Robert (Rabbie) Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in the village of in Alloway, near Ayr, not far from the River Doon (Brig o’ Doon), which would later feature in his epic poem “Tam O’Shanter“. The poets birthplace is now commemorated as Burns Cottage Museum, but no one had any inkling that the newborn Rabbie would grow up to be one of Scotland’s national treasures.
His father died in 1784, leaving Rabbie as head of the family and struggling to support his mother and younger siblings. Moreover, the young Burns had developed a rather complicated love-life by this time … one which he would continue to nurture as he grew older.
For one thing, the handsome and sweet-spoken Burns was sleeping with his mother’s serving girl, Elizabeth Paton, while simultaneously wooing a local girl named Jean Armour. Burns’s relationshop with Paton was physical, rather than emotional, but he refused to abandon her when she became pregnant, regardless of the social cost. After Paton gave birth to his daughter, Bess, on 22 May 1785, Burns openly acknowledged the baby as his and took her home to be raised by his mother. He also wrote a poem to his “Love-begotten Daughter” railing against those who would “ca’ me fornicator / An’ tease my name in kintry clatter” and swearing that he would “never rue my trouble wi’ thee / The cost nor shame o’t / But be a loving father to thee / And brag the name o’t”. He also praised the good nature of the baby’s mother. Burns made sure little Bess had his last name and was always well provided for.
Not long after his first daughter’s birth, his girlfriend Jean also became pregnant. He wished to marry Jean, but her father, James Armour, wouldn’t allow it. Instead he sent the girl away to relatives to hide her pregnancy. Burns wanted them to elope, but she refused to risk her father’s wrath. This hurt and angered her lover, and he considered her to have ended their relationship by refusing to marry him.
Burns didn’t have to nurse a broken heart long. He soon met another girl, Mary Campbell, and fell in love again. He immortalised her in verse in his poem “My Highland Lassie, O” and asked her to marry him. While Mary and her poet were romancing, the townsfolk of Mauchline, where Burns and his family lived, discovered that Jean Armour was pregnant. Jean and Burns were called up before the pastor of the Mauchline Kirk in June to testify that she was pregnant with Burns’s child and that her father had forbidden her to marry her lover. Once the whole town knew that Jean was up the pole, James Armour changed his mind and demanded that Burns marry her. However, the poet refused to wed the woman he had been declared unworthy of not long before. His matrimonial intentions were now wholly for Mary Campbell. He elected to put up with a rebuke in the Mauchline Kirk rather than plight his troth to the woman he considered to have scorned his love.
Around this time, Burns was offered a job in Jamaica, and supposedly wrote the song “Will You Go To the Indies, My Mary” to convince his fiancee to go with him. She agreed, and in order to finance the trip Burns sold his works to a publisher in Kilmarnock named John Wilson. On 22 July Burns signed over his worldly goods to his brother, Gilbert, to provide for little Bess when he and Mary immigrated.
James Armour, by now probably bitterly regretting having destroyed the letters wherein Burns claimed to have been handfasted (and thus informally married) to Jean, issued a warrant against Burns to try to force him to the altar or to provide for Jean’s upkeep. James Armour was also probably fit to be tied when John Wilson published Burns’s first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (also known as the Kilmarnock volume) and it was a HUGE hit.
The British literati praised Burns to the skies. Novelist Henry Mackenzie declared Burns to be a ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’, and eventually the ‘Bard of Ayrshire’ became the whole of ‘Scotia’s Bard’. Burns wrote his poems in Scots, English, and English in Scots dialect, but literary experts and Burns enthusiasts insisted that he wrote most fluently in “the language of the heart.” His poems revealed a profound connection with not only his feelings, but the feelings of other people.
Burns and Mary had not yet left for Jamaica when Jean gave birth to twins, Robert and Jean, on 3 September 1786. The next day a letter arrived from Thomas Blacklock that changed Burns’s life. Blacklock confessed himself an admirer of Burns’s poetry, and suggested that the Kilmarnock volume be increased in size and republished. Burns later explained:
I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road … I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland – ‘The Gloomy night is gathering fast’ – when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction.
This good news was followed hard on the heels by disaster. Mary Cambell died of typus at the end of October, leaving Burns deeply bereaved. In his poems “Highland Mary” and “To Mary in Heaven” Burns laments that “dear to me as light and life / was my sweet Highland Mary” and “My Mary from my soul was torn”, and years later he would praise her as the most “warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love.”
A few weeks later a downcast Burns left for Edinburgh, to work on expanding his volume of poetry as Blacklock had suggested. His literary career was blossoming, and although contemporaries and family members would recount his sincere distress regarding Mary’s death, Burns soon found comfort in another relationship.
He began to woo Agnes “Nancy” McLehose, a woman who had been abused by her husband, not long after he came to the city. They wrote each other letters under the assumed names of “Sylvander” and “Clarinda”, possibly so that the missives could never been used against Nancy in court by her estranged spouse. The two never consummated their affair, most likely because Nancy was devout and loathe to risk condemnation, damnation, or pregnancy.
Other women were not so determined to resist Burns’s charms. Not long after William Creech published the second edition of Burns’s poems in April of 1787, again to resounding success, the poet received a letter letting him know that he had gotten a serving girl named Margaret “May” Cameron into a delicate condition. In theory, anyway. He was not the only contender for paternity. Burns nevertheless offered the girl money and assured her he would take responsibility for the baby. May appears to have miscarried or given birth to a still born child by the end of the summer, and had no effect on Burns’s continued flirtation with Nancy McLehose.
While in Edinburgh Burns met James Johnson, a “music seller with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them.” Burns had found a kindred spirit regarding Scots ballads, and he and Johnson put hours of work into collecting and collating and (in Burns’s case) rewriting or editing old Scots folksongs for The Scots Musical Museum.
The poet was furthermore getting know personally the political and social radicals with whom he was in such sympathy.
Burns was early on exposed to radical political discourse in Calvinist resistance theory, the “revolution principles” of the British Real Whigs (those opposed to the Whig oligarchy), the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment and European civic humanism … [He] was a “hellfire preacher, denouncing the immorality of the rich, fighting oppression with Christian values”, and attacking “the corruption and incompetence of the governing elite”.
Devoted to the downtrodden and committed to socioeconomic justice, Burns would become a correspondent and ally of the Society of the Friends of the People, members of the Whig Party devoted to parliamentary reform and the rights of man, was well as radical politicians in the Society of United Irishmen with the same goals. He also became a friend and compatriot of radical luminaries such as abolitionist William Roscoe and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
Burns was also visiting his family back in Mauchline during his years in Edinburgh, and despite his romance with Nancy McLehose, in the summer of 1787 he became involved with his former love Jean Armour once more. In February of 1788 he discovered that he had made Jean pregnant again, and that she had been kicked out of her home by her enraged father. He took in his erstwhile hand-fasted bride, who gave birth to twin girls in March. The girls sadly did not live long, but Burns and Jean were reconciled as a couple. They formalised their union in August at the Mauchline Kirk, and the records noted that they had been “irregularly married some years ago”.
Formal or informal, marriage didn’t slow down Burns’s social life much. Shortly before he had learned Jean was in the family way, the super-fertile Burns had impregnated Nancy McLehose’s maid, Jenny Clow. She gave birth to a baby boy, Robert Burns Clow, in November of 1788 and served Burns with a writ for the child’s care in January of 1789. Burns went to Edinburgh to “settle that matter with her, and free her hand of the process”. He wanted to take the baby back home with him to be raised by his wife, but Jenny Clow was reluctant to give up her child. The little boy seems to have died not long thereafter, and Burns lost contact with Clow.
His poems were still selling well, but Burns felt it behooved him to train as an exciseman for a backup income. There were a growing number of children, legitimate and otherwise, he needed to support. He was duly appointed to duties in Customs and Excise in 1789, and did well enough that by September he had been appointed Excise Officer for Dumfries.
He had to travel frequently to Dumfries for his work, and often stayed at the Globe Tavern. There he met Helen Anne “Anna” Park, a niece of the proprietor, who was probably the subject of his poem “The Gowden Locks of Anna“. They began an affair, and Burns (being the king of sperm) soon had the girl knocked up. Anna had a baby girl, Elizabeth “Betty” Burns, on 22 March 1791, nine days before Jean Burns gave birth to her sixth child, a son named William Nicol. Anna appears to have died shortly after the birth “because later Maria Riddell, one of Burns’s friends and correspondents writes about what a wonderful person Jean Armour was that she took in an illegitimate baby of Burns’s, born after wedlock, who had lost her mother.”
