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Robert Burns Lives!
A Paper given on Burns by Megan Coyer


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net


Megan with the replica of Burns skull presented to Dr. Ross Roy
by Scotland's Colin Hunter McQueen.

I’ve met many wonderful people while editing Robert Burns Lives! over the years, and today’s guest writer is no exception. While attending the tremendous conference on Robert Burns At 250, An International Conference of Contemporaries, Contexts, & Cultural Forms held at the University of South Carolina in April, I was privileged to meet three young ladies, all working on doctoral studies at the University of Glasgow. Each presented a paper at the conference, and I am now happy to introduce Megan Coyer to our web site. Her article appeared in The Drouth, Scotland’s top cutting-edge periodical, one I eagerly await arrival of at Waverley House. Of interest for those of us in the metropolitan Atlanta area, Megan “spent some time in Atlanta as an undergraduate working in the psychiatry department at Emory University”. Later, I hope to bring you the papers of the other two outstanding doctoral candidates - Jennifer Orr and Pauline Anne Gray.

A heads-up to any university wanting to enlarge or start a Scottish Studies department. Any one of these young ladies would be a great candidate, and it does not hurt that the three are also well versed in Robert Burns after having studied at the University of Glasgow under the direction of two of Scotland’s foremost authorities on Burns and Scottish literature – Dr. Gerry Carruthers and Dr. Kirsteen McCue. I wish my alma mater would go in that direction as I know where they can get a rather choice selection of Scottish books and several very rare books on Robert Burns as well.

Megan Coyer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow in the Department of Scottish Literature under the supervision of Dr. Kirsteen McCue and Dr. Gerard Carruthers and is the recipient of the Faculty Overseas Research Scholarship. She earned an M. Litt. with distinction in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow in 2006. In 2005, she earned a B.S. in Neuroscience with Honours from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Her current research draws upon her scientific background, as she is working to contextualize the writing of James Hogg (1770-1835) within the popular scientific culture of the early nineteenth-century. She has a particular interest in the fictional and popular medical writing of the Glaswegian physician-writer, Robert Macnish (1802-1837) and his inter-textual connections to Hogg.

Her most recent publications are:

'The Phrenological Dreamer: The Popular Medical and Fictional Writing of Robert Macnish (1802-1837)', in The Proceedings of The Apothecary's Chest: Magic, Art, & Medication, The University of Glasgow, 24 November 2007 (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press).

'Disembodied Souls and Exemplary Narratives: James Hogg and Popular Medical Literature', in Liberating Medicine, 1720-1835, ed. by Tristanne Connolly and Steve Clark (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008), pp. 127-140.

'The Literary Empiricism of the Phrenologists: Reading the Burnsian Bumps', The Drouth, 30 (Winter 2008), pp. 69-77.


Megan with the replica of Burns skull presented to Dr. Ross Roy by Scotland's Colin Hunter McQueen. Dr. Roy brought the skull back on his last trip to Scotland.

The Literary Empiricism of the Phrenologists: Reading the Burnsian Bumps
By Megan Coyer
Department of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow

            On the 8th of November 1830, Dr. Disney Alexander, physician to the General Dispensary, and the Pauper Lunatic Asylum, in Wakefield, read an essay before the Glasgow Phrenological Society. The paper was on the phrenological development of the poet Robert Burns, and Dr. Alexander illustrated 'his opinions with the incidents of his life, and numerous passages from his writings.’[1] This analysis predates the postmortem phrenological examination of Burns's skull by nearly four years. No record of the content of this essay has survived, but the fact that such an analysis took place emphasizes, first, the high level of phrenological interest excited by the poet and, second, the dominant role of biography and literary criticism in informing the evaluation. Burns was a character very much alive in the public imagination – a natural genius, the 'heaven-taught ploughman', who was anything but an angel. The vividness of this public image made him a fascinating and strategically useful character to the phrenologists, as they sought to confirm the basic tenets of their science by establishing a correlation between the external protrusions of the skull and the character of the individual. Scotland was the stronghold of the phrenologists in the nineteenth century, and perhaps no character was so well-known to the Scots as Burns. However, the heavy reliance on narrative evidence, including biography, letters, and poetry, in reading the Bursian bumps, reveals the phrenological analysis to be a strange mutation of literary empiricism rather than an empirical science of the mind. Dr. Alexander again appeared before the Glasgow Phrenology Society on December 17th 1834 to read an essay “On the Moral Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns”, at which time Mr. Andrew Rutherglen donated a cast of the poet to the society. We may safely assume that his evaluation of the cast was presented as a confirmation of his prior observations based solely upon narrative evidence.

            Dr. Alexander appears to have had a pension for imaginative phrenological evaluations. In 'A Lecture on Phrenology, as Illustrative of the Moral and Intellectual Capacities of Man' (1826), he focuses primarily on the applicability of phrenology to characters within literary texts:

Those, who have studied the subject, and who have, consequently, accustomed themselves to think phrenologically, are able, in all cases of real character, even the most anomalous, to discern that combination of the Organs, which produced the manifestations perceived: and, whenever a character is well, or accurately, defined, tho' existing merely in the Imagination of the writer, they have no difficulty or hesitation, in applying to its development the same mode of analysis.[2]

In the lecture, the works of Shakespeare are drawn upon as containing acutely naturalistic depictions of human character, and 'Phrenology is shown to be in unison with Nature, by its consistency with Nature's portraits, as drawn by this masterly hand.'[3] The subject is not here exhausted for Alexander. He claims to have composed nine lectures on the application of phrenology to characters in Shakespeare's plays and also refers to his utilization of Shakespearean characters in what could only be deemed a game of phrenological charades to entertain some particularly lucky ladies at social gatherings!  Similarly, in Phrenology in Relation to the Novel, Criticism, Drama (1848), John Ollivier writes of the ability to read phrenological character from natural artistic renderings, as 'Shakespeare lived and wrote before Phrenology was discovered, and he understood human nature as well as Mr. Combe.'[4] Ollivier here refers to George Combe (1788-1858), the most important propagator of phrenological ideology in early nineteenth century Scotland and, as we will see, a key player in the phrenological evaluation of Burns.

The phrenological movement was an early moment of methodological intersection between literary analysis and empirical scientific investigation. Phrenology was based upon the correlation between the size of external protrusions, or 'bumps', of the skull and the power of specialized organs of the brain, and each organ corresponded to a specific mental faculty. The essential tenets of Combe's phrenology were: (1) The brain is the organ through which the mind is manifested during life; (2) The brain is not a singular organ, but rather consists of multiple organs with distinct functions; (3) All other factors being equal, the power of the organ can be estimated from its size. These factors included temperament and external circumstances, such as education; and finally, (4) The size of each organ can be ascertained by an examination of the skull. The latter two tenets were the most controversial, and, in their defense, Combe appealed to the continual collection of data - external measurements as well as biographical data to evidence the manifestation of specific mental faculties in the subject's personal character. Executed criminals were often examined, as their skulls were readily obtainable and their personal history and moral constitution established before a court of law. Burns had one crucial thing in common with the executed criminal – his personal history and moral constitution were well-traversed territory in the public imagination. Robert Cox (1810-1872) of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, who provides the most detailed and narratively informed phrenological evaluation of Burns based on Combe's original measurements, explains:

It may be affirmed without fear of contradiction, that there is no individual whose character and history are better known in Scotland than those of Robert Burns. To Scotchmen, even in the most distant parts of the world, his works are hardly less familiar than the sacred writings themselves. The minutest incidents of his life have been recorded, commented on, and repeated almost to satiety, by a succession of talented biographers[5]

However, unlike the cranial refuse of capital punishment, the immortal bard's skull was not quite so easily transformed into scientific commodity.

            At the time of Burns’s death in 1796, phrenology was not yet in existence, and hence, unlike many of the celebrated Scots and English writers of the following century, no cast of his skull or face was taken during his lifetime. In 1830 John McDiarmid, president of the Dumfries Burns Club and editor of the Dumfries Courier, retrospectively reports the events surrounding the first exhumation of Burns’s body that took place on September 19th 1815. Under the cover of night, the body was disinterred from its original plot, which had been marked by a modest monument raised from the widow’s own slender means, and moved to the site of new grand mausoleum, still within the walls of St. Michael’s Churchyard. He describes the uncanny preservation of the body, its exhibition of the 'features of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death – the lordly forehead, arched and high – the scalp still covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white', and the awe experienced by the select bystanders. He then laments:

 

Phrenology, at that time, had not become fashionable, or rather was cultivated under a different name, and as no such opportunity can occur again, it is perhaps to be regretted that no cast was taken of the head for the benefit of the admirers of that science.[6]

But it was only a matter of time until just such an opportunity did arise, and it was McDiarmid, along with Adam Rankin and James Kerr, who was to play a key role in the macabre transactions that continue to fascinate Burnsians today.[7]

            On the 31st of March 1834, following from the death of Burns's widow Mrs. Jean Burns, the mausoleum was re-opened, and Burns’s body was once again exhumed with the express purpose of obtaining a cast of the skull. The circumstances surrounding the exhumation were reported in the Dumfries Courier by the surgeon Dr. Archibald Blacklock, who was responsible for the handling of the skull, and his report was republished within Cox’s essay in the ninth volume of the Phrenological Journal. Blacklock’s report focuses on the professional care taken in both respectfully handling the skull and obtaining an accurate plaster of Paris cast, and was most probably published in order to quell accusatory parallels to the anatomical grave-robbers in the wake of the Burke and Hare scandal. In a letter to Combe, McDiarmid expresses his concerns over an article published in The Spectator which he perceived as slanderous, and he defends an apparent post-mortem dress-up session as 'it was not until Dr. Blacklock had tried the skull in his own hat any one else presumed to act on it.'[8] Regardless of the surrounding controversy, Combe was profuse in his appreciation for McDiarmid's actions, and in a statement revealing his faith in the future propagation and ultimate vindication of his brain-based philosophy of mind, he writes: 

You & Sir Henry Jardins, who preserved for us a cast of King Robert Bruce's skull will be honoured hereafter for your enlightened contributions to the philosophy of mind, in these relics, while a just indignation will be dealt out to the memory of the men who buried Sir Walter Scott's skull without permitting a cast to be taken, & who spread unfortunate reports that his brain was small.[9]

This extract also points towards an anxiety that the phrenological readings of well-known figures match-up to their characterisation in the public imagination. The relatively small hat size of Sir Walter Scott was touted by the anti-phrenologists as evidence against the correlation between size and power. Combe was able to finally rebuke these charges in 1858 when he discovered that a cast was indeed secretly made of Scott's head following the post-mortem examination of his brain in 1832. According to Combe's journal entry for 30th April 1858, the sculptor Mr. John Steel was given the original cast by the Scott family in order to fashion a facsimile in bronze. Although he was instructed to keep it 'under lock & key', Steel provided Combe with measurements that enabled him to account for the small hat size as follows:

 

Ideality, Cautiousness, Concentrativeness, and Causality, on which in him gave the circumference of the lower margin of the hat, were all only moderately developed, and a mass of brain rose upwards into the hat & stood below it. The report that the brain “was not large”, cannot have been true.[10]

The authorial hat size controversy may well have been the inspiration for Blacklock's impromptu fashion show. However, one can imagine a self-comparative motivation as well. Who wouldn't want to know if their brain is as big as Burns's? However, if Burns's skull did not indicate a large and therefore powerful brain, the phrenological doctrines would receive a serious blow.

            Even an article in the Manchester Times & Gazette, reporting on the recent acquisition of the Burnsian casts, presents the phrenological assessment of the poet as inherently risky:

 

Casts from the skull of Burns have afforded phrenologists and the Public an opportunity of testing the truth or falsity of Phrenology. The mental character of the poet are so strongly marked, and the outlines so broadly defined, that we should at once expect either a very striking accordance or discordance with his cerebral organization.[11]

The existence of phrenological estimations, such as that of Dr. Alexander, formulated purely upon an analysis of the life and works, would not have been particularly helpful to the phrenological cause if the bumps did not match-up. Robert Cox also claims to have presented an essay before the Edinburgh Ethical Society in the winter of 1833 which contained a phrenological evaluation of the poet based entirely upon biographical and literary analysis. These evaluations, which read the bumps from the books, rather than from the head, may have led to the anti-phrenological accusations contradicted in a footnote to Cox's essay:

A report has been widely circulated, that, long before the present cast was obtained, the phrenologists had made an imaginary bust of Burns, and adduced it in support of their doctrines. Nothing can be more unfounded.[12]

Cox refers to his previous analysis to show that the physical evaluation of the cast is consistent with a phrenological analysis based solely on narrative evidence, and thus, indicates the foundation of phrenology in nature. Burns's bumps are victoriously declared 'a striking and valuable confirmation of the truth of Phrenology.'[13]

