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Robert Burns and the Excise Board


Was Burns ever reprimanded, suspended, or dismissed by the Board of Excise? Nine-tenths of fairly well-informed persons will answer "Yes," so commonly is the alleged fact assumed. But it will be added that there is some mystery as to the form of the punishment, and of the fault for which it was inflicted; the latter probably drunkenness, irreligion, indecent life, disloyalty, or neglect of deity. Friends of Burns grieve that such a scandal, said to have been officially recorded should dog the memory of Burns.

I never believed in this tradition, because Mr Findlater, the immediate superior of Burns, was a patient and friend of my father, and he often assured my father that Burns was never "faulted" for any cause, had never been absent or unfit for duty—except once when disabled by his horse falling with him, or during the rheumatic fever that was the beginning and end of his fatal illness. Mr Findlater discussed many other imputations, with the result of impressing on my father a conviction that Burns was a man "much misunderstood"—a conviction transmitted to and abiding with me, and I, as a playmate of Findlater's grandchildren, have treasured all gossip derived from such a source. For it cannot be too strongly borne in mind that Mr Findlater was a highly regarded official; that from the hour Burns entered the Excise till the day of his death he was under observation and on terms of friendly intercourse with that official; and that any expression of censure from the Board of Excise could only be conveyed through Mr Findlater. What, then, is the fama I purpose to refute? Even this, that for discreditable conduct Burns was censured and dismissed from employment, and that the deliverance of the Scotch Board of Excise effectively bars any defence attempted by his friends against scandals which affirm that Burns was not a reputable member of society. Surely if this Junta is dispersed, the achievement should stimulate many half-hearted friends of the poet to tackle, with abundant evidence that is freely accessible, and to disprove, many other scandals imputed, which dog his fair fame!

The origin of the fama clearly proceeded from Burns himself, who in December, 1792, wrote to Mr Graham of Fintry, one of the five Commissioners who formed the Board of Excise, that he was "surprised, confounded, and distressed" because of a hint he had got, that the Board was going to inquire into his political conduct as being "suspected of disloyalty to Government.'' Burns anticipated any inquiry by making a clean breast of his opinions. Mr Grahame, it is believed, showed this letter to his colleagues, who were evidently satisfied that no inquiry was needed, and no inquiry was made, nor was any official notice taken of the incident. But Burns was greatly frightened, chattered over the matter, and thereby started a rumour which, like the three black crowed became "something as black, sir, as a crow;" for he (in January, 1793) wrote to his universally respected friend Mrs Dunlop with reference to his prospects in the Excise—"I cannot possibly be settled as supervisor for several years. I must wait the rotation of the list, and there are 20 names before mine. Besides, some envious, malicious devil has raised a demur on my political principles. . . . I have set henceforth a seal on my lips as to these unlucky politics," &c.. &c. To quiet reports he wrote to Mr Erskine of Mar— "You have been misinformed as to my dismissal from the Excise. I am still in the service. . . ..." From such meagre data biographers and commentators have raised the mischevious superstructure that has existed till the present moment.

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