Robert Burns, Doonhamer
The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes

Robert Burns, Doonhamer

Burns Country is often taken to mean Ayrshire, the county of birth and upbringing for the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). But Dumfriesshire's claim to the term is just as strong, it having been his county of adoption from 1788 until his miserably premature death eight years later.

Burns's settling at Ellisland farm along the banks of the Nith south of Auldgirth* was largely accidental and arose from his desperate search for a viable means of providing for his wife Jean Armour and their children. Here was a man who, following the publication of his Kilmarnock edition, had been transformed almost overnight into the most talked-about celebrity of his day and had recently returned from being hailed in the capital city Edinburgh as a genius - the 'Heaven-taught ploughman'. Yet he could see no prospect of being able to make ends meet through the efforts of his pen alone.

His farming career in Ayrshire had turned sour and he ought never to have even considered prolonging the agony elsewhere. Burns understood this himself and had already identified the government's excise service as a possible alternative. But when one of his rich new admirers, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton*, offered him the farm lease on what at the time seemed favourable terms, Burns decided - unwisely, as it turned out - to have one final attempt at making the trade of his father work for him.

When, in the summer of 1788, he arrived at Ellisland on his pony Jenny Geddes he soon began to appreciate the enormity of the task that lay ahead if he wasto turn his 170 acres into a going concern. The farmhouse was uninhabitable; Jean and the children would not be joining him until it was put right. Miller had set aside a sum of money for its renovation but the builders procrastinated and Burns had to make do for some months with a dank hovel. His first harvest was a disaster: he was 'without good weather when I may have Reapers, and without Reapers when I have good weather'.

In the absence of Jean he felt lonely. Notwithstanding the presence nearby of cultured friends like the Riddells of Glenriddel, he began to think of himself as being among people with 'as much idea of a Rhinoceros as of a Poet'.

Exhaustion, illness and periodic depression did not, however, entirely block his creativity. His Ellisland period was, from a literary point of view, productive. His new location began to be reflected in his song-writing:

O were I on Parnassus hill,
Or had of Helicon my fill,
That I might catch poetic skill
To sing how dear I love thee!
But Nith maun be my muse's well,
My muse maun be thy bonnie sel';
On Corsincon I'll glower and spell,
And write how dear I love thee.

Until Jean could join him Burns commuted between Ellisland and Mauchline and when he was alone back in his makeshift farmhouse by the Nith this is the kind of sweet lyric he wrote in praise of his absent wife:

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west;
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best.
There wild woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between;
But day and night my fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.

Of course Burns's fancy was not 'ever wi' my Jean' - more of that anon.

The greatest product of the Ellisland period was his comic masterpiece 'Tam o' Shanter'. This rollicking narrative was written in response to a challenge. In the summer of 1789 Burns met Francis Grose, the English military officer who had made a name for himself as compiler of illustrated guides to the antiquities of the British Isles. Burns urged him to include Ayrshire's Alloway kirk in his volume on Scotland. Grose agreed on condition that Burns wrote something to go with the illustration. 'Tam o' Shanter' duly appeared in The Antiquities of Scotland.

Burns was further inspired to write a poem about the antiquarian himself. 'On Captain Grose's Peregrinations Through Scotland' is an exuberant exercise in affectionate mickey-taking which would have delighted the 'fine, fat, fodgel wight':

Hear, Land o' Cakes, and Brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnny Groat's,
If there's a hole in a' your coats,
I rede you tent it;
A chiel's amang you, taking notes,
And, faith, he'll prent it.

While life at Ellisland became a little less gloomy when the family were finally able to take up permanent residence, in other respects it went from bad to worse. Burns's land was proving to be resistant to his back-breaking attempts to increase its productivity. 'This Farm has undone my enjoyment of myself,' he complained. It was time to take up the excise option and, having already secured for himself some training in the business, Burns took up his new appointment in Dumfries* in August 1789. He had a roving commission, which required riding up to 40 miles a day. It was a tiring schedule, the effects of which were exacerbated by his continuing to work Ellisland whenever he could. It all became too much for him and in the late summer of 1791 Burns managed to wriggle his way out of his lease, got rid of his meagre produce through a roup sale, and bade farewell forever to farming. Scotland's greatest living writer was now employed full-time in the lower ranks of government service.

Burns and the family moved into town. At first they stayed in a second-floor tenement flat with three rooms and a kitchen on the Wee, or Stinking, Vennel (now Bank Street). Later they flitted to a house in Mill Street (later re-named Burns Street), home to Burns for the rest of his life and to Jean until 1834. In old age, long after her husband had died, Jean described Burns's domestic life: how he 'was fond of plain things and hated tarts, pies and puddings' and how 'when at home in the evening, he employed his time in writing and reading, with the children playing around him. Their prattle never disturbed him.'