            The copyright of the cast was legally conferred to McDiarmid, and, initially, he was cautious to the point of paranoia in preventing the creation of pirated copies of the relic, which were clearly in high demand. He writes to Combe:

 

I have had applications from Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Ayr, &, for Casts; but I will take time for due deliberation. The letter from Glasgow struck me as suspicious, &, though a handsome bribe was sent, I declined the offer.[14]

On the morning of the 20th of April, Combe received the first two copies of the cast, one for personal use and one to forward to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. He wasted no time in forming his estimates of the sizes of the cerebral organs, writing to McDiarmid the same morning that:

 

the size is great, so you have stated; the organs of the animal propensities are very strongly indicated, but there is an agreeably powerful development of the sentiments of Benevolence, Ideality, Wonder, & Imitation; considerable Veneration; & average Conscientiousness; so that the higher qualities were combined in burns in great vigour with the lower. The intellect is highly respectable but inferior to the feelings. He had the elements of all that is bad & good powerful, & an intellect not quite adequate to their proper control, but very nearly so. All this is the language of the cast, & I think it conformable to with his history.[15]

This initial evaluation is characteristic of the numerous evaluations that follow, as the brain of the bard is posited as a site of intense psychological warfare – his powerful animal propensities and moral sentiments struggling for dominance in well-documented and poetically rendered battles. The following month, in a letter to Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, Combe appeals to 'A Prayer in the Prospect of Death' to evidence that his poetry and biography, 'can scarcely be understood by those who do not know phrenology':

Thou know’st that Thou hast formed me,
With Passions wild and strong;
And list'ning to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.

After 're-perusing the life of Burns', Combe finds that 'it is impossible to look on the great mass of the organs of the propensities without feeling that [blot] verse evidences a literal truth.'[16] An official evaluation by Combe is published in the Phrenological Journal in June 1834, and this is followed in the next number by Cox's more illustrative analysis. The table below contains Combe's estimations, and these are also used by Cox in his analysis.

            The preferment given to the biographical evidence in Burns's case was justified by the external measurements which indicated a fairly equal balance between animal and superior moral faculties. Indicative of the continued currency of the medieval concept of 'The Great Chain of Being' into the nineteenth century, the phrenological organs were divided into those faculties shared by both humans and lower animals and those unique to mankind.  The propensities, such as 'Amativeness' (organ of sexual passion), 'Adhesiveness' (organ of attachment), and 'Combativeness', and the inferior sentiments, such as 'Love of Approbation' and 'Self-Esteem', were common to both man and beast, as were the intellectual faculties, which allowed for a functional relationship with the external environment. For example, the phrenological writer, Robert Macnish, notes that 'Love of Approbation' is 'active in the monkey, which is fond of gaudy dresses.'[17] The superior sentiments distinguished man as a moral being, and included such faculties as 'Benevolence', 'Veneration', 'Firmness', 'Conscientiousness', and 'Hope'. In some persons, the animal propensities and inferior sentiments might be so predominant as to render them innately unfit to function in civilised society – a broad-based skull, indicating large animal propensities, was a red flag to steer clear. In contrast, the moral sentiments might predominant to the extent that a person could not help but live a righteous life. However, the vast majority of persons fell into a third category, in that moral and animal faculties displayed a degree of balance and hence produced conflicting emotional responses. Such persons are characterised by Cox: 'In the heat of passion they do acts which the higher powers afterwards loudly disapprove, and may truly be said to pass their days in alternate sinning and repenting.'[18] The behaviour of such persons was particularly susceptible to external factors, and such was the case of Burns. Thus, within the construct of a potentially biologically deterministic evaluation, the moral indiscretions of the bard are in fact externalised. 

            Not surprisingly, Burns's well-known proclivities towards the opposite sex are of keen interest to the phrenologists. It may however be surprising to find that 'Amativeness', the organ of sexual passion, is estimated to be only 'rather large' and receives 16 out of 20 in the numerical ranking scale (the average rank for a Burnsian animal propensity being 18.25).  Fortunately for the phrenologists, the organ of 'Adhesiveness', which is found to be very large (20 out of 20) in Burns, was identified as the seat of true affection in previous phrenological articles. Macnish later writes that an abuse of the organ of 'Adhesiveness' leads to a proneness to form 'absurd and romantic attachments', and 'unless there are eminent moral qualities to ensure permanence, the feeling is seldom of long duration.'[19] Combined with Burns's large organs of 'Ideality', 'Love of Approbation', and 'Secretiveness', this is said to account for the poet's attachment to the feminine sex. None of the faculties, when properly controlled, are considered inherently bad, and Cox, homing in clearly on Burns's biography, writes:

Notwithstanding the licentious tone of some of his early pieces, we are assured by himself (and his brother unhesitating confirms this statement), that no positive vice mingled in any of his love adventures until he had reached his twenty-third year.[20]

Cox continues to draw upon Lockhart's Life of Robert Burns (1828) and identifies the period at Irvine in 1781-2 as the external circumstance which served as the turning point for Burns's behaviour, in other words, the circumstance that allowed his animal propensities to wheel out of the control of his moral faculties. According to his own accounts and that of his brother, Gilbert, he was here exposed to the licentious scenes of dissipation and unabashed womanising which led him down the path to a freer mode of living. Frederick Bridges, in his 1859 evaluation, follows a similar line of reasoning, as he writes that 'the situation of an exciseman was the most unfortunate that could have been selected for a man like Burns.' [21] In the 1878 evaluation by Nicolas Morgan, we see the same appeal to Lockhart's emphasis on the negative impact of his associates at Irvine, but now the circumstances of the poet's life are viewed as vitally linked to his lyrical productions:

the poetic gift is so marked in the poet's skull, the world is much indebted for his charming lyric productions, to his dominant love and social instincts, and to the situation in life in which circumstances placed him.'[22]

This is in stark contrast to Combe's heartfelt regret of the 'unfavourable circumstances' in which the poet was placed throughout his life, as he conjectures:

 If he had been placed from infancy in the higher ranks of life, liberally educated, and employed in pursuits corresponding to his powers, the inferior portion of his nature would have lost part of its energy, while his better qualities would probably have assumed a decided and permanent superiority.[23]

Two major factors appear to come into play in determining this differentiation of opinion. First, by 1878 Burns's image as the icon of class-transcendent genius, the poet of 'A Man's a Man for a' That', was well crystallised and would most probably quell any conjecture as to what more he might have accomplished if born within the higher ranks. Secondly, Combe most probably personally disapproved of what he would consider the baser aspects of Burns's poetry, in other words, those aspects inspired by his animal faculties. Not only was poetry used to evidence the active faculties within the author's brain, but it was also viewed as an effective method of stimulating the corresponding faculties in the brain of the reader. Hence, the great size of the organs of 'Combativeness', 'Destructiveness', and 'Self-Esteem' which Combe believed inspired 'Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled' would be systematically stimulated and thus strengthened by reading this poem. This of course could be useful in times when patriotic feelings were necessary, but overall, such poetry was counterproductive to Combe's personal imperative towards the formation of a more enlightened populace. Similarly, Combe disapproved of capital punishment on the grounds that the violent public spectacle stimulated the very qualities within the spectators that had necessitated the execution – most probably, 'Destructiveness'. While some of Burns's poetry, such as 'To a Mouse', would stimulate the organ of 'Benevolence' (considered the largest of Burns's moral faculties by Combe and all later evaluations I have identified), the great power of both animal and human faculties translated into a body of poetry that evinced the dualistic aspect of the human condition, and according to Combe's less guarded private correspondence, at times, it was 'the unfortunate vigour of his animal propensities, which disappointed defeated the language of his higher powers.'[24]

            The relatively large size of all the organs of the brain, and hence the overall size of the brain which exceeds 'the average of Scotch living heads', combined with a naturally powerful and active temperament, led to a conglomeration of powerful mental faculties. According to Cox, this confirms the philosopher Dugald Stewart's evaluation of the source of genius for the poet:

 But all the faculties of Burns's mind were, as far as I could judge, equally vigorous; and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition. From his conversation, I should have pronounced him to be fitted to excel in whatever walk of ambition he had chosen to exert his abilities.[25]

The location of his genius is not discrete, but rather disperse, and hence not subject to the externalising strategy applied to his moral shortcomings. John Williams Jackson, popular lecturer on phrenology and mesmerism, is reported to have given a lecture on 'The Phrenological Development and Mental Characteristics of Burns' in Glasgow on the 7th of December 1864. According to a report of the lecture in The Caledonian Mercury, Jackson harked upon the overall size and vigour of Burns's brain to justify the bard's universal appeal, as 'Burns, indeed, stood above the ordinary range of men of genius and poets, in virtue of the fact that he was not merely a literary man but a universal man.' Jackson critically locates both male and female, animal and human, within the universal bard who is thus ascribed the Shakespearean ability to faithfully delineate characters from nature:

 He was possessed of the passions and impulses of the most powerful man, and yet at the same time was endowed with the delicacy and intensity of the most refined woman, while he also had highly elevated moral principles and superior intellectual faculties. Burns, in fact, was the most thoroughly universal man who had appeared since the days of Shakespeare.

Burns's understanding of human nature, if we may be allowed to conveniently conflate Ollivier and Jackson's arguments, like Shakespeare's, may compare with that of Mr. Combe himself, and this  understanding is viewed as rooted in his own experience with the viscitudes of emotion. Frederick Bridges uses 'The Bard's Epitaph' to illustrate the dizzying range of active faculties in Burns:

“Owre fast for thought, owre hot for rule,” running “life's mad career wild as the wave,” refers to his large and very active propensities. His large self-esteem and love of approbation are shown - “Owre blate (too modest) to seek, owre proud to snool.” His large social and domestic feelings, which “keenly felt the friendly glow and softer flame.” We have his moral feeling and mental powers indicated - “Can others teach their course to steer” - “quick to learn and wise to know.” The warning in the concluding stanza - “Know, prudent, cautious self-control is wisdom's root” - shows great benevolence, and consciousness of low firmness, which his skull indicates.

Clearly the continual appeal to poetry to confirm the cranial measurements can lead to a reductive reading of Burns's work, but, at the same time, and perhaps most overtly in Jackson's evaluation, Keats's notion of 'the cameleon art' of poetry is very much alive, as through his strong endowment of all the mental faculties, Burns could presumably step into the proverbial shoes of the other with natural ease. This evaluation does accord with John Wilson's literary assessment of the genius of Burns published in 1819 in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, in which he writes 'that it was often the consciousness of his own frailties that made him so true a painter of human passions'.[26]

            The heavy dependence on narrative evidence in the phrenological evaluations of Burns naturally leads them into the realm of literary criticism, and as we have seen, these evaluations in fact began from imaginative premises. According to phrenological writers, such as Ollivier and Alexander, the major distinction of the phrenological literary assessments from general literary criticism of the period is their formulation according to a set of rules derived from an empirical study of Nature, i.e. skulls. By moderns standards, the empirical derivation of these rules is of course questionable, but the phrenologists did gather physical data available to repeated analysis. Burns's skull provided just such a data set. The cast of the poet's skull, despite McDiarmid's initial protectiveness, made its way into the mass produced phrenological lecture sets sold by Anthony O'Neil, and thus truly entered into the public domain. Later analyses appear to devolve into entertaining spectacles. For example, Jackson's 1864 lecture in Glasgow 'was further enhanced by the singing at intervals of some of Burns's songs, which were very effectively rendered by Mr. G. D. Bishop', and at the close of the lecture, Jackson performed phrenological analyses on audience members. Combe believed such blatant showmanship degraded  the scientific authority of phrenology, but the public's appetite for cultural iconography and strange feats of science combined to make the phrenological lecture inherently amusing.  However, the more saturnine empiricism of the initial evaluations remained in currency, as both Combe and Cox's essays were re-published together in a pamphlet in 1859 in honor of the centenary celebration of Burns's birth. The publisher's preface presents phrenology as an inherently fairer and more accurate approach to the study of such an important public character:

At this hour the name of Burns is in every man's mouth, his praise is on every tongue; the present may, therefore, be deemed an unsuitable time to ask a study of his character, - the festive rather than the scientific commanding popularity. Yet we make no apology for the publication of the following Essay: it can speak for itself now, and will bear to be investigated and contemplated in a time of calmer leisure.  Indeed the providing of a worthy memorial of the great bard, which, with its other qualities, has this to recommend it, that its material is drawn from a reliable source, and its deductions directed by science [...] To set forth the true character and depict the numerous phases of a life such as that of Burns, is work for a philosopher – but without a correct philosophy no sage could be successful in it.[27]

Today, phrenology is relegated to the lower divisions of the history of science – as an embarrassing, yet still amusing, methodological dead-end – an open invitation for quacks at best and racial imperialists at the very worse. However, the phrenological analyses of Burns stand out as uniquely representative of the fluid exchange, and all-in-all, the lack of a real distinction, between literary and scientific thinkers in the early nineteenth-century. Rather than simply providing a scientifically informed character study of a man who happened to be a poet, the first analyses by Cox and Combe sought to utilize the strength of the public image of Burns to forward the authority of the foundational tenets of their celebrated new science of the mind. But in this case, the solidity of the skull was read through, rather than against, the vivid spectre of Robert Burns.


Megan delivering her paper at the University of South Carolina's April conference on Robert Burns.


[1]               'Proceedings of the Glasgow Phrenological Society', Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, 7 (1831-2), p. 191.

[2]               Disney Alexander, 'A Lecture on Phrenology, as Illustrative of the Moral and Intellectual Capacities of Man' (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy; Edinburgh: John Anderson; Wakefield: J. Stanfield, 1826), pp. 4-5.

[3]               Ibid., p. 10.

[4]               John Ollivier, Phrenology in Relation to the Novel, the Criticism, and the Drama (London: 1848), p. 55.

[5]               Robert Cox, ‘An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns. Read, on 5th May 1834, before The Edinburgh Ethical Society for the Study and Practical Applications of Phrenology.’ Phrenological Journal and Miscellany, 9 (1834-6), 52-74, (pp. 52-3).

[6]               John McDiarmid, 'St. Michael's Church-Yard – Disinterment of Burns' in Sketches from Nature (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd; London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1830), pp. 367-380, (p. 377).

[7]               Mark Fraser, ‘The Phrenologists and Robert Burns’, Burns Chronicle (1996), pp. 215-221.

[8]               Letter from John McDiarmid to George Combe, dated 23 April 1834, NLS MS 7233, ff. 1-2. All quoted manuscripts are from the Combe collection in the National Library of Scotland (NLS). Many thanks to the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland for permission to quote from these sources, and many thanks to the British Association for Romantic Studies  for funding my work at the NLS with the Stephen Copley Postgraduate Research Award.

[9]               Letter from George Combe to John McDiarmid, dated 5 April 1834, NLS MS 7386, f. 117.

[10]             George Combe, Journal of 1857-8, NLS MS 7432, ff. 62-3.

[11]             'Phrenological Development of Robert Burns', Manchester Times & Gazette, 12 July 1834, Issue 298.

[12]             Cox, 'An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns.', p. 53.

[13]             Ibid., p. 74.

[14]             Letter from John McDiarmid to George Combe, dated 23 April 1834, NLS MS 7233, ff. 1-2.

[15]             Letter from George Combe to John McDiarmid, dated 20 April, 1834, NLS MS 7386, f. 120.

[16]             Letter from George Combe to Archbishop of Dublin, dated 5 May 1834, NLS 7386, f. 131-2.

[17]             Robert Macnish, An Introduction to Phrenology (Glasgow: W. R. M'Phun, 1836), p. 59.

[18]             Cox, 'An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns.', p. 57.

[19]             Macnish, An Introduction to Phrenology, pp. 27-8.

[20]             Cox, 'An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns.', p. 60.

[21]             Frederick Bridges, 'The Phrenological Characteristics of Robert Burns, the Poet', Liverpool Mercury, 27 January 1859, Issue 3416.

[22]             Nicolas Morgan, 'The Scottish National Poet', The Alderman, 4:97 (26 January 1878), p. 5. Many thanks to Kathleen Struck of the Heckman Library, Calvin College for providing me with a copy of this article.

[23]             George Combe, ‘Observations on the Skull of Robert Burns’, Phrenology Journal and Miscellany, 8 (1832-4), pp. 756-662, (pp. 661-2).

[24]             Letter from George Combe to Archbishop of Dublin, dated 5 May 1834, NLS 7386, f. 131-2.

[25]             Cox, 'An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns.', p. 59.

[26]             John Wilson, 'Some Observations on the Poetry of the Agricultural and that of the Pastoral Districts in Scotland, Illustrated by a Comparative View of the Genius of Burns and the Ettrick Shepherd', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 4:23 (February 1819), pp. 521-9, (p. 527).

[27]             A. Stewart, 'Publisher's Preface', in 'An Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns, by Robert Cox. (Reprinted from the Phrenological Journal for September, 1834) With Observations on the Skull of Burns, by the late George Combe.' (Edinburgh: A. Stewart, Phrenological Museum, 1859), pp. 3-4.


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