented that Robert was making only "tolerable progress."
By the time of his sixteenth birthday, the Burn's family had moved to a farm two miles from Alloway, 'Mount Oliphant'. In spite of difficulties experienced by William following his decision to take up the family tradition of farming, he remained determined that his eldest son would be given every opportunity in his education. Robert was sent away to Kiskoswald, on the slopes of Carrick above the Clyde. The short stay at Kirkoswald had an effect on Robert to the extent that on returning home he claimed that he had "...very considerably improved. My reading was enlarged with the important addition of Thomson's and Shenstone's works."
In the old Kirkyard at Kirkoswald can be seen the graves of Douglas Graham, and his wife Helen, who resided at the Shanter Farm. One wonders today what Douglas and Helen would have made of being famous the world over as Tam and Kate, principle roles in the Burn's classic "Tam o Shanter." Although there is little fact to link Douglas and Helen with the characters in the poem, other than the name of the farm, it is generally accepted by many biographers of Robert Burns that these were indeed the people on whom Tam and Kate were based. "Tam o Shanter" has made Kirkoswald a very famous place, and today tourists arrive from far and wide to view Souter Johnie's cottage.
William Burns had largely run the farm at Mount Oliphant in the debt of the landowner, Dr Fergusson, who never actively pursued the struggling Burns family for any overdue rents. This situation changed however in 1776, when Dr Fergusson died. His executors pursued William for the overdue rents, and the letters they sent caused considerable stress to the Burns family who where not used to the legal jargon and threatening manner they contained.
The family survived this episode however, and a year later William took tenancy of a 130 acre farm, Lochlie, near Tarbolton. Again however, there appeared to have been a misunderstanding between William and his new landlord over the terms of the lease. This led to further litigation, which Robert feared might lead to the incarceration in prison of his father. In the event, William Burns died of consumption before the litigation was complete, thus saving the father of Robert Burns from a criminal record.
Following a period in Irvine, during which Robert had attempted to make a living growing flax, a crop which at the time attracted considerable government aid, he returned home to Lochlie. The family misfortune of his father had appeared to afflict Robert himself, as his considerable investment of both cash and labour in the flax business had left him penniless following the destruction of his entire stock by fire. It was during those darker moments in Irvine that Burns first toyed with the idea of publishing poetry as a means of earning a living. In a letter to a friend, Robert commented that "..do you recollect a Sunday we spent in Eglinton woods? You told me, on my repeating some verses to you, that you wondered I could resist the temptation to sending verses of such merit to a magazine: 'twas actually this that gave me an idea of my own pieces encouraged me to endeavour at the character of a Poet."
It was during this unhappy period at Lochlie, working on his father's farm, that Robert took to Freemasonry. Historians and biographers of the poet are to this day grateful for this, as it is through the precise records of both the mother lodge of Burns and those that he visited that much of his life has been chronicled. It is indeed through the minutes of the St James Lodge, of which Robert was depute master, that an intriguing, if not altogether important, factor of the poet's life is highlighted. Up to March 1786, Robert had signed his name in the minute book as 'Robert Burnes', using the spelling of the surname preferred by his Father. After 1786, however, Robert took to using the shorter Burns, something he had been doing in personal letters to friends since 1781.
Freemasonry was to play an important part in the life of Robert Burns, and there is little doubt that those he met through the lodge were to play a part in his development as a poet. It has also often been said that his attendance at lodge was the introduction to Robert of hard drinking. In fact there is little evidence that Robert was ever a heavy drinker, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest the contrary. It is doubtful that Robert would ever have commanded so much respect, and latterly patronage, among the highly powered fellow freemasons of the day had he been constantly the worse for drink.
Following the death of their father at Lochlie, Robert and his brother Gilbert moved the family to a new farm, Mossgiel, just two miles from Lochlie in the neighbouring parish of Mauchline. This was the beginning of a more settled and prosperous period for the family, so much so that Robert himself remained at Mossgiel for only two years, before feeling free to seek his own interests, while Gilbert remained at the farm until after Roberts death in 1796. It was during the two year period at Mossgiel that the writing of Robert Burns ceased to be what had up until then been little more than a passing interest, and took on a more clearly defined purpose.
Such is the fate of simple bard, On life's rough ocean luckless starr'd! Unskilful he to note the card Of prudent lore, Till billows rage, and gales blow hard, And whelm him o'er
Sometime during Robert's two years in Mauchline, he met his future wife and, in spite of his celebrated wanderings in the direction of others of the opposite sex, the one true love of his life, Jean Armour. He married Jean in 1786, and they had nine children. Burns also had children out of wedlock, daughters being born to Elizabeth Paton and Ann Park, and it is said another to one Helen Hyslop. There was also a son born to Jenny Clow. It is true then that by today's standards, faithfulness was not one of Robert's virtues. In the 1780's however, his behaviour was hardly out of the ordinary, and should be seen in that context. The talk of "over 40 illegitimate children" without doubt belongs to the realms of fantasy.
