In honour of Women’s History Month, throughout March the RBBM Facebook and Twitter have shared poems linked to influential women in Robert Burns’s life. We thought we’d round off the month with a blog exploring each of these ladies in more detail!
First up is Jean Armour, Robert’s wife. She was born 25th February 1765 in Mauchline, Ayrshire. Whilst growing up, Jean was renowned for her beauty and was part of a group of young women often referred to as ‘the Belles of Mauchline’. She met Robert when she was around eighteen, and less than two years later she was pregnant with his child – her father famously fainted when told that Robert was the father! He refused to allow the couple to marry – this meant he would rather Jean be a single mother than married to Robert, which speaks volumes about Robert’s reputation!
Despite this less than promising start to their relationship, Jean and Robert were formally married on 5th August 1788 – Jean’s father had come round to the idea after Robert’s poetry success. They had a mostly happy marriage, despite Robert’s famous infidelities – Jean herself said that he should have had ‘twa wives’.
Jean and her family moved to Dumfries in 1791 and this is where Robert died in 1796. Jean could not attend his funeral as she was in labour with their ninth child, Maxwell. Tragically, Maxwell died at the age of two – just four of the couple’s children survived to adulthood. However, Jean did also look after Betty Park (Robert’s child to Ann Park) and they had a good relationship. After Robert’s death, Jean never remarried, and she lived in the house they had shared in Dumfries until she died 26th March 1834 – she outlived her husband by thirty-eight years.
Next is Agnes Burnes, née Broun – the Bard’s mother. Agnes was born 17th March 1732 near Kirkoswald in Ayrshire. Her mother died when she was just ten years old; being the eldest sibling, it was then Agnes’s responsibility to care for the family until her father remarried two years later. However, Agnes and her new step-mother did not get on well, and Agnes was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Maybole. She instilled in Agnes a great love for Scottish folk song and music.
Agnes met William Burnes (spelled differently but pronounced the same as ‘Burns’) in 1756 and they married on 3rd December 1757. They settled in the clay biggin William had built in Alloway; Robert Burns was the eldest of their seven children. It is thought that Agnes was a great influence on Robert’s own love of Scottish folk song and music, just as her grandmother had been to her. After William died in 1784, Agnes went to live with her son Gilbert. She moved around with his family until her death, at the age of eighty-seven, on 14th January 1820.
The third woman we featured this month is Frances Dunlop, a wealthy heiress almost thirty years older than Burns. Born 16th April 1730, her maiden name was Wallace, and her family claimed descent from William Wallace himself! Frances married at eighteen, when her husband, John Dunlop, was in his forties. They had a happy life together – however, John died in 1785. In the same year, Frances’s childhood home and lands were lost to the family. These incidents caused her humongous grief and she fell into a prolonged depression.
What finally roused her was Robert Burns’s poem ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. She enjoyed reading it so much that she contacted Robert to ask for more copies and to invite him to her home – this began a long and friendly correspondence that lasted until the end of Robert’s life. Frances treated him almost like another son, praising his achievements and admonishing his indiscretions. She even offered advice on drafts of poetry and songs he would send her, the most famous of these being ‘Auld Lang Syne’! Although there was a two-year gap in their correspondence after Burns had offended Frances with some comments she deemed radical, Frances sent him a reconciliatory letter mere days before Robert’s death. She outlived him by nearly twenty years, dying 24th May 1815.
The last woman featured is Agnes Maclehose, aka the ‘Clarinda’ to Burns’s ‘Sylvander’. Agnes was born 26th April 1758 in Glasgow. She grew up to be a very articulate, well-educated and beautiful woman. She married at eighteen, but the marriage was an unhappy one and she separated from her husband in 1780.
Agnes met Robert Burns several years later at a party in Edinburgh – they were immediately taken with each other, and she wrote to him to invite him to tea at her home. Although an accident prevented this from happening, there began a long series of love letters and love poetry sent between the two. They used the pseudonyms ‘Clarinda’ and ‘Sylvander’. Despite the intensity of their correspondence, it is widely-thought that their affair was unconsummated. As Agnes was an incredibly pious woman and, although separated, still married, this makes sense.
In 1791 Agnes sailed for Jamaica to attempt to reconcile with her husband – however, he had started a family with another woman, so she returned to Scotland after only a few months. She met Robert for the last time in December of that year. For the rest of her life Agnes took great care of her letters from Robert, and after his death she even negotiated to have the letters she had sent to him returned to her.
In 1821 Agnes had tea with Jean Armour in Edinburgh. The two women, who could have been viewed as rivals of sorts, got on well and talked at length about their families, as well as their shared regard for Robert Burns. Agnes died twenty years later, at the age of eighty-three, on 23rd October 1841.
You can find the original Facebook and Twitter posts at https://www.facebook.com/RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum/ and https://twitter.com/RobertBurnsNTS.
As it’s Women’s History Month, one of the Learning Trainees here at RBBM, Caitlin Walker, has written about the attitudes to women found in Burns’s poetry. She has written the post in a similar way to how she would speak it, which is why there is a mixture of Scots and English language.
Maist folk know that Robert Burns enjoyed the company of women – his famous love affairs, the hundreds of poems and songs they inspired and the thirteen (that we know of!) weans he fathered attest to that. But what did he actually think of women?
Burns was born and lived his life during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a time when women couldnae vote and were rarely, if ever, formally educatit. Gender roles were strictly prescribed – for instance, women of the working class were given no formal education but taught how to run a hoose and look after a faimlie. Tasks were divided by gender completely, to the extent that women milked the coos but men mucked oot the byre, and during harvest time men used the scythe while women used the heuk. Women of higher classes would have learned literacy and maybe even another language or a musical instrument, but the expectation was the same – get merrit and raise a faimlie.
Different poems by Burns depict varying attitudes to women. For instance, ‘Willie Wastle’ – which is perhaps an unsuitably-named poem as it’s really about Willie Wastle’s wife – is hardly complimentary towards women. Burns describes her using terms such as ‘dour’, ‘din’, ‘bow-hough’d’ and ‘hem-shin’d’. She allegedly has ‘but ane’ e’e, ‘five rusty teeth, forbye a stump’, ‘a whiskin beard’ and ‘walie nieves like midden-creels’. Burns rounds off every stanza with the line, ‘I wad na gie a button for her’. This Burns is a far cry from the adorer of women the world recognises – he is being extremely disrespectful and takin nae prisoners in mocking her appearance!
This photograph shows the sign for the Willie Wastle Inn in Crosshill, Ayrshire. It depicts Willie’s wife as she is described in the poem.
Contrast this with ‘The Rights of Woman’, Burns’s call for folk to remember the rights of women amongst the turbulent atmosphere of the eighteenth century, when ‘even children lisp the Rights of Man’. At first glance this seems like Burns being exceptionally forward-thinking for the 1700s – however, the ‘rights’ in question are: the right to protection, the right to decorum and the right to admiration. So really, Burns’s progressive rally for the rights of women is patronising and objectifying, which is a step up from outright insulting maybe, but still no brilliant.
This is a copy of ‘The Rights of Woman’ written by Burns in 1793 and sent to Mrs Graham of Fintry.
Then we have ‘It’s na, Jean, thy bonie face’ – and thank goodness! This poem is an outpouring of Burns’s love for his wife, Jean Armour – but crucially, it is ‘na her bonie face’ that he admires, ‘altho’ [her] beauty and [her] grace/ Might weel awauk desire’. Instead, it is her mind he loves. This shows Burns’s respect for Jean as a person with her own thoughts and desires. He goes on to say that even if he was not the one to make her happy, that someone would and that she’d be ‘blest’. He even says that he would die for her: this selfless desire to see her happy chimes much more with the image of Burns as the great lover of women that the world knows.
This photograph shows a case containing Jean’s wedding ring, as well as a ring containing a lock of her hair and a ring containing a lock of Burns’s.
Of course, cynics may just read ‘It’s na, Jean…’ as a soppy, hyperbolic gesture to get back in Jean’s good books – ye can make up yer ain mind.
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
The Rights of Woman, is a poem written in 1792 by Robert Burns, but was written with a particular purpose. It was an occasional address spoken by Miss Louisa Fontenelle on her benefit night: the 26th of November 1792. Fontenelle (1773 —99) was an actress popular in Scotland in Burns’s day. He greatly admired her acting and wrote her a poem and several letters which flattered her immensely (this will not be a surprise to most readers who know of Burns’s character and history with women!). In The Rights of Woman, however, Burns communicates the idea that the ruling class would benefit from turning their attention to the female sex to generate humanity, as opposed to crippling civilisation with war. Indeed, Burns was arguably more of a “lover” than a fighter as he stated: ‘war I deprecate: misery and ruin to thousands are in the last that announces the destructive demon. I am better pleased to make one more than be the death of twenty”.
