” Numbers by the sides of names refer to the pictures “.
Robert Burns was born on the 25th January, 1759 in Alloway ( 2 ), two miles from the city of Ayr. He was the oldest of seven children born to William Burnes and his wife Agnes Broun. William built the house Robert was born in. A self-educated farmer he taught Robert, reading, writing and arithmetic.
His father sold the house and moved to Oliphant Farm (3 ), three miles out of Ayr, when Robert was only seven years old. Robert then attended John Murdoch’s, ‘Adventure School’ for a short time where he learned French, Latin and Mathematics. The farm was heavy labour for his father, younger brother, Gilbert, and Robert and this severely weakened him, but it was his work in the fields that gave Robert his inspiration for many of his earliest poems.
In 1777 William Burnes moved his family to another farm at Tarbolton ( 4 ), seven miles north east of Ayr, and a rather foreboding place. Unfortunately, although a bit better farm land, with diseases to the cattle and failure of the crops, due to the weather, this farm threw the family into hardship and poverty. To relieve some of the dismal life, Robert now faced, he set up a society called the ‘Bachelors Club’ in a cottage on Sandgate Street. The house is now a museum owned by the National Trust of Scotland, and is open to the public. So you can see where Robert debated with members of Tarbolton parish.
William Burnes died in 1784 and it was this year that the family changed the spelling of their name to ‘Burns’. Robert and Gilbert moved the family once again to another farm, Mossgiel ( 5 ), just four miles further east.
In the following year, 1785, Robert’s first child was born, a girl, Elizabeth Paton Burns, to his mother’s servant. Robert also met and attested his marriage to Jean Armour, but Jean’s father forbade the union.
Robert decided to emigrate to Jamaica, but he needed money for his passage. His friend, Captain Richard Brown convinced him to publish his poems. In the meantime he had met Mary Campbell for whom he wrote, ‘Highland Mary’. With Jean abandoning Robert, and sent north, to Paisley, by her father, Robert married Mary in the traditional way. They blighted their troth by exchanging bibles over the Water of Falls in May 1786.
Robert’s first book of poems was printed on 31st July 1786 in Kilmarnoch and it was a huge success. Mary had returned home to Campbelltown with her father, for a visit, but returned to Greenock immediately to care for her sick brother. While in Greenock she too caught typhus and died there in October 1786, some say not only of typhus but of complications in childbirth. Greenock put up a statue of Mary ( 12 ), to commemorate her association with the Bard.
While at Paisley Jean bore Robert twins, a boy called Robert, and a girl Jean. Robert survived to live a relatively long life, however, Jean died shortly after her first birthday.
With money and his name well received Robert neglected his plans to sail for Jamaica. He instead borrowed a pony and in November, headed for Edinburgh. It took him two days, but once there he settled into the town for quite a while. During 1787 Burns completed two Highland Tours. The first one through the ‘West Highlands’ as far as Inveraray where he also visited Culloden Battlefield and castles in the area. The second, a few months after, to Stirling. It was while he was in Edinburgh that the correspondence with Mrs. Agnes Lehose ‘Clarinda’ first started.
Finally in early 1788 Burns left Edinburgh and set up home with Jean Armour. Just a month later Jean bore him another set of twins. Both girls, one lived only a week, the other just three weeks. It was at this time that Robert decided to have one last try at farming, and with Jean and their two year old son, Robert they moved into Ellisland (6 ). Ellisland was fifty two miles south east of Ayr, very near to Dumfries. Here Robert built a home for them. Besides farming Robert began to look at becoming an exciseman to help support his literary work. Towards the end of the year Robert’s liason with Jenny Clow bore him another son.
It was while walking on the banks of the river Nith at Ellisland that the old song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ came to Robert. Although an old song it had never been written down until Burns’ time and he took the tune, put it in print and composed the rest of the words. Shortly after the fall of the Bastile in France, July 14th 1789, Robert was still on his farm and started working for the government as an Exciseman. A couple of months later, Jean bore him another son, Francis Wallace Burns, who passed away five years after his father, in 1801, aged twelve years. There were early reports of Robert’s alcoholism, but as the years went by, none were found on examination of his Excise ledgers. However, it was known that he liked to frequent the Poosie Nansie’s Inn ( 7 ), in Mauchline, where he liked to debate with the locals. The name comes from a former landlady, of the inn, who is buried in the graveyard opposite.
Even though, the mere title of exciseman made him a despised and loathed man, Robert carried out his duties faithfully. While still trying to farm he made regular excise visits, checking on businesses throughout the day. Then he had reports, accounts and his books to complete in the evening. All this, at a time when his health was deteriorating rapidly. Customs duties taxed imported goods, but the Excise Tax was levied against home-produced goods.
Robert was thought to hold radical views, but he had a most compelling reason to enter the Excise – the most important was that it would provide him with a regular income, 50 pounds a year. This was a substantial amount. Most curates of the church were getting only 45 pounds per. year. If carried out sensibly it was a job for life with plenty of opportunity for promotion. There were many ways to increase his pay during the year. As an Exciseman he was entitled to one half of the proceeds of the sale of all the smuggled goods he recovered, and 25 pounds for every convicted smuggler he caught. It was not safe work and Robert carried pistols with him all the time. The job also carried a very small pension. Robert paid six shillings per. quarter during his seven years of service, making his contributions just under ten pounds. On his death, his wife was given eight pounds a year until 1821, then it was increased to twelve pounds a year until her death in 1834. During her life, as a widow, she received a total of three hundred and sixty five pounds.
Unfortunately, for Robert things did not work out as planned. Within a few months the winter was upon him. His health weakened his body and the death of his beloved horse died. She too had found pulling the plough and faithfully carrying Robert on his hard riding excise tours too much. It was obvious the farm must go and Robert should try to move to, ‘a foot-walk’ division in Dumfries. It wasn’t until July 1790 that this came about, and although he only had four miles in total to walk while doing his job, he was still living at Ellisland six and a half miles out of Dumfries.
Early in 1791 Jean bore Robert another son, William Nicol Burns, who never married, but lived until he was 80 years old. At the same time Anna Park bore Robert a daughter, Elizabeth. Jean took in Robert’s bastard daughter and brought her up as her own with only a backward glance saying, ‘ Our Robbie should have had twa wives’. By the end of the year the Burns family finally left Ellisland and moved into a small house in Dumfries and later into the Burns House ( 8 ), on Mill Street – which is now called Burns Street.
By 1792 Robert had moved position in the Excise trade again. His area was now, no doubt, the most difficult and complex division in Dumfries and included the Port of Dumfries, but Robert coped very well and enjoyed the salary increase to 70 pounds a year. Jean presented him with a daughter of his own, which they too called, Elizabeth Riddell Burns. The poems he wrote in these latter years while in Dumfries are regarded as his best, Tam O’ Shanter ( 9 ) with the chase over The Brig of Doon ( 10 ). He was dependent on Edinburgh’s nobility for his success as a writer, so it was hard for him to keep his radical views to himself. It was at this time he was subjected to an official inquiry and although cleared he was terrified of losing his job and been condemned to a debtors prison. He knew Thomas Muir and other Scottish Martyrs and it was through his poems that his liberalism was indirectly revealed. Some of his works were kept anonymous until after his death.
In 1794 another son was added to the wee flock as Burns would tell everyone, James Glencairn Burns. James lived until he was 71 years old but in 1795 Robert’s only legitimate daughter, Elizabeth died just after her third birthday.
Robert actually coped with his short Excise career very well. He patiently suffered the derogatory nature of the job, he survived the physical hardships and he withstood the contempt his fellow men had for his line of work, all while his health was failing him. Although he worried a lot about his financial state in the last few years, at his death he owed just 10 pounds and his estate was realized at over 200 pounds. He was nursed in his final days by a good friend, his body racked with rheumatic fever. His wife was unable to attend to him as she was in her last days of confinement. Burns died at 5 o clock on the morning of July 21st 1796 and was laid to rest in St. Michael’s churchyard. On the day of his funeral, July 26th, Jean gave birth to his ninth and final child, a son Maxwell, called after Robert’s doctor, but he too died when he was only two years old.
Robert Burns the Scottish Bard left a wife, Jean ( 13 ), who exceeded him by 38 years and who after a number of strokes was looked after by her favorite granddaughter Sarah, daughter of James Glencairn Burns. Although Robert left 5 legitimate sons, Robert, Francis, William, James and Maxwell, Francis and Maxwell died shortly after Burns and were eventually buried with him. In 1817 the Burns Mausoleum was erected ( 11 ). Robert Burns and his two young sons were reburied there, followed by his wife, Jean, and oldest son, Robert, many years later.
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