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A Life in a Year – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Taylor

A Life in a Year

September 14, 2009 | by Alan Taylor

A Life in a Year – Alan Taylor

IN 1786, BY WHEN he had reached the age of 27, Robert Burns was already a man with a reputation as a rake. His girlfriend, the woman he wanted to make his wife, Jean Armour, was pregnant with what would be their twins. Not surprisingly her father was appalled at the thought of Burns as his sonin- law. Had abortion then been an option it would surely, if very reluctantly, have been considered. James Armour, according to one contemporary source, hated Burns “and would raither hae seen the Deil himsel comin to the hoose to coort his dochter than him!”

It is not hard to see why. While some  Burnsians have attributed Armour’s animosityto social snobbery the more simple explanation is that he saw Burns for what he was: a man whose breeches were as often at his ankles as they were tied round his waist. Burns, as the solid kirkman Armour was well aware, was a “fornicator”, whose familiarity with the cutty stool, the kirk’s equivalent to the school dunce’s cap, was unrivalled. Already he had a bastard daughter. Her mother was Elizabeth Paton, a maid who’d taken the poet’s fancy when she had helped on the Burns farm at Lochlie.

As Robert Crawford says in The Bard: Robert Burns, The Biography, the poet’s personal life in 1786 was in “a mess”. In order to spare her family embarrassment Jean had been removed from Mauchline to Paisley. Anyone who inquired after her was told she had gone to visit friends. Unable to undo what was a fait accompli, James Armour was now determined to prevent the marriage of his daughter to the Ayrshire Don Juan. Whether Burns intended to marry Jean is another matter. A document, now missing, in which the lovers pledged themselves to each other, suggests that may have been the intention.

Or so says Crawford. As Patrick Scott Hogg says in Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard, “This matter has engendered much overheated debate.” Such, it seems, is the way of things where Burns scholarship is concerned. But whether or not Burns wanted to marry Jean, her father moved to prevent it, to which end he consulted a lawyer. Thus the evidence – the paper that has “engendered much overheated debate” – was apparently destroyed. Not, of course, that this was in any way legally binding. But what James Armour did succeed in doing was to encourage Burns to believe all was lost as far as Jean was concerned. In part at least Burns felt she was responsible for what had happened. “She is illadvised.” What, then, was Burns to do? Pine? Pitch himself again at Jean? Plead the case of one heart-sick with love? On the contrary, he found succour in the arms of other women, attended Masonic gatherings, drank with his cronies, worked on the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems, and made plans to emigrate to Jamaica.

Sex, however, as ever with Burns, was near the top of that list. While he mourned his severed connection with Jean he was not celibate. Indeed, Burns took the dent to his pride as a signal to throw himself at other women. For instance, as Crawford relates, he had an “intense relationship” with the woman known in Burns lore as Highland Mary, thus romanticising the liaison in Cartland-esque terms. “My Highland lassie,” wrote Burns, “was a warm-hearted charming young creature as ever blessed a man with generous love.” How now should we interpret such sentiments. What in this innuendo-strewn age are we to make of that “generous love”?

Highland Mary we now know was really called Margaret Campbell and was born in Dunoon which – as Ian McIntyre, author of Dirt & Deity:A Life of Robert Burns (1995) acknowledged was “no more Highland than the Cowal coast.” In his biography, Hogg says there is evidence to show she was “not the pure-hearted maiden of myth” and not averse to spreading her favours. Astonishingly, in 1920, her grave in a Greenock churchyard was dug up, revealing not her remains but those of an infant. Could it have been yet another fruit of the poet’s loins? “This provoked wild speculation,” notes Hogg. It was discovered,however, that the child had been placed there forty years after Campbell’s internment. Nevertheless, adds Hogg, McIntyre “made calls for the infant’s remains to be exhumed and tested to verify if Burns was the father. It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to work out that this could not have been the case.”

Absurd as this may seem, McIntyre was nevetheless serious in his intentions. Citing scientific advances and namechecking the Turin shroud – the connection between Christ and Burns has never been more tenuous – he argued: “If sufficient undegraded nuclei material could be recovered, it might be possible to compare a DNA profile of Burns with one from the infant remains that lie buried in Greenock.” To this end, McIntyre persuaded his publisher to write to the then President of the Burns Federation. The President seemed inclined to pursue the matter because “it would certainly satisfy and finally answer the universal curiosity (the italics are mine) that exists regarding Robert Burns, Highland Mary and an illegitimate infant.” At this point, notes McIntyre, all went suspiciously quiet. Then the idea was taken up by the Herald, the Law Society for Scotland, the Burns Federation and its offshoots and sundry municipal jobsworths, and finally came to nothing. Where Burns is concerned, it is yet another salutary digression, which keeps the myths buoyant, biographers busy and the reading public enveloped in the densest of mist.

