We all know much about Burns and his works but like everyone else famous or otherwise there are many sides, or many faces to Burns the Man. Burns did not live long enough to descriptively cover “The Seven Ages of Man” but we can attempt to outline the different faces of, the man, his works, his pastimes, his childhood and his loves.
Burns only had a very short time in which to live and make his mark like so many other famous men such as Alexander the Great, Mozart and Lord Byron, all great men who left their mark on our modern society in their short lifetimes. Burns died at the very young age of 37 years. Put in the context of our modern time, and excluding education, that is barely 20 years of life as a man and a worker; or in our terms half a lifetime. Take some time for reflection and imagine how much you would have achieved in your life if you took stock of what you had done up to or by that age.
We know from his literary work that Burns achieved much. He achieved much not only in quantity but also in quality. It is that quality and the structure of his work that makes Burns special and helps him stand out against other famous poets and writers; without that quality and structure Burns and Burns's work would not be as popular as it is today and perhaps we would not be celebrating his beloved memory as we do.
For those not familiar with or who have forgotten the concept of the “Seven Ages of Man”, penned by William Shakespeare, they are; Infancy, Childhood, The lover. The Soldier or Fighter, Wisdom, Old Age and Dementia, followed by Death.
Burns did not live long enough to experience much of this synopsis of the life of man. Perhaps, in some respects, he was fortunate as he did not reach his dotage and experience some of the indignities of older life! Had he lived longer imagine the myriad of additional material that would have oozed from Burns as he progressed through the older stages of his life.
As a child Burns was, to some extent, fortunate. In 1759 he was born in the small town of Alloway in Ayrshire in rural surrounds and not in the smoke filled cities of the day where disease was prevalent and infant mortality was high. He was off to the best possible start in life being born in the countryside in that age. Although from humble stock: his father, William Burness was a gardener and his mother Agnes Broun, a farmer’s daughter. He was born in the cottage his father built, the eldest in a family of seven
In 1765 Robert and his brother, Gilbert, were sent to a school two miles away at Alloway Mill where they had had some rudimentary schooling at John Murdoch’s school. Murdoch also made the children sing Psalms but, ironically, for someone who went on to pen some of the most well known songs ever written, Robert's voice was, according to Murdoch, "untenable". When Murdoch took up a post at Ayr Academy in 1772, Burns's father tutored the boys at home, although they continued taking lessons at various other schools nearby. His father was arguably a greater influence, impressing upon the young Burns the importance of education, whilst schooling him himself.
His father was a poor farmer when he initially ran the market garden; He invested what he could in education for his sons, and in particular English grammar and composition. To achieve this he leased Mount Oliphant farm and then pooled finances with other farmers to hire John Murdoch to teach all their children including Burns. Like most farm children the opportunity for formal education was limited because children had to help on the farm, especially at harvest time. Robert did a full day's work in the field and farmyard on a diet of oatmeal and skimmed milk – even though they lived on a farm; meat was far too expensive in those days.
On the long, dark, bitterly cold Scottish winter nights Robert was often to be found nestled under the light of a single candle, with his nose buried in a book. By the time he was 21 he had read Shakespeare, David Hume, his favourite philosopher Adam Smith and everything in-between. These books helped to fuel his already growing imagination. It would be fair to say that during his childhood Burns was either working on the farm or studying. There was no room for love or play in Burns's early life.
With his father's encouragement and his own tenacity for learning the shaping of Burns the man and the development of his academic skills were well on the way to moulding the Burns we all know today.
As far as paid employment was concerned Burns had several jobs throughout his life and it was on the arable land of Ayrshire that Burns’s toil would be relieved by his fertile mind. He was destined not to be just another farmhand. Burns was forced to assist his father in working on the family farm, and took over at 25 when his father died in 1784.
He lived and worked on a number of farms from Mount Oliphant, to Lochlea, to Mossgiel and finally to Ellisland, all of which are to be found in Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire.
Although essentially a ploughman he gave it up as a bad job. With the help of the influential connections he managed to secure a job as an exciseman or gauger in Dumfries in 1789. This was a well paid job that let him support his family in a way that he had not been able to do in the past. He moved to Dumfries and bought a sizeable house there from the proceeds of this employment.
Initially Burns threw himself at the exciseman's role with enthusiasm. One story is the seizing of the smuggling ship "The Rosamond" in March 1792. The ship had run aground and despite resistance from the crew and the local population she was eventually captured. Some stories say that Burns waded into the water, sword in hand, and captured the ship single handed.
The ship and what was left of her cargo were later auctioned at Dumfries. Burns purchased 4 carronades or small cannon and sent them to France to aid the revolution. The story goes that they never made it there because they were impounded by customs at Dover. It is said that this incident set Burns at odds with his government supervisors who frowned upon it as involving inappropriate behaviour for an officer of the Excise.
What is undoubtedly true is that Burns was at odds with his superiors and there would be no more promotion. Burns was not comfortable in his profession and this is illustrated in the poem, The Deil's Awa wi' th' Exciseman (The Devil has taken the Exciseman).
The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town,
And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman,
And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o' the prize, man."
A recently discovered letter, written by Burns's superior John Mitchell, bears testimony that Burns remained employed as an exciseman until his death. Mitchell describes the deteriorated condition of Burns when he went to collect his wages a week or so before his death. He describes Burns as "reduced & shattered... in the extreme", but notes that his "wit and humour remained".
Ultimately the hard physical work on the farms caused Robert to develop the heart condition and rheumatic fever which would eventually claim his life at an early age.
As a Poet and writer Burns's work rate was immense and, at the age of 15 he wrote his first poem in 1774 “My Handsome Nell” Inspired by Nell Kilpatrick. The poem begins “O, once I loved a bonnie lass,” Surely not borne from experience at that young age, but with Burns, who knows! After that there was no stopping him and he went on to write numerous Poems and songs. As a young man between the ages of 24 and 29, he was at his most prolific with his writing and arguably produced his best work.
Burns composed hundreds of songs, poems and letters over a 22 year period of his life. Most were entirely of his own inspiration and some were re-workings of old or lost pieces from times past. Not all Burns's work is well known but there are numerous popular works such as:-
Tam O'Shanter or “Tom from the village of Shanter" This is considered his great folklore masterpiece, a chilling & fantastic story in which Burns describes his friend Tam O'Shanter, whom, being the worse for drink makes his way home on horseback, astride "Meg" his trusty stead. The tale describes Tam's thoughts as he travels the road on a wet & wild night. On passing the Auld Kirk (old church) at Alloway, he believes he has witnessed the Devil himself, hosting a wild party within the sacred building, together with witches & ghosts.
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;
The story is vivid in imagery and as a warning of the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol.
"A Man's a man for a' that.” Is one of the most poignant of Burns's songs and draws stark comparison between the rich nobility and the poor peasant. Interestingly, the Socialites of the time did not appear to notice that they themselves were the subjects of Rabbie's scorn. (Nothing has changed today!) The piece is powerful and emotional and describes in the most wonderfully potent yet humbling words, just what makes a true Man.
O' My Luve is like a red, red rose - perhaps his most famous love poem and a well-known song, which women particularly enjoy. Simplicity itself, short and tender, this poem uses simple easily understood language, which adds to its appeal.
Holy Willie's Prayer - After Burns's disgraceful interaction with Jean Armour resulting in her pregnancy, he was made to stand before the Kirk Session (Church Council) The Presbyterian Church of Scotland held strong influence within the community, and were severe in their views. His punishment - to show public penance in open church for three consecutive weeks! Following this most embarrassing humiliation, Burns wrote "Holy Willie's Prayer" in defiance of the hypocrisy he saw within the Church. This piece was also directed at one William Fisher, an Elder of the Church, who had also decried a friend of Burns for not properly observing the Sabbath.
ut yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust:
An' sometimes, too, in worldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil'd wi' sin.
Burns's imagination playfully yet angrily suggests a prayer made by Fisher, in which the Church Elder's own indiscretions are defended.
To a Mouse - This poem demonstrates Burns's powers of observation, his deep feeling for humanity and his gentle emotion. One day whilst ploughing a field, he notices he has cut through the nest of a small field mouse. This clearly upsets Burns. He then writes down his thoughts in simple verse, as though writing to the mouse, commenting on the destruction he had caused, his guilt and his sorrow. He remarks on the comparison between the pitiful mouse, his own wretched life and human frailty.
Address to a Haggis - One of the most regularly celebrated of Burns's poems, recited at Burns Suppers, St. Andrew's Nights or Caledonian Society events, where that most famous of Scottish delicacies "Haggis" is on the menu. Burns thought so highly of the meal that he felt compelled to write of it. Here he describes its popularity and stature as the greatest of foods, drawing comparison with other dishes & foreign servings. He suggests that the Scot who eats Haggis draws great strength from it, setting him above other men.
Willie Wastle – A poem that reflects Burns's wicked yet hilarious sense of humour. The poem is about a man called Willie Wastle, who had the misfortune to be married to one of the ugliest women imaginable. It is alleged that Rabbie was in fact making reference to the wife of an acquaintance, but that he changed the name in fear of reprisal. This short piece describes in brilliantly comic detail, every visual imperfection of the poor woman's features. Each verse concluding with Burns's derogatory summation….
He had a wife was dour and din,
O Tinkler Maidgie was her mither;
"Sic a wife as Willie had,
I wad na gie a button for her"
The more dubious part of Burns's life was his love and lust for women. He had many relationships in his short lifetime, some consummated and some not.
Burns's first love perhaps as far back as 1774 was Nelly Kirkpatrick. In 1781 he proposed to Alison Begbie, daughter of a farmer, but she rejected him perhaps seeing that as a farmer he had no prospects whatsoever, which was true at that time.
Up to then Burns had been a relatively "good boy" however, when he lived in Irvine for a short time, Robert met an educated sailor by the name of Richard Brown. Richard did two things for Robert, one of which was very good; the other was to have rather a dubious effect on life: The first thing was that Richard encouraged and inspired Robert to write more poetry. The other was to suggest that Robert should consummate his relationships with women. This had rather alarming results. In 1785 pursuing his charming fillette, Elizabeth Paton, a servant girl, had his first child. That same year he began a relationship with Jean Armour, daughter of a Master Mason, who bore his second child in 1786. There was a form of marriage but his complete lack of money or prospects resulted in the marriage contract being mutilated. Despite this Robert took it seriously. He then had a relationship with Mary Campbell, who died in childbirth quite possibly with his child.
Jean Armour’s father was pursuing Robert for child support. It was at this time that Robert claimed that he would leave the country and booked passage on a ship to the West Indies. He did this three times, but did not go. It was around this time that his first book was published and the success of that publication changed his mind and he never left our shores
In Edinburgh he had physical relationships with two servants May Cameron and Jenny Clow, both of whom bore him children. He also had a passionate but non-physical relationship with Agnes McLehose; the entire affair was conducted by letter. Agnes was a little more cautious since she was married and her husband was out of the country on business.
By this time Jean Armour’s family had revised their opinion of Robert and were now pursuing him to accept Jean as his wife.
In 1787 Peggy Chalmers, who was his intellectual equal rejected his offer of marriage. Whether this was due to his reputation or his lack of income is unclear, but was probably wise since he was actually married at the time.
In April 1788, after his passionate epistolary relationship with Agnes McLehose ended, Burns finally acknowledged Jean Armour as his wife and they remained together until his death. Jean was tolerant of his behaviour and even raised some of his illegitimate children as her own.
This did not prevent Sylvander from Lamenting on ‘what could have been’ in his relationship with his beloved Clarinda and this inspired Burns to write one on the finest ever Love songs.
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.
Burns had other platonic relationships such as the stunningly beautiful and talented Maria Riddell with whom, if circumstances had been different, he might have enjoyed a marriage of true minds as well as bodies. But she was a respectable, upper class, married lady and out of his reach.
There was also Mrs. Frances Dunlop of Dunlop who was nearly 30 years older than Burns, physically unattractive and the mother of 13 children. With her, he had a unique friendship which, apart from five visits to her home, developed over 10 years of written correspondence of which 79 of Burns’s letters and 107 of Mrs. Dunlop’s survive to this day.
It would be all too easy to criticise Burns for his association with so many women but as much of the works of Burns revolves around them and his inspirations grown from the love of them; we can be sure that Burns would not be as well known today, if known at all, if not for them. He also had a great love of Scotland and took great inspiration from a land that he would remain on for the whole of his natural life.
A soldier Burns was not and he hated war with a passion but perhaps there was a yearning to serve. Throughout his life his romanticism and love of Scotland made him no less sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. Burns was wary of his associations with known Jacobites or other Jacobite sympathizers and feared for his safety and his employment. There is no shortage of these feelings in some of his writings and indeed some of his actions. In the latter years of his life Burns was a Private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, something Burns was very proud of. At the time of his death his uniform was not fully paid for, something that racked on Burns's conscience. As always with Burns being part of an organization or group called for some penmanship and shortly after joining the Dumfries Volunteers Burns's song “Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat” appeared in the local press. The first verse reads:-
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!
We'll ne'er permit a Foreign Foe
On British ground to rally!
No Jacobite sympathies here as in the song Burns makes several references to “British”. Burns does however advocate the common man in his works and takes his opportunity here, never to forget his humble origins, he concludes:-
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!
But while we sing "God save the King,"
We'll ne'er forget The People!
Burns was an avid supporter of the Volunteers and it is reputed that he never missed a meeting of this organization until his death. In Burns eyes, serving as he did, he was defending his native land in and around Dumfries whether British or Jacobite.
As a Mason Burns sought enlightenment and was initiated as an Entered Apprentice in Lodge St. David, Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, at the age of 23. His initiation fee was 12s 6d, and paid on the same date. Like many other times in his life, Burns came into the lodge amidst a controversy. Originally, there had been only one lodge in Tarbolton, chartered in 1771 from Mother Kilwinning. In 1773, a group broke away from the lodge, forming Lodge St. David No. 174, and the original lodge became St. James Tarbolton Kilwinning No.178, only to be reunited in 1781, 9 days before Burns's first degree. However, while St. James was clearly the older of the two lodges, St. David's name was used, and the seeds were sown for further dissension. Burns in the meantime was passed to the degree of fellowcraft, and raised to the degree of Master Mason on 1st October 1781.
It was eventually ruled by Grand Lodge that since the union of the 2 lodges were voluntary, then the separation was as well. The St. James lodge met again as a separate body on 17 June 1782.
Burns went with Lodge St. James, and on 27 July 1784, he was elected "Depute Master" of the lodge at the young age of 25. Sir John Whitefoord was the Worshipful Master of the lodge, although it was somewhat of an honorary position, as the Depute Master in reality was in charge. Burns was faithful to the lodge, attending regularly and three minutes were in his handwriting; twenty nine minutes were signed by him and also show when he changed his name; before 1786, Robert spelled it as “Burness”. On 1 March 1786, Robert's brother Gilbert received his 2nd and 3rd degrees; both brothers then signed their last names as "Burns”.
Burns's Kilmarnock edition of poems was published in July 1786, by a brother Freemason, and 350 brethren of Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning St. John, subscribed to a copy. In October he was made an honorary member of that Lodge, and wrote "Masonic Song" in honour of the lodge and its Worshipful Master, Major William Parker.
Burns's rise in popularity for his poems also contributed to his rise in Freemasonry. At a Lodge meeting in Edinburgh in 1787, at which the Grand Master (The Hon Francis Charteris) and Grand Lodge of Scotland was present, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful Grand Master as “Caledonia's bard”. Tradition has it that this meeting took place at Lodge St. Andrew.
In February 1787 Robert Burns attended Lodge Canongate Kilwinning with his friends and acquaintances and was assumed a member. The minutes of the meeting on the 1st February 1787 record the event: It is believed that he attended this Lodge frequently during his time in Edinburgh. There was no doubt amongst the members of the Lodge in those days and subsequently that Burns was also made the Lodge's first Poet Laureate shortly after he became a member. But that is another story and one that has already filled volumes in the annals of freemasonry and indeed the pages of this website. The page “About the Inauguration Painting” covers the matter in depth and provides current and contemporary information on Burns's Laureateship of Canongate Kilwinning.
When the first Edinburgh Edition of his poems was released in April 1787, many subscribers were members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning and friends of Burns, including the publisher, printer and the artist who supplied the frontispiece for the edition. Like his Kilmarnock edition, Freemasons assisted their brother greatly and perhaps ultimately gave the world the gift of Burns's poetry.
Burns was exalted a companion in the Holy Royal Arch Degree in May 1787 at St. Ebbe's Lodge, Eyemouth. The companions unanimously agreed to admit Burns without paying the necessary fees, as they were greatly honoured to have such a great poet and man like Burns as part of their chapter. When Burns moved to Dumfries, he joined Lodge St. Andrew on St. John's Day, 1788, and once again, showed a great enthusiasm for his lodge. In 1792, he was elected Senior Warden and served a one-year term. This was the last Masonic office he held.
Of Burns's poems, the one which is perhaps held dearest to the Brethren of Lodge 135, and which is known to all Masonic brethren, is The Farewell to the brethren of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton, written by Burns when he was planning to emigrate to Jamaica.
Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu;
Dear Brothers of the Mystic Tie!
Ye favored, ye enlightened few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho' I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing fortune's slidd'ry ba',
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I'll mind you still, though far awa'.
P J Givan PM
Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2