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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
Tam o’ Shanter is Robert Burns’s masterpiece. A long, narrative, epic poem written in 1790 by Burns whilst living at Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire and published in Captain Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791. Burns apparently wrote this in only one night and it appeared in the book just as a footnote! Now Burns was known to have enjoyed superstitious, supernatural stories as a child. His Aunty- a Betty Davison – told him many and Burns said that“[she] had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs, concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.” The poem is full of wild scenes, dramatic and exciting twists and turns, bloody and gothic content as well as witty machoism through the characters and their antics.
Many artists have been inspired by the poem and some of the artwork produced really brings the poem to life. Some of the most expansive and impressive works are that of Alexander Goudie. He was apparently totally obsessed by Tam o’ Shanter and his lifelong aim was to create 54 complete cycles of images inspired by the epic tale. He accomplished this and the results are spectacular. A select few will be shown and analysed below.
This painting refers to the first two lines of the poem:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet;
This scene is full of vibrant colours, objects and action: Tam looks well, as does Meg, and they are surrounded by other animals and people greeting them warmly. It is arguably one of the best paintings in the cycle as it has been painted with such attention to detail. This could reflect that this is the part of the poem before Tam boozes at the nappy, thus, he is not intoxicated and he will have a clearer vision now compared to the rest of the poem. The reflection in the window is very life-like as is the woman pulling the curtain aside to have a good nosey at what is happening on the street. It is worth noting that this painting is number twelve – even though it refers to the first two lines of the poem – so Goudie has used his artistic licence and imagination to fill in the gaps of what happened before this point as well as not putting the images in order according to the lines of the poem i.e. No. 11 “As market days are wearing late” is the line after No. 12 “And drouthy neibors, neibors meet” but it comes before it in the cycle.
This of course refers to the beautiful and philosophical extract:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
This is typical Burns: returning to nature which is his greatest source of inspiration. In the painting Goudie has shown a scene that is a delicate paradise. A moment captured in time with two lovers lying in a field, with the man picking a poppy, and the rainbow overhead. This is very contradictory to the shock and horror that is to follow…
This is one of three images that are in black and white; although this one here has Tam’s clothes clearly visible, with the famous blue tam hat and yellow waistcoat drawing the eye, which isolates him even more so. The crack of lightning has inspired the use of black and white and Goudie has depicted a truly spooky scene with the trees looking ghostly bare and the town and bridge totally empty. It is preparing the viewer for what is about to come next…
This is one of the treasures of the collection. It depicts the chaotic and shocking scene Tam beholds once he has approached the kirk: as a viewer you do not know where to look as it is so full of action and faces. This refers to the below section of the poem which is full of vivid imagery:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the Dead in their last dresses;
And ( by some devilish cantraip sleight)
Each in its cauld hand held a light.
You can clearly see the devil glowering in the back corner, with his bagpipes in hand and mouth, casting a huge shadow on the back wall; the witches and warlocks are in a dance spinning each other around; the numerous coffins encircling the dancers with their skeletons holding candles as light. There is nakedness; there is sorcery going on at the table; the full moon can be seen through the window and the party-goers are oblivious to Tam’s presence.
This is another gem of the collection which is similar in the colour and the grotesque but exciting scene depicted as No.31. Tam and Meg are at the mouth of hell itself about to be devoured by the bright flames and are surrounded by all sorts of characters and mythical creatures who are all armed with weapons. Interestingly, the priest and lawyer are present, this inclusion of was famously shocking of Burns back in the eighteenth century. This is a scene which Tam and Meg did not actually suffer but it is a prediction – an insight into the future – of what will happen if they do not escape the ghoulish mob.
This is the moment which Nannie latches onto Meg’s tail just before they get to the key-stone. It refers to this section of the poem:
Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o’ the brig:
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the keystane she could make,
The feint a tale she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest.
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
What I like about this interpretation most is that Tam is positively terrified, not composed at all, and has come off his saddle and is hanging around poor Meg’s neck. Tam o’ Shanter has a bit of sexism in it with all the drinking, men will be men, flirting with the barmaid whilst the wife is at home worrying drama in it but here Goudie has depicted Tam as being utterly at the mercy of a powerful female character: more so than as how Burns depicted him as Goudie has him literally hanging on for dear life.
