The romance and marriage of Robert Burns and Jean Armour is well known and discussed; but how much do we really know about their early courtship? There are certain moments in the couple’s story that are set in stone, such as the year they met; the year of their wedding; their children’s births and deaths. These dates however only tell us the bare bones of their lives together; they do not give us an insight into their feelings, their thoughts, and their bond as a married couple. Catherine Czerkawska has written a novel around the couple’s lives, starting with their early courtship, through the heightened emotions of their separation and finishing with their married lives together. We all know how the relationship ended, but how did it begin in the first place? When and how did Robert Burns fall in love with his Jewel, Jean Armour?
Jean Armour’s parents were far from impressed with the new inhabitant near Mauchline, Robert Burns, otherwise known as Rab Mossgiel at the time. His reputation as a womaniser had preceded him, and James Armour deemed him an unsuitable match for his respectable young daughter, Jean. The news of Elizabeth Paton’s pregnancy only proved the rumours of his behaviour to be true. The rumours had been given life; there was no way of assuaging parents with young daughters of his virtues now. He accepted paternity of the child without complaint and endured three penitential sessions in the Kirk for his fornication. So how did respectable Jean Armour fall for his charms? In public Jean and Robert could only admire each other from a distance; her parents after all would never allow their daughter to become associated with such a man. Somehow admiration from a distance does not scream of a passionate and enduring romance, a love that could endure whatever comes. So how did this young couple’s love begin?
An open courtship was out of the question, the young couple needed a helping hand. Catherine Czerkawska in her novel mentions a woman called Catherine Govan, an elderly lady living in Mauchline who could perform the role of a ‘black-fit’. A black-fit was in essence a matchmaker; a person who could be a go-between for the young couple. This person was usually an older woman who wished them well and would keep their secret. Robert wanted to know Jean better, so he organised the services of a black-fit to assist them. The plan was for Jean to spend several afternoons with Catherine Govan, since she could teach Jean fine embroidery and needlework. In truth Jean only spent a short while at her lessons before sneaking off to meet her Robert somewhere more private. When the time came to return home to her parents, she would collect her needlework that Catherine had further embellished before heading home to her unsuspecting parents. In addition to this, Robert and Jean both asked a friend to act as a chaperone; therefore their public meetings in the Whitefoord Arms Inn were simply among friends, nothing noteworthy for gossip.
In the book Jean admires Robert’s love of reading, he was always in possession of a book and no moment was spent in idleness. In truth, Robert was like no other man she had met before, and despite all of her parents’ misgivings she could not resist him. Jean is portrayed as a spirited, lively and attractive young woman, not the passive woman she is often depicted as. Jean’s position in the relationship was far more dangerous, as a dependent upon her father, her relationship with Robert Burns could and ultimately did cost her dearly. She willingly chose to defy social and religious conventions placed upon a woman, as well as the possible risk of pregnancy, so she could be with him. For Robert Burns, Jean’s beautiful singing voice was the sweetest ‘wood-notes wild,’ and even when they were married it was something he still remarked upon. In his eyes, she was the epitome of a proper young lady; she was his Jewel before all others. The other ladies of Mauchline had their desirable qualities too, but none could rival Jean for his affections:
Miss Millar is fine, Miss Markland’s divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw,
There’s beauty and fortune to get wi’ Miss Morton,
But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.
Unfortunately the couple’s secret relationship had to come to an end when Jean fell pregnant. Robert was seemingly delighted with the prospect; he wrote a document outlining the marriage between Jean and himself. The young couple both agreed and signed the document, as far as they were concerned they were married with their first child on the way. Jean could not hide her growing condition forever though, and she had to tell her parents of her relationship and marriage to Robert Mossgiel. James Armour would not condone any of it; surely another man would still be willing to marry her, despite her condition. James sent Jean away from the prying eyes and gossip of Mauchline to stay with relatives in Paisley.
The marriage between Jean and Robert had not been officiated by the Kirk, so in James’ eyes the whole marriage was a falsehood. He destroyed the document by cutting out the couple’s names; the proof of the marriage was gone. James informed Robert that Jean had shunned him and had allowed her father to destroy their marriage document. Robert felt slighted and wronged; his Jean had proven to be fickle and undeserving. Jean was eventually allowed to return home after several months away, by which point Robert’s attention had wandered to Margaret Campbell, otherwise known as Highland Mary. The once promising early courtship and relationship had ended disastrously; it took two more years before they were fully reconciled and married.
The early courtship of Jean and her Robert was far from desirable; yet despite everything, they fell in love with each other. The secrecy, the pregnancy, the separation were only some of the trials they went through before they were officially married. The couple’s hardships had not torn them apart forever, their love had endured. Robert Burns had first met his Jean in 1785 and they were officially married three years later. By this time Jean had already given birth to four of the couple’s nine children. In September 1788 Burns wrote a letter to Margaret Chalmers about his Jean, he proudly declared ‘…I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the county.’ The marriage was far from perfect; his infidelity is legendary after all, yet no one can doubt that they loved each other. The life and story of Robert Burns would seem somewhat lacking without his Jean; she was his friend, his lover and his wife. Thankfully the couple’s early courtship invoked true and deep feelings of love in them both; perhaps an impossible feat if it hadn’t been for the helping hand of a black fit as described by Catherine Czerkawska.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham
Robert Burns was raised to devoutly honour and respect the Kirk’s teachings and principles by his father, William Burnes. However that does not mean Burns always had an amicable relationship with the Kirk; you could say it was quite tumultuous at times. Robert Burns’s relationship with the Kirk took a distinct downturn during the years he was living at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. In 1786, Burns was sentenced to three penitential appearances by the Kirk session for his fornication, a humiliating experience in front of the entire congregation. This occurrence certainly affected Burns and he openly expressed his discontent at the Kirk’s hypocrisy in his personal and public writings.
In 1785 Burns wrote a poem called The Holy Fair, in which he exposed the moral tug-of-war that people felt between the Kirk and the pub. This feeling of being torn between the morality of the Kirk and the sociability of the pub was something that Burns himself would have experienced. This poem is a character study of a twice-yearly open aired Holy Fair that aimed to prepare the righteous for Communion in the parish. This consisted of preaching and prayer meetings lasting several days prior to Communion. But as Burns highlights in this poem, the purpose of the Holy Fair had deteriorated into a mixture of propriety and merriment.
We can see the character of Robert Burns entering the gate with a lassie on his arm; this lassie is called Fun, who the narrator met on his journey to the Fair. In the background we can perceive two more women, Superstition and Hypocrisy, who are introduced to us in the poem. The two sisters cloaked in black do not seem to interest the narrator as:
Their visage wither’d, lang an’ thin,
An’ sour as onie slaes.
In contrast to her sisters, Fun is vivacious and sociable; the narrator appears to take an instant liking to her friendly manner and accompanies her for the rest of the journey.
Quo’ she, an’ laughin as she spak,
An’ taks me by the han’s.
The three sisters personify the vying emotions at a Holy Fair. Many like Fun go ‘to spend an hour in daffin,’ since the sociability aspect of the Fair would have created a carnival atmosphere in the rural village. Fun personifies and exposes the truth that all those attending may not be thinking devoutly, but rather on the appearance and behaviour of others.
‘On this ane’s dress, an’ that ane’s leuk,
They’re makin observations;’
Furthermore many others attending merely went out of superstitious fear, even if they did not necessarily practice what was preached. The religious import of the Fair was not be equally felt by all though (even if they should wish it), since only those able to pay the entrance fee could have received preparation for Communion. This would certainly have caused a rift within the community, as those not attending would be judged for their lack of religious fervour. This fervour to the faith should be openly visible and embodied by the parish minister, but even he is not where you would think to find him. He is not preaching within the confines of his Kirk, instead he is outside with the social revellers. Is he preaching from his lofty position or equally enjoying the libations of the Holy Fair too? This sense of hypocrisy and superstitious fear was fuel for Robert Burns’s literary fire. This granted him the opportunity to create a cutting and humorous depiction on the seemingly sanctimonious behaviour of the Kirk and wider community.
The Holy Fair is still held every year in Mauchline, with the Kirk and pub still prominent landmarks on either side. The sociability aspect of the Fair seems to have won out over religion, since the day is dedicated primarily to celebrating the village’s history and heritage instead. During the day there are often live performances outside and within Mauchline Parish Kirk, stalls from local businesses, and family activities. In addition to this, there is full access to the local museums and sites, many of which are dedicated to Burns. So it would seem Robert Burns’s exposé on the Holy Fair proved to be right after all, religion and sociability go hand-in-hand at the Fair. Unfortunately for the Kirk, it not only has to compete with the pub now, but Caledonia’s National Bard too.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham