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The private life of Robert Burns

It’s almost that time of year again, when families, friends, and acquaintances get together to host a Burns supper, and celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns. Variously known as Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire or the Ploughman Poet, Burns is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland and indeed celebrated worldwide. At a traditional event, a speaker will recount the life of Robert Burns in an “immortal memory” – often the highlight of the evening.

Despite these speeches occurring all over the globe on 25 January, there are still some lesser-known aspects of Robert Burns’ life. For instance, did you know that he harboured a deep-rooted desire to move to Jamaica, or that he was quite the radical in terms of both international politics and religion? We’ve delved into the personal correspondence of Robert Burns to learn more about his private life and opinions. Just like his poetry, the letters mix thoughtful sentimentality with humour and coarseness, and have the power to inspire and shock in equal measure. For a truly memorable “immortal memory” read on to discover the hidden side of Scotland’s greatest bard…

Although famed as one of Scotland’s greatest patriots, Burns had longstanding ambitions to move to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Here, he writes of “ungrateful Jean” — a reference to Jean Armour who was one of the great loves of his life:

I have run into all kinds of dissipation and riot, Mason-meetings, drinking matches, and other mischief, to drive her out of my head, but all in vain: and now for a grand cure, the Ship is on her way home that is to take me out to Jamaica, and then, farewel dear old Scotland, and farewel dear, ungrateful Jean, for never, never will I see you more!

Robert Burns was not primarily a poet by trade, but spent a large part of his life farming (at which he was particularly unsuccessful). The agricultural demands frequently took their toll on his creative life:

portrait_of_robert_burns_ayr_scotland
“Portrait of Robert Burns, Ayr Scotland” from United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I am so harrassed with Care and Anxiety about this farming project of mine, that my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wench that ever picked cinders, or followed a Tinker. When I am fairly got into the routine of business, I shall trouble you with a longer epistle; perhaps with some queries respecting farming: at present, the world sits such a load on my mind that it has effaced almost every trace of the image of God in me.

Burns was not only a radical in his poetic style, but also in his political opinions. Some may be aware that he was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution — but interestingly, Burns changed his mind with the French invasion of Savoy and Holland:

As to France, I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the business.When she came to shew her old avidity for conquest, in annexing Savoy, and  to her dominions, and invading the rights of Holland, I altered my sentiments.

As well as politics, Burns was no stranger to scandal in the religious sphere. In his daily life as with religion, Burns was staunchly against any form of hypocrisy and false sentiment – especially what he saw as the over-zealous puritanism of the time:

But of all Nonsense, Religious Nonsense is the most nonsensical; so enough, and more than enough of it—Only, by the bye, will you, or can you tell me, my dear Cunningham, why a religioso turn of mind has always a tendency to narrow and illiberalize the heart?

Although Burns is often referenced as a womanizer (in opposition to his romantic poetry), Burns had an incredibly tender private manner, and wrote many love letters to his numerous paramours. Among these was Mrs. Agnes M’Lehose, who he wrote to as “Clarinda” in case their correspondence was ever discovered:

You are an Angel, Clarinda; you are surely no mortal that “the earth owns.” To kiss your hand, to live on your smile, is to me far more exquisite bliss than the dearest favours that the fairest of the Sex, yourself excepted, can bestow.

Ever the walking (or writing) contradiction however, Burns also held some less than traditional views on romance and marriage. Having fathered at least 12 children by at least 4 different women (and even serving public penance for one relationship), he was particularly keen to impart his wisdom to one friend:

We talk of air and manner, of beauty and wit, and lord knows what unmeaning nonsense; but—there—is solid charms for you—Who would not be in raptures with a woman that will make him £300 richer—And then to have a woman to lye with when one pleases, without running any risk of the cursed expence of bastards and all the other concomitants of that species of Smuggling—These are solid views of matrimony.

Featured image credit: “Scottish Bagpiper at Glen Coe, Scotland” by Diliff. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Moss

    Might we not have a bit of a Burns bibliography at the end of such a piece, to lead on to further reading to gain some background for the facts given?

  2. Evelyn

    He’s my great great great uncle

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