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
Have you ever had the urge to graffiti? To loudly declare to the world I was here? Well Robert Burns certainly did, and he chose a way with great style and panache too. His was no illegible scrawls or splashes of indescribable colour that we often see now. Instead he scratched his immortal thoughts onto panes of glass. Burns’s creativity was definitely not restricted to certain times of the day or even when he had a handy piece of parchment available. This is evident during his highland tour, when Robert decided to leave a distinctive trail of graffiti in the places he visited. He left behind a series of poems and lines inscribed on chimney pieces and on the window panes of several inns he stayed in.
On the first night of his tour, Burns and his companion William Nicol stayed overnight at the Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk in 1787. This was the beginning of his window pane graffiti trail. Robert had recently acquired a diamond tipped stylus, which he used to scratch four lines into the window pane. The lines entreat that all men who are good to women should be rewarded:
‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’
There are some who question Robert Burn’s relationships with women, and whether he deserved a reward for his ‘good’ treatment of women. Nevertheless, this was not the last of his unusual writings in August 1787. In the royal burgh of Stirling he visited a seat of the Scottish Kings, Stirling Castle. The castle at the time of his visit was in a ruinous state, and this roused Burns’s Jacobitism for the Stewart Kings of previously. In a letter to Robert Muir, Burns outlined his day in Stirling and his indignation at what had occurred to the castle and the fallen Stewarts. These were the ten lines he wrote on his room’s window at the Wingate’s Inn (now the Golden Lion Hotel):
“Here Stewarts once in triumph reigned,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;
But now unroofed their palace stands,
Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;
Fallen, indeed, and to the earth
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth,
The injured Stewart line is gone.
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race, to honour lost;
Who knows them best despise them most.”
This poem is highly critical of the Hanoverian monarchy that had replaced the Stewart Kings. George III was on the throne in 1787 and he is still known today as the Mad King, a member of the ‘idiot race’ as Burns scathingly wrote. In addition to this, the Hanoverians were still seen as alien foreigners, ‘a race outlandish’ that dared to occupy the throne of ‘the injured Stewart line.’ These words, although poetical, are no less treasonous for their meaning. Burns saw the danger of this particular window graffiti and returned later to break the glass to avoid prosecution. Yet these lines almost ruined his chances to become an Excise man later, since he was interrogated ‘like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window.’ Despite this attempt to erase his glass scribblings, the Stirling Lines have been remembered. The Golden Lion lost the broken fragments of the original Stirling Lines in a fire that occurred last century, but they have been re-engraved for a display dedicated to Robert Burns in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.
Robert Burns had not lost his taste for window graffiti after Stirling, even though these particular lines could have seen him arrested for treason. In 1790, he once again lifted his diamond-tipped stylus and started engraving on several window panes in the Globe Inn in Dumfries. This time Burns decided to omit his opinions on the monarchy, and focused on the relative merits of sex and war instead.
‘I MURDER hate by field or flood,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood,
Life-giving wars of Venus:
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.’
Burns was a lover rather than a fighter, evident perhaps from his many offspring from several different women. He practiced what he wrote, and he had an affair with a barmaid called Anna Park in the same room he wrote these lines. Their relationship together produced a daughter; Elizabeth Park Burns, who was raised with Robert’s other children by Jean.
Robert Burns was a prolific writer across numerous genres, these window panes inscribed with his lines testifies to that. He believed women should be treated in a good manner, and that such men would be justly rewarded in return. He played with this idea of loving women by comparing war with love and sex. It gives life to the old adage of men being ‘lovers’ or ‘fighters.’ Robert Burns was indeed a romantic, but he was also more than that, he was a highly educated and politically opinionated man. This is obvious from his most famous window graffiti, The Stirling Lines, in which his love of Scotland and his nationalistic fervour is clear. All three examples of his window graffiti paint a picture of an unusual man, one who did not necessarily conform to society’s expectations or rules.
The window graffiti from Falkirk and Dumfries are displayed within the museum’s collection for you to see. If you also head into the cottage you will see generations of graffiti carved into the cottage doors, and one visitor even followed Robert Burns’s example and left a message on a window pane in 1881.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham
Ae Fond Kiss is one of Robert Burns’s most famous love songs, one that outlines not the joy that love can bring but the acute pain of a broken-heart. It is moving, emotional and tender.
The song was written in 1791 and sent in a letter to Mrs Agnes McLehose (addressed as ‘Nancy’ in this instance). Burns met Agnes (1758–1841) in Edinburgh when she arranged an introduction to the bard by a mutual friend, Miss Erskine Nimmo. They engaged in an intense yet unconsummated love affair, largely through a series of passionate letters exchanged between the two.
Following Burns’s departure from Edinburgh in 1788, the bard’s relationship with Agnes suffered owing to his reunion with and eventual marriage to Jean Armour, not to mention an affair with Jennie Clow, Agnes’s maid, which resulted in a child. In 1792, Agnes returned to the West Indies at the request of her estranged husband (only to return after finding out he had started another family). Upon learning of her planned departure, Burns was inspired and sent her the heart-rending song Ae Fond Kiss. The song was first published in 1792 in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (which can be seen on display at RBBM).
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweeli alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
In the third verse, the speaker reflects upon his infatuation with Nancy, suggesting that he could not resist her charms. Notice how the emphasis is on her appearance rather than other attractions: “But to see her was to love her”. Nancy may have had a great personality, came from a respectable background but here the speaker is idealizing the external beauty only. This is classic Burns as he himself and some of his works do have undertones of machoism, for example, cheating on his wife and in Tam o’ Shanter with Kate at home ‘nursing her wrath’ whilst Tam is drunk, flirting with Kirkton Jean and eyeing up Nannie!