Burns moved his growing family to Dumfries in 1791, where he continued to write when not working as an exciseman or making more children.
At Dumfries, Burns was contacted by Nancy McLehose, with whom he had continued to flirtatiously correspond. The letter he got in November of 1791 was anything but light, though. She had written to tell him that Jenny Clow:
to all appearances is at this moment dying. Obliged, from all the symptoms of a rapid decay, to quit her service, she is gone to a room almost without common necessaries, untended and unmourned. In circumstances so distressing, to whom can she so naturally look for aid as to the father of her child, the man for whose sake she has suffered many a sad and anxious night, shut from the world, with no other companions than guilt and solitude? You have now an opportunity to evince you indeed possess those fine feelings you have delineated, so as to claim the just admiration of your country. I am convinced I need add nothing farther to persuade you to act as every consideration of humanity must dictate.”
Fair play to Burns, he immediately wrote back that the news of Jenny Clow’s predicament made his “heart weep blood” and begged Nancy McLehose to lend Clow money until he could get to Edinburgh to help the poor girl. He quickly took leave from his work and tracked down his former paramour, making sure she was comfortably provided for until her death from tuberculosis a few weeks later.
Burns was a womaniser, but he was not a callous one. The infamous letter in which he bragged that he had met his pregnant then-girlfriend/semi-wife Jean and “fucked her until she rejoiced” has been cited by some as evidence he was a sexual predator or rapist — because what he calls Jean’s “exclamations of pleasure may well have been cries of pain”, but I disagree. Jean seems to have loved him, and was willing to take risks to see him, and married him in church not long after the letter was written. Was he being a ‘gentleman’ when he was bragging? No. But there is no evidence that Burns ever forced anyone to have sex with him. For the most part he reminds me of Pocket in Christopher Moore‘s book Fool: “For even though I have been accused of being an egregious horn-beast, my horns are tender, like the snail’s—
In fact, Burns was well aware that women’s roles were unfairly subordinate and to treat women to put them up on a pedestal was a form of treating them as inferior — it was incompatible with the ideals espoused in the rights of man. Burns wrote a poem about this very topic, “The Rights of Women“, which was read aloud by an actress in the Dumfries theatre on 26 November 1792, roughly a year after Jenny Clow’s death. It caused such a stir, for both political and social reasons, that Burns was reported to his employers at the in Customs and Excise “on suspicion of being a radical.”
Burns fame was such that he wasn’t punished, or even let go from employment, but the cat of his liberalism was well out of the bag. He had been a little ‘too’ free with his sympathies for the French Revolutionaries and Foxite Whigs, and now that the revolutionary France was transmuting into the Reign of Terror, radicals like Burns were more openly suspected of being secret enemies of Great Britain and the Crown. This was dangerous, as the hysteria-based and life-destroying sedition trials of 1792 and 1793 against parliamentary reformers, and the 1794 Treason Trials, would attest. It was not a good time to be a radical; William Pitt the Younger‘s government was doing it’s level best to destroy them. Burns, who was friends with many prominent radicals and groups like Friends of the People, was at risk of being called a radical sympathiser if nothing else.
He didn’t give up his radicalism, but decided (wisely) to become more covert about it. Burns anonymously published “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn” (“Scots, Wha Hae”) in the London radical daily paper Morning Chronicle on 8 May 1794, and in August of 1795 he again anonymously published a poem, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” (There is an Honest Poverty”) in the radical Glasgow Magazine. He also joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in the early spring of 1795 to try to stave off accusations of ‘disloyalty’ to the state, which kept him off the Tory hit-list but exacerbated his failing health.
Burns was foresighted to join the Volunteers, because in October 1795 “crowds threw refuse at the king and insulted him, demanding a cessation of the war with France and lower bread prices” prompting the passing of the Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasonable Practices Act (also known as the “Two Acts”) through Parliament. “Under these new laws, it was almost impossible to have a public meeting …. [and groups] that were not directly involved with the Treason Trials, like the Society of the Friends of the People, disbanded.” Many famous radicals were imperilled or imprisoned, but the bonny Scot kept his liberty.