The first stanza starts off strong and excitingly; as does the last stanza, with both referring to politics, a theme Burns knew well and was very passionate about. The rights mentioned are ‘protection’, ‘decorum’ (or good manners) and ‘admiration’. This seems laughable by today’s standards; but the things women’s rights campaigners argue for are more or less the same things Burns was talking about in the 18th century. For example, better laws to ‘protect’ women, ‘admiration’ in the form of equal pay and representation, then ‘decorum’ by not harassing or objectifying women. So, it seems modern women are still in need of what Burns believed was due them.
The poem suggests that society must protect and respect the delicacy of the female sex, and so Burns can be seen to assume a stance typical of his time. In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers did place women in what was considered to be a crucial role within society, however, woman’s contribution was measured in terms of the positive and passive effect that they supposedly had upon their husbands. This highly emotional influence was believed to encourage sympathy in men and therefore enrich the structure of society as a whole.
It has to be noted that there are limitations in this poem as it was written to be performed, and performed by a woman at that. If it contained anything too radical then there could be a backlash and prejudice against the actress herself. This is something which Burns would have undoubtedly have thought of, so his own opinions may not be fully expressed within this poem, as it coming from a female protagonist and not himself.
It has been astutely stated that
‘Few poems written in the late 18th Century would have been entirely free of conditioned chauvinist condescension but, in this monologue written from a female point of view for a woman to perform, Burns give voice to sincerely egalitarian opinions, limited by, but enlightened for, their time.’
However, one text which was revolutionary, radical and centuries before its time was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792 (coincidently the same year as Burns’s The Rights of Woman). It is a glorious piece of work which argues vehemently that ‘true equality and reciprocity of affection between the sexes can only be built on a base of intellectual – and economic – independence.’ She goes on to argue that ‘would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable wives – in a word, better citizens.’ This kind of language coupled with the rational arguments being reasoned here is very enlightened for its time, and in comparison, Burns’s poem seems meek.
The piercing conclusion of the poem – ‘Ah! Ca ira!’ – is taken from a French revolutionary song. It apparently caused a controversy as it was implied that Burns supported the French Revolution. It has been noted that ‘through invoking the spirit of the French Revolution, Burns the Crown employee, ran a considerable risk.’ If Burns felt like he could risk all for supporting the French Revolution, why not for women’s rights? Why not support women’s struggles for equality? The conclusion is simply because this is not something Burns was passionate about.
Burns’s relationships with women were not one of dislike, in fact he liked women very much, but did he fully respect women as equals? I would argue no. He did enjoy women’s company but he seemed to objectify women; his numerous affairs are evidence of this. Also, the Bachelor’s Club debating society rule conveys Burns’s machoism over his sexual endeavours. It stated you had to be “a professed lover of one or more of the female sex”. This kind of attitude is even typical of society today but Burns seemed to have a very gentle soul. He seemed to fall in love, have crushes or infatuations repeatedly with various women and he did so very quickly after meeting them. But, typically of Burns, he is hard to pin down as he also had close, platonic friendships with the opposite sex, for example, Mrs Frances Dunlop. She was suffering from depression when she read The Cotter’s Saturday Night. It led her to communicate with Burns, and resulted in a friendship, which, except for a break towards the end of the poet’s life, seemed very nice.
To conclude, it is worth mentioning one hundred and eighteen years later, two suffragettes attempted to bomb the Burns Cottage, as part of their militant campaigning strategy to gain the right to vote in the UK. They targeted it because of Burns’s famousness – they were not against Burns per say – and the suffragette Frances Parker who got caught and jailed as result of the attack even cried out Burns’s epic lines from Scots Wha Hae in court. She shouted: “Liberty’s in every blow! /Let us do or die!” I wonder how Burns would have felt about his childhood home nearly being destroyed by women campaigning for equal rights… with A Man’s A Man For A’ That ringing in my head, I like to think despite all I have said in this blog, he would not have minded that much.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee
 Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]
 Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p42
 Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]
 Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]
 Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p51
 Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, Ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p63
 Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]
 Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p15
 The Burns Encyclopaedia, Dunlop, Mrs Frances Anna (1730 — 1815), http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/DunlopMrsFrancesAnna17301511815.321.shtml [accessed 27.04.18]