The Life of Robert Burns

A great great man and Scotland’s national poet. Born 25th January 1759 in a cottage in Alloway, Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, would go on to gain widespread international admiration – not just for his incredible poems, but for his famous character and life too.

The Young Bard

William Burnes was his father and a man that shaped his character to no end. His father was a tireless worker, who gained little reward. This particularly annoyed Robert as a child and would have been a big influence in his later rebellions against social order. Burns Snr built the cottage that Robert was born in by hand. His mother was Agnes Burnes – the daughter of a farmer, and a stay-at-home wife. It was late January 1759 that he was to be brought into the world, and would be the first of 7 children. He would later change his name from Burnes to simply Burns.

The bard spent much of his early life here, and it was far from being an ordinary upbringing – even by 18th century standards. Incredibly humble beginnings though, and that is where most of the greats start off it would seem. Burns always held dear the stories told to him as a young boy of the supernatural by his mother Agnes. Little is known about the women who watched over the young Robert – expect that she had “the largest collection in the country of tales”, as said by the young bard himself in a letter to family doctor, Dr Moore.

These stories would later influence his work greatly. Aswell as his mother, it would appear the locals were also keen on tale-telling to the young Robert. Alloway subsequently has many points that are widely associated with him – his exact birthplace cottage remains there, while the Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig O’Doon will be very familiar to Burns enthusiasts. You can actually find yourself where Tam O’Shanter did canter, and was pursued by the wicked witches.

During Burns early life in the cottage he lived side by side with the animals owned by his father. Though if your thinking of sunny mornings, rolling about in the hay, playing hide & seek, skipping about with the animals – then think again. Make no mistake – this was a tough upbringing that Burns had here. Plenty of labour (often hard labour) would have came his way, at a very young age too. Being the eldest he would have been faced with the vast majority of the pressure that his fathers increasing dependence of his family as workers would bring.

It would be his fathers struggles that led a then 7-years-old bard to moving to Mount Oliphant farm, in 1766. Burns Snr believed the considerable extra space would greatly improve the family’s prospects, and sold the cottage to fund a lease on the farm. Although beautiful in surroundings, the land was in very poor condition. This would lead to there stay at the farm being a unsuccessful and short-lived one, and would soon take up residence at yet another farm – Lochlie, near Tarbolton.

It was during these times in Lochlie that Rab began to be educated. The young bard primarily learning the basics from his father- the likes of writing, reading, history and geography. William Burns was a very religious man, and Robert was well taught in, and could recite the bible. A highly regarded friend of Burns Snr, John Murdoch, would later teach a teen Rabbie more advanced subjects including mathematics and French.

Burns the Bachelor

After spending much of his childhood as a labourer on the family farm, Robert Burns began to develop more and more enthusiasm for personal freedom. He had a great desire for the town life, and dreamed often of living a prosperous life there. Girls also began to take up the mind of Rabbie.

At the age of 15, in 1774, he met a girl called Nelly Kirkpatrick, also known as Handsome Nell. The girl was known for having a good singing voice – and often displaying it in the fields. This influenced the young Bard to write his first poem, which was to the tune of one of the songs Nelly Kirkpatrick would regularly sing. This was a significant moment as it was she who first encouraged Rabbie to write poetry. He made the following reference to this time in a later poem, Halloween-

“The lasses straw frae ‘mang them a’to pour their stalks of corn – but Rab slips out, and jinks about, behint the muckle thorn.
He grippet Nelly hard and fast, loud skirl’d a’ the lasses – but her tap-pickle maist was lost, when kitlin’ in the fause-house wi’ him that night.”

(photo courtesy of Electric Scotland)

When Burns Senior moved the family to Lochlea farm, in 1776, the then 17-year-old Rabbie began enjoying a new lease of life. The new farm was very close to the town of Tarbolton, and he was very keen to go ahead and get involved in the community there. The Bachelor Club of Tarbolton was soon created by the aspiring poet, along with his brothers and some acquaintances.

In this club they would discuss everything from politics to history, aswell as enjoying song and poetry together. The drink was often an influence, while the question of whether you should marry for love or money (apparently commonly debated at the time) was often also on the menu. All in an open and confidential manner. Secretive.

These clubs were actually fairly common in the bigger towns at the time, though they were generally class-dictated. The Tarbolton Bachelors Club was unique in that it was open to all people, though the choice of members would be regulated. It was a very serious club in terms of its structure- and it did go on to have more than 12 members at one point. The meetings would be held every fourth Monday and absolutely nothing in the club was to be made known to any non-members.

The TBC headquarters was only a small room on the upstairs of the flat. Its notably alot different to the room downstairs. Its almost like two separate flats on top of each other. In the downstairs room it is two small rooms, small in height aswell, with small windows. Upstairs on the other hand is a large single room with significantly larger windows, and much more height. It could be suggested that it was the Bachelors club who rebuilt the upper part of the building, it is very fitting to their purposes, though it was work most likely done in the 19th century.

Transcending into adulthood, and at this point Rabbie was looking to pick up a trade – flax-dressing, to be precise. It can be presumed then that his younger brothers were now assisting his father on the farm, and he had been given some freedom to pursue his own career. However, the bard did not enjoy the trade, and all was not going well in his absence at the farm- Burns Snr had become very ill. The family fell behind in their rent for the farm, and they were subsequently taken to court by landlord David McClure. At court all of the Burns Families possessions were ordered to be seized, and were. Knowing their father was dying, Robert and brother Gilbert would agree a lease on another farm, Mossgiel.

Stepping It Up

They say that sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take two forward, and this was very much the case with Rabbie. In February 1784, William Burnes died. On his death bed he told Robert that he was concerned about his goodness, and these comments only further reflect the life of William Burnes – an all round caring man, constantly embroiled in troubled times. His deep concerns about the country, his family, and the future, would only have further frustrated his beaten-down spirit. William Burnes was taken back to Alloway and buried at the Auld Kirkyard.

Back in Mauchline, and undeterred by the devastating loss of his father, the Bard would step up his poetry work. The town subsequently features in some of his work – it is the home of Holy Willie, for example. It can be imagined that Rabbie would have been fairly reluctant to return to working on the farm, as he was enjoying his town-based career. His frustrating, and brief, career as a flax-dresser only seemed to further add to his new found drive to be a poet. This would be supported by what was a very notable period of writing in these Mauchline years.

Maybe credit then to the Bard, he clearly maintained great ambitions despite returning to the farm, following an unhappy career and the death of his father aswell. He was greatly influenced, and stimulated by, the beautiful surroundings of the area. Aswell as the previously mentioned prospects of town life in Mauchline. Rabbie would go on to meet a local group of girls, known as The Belles of Mauchline (below). A Mauchline-based girl club, they are very noteworthy as one of these girls is Jean Armour- who would later be known as Jean Burns. During his later years at Mossgiel he would publish his first book of poetry.

In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a’,
Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, 
In Lon’onor Paris, they’d gotten it a’. 

Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland’s divine, 
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is brawbraw-
There’s beauty and fortune to getwi’ Miss Morton, 
But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.

The Mauchline Bellies (poem), Robert Burns

Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialogue- Kilmarnock Edition

It was Burns trademark charm – to apply humour with a special kind of integrity & charity, that made him particularly unique (and popular), upon the books release. John Wilson was the man who originally produced it, in Kilmarnock, in 1786. These originals would go on to be known as the Kilmarnock Edition. With 35 poems making up the masterpiece. The book had been allocated 600 copies to distribute at the beginning – this sold out within the first month.

The books includes the poems The Twa Dogs, To a Mountain Daisy, To a Mouse and Address to the Diel. It really displays his ability as a storyteller – showing humour, but often with very worthy sentiment. Robert Burns is very capable of taking these situations he is placed in, and capturing that feeling. Often is the case that whatever the bard was felling – we felt too.

For Morality Play, Freemasonry is the Way

The ploughmen poet maintained close ties with Tarbolton (only a few miles away) while at Mossgiel. In 1781, at the age of 23, he was granted membership into the St Davids Masonic Lodge in Tarbolton. The Bard was a long-time smyphethizer with the Jacobite’s, and a strong supporter of the French revolution. These were influences in his creation of the Tarbolton Bachelors Club, and it looks like Rabbie becoming a Freemason at this point is a clear indication he is still very much nursing these inherited sympathies – keeping them warm.

Lets briefly look at freemasonry before we go any further. Its the worlds oldest brotherhood in the world, an organisation that came about initially in what was effectively a trade union, it could be said. Born on the back of increasing need for regulation and protection of stonemason workers within the trade. These are the masters that built the great cathedrals and palaces still around today. Solomon’s Temple, in Jerusalem, is suggested to be where the foundations of the brotherhood lie.

Freemasonry quickly developed into a fraternal organisation, spreading internationally. The thoughts of religion were often a key part of the early masonic meetings, although no religion was ever established in Freemason establishments. They continue to actively build temples all over the world- though today these are moral temples, built in the hearts of men.

So back to the Tarbolton Bachelors Club and many similarities can be drawn with the Freemasons society. Largely a support group, and debating clubs- and such is their similarities, that one of Robert Burns rules (noted below), for the bachelor club could easily have been made about freemasonry membership.

In the years to come Rabbie would go on to achieve Depute Master status within the lodge. This was very notable as the ploughman poet was only 25-years-old when achieving this honour. On his 5th anniversary of becoming a member of the St Davids Lodge in Tarbolton though, Rabbie attended a masonic meeting and famously began reciting one of his early poems – ‘Farewell to the Brethren of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton’. This was following some tough times for Rabbie.

“Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart. No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall upon any pretence whatever be admitted.”

Rule No10

A Stormy Year, Lets Make it Clear

In 1785, Robert would produce his first illegitimate child. The child was to a women named Elizabeth Paton, who was working as a servant to the bards mother Agnes. Things would go slightly downhill after this, as the following year, amidst the early promise of the Kilmarnock Edition release, he was left stunned when Jean abandoned him and fled to Paisley – taken their newly born daughter with her. Its a bit unclear why Jean had left; but it was later revealed that Rabbie had fathered another child, to a women called Mary Campbell, known as Highland Mary.

There is conflicting stories about the start of the relationship between Rabbie and Highland Mary. Many say the relationship came about as a result of Jean Armour leaving him. However, this is impossible if you look briefly into it. Jean Armour left the bard at some point in March 1786, while Highland Mary died around October 1786, little over a month after giving birth. Thus their relationship must have started prior to Jean leaving. This also makes sense, as there is no other reason for Jean to leave. (Image courtesy of Wikisource)

Jean had maybe then knew of this illegitimate child. The great lady may also have known about the secret romping duos plans to immigrate to Jamaica with their young child.

As the year 1786 drew to a close, we can only imagine the position of Robert Burns. A broken man, he would have been feeling the brunt of significant losses. Jean Armour, his wife, had abandoned him (and taken their daughter with her). Highland Mary, his mistress, is dead. While he is now father to an illegitimate child- potentially bringing trouble from the law, and putting great financial strain on the national poet. Once with two women, now with none.

Thinking hard about moving to Jamaica alone, he instead decides otherwise. Perhaps having some new found freedom without the two women – the ambitious Robert Burns was suited and booted, and off to Edinburgh.

Was Jean Armour incandescent with rage upon hearing of Rabbie’s affair? (Image courtesy of FindAGrave)

Auld Reekie

Rabbie was seemingly unsatisfied with the early success of his book, the Kilmarnock Edition. He was pursuing a new publisher, with a new edition- the Edinburgh Edition. This the most predominant reason the Bard had now found himself in the capital. Freemason associates had provided contacts, and it proved good to have friends in high places- as this would be key to the national poets early success in the capital. Much like with many products today, subscriptions were a key business model.

Just taking one of these new aquitencesas an example, James Cunningham, would illustrate the extent of this. Known as the Earl of Glencairn, Cunningham would bring about a regular 100+ party of subscribers for Burns work, mostly from the Royal Caledonia Hunting Club. These social groups that the bard became involved in, and elegantly charmed, would bring the heaven-taught ploughman a significant supporter base to build upon.

There is a fair few stories about his time in Edinburgh, including a time when the bard decided to socialise at a lords house. In making himself at home he took from the shelves an old book of William Shakespeare. However it was a souveign-book, that had never been read, but was in worn condition. There were worms inside the books – slowly nibbling away at the old and precious papers. In a fairly scornful manner, Robert Burns reached for his pen and wrote-

“Through and through the inspired leaves,
ye maggots, make your windings
But, oh! respect his lordship’s lassie,
And spare nis golden bindings.”

It was memorable as the writing was not found until after his death.