Shortly after the death of his legitimate daughter, Elizabeth Riddle Burns, as a toddler in autumn of 1795, Burns wrote that he was “the victim of a most severe rheumatic fever, and long the die spun doubtful; until after many weeks of a sick bed, it seems to have turned up life, and I am beginning to crawl across my room, and once indeed have been before my own door in the street.” Rumours would arise in the Victorian era that Burns had a venereal disease or alcoholism, but there is no contemporary evidence of either. The most probable cause of Burns’s death was bacterial endocarditis. Regrettably, the great poet’s 37th birthday would be his last.
He wouldn’t have been Rabbie Burns, however, if he hadn’t managed to fall in love even on his death bed. His wife was heavily pregnant with their final baby, and needed help to nurse the ailing Burns in the spring of 1796. As the weather warmed, so did his feelings for his nurse, the 18 year old Jessy Lewars. He composed the short poems “O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast“, ‘Talk Not to Me of Savages‘, and “‘Here’s a Health to Ane I Loe Dear” for her, and made moon-calf eyes at her, but neither she or his wife took his infatuation very seriously. After Burns died on 21 July 1796, Miss Lewars stayed with Jean for another year, to help her take care of the last Burns baby (a son, Maxwell, who was born on the day of his father’s funeral, 25 July 1796) and cope with her new widowhood.
Robert Burns was buried at St. Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries with full military honours, but only “slab of freestone” to mark the grave. He had fallen into financial straights toward the end of his life, and Burns had spend his final months trying desperately to make sure his wife and children would be provided for when he died. He wrote a letter to his brother Gilbert in which he pleaded, “God help my wife & children, if I am taken from their head! – They will be poor indeed. – I have contracted one or two serious debts, partly from my illness these many months, & partly from too much thoughtlessness as to expense when I came to town that will cut in too much on the little I leave them in your hands.” He also wrote a letter to a cousin, James Burness, asking him to lend the family money. He was an inconstant husband, but he appears to have really loved Jean and worried for her and his children.
Burns would have rested easier if he had known that as his fame continued to grow his family would prosper from the sale of his works. Just a decade after his death, his adoring fans had raised enough funds to build the Burns Mausoleum in St Micheal’s Churchyard. His wife was buried there beside him when she passed away in 1834.
Through his multiple children, Burns has more than 600 living decedents, but his true legacy is his influence on literature and culture. He kick-started the era of Romanticism, and he made the honest use of the vernacular speech and pronunciation acceptable in poetry and prose. He also became a kind of patron saint of Scots identity, and Burns Night, with it’s traditional meal of haggis and Burn’s poem lauding that dish, is celebrated with more verve than St. Andrew’s Day in Scotland.
Moreover, the poetry of Robert Burns gave the Scottish diaspora a lodestar for their heritage from Argentina to New Zealand. This is especially true in Canada, where Burns’s biography and works grace the media on Robbie Burns’ Day. My favorite Canadian tradition is the Vancouver festival ‘Gung Haggis Fat Choy’, a delightful mash-up of Chinese New Year and Robert Burns’ Day.
It is not only the Scots and English speakers that are moved by Burns. His work, especially his “Birthday Ode for George Washington” or “A Man’s a Man for a’ that, is so able to encapsulate the struggles of working farmers and the yearning for a more egalitarian system that he became the “peoples’ poet” of Russia, reaching the hearts of Slavic nation even in translation. Oddly enough, it was the Russians — not the Scots or the English — who first commemorated Burns on a stamp.
Arguably, the most famous of Burns’s creations is the lyrical poem “Auld Lang Syne”, which is sung around the world on New Year’s Eve. It is much older than the version Burns wrote in 1788, but it was the poet who made it accessible to (and beloved of) the greater public. For myself, I am particularly fond of “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose”:
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!
I know it is soppy and based on a traditional song rather than his own genius — but I don’t care. I like it, and willna say it nae.
Tonight is Burns Night, and I hope everyone who celebrates it has a wonderful time, and that your haggis is both moist and flavorful! Ca Ira and Wha Hae!