PART OF THE In the Shadow of Burns ISSUE
An Illustrated Guide to Burns’ Time in Edinburgh
Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759 in Alloway, two miles from the town of Ayr in the west of Scotland. He was born in the family home, a small clay and thatched-roof cottage built by his father, William Burnes.
William Burnes’ early years are a little vague. His father Robert, the poet’s grandfather, rented Clochnahill Farm on the Dunnottar estate of George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal. The role of the Marischal was to serve as custodian of the Royal Regalia of Scotland and to protect the king when he attended parliament. A Jacobite sympathiser, Keith was charged with treason for his part in the 1715 and 1719 risings forcing him to flee to the Continent where he continued to serve the Jacobite cause. His lands were confiscated by the Crown in 1720. Robert continued to work the farm but bad weather, low prices and the economic aftermath of the ’45 rising forced him to give up the lease.
Many families were forced out of the Highlands and into the Lowlands in search of work and William Burnes eventually found himself in Edinburgh working on the newly formed Hope Park, now known as the Meadows, on the south side of the City. He worked there for two years as a landscape gardener before moving to the west coast of the country, to Fairlie in Ayrshire, where he had the offer of a job.
William settled in Alloway and married Agnes Broun (Scots spelling of Brown) on 15th December 1757. Robert was born on 25th January 1759 and Gilbert in 1760. There followed another two boys and three girls.
William, a very independently minded man, was deeply religious and believed that in order to make progress in the world his children should be able to read and write and have at least a basic education, so Robert (at age 6) and Gilbert (at age 5) were enrolled in Alloway School. When the school was forced to close due to financial pressures, William persuaded neighbours to hire John Murdoch from Ayr to teach the children.
Murdoch was 18 years old and had been educated in Edinburgh. Murdoch gave the boys the foundation of a classical education, teaching them the Bible, and exposing them to the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and the finest writers of the day.
When Murdoch left to take up another paying post in Dumfries, William continued to teach the boys himself and enrolled them in Dalrymple School, which they had to attend week about, because both could not be spared from farm work at the same time.
In 1773 John Murdoch returned to Ayr and Robert spent three weeks with him, studying English, French and Latin.
Robert was an avid reader from this time, and for the rest of his life. As a family they could be found in the evenings reading to their father, or each other. Robert, in one of his letters, remarked that he was inspired by the tales of Hannibal and of Sir William Wallace, “who poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins which has boiled there in each and every one of my waking moments.”, so much so that as a boy he would imagine he was Wallace and marched alongside soldiers as they passed through the town.
In his later years Robert would have books delivered from France, regularly reading the original French versions. A partly read book, in French, was on his bedside table on the day he died.
Robert started writing verse when he was 15 years old. The reason? He had fallen in love with Nelly Kilpatrick. For the rest of his short life he was to fall in love regularly, expressing his thoughts and emotions in poems and songs.
Robert’s early life was hard – very hard. It was a constant struggle to farm on poor soil and despite moving from farm to farm there was never any money to invest in more modern farming equipment resulting in the family continuing to live in near poverty. Despite this, Robert worked long hours and developed a slight stoop due to the time spent on the plough.
It was these long hours, and a poor diet from a very young age, which did lasting damage to Burns’ health. Damage that meant that, despite his reputation, he would never be a heavy drinker as alcohol upset his already delicate stomach.
On the 4th July 1782, when he was 22 years old, Robert joined the Freemasons. This membership not only cemented friendships and relationships with people he already knew in his local area, but was an invaluable source of contact and introduction when he found himself in Edinburgh.
On 13th February 1784 his father William died at the age of 63. Robert was 25 years old and now found himself the head of a large family. His father had been fighting a legal battle over the farm and after several years he won the court case, but the years of toil and hardship had taken its toll on William. Robert simply had to work harder to keep the farm going since he was now the provider for his siblings and his mother.
It was around this time that the family name was changed from Burnes to Burns. There may have been a variety of reasons for this, one of them being that Burnes was a Kincardineshire name and Robert and Gilbert may have decided to change it to the Ayrshire form. It may also have been an attempt to avoid some of the people who had been pursuing them for money.
On 22nd May 1785, Elizabeth Paton (his mother’s servant) gave birth to Robert’s first child, also Elizabeth. Robert’s mother took the child in and raised her as one of her own.
Jean Armour, whom he had first met at a dance in April of 1785, became pregnant. They did intend to marry but Jean’s father, knowing of Robert’s reputation, wanted his daughter to have nothing to do with him, sending Jean off to Paisley.
Robert had reached a turning point in his life. The farm was not going well, the Kirk was pursuing him as a fornicator and Robert felt that the world was conspiring against him.
Through his various contacts he was offered a job as a Plantation Manager in the West Indies, and decided to go to Jamaica. It was a drastic step but how could he raise the money for the trip?
Some friends suggested that he publish some of his work to raise the money. Burns was well known in the area as a ‘maker of rhymes’ (in Scots the word for poet is ‘makar’) regularly writing out copies of his poems and giving them to friends and acquaintances; a practice he maintained all of his life, regularly enclosing new poems and songs along with letters to friends. It was common in those days for books to be published by subscription, so Burns began planning his book.
The only printing press in Ayrshire was located nearby in Kilmarnock. Its owner, John Wilson, an exact contemporary of Robert Burns, had already published an edition of Burns’ beloved poet Milton in 1785. In April 1786 the subscription sheets were printed by Wilson, and Robert’s fund-raising was complete when 13 fellow members of the Masonic Lodge pledged to take 350 of the 650 volumes to be printed.
His fare to Jamaica was 9 guineas and publication of the book would surely raise that amount, but in the meantime Robert’s troubles were building as he was making plans. On 23rd April, James Armour repudiated Robert as a son-in-law and Robert was also forced to repudiate Jean. On 13th June, Jean went before the Kirk and advised them that she was with child and Robert was the father. This started a furore against Robert yet again in the Kirk and he was ordered to make 3 public appearances as a fornicator, the first of which was on 25th June.
On 22nd July, Robert had a Deed of Assignment drawn up and lodged with the Sheriff-Clerk at Ayr. This basically transferred all of Robert’s assets to Gilbert, his share of the farm, all profits from the book and it also made Gilbert responsible for the upbringing of Robert’s illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth.
However, on 30th July, James Armour took a writ out against Robert and, terrified of being arrested and thrown into prison, he went into hiding at his uncle’s home near Kilmarnock.
As providence would have it, on the following day, 31st July 1786, his book, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, went on sale and was an immediate success, selling over 600 copies and earning Robert more than enough for his trip to Jamaica.
Robert Burns was suddenly a successful writer who was being spoken of the length and breadth of Scotland.
Even when Jean gave birth to twins, Robert and Jean, (the Kirk stated that children born out of wedlock be named after the parents) on 3rd September, he still planned to go to Jamaica, but all that was to change with one message from Edinburgh.
A copy of the book had made its way into the hands of Dr Thomas Blacklock, known as The Blind Poet. Blacklock’s poetry was much respected and he was acquainted with such famous figures as Dr Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, as well as the philosopher David Hume and one of the most famous Americans, Benjamin Franklin.
Indeed Blacklock was so full of praise for Burns’ work that he advised him to come to Edinburgh immediately where a second, larger, edition could be published. He was sure it would have a more universal circulation than “anything else that had been published within his memory”.
Burns had naturally been thinking of a second edition as the first had sold out so quickly, and being a prolific writer, he already had new material. John Ballantyne, an Ayrshire banker, offered to lend him money for the second edition; he also advised Burns to look for a publisher in Edinburgh.
So it was that on 27th November 1786 Robert Burns, on a pony borrowed from his friend George Reid, set off on the two-day trip to Edinburgh.
Reid had arranged for Burns to break his trip at Covington Mains Farm, by Biggar, and rest overnight before travelling on. Reid had also arranged for the farmers of the area to call and meet their new hero in person. The signal of Burns’ arrival was a white sheet tied to a pitchfork placed on a cornstack and on Burns’ arrival the house was soon filled. The evening became part of the morning and, after his farewells, Burns breakfasted at the next farm with another large party.
Following lunch at the Bank in Carnwath and, after saying his goodbyes to the assembled well wishers, he rode on to Edinburgh in the evening.
R. M. Murray is founding director and Head of Visual Art & Literature at An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. He studied in Aberdeen and then at the Glasgow School of Art, where he was in a punk band with Peter Capaldi and Cr …
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