In later life their eldest son, Robert Jnr, gave an account of the family home, which was incorporated into the first posthumous biography of his father:

.the house in Mill Street was of a good order, such as were occupied at that time by the better class of burgesses; and his father and mother led a life that was comparatively genteel. They always had a maid-servant, and sat in their parlour. That apartment, together with two bedrooms, was well furnished and carpeted; and when good company assembled, which was often the case, the hospitable board which they surrounded was of a patrician mahogany. There was much rough comfort in the house, not to have been found in those of ordinary citizens; for the poet received many presents of jam and country produce from the rural gentlefolk, besides occasional barrels of oysters from friends in the town.

Though poking around Dumfriesshire in search of contraband may seem to us now like the humiliation of a literary genius, Burns himself never seemed to be overly resentful; indeed he appeared to be almost grateful for the opportunity to provide a little more for his family than farming had done. He got on well with his colleagues and a number of them were embraced into the poet's social circle. Burns entertained his fellow officers by poking fun at the unpopularity of their profession in a song that has been particularly enduring:

The de'il cam' fiddling through the town,
And danced awa' wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, 'Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man!'

The de'il's awa', the de'il's awa',
The de'il's away wi' the' Exciseman;
He's danced awa', he's danced awa',
He's danced awa' wi' the' Exciseman!

There were of course some people in the town only too keen to see a great man brought down. Burns was vulnerable in one major respect. As a public servant he was expected to be an establishment loyalist but he was also the writer famous for articulating aspirations that could easily be interpreted as radical:

Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that,
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, and a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a' that,
That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth
Shall bear the gree an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin yet for a' that,
That Man to Man the warld o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

The rumour-mill got started on its devilish work in 1792 after Burns, in the course of his excise work, was involved in the dramatic capture off the Annan* coast of the Rosamond, a smugglers' schooner. Salvage from the ship was later sold off at a public roup. The talk of the town was that Burns had bought four of her guns and sent them to France in support of the revolutionaries. The authenticity of this story has never been established but its circulation reflected the nervousness in some quarters about Burns's political leanings.

In the same year there was another incident of a similar kind and this time Burns feared for his job, for his employers responded to tittle-tattle by mounting a disciplinary inquiry. It was said that at the close of a performance at the town's Theatre Royal the poet remained seated during the playing of the National Anthem. The official scrutiny of his alleged conduct upset Burns a great deal and he had to deploy all the eloquence he could muster to protest his innocence, insisting that as far as the British constitution was concerned 'next after my God, I am most devoutly attached!'

He managed to save his job, and any further doubts about his loyalty were dispelled by his joining the Dumfries Volunteers, a force raised in case of a French invasion, and by penning for them a patriotic anthem:

Does haughty Gaul invasion threat,
Then let the loons beware, Sir!
There's WOODEN WALLS upon our seas
And VOLUNTEERS on shore, Sir:
The Nith shall run to Corsincon,
And Criffel sink in Solway,
Ere we permit a Foreign Foe
On British ground to rally!

Dumfriesshire's Thomas Carlyle (see The Sage of Ecclefechan) was scathing about the excise management's treatment of Burns, a genius reduced to being reprimanded as a minor civil servant: 'his Official Superiors said, and wrote: "You are to work, not think. Of your thinking-faculty, the greatest in this land, we have no need; you are to gauge beer there; for that only are you wanted"...As if Thought, Power of Thinking, were not, at all times, in all places and situations of the world, precisely the thing that was wanted.'

Living in Dumfriesshire brought Burns a wide range of new friendships. One of the most enduring was that with the Collector of Stamps John Syme whose office was on the ground floor of the tenement Burns and his family occupied when they first moved into town from Ellisland. Syme was Burns's companion for the tour of Kirkcudbrightshire in 1794 and he served him well posthumously in helping to organise his funeral, raising funds for Jean and the children, and collaborating with Dr Currie, the poet's first biographer.

Burns vigorously participated in the affairs of the town. He joined the Dumfries St Andrews Masonic lodge. He regularly attended the Theatre Royal, of which he had been a founding member, and for a couple of celebratory occasions wrote pre-performance prologues. Thanks to his fame he had already been made a freeman of the burgh, a status conferring the right to subsidised education, an option Burns took up for his sons. And of course the camaraderie of the Globe Inn was much to his liking.

So too was the Globe barmaid Anna Park with whom Burns had a brief affair while Jean was visiting Ayrshire. Anna became pregnant. She either died giving birth to the child or moved elsewhere. At any rate, she disappeared off the scene and the child was brought up by the ever-patient Jean, who herself gave birth nine days after Anna's delivery. 'Our Robbie should have had twa wives', Jean famously remarked. Anna's ultimate fate was lyrical immortality:

Yestreen I had a pint o' wine,
A place where body saw na;
Yestreen lay on this breast o' mine
The gowden locks of Anna.
The hungry Jew in wilderness,
Rejoicing o'er his manna,
Was naething to my hinny bliss
Upon the lips of Anna.

Ye monarchs tak the east and west,
Frae Indus to Savannah!
Gi'e me within my straining grasp
The melting form of Anna.
There I'll despise imperial charms,
An empress or sultana,
While dying raptures, in her arms,
I give and take with Anna!

Burns's fame enabled him to cut across the usual class divisions and mix socially with all types of people. He was as welcome in the country mansions of the gentry, a celebrity adornment to their salons, as he was among the regulars at the Globe. His most significant upper-class social contact in the county was with the Riddell family: his Ellisand neighbour Robert and his brother Walter. But it was Maria, the glamorous wife of the latter, who was to become Burns's closest local confidante.

Maria Riddell, an Englishwoman whose father was Governor of the Leeward Islands, was young, beautiful (she later sat for the royal portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence) and with literary aspirations of her own. By the age of nineteen she had already written a book about her Caribbean travels and Burns used his Edinburgh contacts to help her get it published. In fact Burns would have done just about anything for her; his infatuation is clear from the letters he wrote to her. However, the class divide still operated in at least one respect: her status rendered Maria sexually untouchable.

The only occasion on which he managed, fleetingly, to get his hands on her arose from a crass misunderstanding. During a drunken party at Friars' Carse, Robert Riddell's home, the men decided on a mock re-enactment of the Rape of the Sabines. When Burns grabbed hold of Maria he was considered to have entered into the part a little too enthusiastically. Robert Riddell evicted him from the house and their friendship never recovered from the rift. The resultant froideur between Burns and Maria did eventually thaw but by then Burns was dying.

Within weeks of his death Maria went into print with a memoir of his life and work, published in the Dumfries Journal. For all the praise she heaped upon him, she seemed incapable of eschewing class condescension: 'His figure certainly bore the authentic impress of his birth and original station in life; it seemed moulded by Nature for the rough exercises of agriculture rather than the gentle cultivation of belles lettres.' And on his lack of a classical education: 'I have seldom seen him at a loss in conversation, unless where the dead languages and their writers were the subjects of discussion. When I have pressed him to tell me why he never took pains to acquire the Latin in particular.he used only to reply with a smile, that he already knew all the Latin he desired to learn, and that was omnia vincit amor ['love conquers all'].'

The final months of Burns's life were horrific. He was continuously ill with 'excruciating' rheumatism, his temples and eyeballs ached, his heartbeat was irregular and his limbs shook. At times he was 'so ill as to be scarce able to hold this miserable pen to this miserable paper'. Whenever he was able to resume his correspondence the letters were apologetic for delays in replying, and the possibility of creative writing seemed to be slipping away: 'alas, the hand of pain, & sorrow, & care has these many months lain heavy on me! - Personal and domestic afflictions have almost banished that alacrity and life with which I used to woo the rural Muse of Scotia.'

His physical condition was aggravated by bereavement, financial worries and consequential depression. Towards the end of 1795 his daughter Elizabeth died while she and her mother were visiting Ayrshire. He was unable to attend her funeral and for a while guilt-ridden despair overwhelmed him. Jean was expecting again and, with his excise income reduced because of sick-leave, Burns tortured himself with visions of his wife and family being left behind in poverty: 'As to my individual Self, I am tranquil; - I would despise myself if I were not: but Burns's poor widow! & half a dozen of his dear little ones, helpless orphans, there I am weak as a woman's tear.'

His letters increasingly became final goodbyes to old friends: ' Were you to see the emaciated figure who now holds the pen to you, you would not know your old friend. Whether I shall ever get about again is only known to the Great Unknown, whose creature I am. Alas, I begin to fear the worst. But enough of this. Adieu dear Clarke. That I shall ever see you again is, I am afraid, highly improbable.'

By June of 1796 Burns knew that only a miracle could save him. The medical men of the time still believed in the therapeutic benefits of sea-bathing. So at the beginning of July Dr William Maxwell, having diagnosed 'flying gout' (whatever that was), despatched Burns to Brow Well near Ruthwell* on the Solway. He had also prescribed horse-riding but Burns had no horse. For a fortnight the poet daily immersed himself up to the armpits in bitterly cold water. 'I have now been a week at salt-water,' he wrote, '& though I think I have got some good by it, yet I have some secret fears that this business will be dangerous if not fatal'. It was dangerous and almost certainly fatal in the sense of bringing his death forward.