This final image is in reference to the conclusion of the poem:
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
Here Goudie has used his artistic licence again to create the scene he must have imagined when reading this ending. With only Tam and Meg in the painting: your sole focus is on them. Tam looks haggard, totally drained and panting heavily with his tongue sticking out. He looks like he has aged ten years form his traumatic experience. Meg – the hero of the poem – has also suffered this dramatic change same as Tam. Yes, her tail is gone with only the bloody stump left but she looks aged, thin – bony even – and is cowering by Tam with her head down in fear and she has soiled herself. Altogether, it is not a pretty sight, but a great visualisation of the moral warning in which the poem ends.
All of these paintings are now in the collection of Rozelle House Galleries (and some are on permanent display). This is situated in a historic mansion, surrounded by beautiful grounds and also boasts a tea room too. It is just a two minute drive away from the Burns Cottage and only six minutes from Ayr town centre. I would thoroughly recommend any art or Tam o’ Shanter lover to visit.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee
 The Bard by Robert Crawford, p20
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
On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
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
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]
Throughout his life, Robert Burns was inspired by women. He grew up listening to the Scottish songs and folklore of his mother, Agnes, and distant cousin, Betty Davidson; fell in love time and again with a new bonnie lassie; and fathered several much loved daughters of his own who inspired his affections and poetry. Few relationships however are as well documented or as important to his works as his friendship with Mrs Frances Anna Wallace Dunlop, whose support and patronage were invaluable to the Bard for the majority of his publishing life.
Born in 1730, Frances Anna Wallace was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie and Dame Eleanora Agnew. Sir Thomas claimed to have been a descendant of Sir Richard, cousin of William Wallace – a connection which Burns was later delighted by. At the age of 17, Frances married John Dunlop of Dunlop and the couple went on to have 7 sons and 6 daughters. Their happiness was not to last however, as John died in 1785 resulting in Frances falling into a ‘long and severe illness, which reduced her mind to the most distressing state of depression’. This would have been an affliction Burns was also all too used to.
It was as she was recovering from this illness that a friend gave her a copy of The Cotter’s Saturday Night to read. So delighted was she with it that she sent, according to Gilbert Burns, ‘a very obliging letter to my brother, desiring him to send her half a dozen copies of his Poems, if he had them to spare, and begging he would do her the pleasure of calling at Dunlop House as soon as convenient’. The Bard responded by sending her 5 copies of his Kilmarnock Edition and a promise to call on her on return from his trip to Edinburgh. It was the start of a very important friendship.
Burns visited Mrs Dunlop at least five times throughout his life, and wrote more often to her than any other correspondent, sending her copies of his poems and drafts of letters intended for others. She in return wrote to him of her family troubles, as well as counselling him on career choices and urging him to modify what she described as his ‘undecency’ in relation to his affairs with women. She described his correspondence as ‘an acquisition for which mine can make no return, as a commerce in which I alone am the gainer; the sight of your hand gives me inexpressible pleasure…’ It would appear, in saying this, that she underestimated the value Burns placed on her friendship, as his increasingly desperate attempts to illicit a response from her after their falling out demonstrate.
This falling out occurred in 1794. With two of her daughters marrying French refugees and various members of her family having army connections, Mrs Dunlop had hinted at her disapproval of Burns’s apparent sympathies with revolutionaries in France in previous correspondence. He failed to take the hint and wrote in a letter of December 1794, referring to King Louis and Marie Antoinette, ‘What is there in the delivering over a purged Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute to the hands of the hangman, that it should arrest for a moment, attention in an eventful hour…?’ This offence was a step too far.
Burns sent Mrs Dunlop two further letters without reply, apparently completely oblivious to what could have caused her anger. ‘What sin of ignorance I have committed against so highly a valued friend I am utterly at a loss to guess’ he wrote in January 1796, ‘…Will you be so obliging, dear Madam, as to condescend on that my offence which you seem determined to punish with a deprivation of that friendship which once was the source of my highest enjoyments?’ On receiving no response, his final letter to her was sent just days before his death informing her that his illness would ‘speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns’ and bestowing praise upon her friendship. It is believed that she did relent on receiving this, and one of the last things Burns was able to read was a message of reconciliation from her.
Mrs Dunlop survived the poet by another 19 years, dying in 1815. Her friendship and patronage were hugely valued by Burns, and her impact on the poet’s life and works should be regarded as just as important as that of other key women in his life. She is buried in Dumfries, Scotland but her words and thoughts live on in her letters to Scotland’s National Bard.