While Burns was juggling love affairs he was also active on other fronts, among which was the first publication of his poems, the Kilmarnock Edition, revered among Burnsians as the First Folio is among Shakespeareans. Burns, of course, was already well known locally as a poet. This is the Burns whom both Crawford and Hogg rightfully hold paramount. All else is a distraction, grist to the mill of the prurient. The poet’s life is interesting but largely because of the manner in which it informed his work. If he was accused and punished for being a fornicator he turned it to his advantage, directing his artillery at the petty bourgeois minds of eighteenthcentury presbyterianism. Every dalliance he had, every “lassie” spied lasciviously, every well-turned ankle and sonsie face was hymned in a poem. Whoever dared spurn him could expect his scorn in verse. His drinking buddies were similarly immortalised; his farm work elevated to a near celestial plane. As well as universalising his experience, no one was more adept than Burns at hyperbolising.

In April 1786 Burns issued a proposal for the publication of his poems and sought subscribers. As portrayed by Crawford, he was a man in emotional turmoil and “may have come close to another breakdown.” That word ‘may’ figures largely in Burns biography. His own letters are difficult to read, in the sense that we are not sure whether to take them literally or as the product of a man intent upon creating an image as the ultimate melodramatic romantic, forever in love, short of money and in a creative ferment. “His self-image as a ‘Poet’ about to publish a book sustained him,” writes Crawford. “So did throwing himself into the search for what he called ‘another wife’. He penned ‘Despondency, an Ode’, bewailing a ‘hopeabandoned’ life with ‘an aim’. He signed himself ‘Misery’s most humble serv[an]t’. Trying ‘to forget’ Jean he threw himself into ‘all kinds of dissipation and riot, Masonmeetings, drinking matches, and other mischief, to drive her out of my head’. Yet he went on finalising the contents of his book. He pursued another woman. He nourished the aim of just clearing out and going to Jamaica.”

For Burns 1786 developed as a make or break year, in which he would come to something or nothing. In June, the screw turned tighter and the pressure on him increased exponentially. Jean, returned from Paisley, confirmed to Mauchline Kirk Session that she was pregnant and that Burns was the father. The punishment – three public appearances before the Kirk to make penance as a fornicator – writes Hogg, was “delivered gleefully, with much hand-wringing and high moral rectitude”. Even in late eighteenth-century Scotland, controlling sexual urges was of great concern to believers, sexual misconduct being a prime reason for being denied access to Heaven. It was the Devil’s work, leading men and women astray and towards an afterlife licked by fire and surrounded by fork-tongued serpents. Meanwhile James Armour, eager that the father of his forthcoming grandchildren would not escape without making provision for them, obtained a writ to prevent him fleeing the country. “Armour,” wrote Burns, “has got a warrant to throw me in jail till I find security for an enormous sum…and I am wandering from one friend’s house to another, and like a true son of the Gospel ‘have no where to lay my head’.” No one ever felt quite so sorry for himself as Burns.

Typically, though, Burns’ biographers have tended to sympathise with their subject. Most of them, of course, are men. Few women, it seems, are eager to enter a fray which, it cannot be ignored, is often bloody and rarely observes the normal niceties associated with literary scholarship. Even Catherine Carswell makes no attempt to see things from Jean’s point of view. If Burns felt any responsibility for the predicament he’d got her into or for the offspring he’d spawned we are not told or he did not care to mention. Burns, it seems, was selfish and self-obsessed. Hogg declares that James Armour was “hell-bent on fleecing every penny from the black sheep of Mossgiel” while Crawford states that though his “feelings for her remained strong” he nevertheless had the option of a “grand cure”. En route from Jamaica, wrote Burns, was the ship that would soon carry him off from all his troubles. “And then, farewell dear old Scotland, and farewell dear, ungrateful (my italics) Jean, for never, never will I see you more!”

What if Burns’ best laid plans had not gone “agley” and he had become one of those countless Scots who gave up on their homeland? Would he have become the icon he is today? Would he be “The Patriot Bard” of Hogg’s sub-title or the definitive “Bard”, as Crawford insists he is known around the world “so winningly and nimbly”? Who knows, but my guess is that he would not, that he would have been relegated to a league containing those who are somehow less Scots, “blood” Scots perhaps or “affinity” Scots, as the First Minister so un-nimbly has sometimes labelled them. More importantly, would his poems have been received with such rapture at Edinburgh soirees where bored guests were only too keen to welcome a bit of rough in the persona of a “Heaven-taught ploughman”?

What we do know is that Burns, as the day of his departure beckoned, was focussed perhaps more directly than ever before and possibly would be even later, on his poetry. On 31 July Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published. Comprising 240 pages and many of the poems now synonymous with his name, it was – in Crawford’s estimation – “a monument to Burns’s talent”, including such masterworks as ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Louse’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. For a man still haunted by a warrant threatening his arrest, Burns couldn’t have been more conspicuous as he delivered copies to subscribers and attempted to winkle out of them his promised due. This was no easy task and involved considerable travel. Burns used friends and Masonic networks to assist him. As Hogg notes, “The Masonic lodges of the west of Scotland disseminated news of his work as a poet and many educated, professional men of the movement gave much-needed support to their somewhat wayward bard.”

The date of his transportation to the West Indies was set at 1 September but for whatever reasons Burns was not able to meet it. By now, it seems, he had been informed by Jean that her father was no longer interested in pursuing him. Perhaps James had begun to appreciate that Burns was not the waster he had first imagined and that he might, ultimately, make something of himself and provide for his daughter and their children. For his part, Burns was adamant that he would return to Jean, an example of his determination to hold the upper hand in affairs of the heart. No woman would ever be allowed to control him. On the day he ought have been setting sail he wrote: “I well expected to have been on my way over the Atlantic by this time. The Nancy, in which I was to have gone, did not give me warning enough. Two days notice was too little for me to wind up my affairs and go for Greenock. I am now to be a passenger aboard the Bell, Capt Cathcart, who sails at the end of the month.”

On 3 September, Jean gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy, called Jean and Robert, not out of parental sentiment but because of Kirk protocol. Five days later Burns visited the mother and the children, which moved him hugely. Was this the reason why he decided finally to abandon the idea of emigration? It was surely a contributory factor. Another, of course, was undoubtedly the success of the Kilmarnock Edition, which demanded a reprint. Burns, it appeared – mistakenly as it transpired – had the wherewithal to rise above his difficult circumstances. It was about now, too, that he was offered the possibility of a career as an Excise Man and a secure income. Suddenly, Jamaica must have felt an awfully long way away and full of unforeseen and unhappy possibilities. So the Bell sailed without him. In terms of his reputation, it was the smartest decision he ever made.

Why Burns wanted to go to Jamaica in the first place is understandable. Like many Scots before and since he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing here for him. Every which way he looked he was locked in and confined by glass ceilings. Late eighteenth-century Scotland, for all the brio of the Enlightenment was, especially in rural parts, still a largely feudal society. For a free spirit and thinker such as Burns it must have been stutifying. Ayrshire in the 1780s may not have been like Germany in the late 1930s, where a wrong word in the ear of the wrong person could have dire consequences, but it was not far off. The problem is that Burns’s chosen bolt-hole, his idealised place in the sun, was underpinned by slave labour.

For Burnsians this is hazardous terrain, which previous biographers of the poet have chosen to ignore, skate over or pepper with excuses. For many of them it is an embarrassment and at odds with Burns’s egalitarian image. This is not the appropriate place to revisit the plight of slaves in Jamaica in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say it was not good. Reporting from Jamaica a few years before Burns was determined to go there, one commentator said the slaves were “badly fed, indifferently clothed, hard worked, and severely whipped.” Was Burns – well-read, well-informed and an ardent debater – ignorant of this? It is hard to believe. For a long time Scottish intellectuals had argued cogently against slavery. George Wallace, author of System of the Principles of Laws of Scotland, published in 1761, wrote: “An institution so unnatural and inhuman as that of slavery ought to be abolished.” Adam Ferguson, Professor of Philosophy at Edinburgh, and one of the luminaries of the Enlightenment, agreed: “no one is born a slave; because everyone is born with all his original rights. [Further], no one can become a slave; because no one, from being a person, can, in the language of the Roman law, become a thing, or subject of property. The supposed property of the master in the slave, therefore, is a matter of usurpation, not of right.”

Intriguingly, the issue of slavery does not figure prominently in either of the biographies by Crawford and Hogg. The former relates that it was through a family “with strong Ayrshire connections” that Burns had obtained a position on a sugar plantation. He was to be an assistant overseer, which mainly involved pen-pushing which would put him “at the heart of slave management during a period when arguments about the inhumanity of slavery rose to a crescendo.” Burns, says Crawford, did proper background research, one source telling him that, “The misery and hardships of the negroes is truly moving…They look on death as a blessing.” However, this seems not to have put him off. For his part, Hogg does not broach the subject of Burns and slavery until much later, noting that in 1789 he was “wholly opposed to the trafficking of human life in this ugliest of capitalist-imperialist developments.” Which is fair enough but were those his sentiments three years earlier as he personally was on the cusp of profiting from it? As Hogg notes, “The movement to abolish the slave trade had become a major issue throughout the 1780s, with upwards of seventy branches of the anti-slave trade movement set up in provincial towns and main cities in Scotland.” Why, then, if he was so opposed to slavery was Burns not a member of these? And why are references to slavery so few and belated in his poetry?

It is a subject directly addressed by Gerard Carruthers in an essay in Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century. Carruthers is Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow and General Editor of the eagerly awaited Oxford University Press edition of Burns’s collected works. It is his unsubstantiated opinion that the poet “Never seriously intended to emigrate.” Not, he adds, that this lets Burns off the hook. “On the contrary, in this episode of the life of Burns, I would argue is a failure of sympathy, a failure of imagination.” To this end, Carruthers turns rather unhelpfully to the couple of bad poems which deal either directly or tangentially with the slave trade. These prove nothing, nor do they shed much clarity on what Burns’s true intentions were or what he believed.

With so little in the way of facts to go on Carruthers prefers to defend his own back. “What has been said…will perhaps be seen as a little negative by some people, those, particularly, who dislike any considered (my italics) criticism of Burns. And there are many: such as the man who telephoned me two months ago and introduced himself by shouting down the line, ‘Ye’re nae freend o’ mine’. When I asked why, he replied that I was ‘questioning Burns’. I replied that this is what I, as a professional academic, am paid to do, which, of course, cut no ice.”

Having read Carruthers’s essay my sympathies are with his anonymous caller. But where Burns studies are concerned such rancorous bluster is regrettably commonplace. In his introduction Crawford attempts to eviscerate any opposition and neutralise rivals before setting out, blighting an otherwise commendable if occasionally gauche work (thanks but no thanks for the references to websites, The Da Vinci Code, condition of memorial tablets and other incongruous interventions). In particular he heaps ordure on the two-volume Canongate Edition of Burns’s poems and songs, edited by Hogg and Andrew Noble, which he insists became “a cause celebre in Scottish publishing [which] made working on Burns confusing and sometimes perilous.” Hogg and Carruthers meanwhile have an ongoing spat which would require the intervention of Kofi Annan – apparently a Burns aficionado – to bring to an amicable conclusion.

In the midst of this enervating bellicosity stands Burns. By the end of 1786 he had found the acclaim he had always sought. Edinburgh had embraced him as, surely, he had more than a few of its hot-flushed women. In the capital he encountered the great and the good, paid homage to Robert Fergusson and impressed the youthful Walter Scott. He flirted outrageously and was fleeced and found that after the first rush of enthusiasm how easily you could fall from favour. Like snow falling on a river, fame, he appreciated, could go as quickly as it had arrived. He may have been feted but he would never be wholly accepted. But two hundred and fifty years after his birth Burns’s flame remains inextinguishable, testimony not only to his undisputed genius but also to his capacity to elude those who go in search of him.

The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
by Robert Crawford
pp 466; ISBN 9780224077682

Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard
by Patrick Scott Hogg
pp 368; ISBN 9781845964122

Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21st Century
Edited by Johnny Rodger and Gerard Carruthers
pp 319; ISBN 978-1-905207-27-5

The Best Laid Schemes: Selected Poetry and Prose of Robert Burns
Edited by Robert Crawford and Christopher MacLachlan
BIRLINN, £12.99
pp 271; ISBN 978 1 84697 094

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