Burns in Irvine

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Photograph of the heckling shed at Irvine where Burns engaged in flax dressing
The heckling shed, Irvine

We always tend to associate Robert Burns with farming. Indeed he spent many years of his life at Mount Oliphant and Lochlie, in Tarbolton, also Mossgeil in Mauchline, and latterly Ellisland Farm in Dumfries. When he was Edinburgh, with a view to having his poems published, he was hailed as the Heaven Taught Ploughman by Henry McKenzie… the man who wrote one of Burns’s favourite books, The Man of Feeling.

When Burns was 23, he saw the lack of aim and purpose in his life and resolved to do something about it. He wrote: ‘My twenty third year was to me an important era. Partly through whim and partly that I wished to do something in life, I joined with a flax dresser in a neighbouring town, to learn his trade and carry on the business of manufacturing and retailing flax.’

Robert and his brother Gilbert had for a few years grown flax at Lochlie farm. They had rented three acres of their father’s land in which to grow this crop, which grew very successfully due to the clay soil and damp conditions. One year, Burns was awarded a government grant of three pounds and ten shillings for the production of flax seed for growing.

The neighbouring town of Irvine was about ten miles from Tarbolton, and was then the largest town in Ayrshire. It would seem that Robert invested a sum of money in this venture. His partner was a Mr Peacock, thought to be half-brother to his mother Agnes. Burns described him as a scoundrel, who also made money by the mystery of thieving.

The work of dressing flax was carried out in heckling sheds at No. 10 Glasgow Vennel. There were two sheds, one used for heckling and the other as a store room and stable. Robert slept in the loft of the store room. The work of heckling was long and arduous, and Robert spent about ten hours a day combing the flax, which produced clouds of choking flint and dust. After a few months of working in these conditions, Robert began to feel very unwell. A doctor was sent for, and Dr Fleeming came to visit him five times in eight days. It was not known what his illness was, but he was suffering from a very black bout of depression, as well as being in a lot of pain and seemingly having a fever. His doctor prescribed various things for him.

Many years later, in 1950, Dr Fleeming’s record book was found an attic by a pharmacist who bought his house. As he flicked through the pages, he saw the name: Robert Burns, flax dresser. The doctor had recorded the dates of his visits to Burns and also what he had prescribed, but had not recorded a diagnosis or prognosis.

Burns became so ill that his father came to visit him from Tarbolton. When he saw the dreadful and insanitary conditions his son was living in, he arranged for him to be moved out of the store room where he slept and into a room at No. 4 Glasgow Vennel. Burns wrote a letter to his father on the 27th December, 1781 telling him he was: ‘quite transported at the thought that ere long, perhaps soon, I shall bid an eternal adieu to the pain and weariness of life, for I am heartily sick of it’.

He was deeply depressed, and all he could see ahead of him was poverty and obscurity. He also wrote that he had been reading the Revelation verses 15, 16 and 17: ‘It speaks of no more suffering, no more sorrow, no more pain, and that God will wipe away all tears from all eyes.’ He seems to have been particularly fond of those verses and has quoted them in other letters.

Four days after he wrote that letter, worse was to come… the heckling shed was burned down by the carelessness of his drunken partner’s wife, Mrs Peacock. It was burnt to ashes and Robert lamented: ‘It left me like a true poet, not worth a sixpence’.

He stayed on in Irvine for a number of weeks after the fire, having formed a close relationship with a seafarer by the name of Richard Brown. It is not known where they met, but Brown was six years older than Burns, had had mixed fortunes, and had some education. They spent a lot of time together, talking and walking in Eglinton woods. Robert loved him and admired him and to a degree he strove to imitate him: Brown had a knowledge of the world and Robert was all attention to learn. Robert used to recite his poems to Brown was they walked, and one day Brown encouraged him to consider having his poems printed. The seed was planted in Burns that day.

I think that the most significant thing to have come out of Robert’s time in Irvine was his discovery of Robert Fergusson, the young Edinburgh poet. Born in 1750, his collected works were published in 1773 and he sold 500 copies. It is not known where Robert came across Fergusson’s works. It was perhaps in Willie Templeton’s bookshop at Irvine cross, at which Burns was a regular visitor. Burns felt an emotional kinship with Fergusson and later wrote:

‘Oh thou my elder brother in misfortune
By far my elder brother in the muse
With tears I pity thy unhappy fate’

A few years later, Burns commissioned a memorial stone for Fergusson’s unmarked grave in Cannongate, and in the preface to his Kilmarnock edition in 1786, he referred to him as ‘the poor unfortunate Fergusson’. He wrote in an autobiographical letter: ‘meeting with Fergusson’s Scotch poems, I strung anew my wildly sounding rustic lyre with emulating vigour’. He also said that Fergusson had made him come alive as a poet. He was greatly influenced by Fergusson, as we can see in the Mauchline Holy Fair, inspired by Leith Races.

Burns left Irvine in March 1782 and returned to Lochlie farm in Tarbolton. He had returned for the ploughing and planting season.

And so it was that he was back where he started, but as a very much wiser man. He also had a new aim in life: to become a poet and have his work printed some day.

This blog was written by one of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s dedicated volunteers, Ann Hamilton, who delivered a Highlight Talk on the subject last month. Many thanks to her for all her hard work and research.

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