No sooner had Robert married Jean Armour than he was to begin the travels that would lead to his writing becoming legend throughout Scotland, When he arrived at Kilmarnock in 1786, his repute as a wit gave him immediate access to the better social circles. Throughout the previous year, Robert had undergone the most productive period of his life as far as his writing was concerned. He now had turned his mind once more to the possibility of obtaining a wider audience for his work, and this was considered to be his prime motive when arriving in Kilmarnock. To that end, with the help of his ever increasing circle of friends, Burns published a 'subscription blank.' This was a note distributed in Kilmarnock society, announcing the proposal that a single volume of 'Scotch Poems by Robert Burns' be published "..as soon as many subscribers appear as willdefray the necessary expense."
The subscription blank produced 11 subscribers, and the first published works of Robert Burns - "Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" - was issued on 31 July 1786. This first work, also known as The Kilmarnock Edition, consisted of 34 poems. In his excellent biography on Burns published in 1992, James Mackay expressed the view that this volume established Robert's reputation. Among the works included in the edition were 'To a Mouse', 'To a Louse' and 'To a Mountain Daisy', three nature poems which were among the best works of Robert at the time. All 612 copies of the volume were sold within weeks.
Having experienced local success Edinburgh beckoned to Robert and in1786 he undertook the next stage in his search for publication of a second edition of his work,. However, Burns' writing was not raising sufficient funds to sustain himself, and so he had other reasons on his mind for travelling to Edinburgh. At this point Scotland came very close to losing their famous poet to foreign parts, as Robert had plans to emigrate to Jamaica, and indeed he went as far as to obtain passage on a ship leaving from Leith. Fortunately, events must have conspired to change his mind, as rather than leaving these shores he became an Exciseman.
Through working for the excise, Robert thought that he would be more able to offer security to has wife Jean, certainly it was a somewhat more secure occupation than farming, and immeasurably more secure than that of a poet. The poetry of Burns had however not gone unnoticed in Edinburgh, and through various exchanges in the press of the day it was clear that he was becoming a major celebrity. One patron of Burns in particular, the Earl of Glencairn, was suitably impressed by the poet to secure the publication of a second edition of his work. It was through such contacts that Robert found the doors of the best homes in Edinburgh opened.
In the following years Burns undertook tours first of Central and Southern Scotland, and later of the North. By 1788 however, Robert seemed to have tired of travel, and returned to farming, taking a lease on the 170 acre 'Ellisland' farm, near Dumfries. At the same time, Robert at last undertook the training required of him to become an Exciseman.
During his time at Ellisland and for the remainder of his life, Robert continued to write but appeared to have long since given up any idea of making a fortune from his work. He did however prove himself to be a good farmer, contrary to the views put forward in some quarters. At Ellisland he switched from arable to dairy farming, and is credited with introducing Ayrshire cattle to Nithsdale. When on excise duties, he would leave jean Armour and farm servants to deal with milking and the making of butter and cheese.
Leaving Ellisland in 1791, Burns moved his family to 'The Wee Vennel' in Dumfries, to concentrate entirely on his work with the Excise. His brief period of fame in Edinburgh society was now long behind him, but nevertheless many would still assume his character to be the same as those long past days. Few have written of the Robert Burns who had a settled life with his family in Dumfries, but many have written of the drunkard and spendthrift poet who neglected his family. In those days when government service was considered to be of such import, it is unlikely that such behaviour would ever have been tolerated.
On his death, the assets of Robert Burns amounted to around £200, by today's standards in excess of £42,000, hardly a pauper! As James Mackay noted in his Burns biography, the poet had ran a 170 acre farm, rode two hundred miles a week on Excise duties, and yet still found time to compose such masterpieces as Tam o Shanter. He conducted a voluminous correspondence, and was writing songs for two publishers at the same time; so far from being an alcoholic, Burns was a workaholic. His devotion to his family is well documented, as are his attention to detail in his official duties.
So should you attend one of the many Burns Suppers' this year, remember not only the Poet and his work, but the life he led. The life of a great Scot.
This extract is taken from an article that takes a look at the life of Robert Burns, first published by North of Scotland Newspapers, July 1996.
Visit the Official Robert Burns site at: www.robertburns.org