One of the main stereotypes on Robert Burns is that he was a womaniser; it is true he had many female companions in his lifetime. So with that in mind, was Burns a lover or a fighter? The truth is he was a bit of both, well let’s be honest, definitely more of a lover. Yet Burns was willing to fight for something he believed in, especially when it helped to keep him on the right side of the authorities. Consequently, while Burns was living in Dumfries he became a member of the local army unit, The Royal Dumfries Volunteers, and he was an active participant at its meetings and drill sessions.
So why did this widely known ‘lover’ join? Burns supported the principals of republicanism and he was not afraid to voice his controversial opinions to his friends around Dumfries. Unfortunately for him, his behaviour was noticed by his superiors at the Excise office. The recent revolutions in France and the American War of Independence had struck fear into the hearts of the British authorities. Therefore during this time of social and political unrest in the 1790s, the British government and Robert Burns’s employer did not look kindly on any revolutionist sympathisers. Despite this, Burns’s behaviour during this time is certainly questionable. For example, in October 1792 at the Theatre Royal in Dumfries, Burns was seen singing along to the French revolutionary song Ça Ira with a group of radicals. In addition to this he purchased four carronades (cannons) from a public auction, which he later donated to the French Legislative Assembly. For a highly educated and politically interested man, these actions lacked forethought and astuteness.
As a result of this Burns needed to do some ‘grovelling’ as it were, to get back into the good graces of his superiors. In order to prove his loyalty to the British Crown and save his desperately needed position at the Excise; Burns took an Oath of Allegiance and signed the Rules, Regulations and By-Laws on the 28th March 1795 to join the Volunteers. To further prove his allegiance to the British authorities, Burns wrote a song in April 1795 called Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat? (more commonly known as The Dumfries Volunteers). The song praises the recently formed Royal Dumfries Volunteers, whose duty was to defend Britain from a French attack. This however did not stop him from writing revolutionary poems and letters anonymously; after all, even this song’s last line is ‘We’ll ne’er forget The People!’
Although he never lost or completely put aside his politically radical thoughts, Burns proved himself to be a committed and hardworking Private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. This was not merely an empty gesture to the authorities; he worked hard to fulfil his duties. Burns attended the training sessions, which often lasted for two hours twice a week. He also served on the committee for three months from August 1795, which involved supplying the corps with weapons and other necessary equipment. Furthermore, unlike many of his comrades in the unit he was never fined for absenteeism, drunkenness or insolence. These duties and additional responsibilities were supplementary to his tiring job as an exciseman and a poet. Nevertheless he took them very seriously for the year and half he served with the Dumfries Volunteers.
His position and dedication to the Volunteers is evident, even though so little of his military career is now considered. On the day of his funeral it was not his writing that had the most pervasive presence, but his military career instead. His volunteer uniform, hat and sword rested upon the coffin, which was carried from his home to his final resting place in St Michael’s Churchyard. On Monday 25th July 1796, Burns received a military funeral that included the Dumfries Volunteers, the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles. His comrades from the Volunteers were the pallbearers for his coffin, while the Cinque Port Cavalry band played Handel’s solemn Dead March from Saul. The slow procession moved in time to the music and the occasional toll of the great Church Bells until they reached the graveyard. The funeral party formed two lines and the coffin was carried between them to the grave. Although there are claims that Burns’s dying words were ‘don’t let the awkward squad fire over me,’ three volleys were fired over the coffin when it was deposited into the earth.
St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries
This truly was a grand spectacle, a fitting ceremony to represent the general regret and sorrow at Robert Burns’s passing. If Robert had not joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, would his funeral have been a much quieter affair? Would such an impressive ceremony have been awarded to him, if he had been just an exciseman and poet? We will never be able to answer those questions, but it is interesting that the job we least associate with Burns, is the one that played a defining role in his funeral. Days after his passing, death elegies began pouring out, as people across the country wanted to pay tribute to Scotia’s Bard.
Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?
Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?
Then let the louns 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!
O let us not, like snarling tykes,
In wrangling be divided,
Till, slap! come in an inco loun,
And wi’ a rung decide it!
Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united!
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!
The Kettle o’ the Kirk and State,
Perhaps a clout may fail in’t;
But Deil a foreign tinkler loun
Shall ever ca’a nail in’t.
Our father’s blude the Kettle bought,
And wha wad dare to spoil it;
By Heav’ns! the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it!
The wretch that would a tyrant own,
And the wretch, his true-born brother,
Who would set the Mob aboon the Throne,
May they be damn’d together!
Who will not sing “God save the King,”
Shall hang as high’s the steeple;
But while we sing “God save the King,”
We’ll ne’er forget The People!
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham