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Robert Burns Lives!
Was Robert Burns a Member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries?


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

It is a pleasure to welcome Mark J. Wilson to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!. A librarian by profession, Mark is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen and currently pursues research into the politics and culture of 1790s Ireland and Scotland. This young 29-year-old Glaswegian has a growing interest in the area of “Fraud in Burns Studies”. He has been asked to contribute to an essay co-authored by Gerry Carruthers, the internationally known Burns textual critic, and others on “Recent Discoveries in Burns Studies” to be published in 2010. I look forward to that publication and the opportunity to share it with our readers.

In the meantime, comments are requested from those of you who have interest in Robert Burns and the Friends of the People. Send your replies or articles in Word format to my email address above, and they will be placed on Robert Burns Lives!. (FRS: 10.21.09)

Was Robert Burns a Member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries?
By Mark J. Wilson

The title of this essay is given rise to by the extraordinary statements made by Patrick Scott Hogg in his new biography of Robert Burns, The Patriot Bard. Hogg claims:

My own archival findings reveal that a branch of the pro-democracy movement, the Friends of the People in Scotland, existed covertly in Dumfries during 1793 and suggest Burns himself was an active participant.[i]

This remarkable assertion was also made by Mr Hogg in a talk he gave at the Edinburgh People’s Festival during May 2008. I first became aware of this performance when I viewed it posted on the internet on the YouTube site, and it was with some excitement that I subsequently purchased Hogg’s book so as to look in detail at the evidence for Burns’s membership of the Friends of the People in Dumfries. On reading The Patriot Bard I found both his argument and his references to this difficult to follow. Wondering if the deficiency was in my understanding I entered the World Burns Club discussion forum where I noticed Hogg had opened up a thread to discuss Burns’s politics. On querying Hogg’s references I was met with an attitude from this author that to say the least was less than forthcoming. As a result, and with contributions made by others on another thread of the World Burns Club discussion forum, I decided to pursue Hogg’s claims and emerged with some surprising results as we shall see below.

Patrick Scott Hogg’s claims for Burns’s membership of the Friends of the People in Dumfries include two essential points. First of all he seeks to establish that there was a branch of the Friends of the People at Dumfries, something hitherto unknown to historians of the 1790s. Hogg tells us that “the spy report by ‘JB’ lists a Mr ‘Drummond’ as the Dumfries delegate to the National Convention in late 1793” (TPB, p.251). He also claims that “the delegate in all probability was [Burns’s] friend John Drummond” (TPB, p.251). Such is the basis upon which Hogg infers Burns’s membership of the Friends of the People at Dumfries. When we examine the evidence closely, however, serious problems emerge with Hogg’s argument. For a start, Mr Drummond is not all he seems to be in Hogg’s account. The spy reports to which Hogg refers are to be found in the Trial of Thomas Hardy Volume 1 printed in 1794. Here we find the following information pertaining to November 20th of the General Convention of the Friends of the People which had opened at Edinburgh on the 29th October 1793:

This sitting commenced with delivering tickets to the members of the
Convention. - The following visitors were admitted [...] Mr Drummond and
Mr. Ramsay from Dumfries [...]
[ii]

What we discover, then, is that “Mr Drummond” is a “visitor” rather than, as Hogg claims, a “delegate”. What was a visitor to the General Convention? The answer to this can be found again in the proceedings of the General Convention printed in the Trial of Thomas Hardy. When it opened on the 29th October 1793 the Convention was worried over the attendance of non-delegates and debated the matter:

Mr. Callender moved, that the House be purged of Strangers. Mr Binny moved, that a particular part of the House be allotted for visitors, who should be admitted upon paying one shilling each [ ...] it was resolved that no visitors in future should be admitted without giving in their names to the chair.  (TTS, p. 239

Following this resolution among the delegates to the Convention, branches of the Friends of the People and other like-minded societies are listed along with their particular delegates.  For instance, here is a snapshot of the listing for the 29th October 1793:

Canongate, No.3.

John Laing, David Taylor, William Robertson.
Dundee, Friends of the Constitution.
Rev. Mr. James Donaldson.
Dundee, Friends of Liberty.
George Mealmaker.
(TTS, p. 287)

Following on from the listing of branches and delegates, “visitors” in line with the resolution taken by the Convention on 29th October are named. Such visitors may well be radical themselves or they might merely be attending for the entertainment or, again, they might even be associated with a nervous government which was certainly keeping an eye on the Convention, as the existence of the spy ‘J.B.’ demonstrates. Whatever the case the Convention decided it would make some money (a shilling a head, as mentioned above) from its “visitors”. Crucially Mr Drummond is a visitor and not a delegate contrary to the claims of Patrick Scott Hogg. In fact, there is no Dumfries branch of the Friends of the People present at the Convention and Mr Drummond is representing nothing but himself. It should also be added that the Friends of the People as shown by their behaviour at the Convention in declaring branches and their delegates did not go in for the “covert” existence as stated by Hogg for the supposed Dumfries branch. Later persecuted by the government on the grounds of “sedition” though it was, the Friends of the People operated on the basis that its declarative openness exemplified reasonable, non-seditious political aspirations. So, the idea of a “covert” branch of this organisation is simply nonsense, and yet again shows Hogg pursuing not logic but non-historical wishful thinking.

At this point we should not have to go any further since Hogg’s claims about “delegate” Drummond and the Dumfries “branch” of the Friends of the People are seen to be spurious. In spite of having no basis for an argument here, however, Hogg as we have seen goes on to claim that Mr Drummond is the John Drummond of Burns’s acquaintance in Dumfries. This John Drummond is a fairly obscure figure in the poet’s life. In a letter of  25th August, 1793 Burns writes to Mrs Frances Dunlop to enquire whether she might help the future job prospects of the young Drummond who is about to be unemployed with the closure of the Dumfries branch of the Paisley bank.[iii] Bank clerk Drummond is someone we know very little about. We know nothing of his political affiliations, if any, and Hogg in The Patriot Bard provides no new details of what these might be. There is no extant evidence so far uncovered by anyone that John Drummond was a man of reformist or radical political sympathies and there is nothing at all to connect him with the “Mr Drummond” who was a “visitor” to the General Convention of the Friends of the People in late 1793.

The claim that Burns was a member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries is the major point of departure from previous Burns biography in Patrick Scott Hogg’s The Patriot Bard. On an examination of the evidence it is also a completely spurious one. All those who take Burns and the proper examination of his historical context seriously, be warned.


[i] Patrick Scott Hogg, The Patriot Bard (Mainstream: Edinburgh, 2008), p. 19; hereafter TPB.

[ii] Trial of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1, reprinted in John Barrell and Jon Mee eds. Trials  for Treason and Sedition, 1792 -1794 (Pickering and Chatto: London 2006), p. 309; hereafter TTS.

[iii]  J. De Lancey Ferguson (ed,). The Letters of Robert Burns, Vol II. (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1931), pp. 192-3.


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