Maria Riddell was at Brow Well at the same time and they had a reunion. She could see how desperately ill Burns was. 'The stamp of death was imprinted on his features,' she later wrote, 'and his first salutation was, "Well, Madam, have you any commands for the other world?"' Burns took up an invitation to have tea with the Craigs at the manse in Ruthwell. He reportedly described himself on this occasion as 'a poor plucked pigeon'. The daughter Agnes, an ardent fan of the poet, was shocked to see the condition he was in. Thinking that the sunshine coming through the window would be too strong for him, she went to pull down the blind. Burns stopped her: 'Let the sun shine in upon us, my dear young lady; he has not now long to shine for me.'

Burns continued to worry himself sicker over his money problems. He pleaded with an influential correspondent in Edinburgh to lobby his employers over his pay cut: 'when an Exciseman is off duty, his salary is reduced to 35 from 50. What way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself with a wife and four children on 35? I beg your utmost interest to move our Commissioners to grant me the full salary.'

Meanwhile, he received a lawyer's letter demanding money owed on his uniform for the Dumfries Volunteers. The most famous Scotsman of his day was reduced to begging for 5 from the song collector George Thomson:

A cruel scoundrel of a Haberdasher to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, & will infallibly put me into jail. - Do, for God's sake, send me that sum, & that by return of post. - Forgive me this earnestness, but the horrors of a jail have made me half distracted. - I do not ask all this gratuitously; for upon returning health, I hereby promise & engage to furnish you with five pounds' worth of the neatest song-genius you have seen.

On 18 July Burns returned home to Dumfries. He was so weak he could barely walk from the carriage to his front door. That day he wrote his final letter, a pitiful plea to his father-in-law James Armour in Mauchline:

My Dear Sir - Do for heaven's sake send Mrs. Armour here immediately. Jean is hourly expecting to be put to bed, poor girl. I returned from sea-bathing to-day and my medical friends would almost persuade me that I am better. But I think and feel that my strength is so gone that the disorder will prove fatal to me. Your son-in-law R.B.

A few weeks earlier he had written his last song and an exquisite one it was. Its inspiration was eighteen-year-old Jessy Lewars, the sister of an excise colleague. With Jean in the final stage of her pregnancy, Jessie had been brought in to nurse Burns and she was with him until the end. Though racked with pain, he could still feel some of his old passion for composition and fancied himself to be almost in love with his young helpmate:

Oh, wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee;
Or did misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.

Burns died on 21 July 1796, aged just 37. The cause of death, according to more recent examination of his symptoms, was probably 'rheumatic heart disease complicated by bacterial endocarditis'. Four days later, as the funeral was taking place, Jean gave birth to another boy. He was named Maxwell after the doctor whose treatment had done the dying poet no favours. Maxwell himself died two years and nine months later.

Burns's colleagues in the Volunteers insisted that his funeral should be conducted with military honours. Two regiments that happened to be stationed in the town at the time joined in. The procession from the Trades' Hall in High Street, where the body had been taken the previous day, to St Michael's kirk was accompanied by a band playing the 'Dead March' from Handel's Saul. Three volleys were fired over the grave. For obvious reasons his wife was not in attendance.

As the years passed there was an increasing feeling among the bard's admirers that his modest gravestone in St Michael's cemetery should be replaced with something more in keeping with the scale of international adulation that his work attracted. Funds were raised for the erection of the present mausoleum in the form of a Grecian temple. In 1815 the new resting-place was ready for the removal of the bard's remains. Imagine the macabre scene, as described by the Dumfries journalist John McDiarmid:

.the lid removed, a spectacle was unfolded which, considering the fame of the mighty dead, has rarely been witnessed by a single human being. There were the remains of the great poet, to all appearance nearly entire, and retaining various traces of vitality, or rather exhibiting the features of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death: the lordly forehead, arched and high, the scalp still covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white. The scene was so imposing that most of the workmen felt their frames thrilling with some indefinable emotion, as they gazed on the ashes of him whose fame is as wide as the world itself. But the effect was momentary; for when they proceeded to insert a shell or case below the coffin, the head separated from the trunk, and the whole body, with the exception of the bones, crumbled into dust.

Nineteen years later, in 1834, Jean's remains were buried beside her husband's in the vault of the mausoleum. She had outlived him by thirty-eight years.

Burns fathered thirteen known children. Nine of these were with Jean: five sons and four daughters. All of the girls and two of the boys died young. All three surviving sons, when they too died, were placed alongside their parents. The eldest Robert (1786-1857) had a career at the Stamp Office in London. When he retired and returned to Dumfries he was granted a government annuity because of 'the great literary talents' of his father. Robert wrote poetry, but unmemorably. The other two, William (1791-1872) and James (1794-1865), both found employment abroad with the East India Company and ended up as widowers living together at Cheltenham in the English midlands.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

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