Another tale of Burns In Edinburgh, one which led him to pen the poem ‘Miss Burns’. It involves a local prostitute by the name of Margaret Burns. There was no relation between the two, and before we go any further – Burns had no encounters with this women (so definitely not sexually). Pity had fell on Rabbie for his namesake. Margaret ‘Miss’ Burns was often seen in and out of court, and died upon her latest release from jail.

It was around this time, in early 1788, that Robert Burns time in the capital came to an end, and he was to return to his more familiar farmland environment.

Burns in Edinburgh (photo courtesy of Burns Birthplace Museum)

To the Muddy Stream

Robert Burns returned to Mauchline from Edinburgh, and was soon reunited with Jean and his daughter. The pair would move quickly to marry, doing so around August that same year. Jean would have a difficult period at this time. The twins that she had recently given birth to had died within days, and the family had no financial security – despite Roberts new found fame. An incoming job offer in Dumfries may then be appealing to them.

A full-time tax collector was the position, and the bard took the opportunity. The family moved to a farm a few miles outside Dumfries town centre, Ellisland, in late 1788. They had rented the land from an old friend – Patrick Miller, who had become a banker and a real estate agent. A local architect, Thomas Boyd, would oversee the construction of the large farmhouse- now a museum dedicated to Rabbie.

It was a very scenic farm, directly next to the River Nith. The Burns family would no doubt have had high hopes of settling here long-term. An ever increasing rent, and difficult to maintain lands, however, would see the Burns’s spend little over two years at Ellisland. It was important for one very noteworthy reason though – this is the place where the Bard would write the poem Tam O’Shanter- his masterpiece. At 32-years-old, and having spent amongst all of his life moving from one place to the other, Robert Burns was to move for the last time.

Roberts Burns was to move into a property in Dumfries in May 1793. The Burns family rented the 3-room flat from John Hamilton for around £8 per annum. The bard enjoyed the town life of Dumfries very much- same as he did in Mauchline, Tarbolton and Edinburgh. Born and bred a farmer, clearly he never lost his enthusiasm for the life of the townsman,

The End of Robert Burns

Many stories surround the death of Robert Burns. Most commonly it is recognised that he died of a rheumatic fever. Many have spread the story that Burns had picked up the disease after drunkenly falling asleep in the snow. Robert Burns was a man who did long for his youth, however he was a man that understood his age and fate, and carried much dignity. I just cant see this being the case- he wasn’t even drinking much in the last few months of his life, having been pestered with illnesses for a while.

At 37 it is much more probable that this was caused by fevers he had suffered from as a child. Either way, the great man was to pass. In the days before his death, Rabbie was said to tell a fellow Dumfries volunteer “don’t let the awkward squad fire over me”, but that they did. On 21st July 1976 Robert Burns died in his bed.

On 25th July a military-style funeral saw Roberts Burns carried through the streets of Dumfries – with thousands taking to those streets for a final farewell. The squad fired three shots into the air as Scotland’s favourite son was lowered into his restring place. Though it was not to be his final resting place. As a result of a public subscription (donations), the Burns Mausoleum was built at Saint Michael’s cemetery, Dumfries. The remains of Robert Burns were placed in this mausoleum, joined by those of his wife and sons in the years to come.

National Poet

Based on the Tarbolton Bachelors Club, there are now Burns Clubs all over the world. The Mother’s Club, which was founded in Greenock in 1801, is considered to be the first ever Burns Club – hence the name. Aswell as an inventive writer, Robert Burns is remembered as a greatly influential figure. Empathising with the human conditions is what made Burns a internationally-loved artist, and a very important cultural figure for more than 200 years.

The Bard contributed more than 200 songs (for free) to the Scots Musical Museum, aswell as more than 100 songs to the Melodies of Scotland collection.

Authors William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Steinbeck and J.D Sailinger are all notable people influenced by Burns. Abraham Lincoln, aswell as many other high-profile Americans can recite Burns poems off by hearts, while Bob Dylan labelled Rabbies poem A Red Red Rose to be his greatest artistic influence. Robert Burns also became known as the peoples poet- in the old Soviet Union.

Countless other songwriters, poets and authors have been heavily influenced by Robert Burns.His most important influences though, have been on us- the people. He has inspired and influenced many, in every generation since his time. An immensely popular and iconic figure, little did the man know what he would become, as he died in his cold bedroom in poverty. Little did he known he would be so loved by so many.

(Image courtesy of the Belfast telegraph)