Excise Pistols

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This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.

In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.

Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c

With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

The Deil’s Awa Wi the Exciseman

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Excise Dipping Rods are not something many of us would now be familiar with, resembling five fairly unremarkable wooden sticks or perhaps the world’s most useless thermometers.  However, for Robert Burns these were essential tools of his trade as an Excise Officer.  He would have carried this set as he went about his day, measuring whisky and beer for taxation from the late 1780s. They could measure up to 300 gallons of liquid, fitting together to make a 60 inch rod in total.  Despite being unassuming at first glance, these rods would have represented for Burns his measured and controlled life as an official of the crown.

5 wooden rods marked at regular intervals that measure the depth of liquid in a barrel

Burns used his connections to secure a job as an Exciseman in Dumfries upon realising that his career as a farmer was rapidly declining.  He became responsible not only for collecting tax but thwarting smuggling; prolific during the 18th century, including in its definition the practice of illegal distilling and a dangerous pursuit for all involved.  This was perilous and tiring work, requiring the certain amount of protection afforded by the pistols seen below which are emblazoned with the initials R.B. and on display in the museum.  Burns also carried an equally fearsome sword-stick.

Two 18th century pistols with wooden handles, one of which is marked with the initials R. B.

Burns’ relationship with the profession was far from easy, exemplified by his mocking song ‘The Deil’s Awa Wi the Exciseman’ (1792).

We’ll mak our maut, and we’ll brew our drink,

We’ll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man;

And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,

That danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman. 

From the early excitement of seizing a smuggling ship in 1792 to writing to Peter Hill to lament the human condition of being ‘under damning necessity of studying selfishness in order that we may exist’, Burns stuck at the profession until his untimely death.  Thus the worn leather pouch and precisely ruled wooden rods within are not weighty to carry but perhaps weighed heavily on Burns’ mind as incongruous to his nature but representative of a necessary evil.