The language is relatively straightforward and is polished compared to some of Burns’s other poems in Scots. Scots pronunciations are used throughout – for example, ‘nae’ for ‘no’ and ‘weel’ for ‘well’. Scots terms are limited to ‘ilka’ for ‘each’ or ‘every’ in the fifth verse. Perhaps Burns’s reasoning for this is because Nancy was included in polite 18th century society in Edinburgh and would have spoken in English rather than Scots?
The heavily romanticized and iconic quote from this poem is:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
This would make any romantic swoon but one should keep in mind that on a biographical level, Burns writes to Agnes long after their initial infatuation. We know that Burns had returned to his own wife and he had also got Agnes’ servant pregnant. Can we still see this song as a true outpouring of emotion? Or, should we see it as a carefully crafted piece of poetry? I think it is both – Burns had a tendency to have bursts of illogical emotion when it came to his love affairs, like confessing undying love to one whilst happily married to another, but that does not mean it was not real to him – but I do not think it matters either way you interpret it. It is what it is: and that is a beautiful love song.
In the main exhibition space within the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, there is a display case dedicated to Ae Fond Kiss which has four objects on display as well as an interesting contemporary interpretation of the work through images.
There are five snapshots taken from Hollywood movies that are about unrequited love: Romeo and Juliet, Casa Blanca, Gone with the Wind, Brokeback Mountain and Atonement. This reference to popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is a great way to convey how love and heart-ache has and always will be a topic of interest and an inspiration for artists no matter their medium.
Also, there is a teacup that belonged to Agnes which is used to represent the different social classes of Burns and her; a letter from Burns to Agnes saying he has included a song for publication (i.e. Ae Fond Kiss); another letter from Burns to Agnes in which they use their code names ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’ because though separated, Agnes was deeply concerned with propriety and confidentiality; and Ae Fond Kiss shown in the Scots Musical Museum book.
Other objects within the museum’s collection which are worth noting are the silhouette miniature of Agnes, the pair of wine glasses Burns gifted Agnes and a letter from Agnes to Burns.
You can listen to a beautiful rendition of Ae Fond Kiss here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax021N4iaFU
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
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
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
It is universally acknowledged that Robert Burns was very advanced in his time; he is seen as both an egalitarian and a humanist. He was not afraid to lambast people in positions of authority or challenge accepted social norms that he found distasteful. He openly hated hypocrisy, cruelty and pomposity, championing instead kindness, honesty and fairness. He wrote a poignant poem from the viewpoint of a slave in his work The Slave’s Lament, voicing the hardships that slaves felt as they were stolen from their homeland. This empathy and depth of emotion extended upon humans though. One of his most famous poems To a Mouse even delves into the feelings of an animal, and the similarities that exist between men and beasts. So how could a man like that have considered working on a slave plantation? The truth is there are many facets to Burns, and this complexity continues to make him a man truly difficult to understand and know even to this day.
His renowned song Is There for Honest Poverty, better known as A Man’s a Man for a’ That, is praised for its sense of social equality and morals. After all:
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that
But even a man from the poorer classes who had:
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
This is Robert Burns reinforcing what truly matters in life. Yes he grew into his fame during his own lifetime, but he never forgot where he came from. He was proud of his origins and never shied away from who he or his family was. I imagine his time in Edinburgh only further supported this. Although he was the glittering icon admired by the literati, he was kept at an acceptable distance from the elite’s young ladies; he was after all just a Heaven-taught Ploughman. This song was first published anonymously in 1795 in the Glasgow Magazine, nearly a decade after he considered working in Jamaica. Therefore Burns’s feelings upon egalitarianism and democracy had significantly developed within this time; it is hard to consider this Burns employed on a slave plantation. The last two lines of this song truly encapsulate his viewpoint on mankind’s connection to each other:
‘That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.’
So was there a reason why a younger Burns of 1786 considered life in Jamaica a viable pursuit? The truth is there are many; Burns was having a difficult time both financially and emotionally. At this point in his life he was struggling to earn a living at Mossgiel, whilst also being deemed a fornicator by the Kirk. James Armour had repudiated Burns as a son-in-law, and Burns was subsequently separated from a pregnant Jean. This greatly angered and hurt Burns as he was forced to go into hiding from James Armour’s writ. In addition to this, he had make several penitential appearances in Mauchline Kirk for his indiscretions, a very humiliating and humbling experience in front of his peers. Therefore it is not surprising that Burns was tempted by a new life, in a new land, with a new woman (Highland Mary). He wanted to escape the woes and responsibilities that were currently shadowing him. This was not merely a passing thought for Burns, since he secured himself the post of assistant overseer on an estate owned by his friend, Dr Patrick Douglas. He also put down a deposit of nine guineas and obtained himself passage on the ship Nancy. The prospect of leaving Scotland forever was a real possibility, which is evident in this melancholy verse which he wrote in August 1786:
‘Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
The bursting tears my heart declare—
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!’
However life for Burns took a turn for the better after his Kilmarnock Edition was an overnight success. His old love, Jean, had also given birth to twins Robert and Jean, which delighted him. He abandoned his plans for Jamaica and headed to Edinburgh instead, his future on a slave plantation had been averted.
Although it is recorded that Sir Walter Scott once saw Burns burst into tears at the sight of a Banbury print; Burns was always a practical, hard-working man. He was a survivor, and he did what was necessary to survive. This is evident through his struggles living in Dumfries, since he became an Exciseman to supplement his farming and writing income. The prospect of working on a slave plantation is a hard truth to reconcile with our image of a humanist Burns, but it was an option he had to consider in difficult times. Thankfully his true calling of poetry and songs became a viable possibility in 1786; otherwise the Burns we know today may have taken a drastically different path in life.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham