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Robert Burns - His Life In His Letters
A Virtual Autobiography, By George Scott Wilkie


Burns’ fame as a poet and song-writer is unquestioned, but hidden behind that fame lies another Robert Burns. Not only was he a great Bard, but he was also a man with a phenomenal ability to write letters, letters that reveal him to be a man of erudition, as well as of great compassion.

He loved the written word and wrote hundreds of letters to an assortment of people on a wide range of subjects. His introduction into Edinburgh’s bourgeois society opened up opportunities for him to correspond with people of good education and allowed him to develop his writing technique as he wore out quill after quill in his unending desire to commit his thoughts to paper.

This collection of letters, arranged chronologically, offers an opportunity to discover the inner Burns in his own words as he describes the many twists and turns in his eventful, but tragically short life. They illustrate how his life  arched upwards from his poverty-stricken childhood, rising to his fame and fortune before sliding downhill once again to poverty and ill-health. They also show clearly how his character altered from being a pupil hungry to learn, to that of a young man desperate to find true love, and of his many liaisons in the pursuit of such, becoming eventually that of a hard-working and conscientious husband and father, forced by circumstances to accept employment within the establishment that he had so often mocked and scorned in his poetic works.

Unfortunately the great majority of letters received by Burns have been lost to us forever owing to them having been stored in damp conditions. Only a few have survived. However, one or two of his early biographers have included some in their works, so we have access to a small number.

Just how did a country lad from an extremely humble background become such a prolific figure in the world of literature? What drove Robert Burns to see far beyond the furrows of his plough and become one of the world’s finest wordsmiths?

To try to find an answer to that question we will delve into the the early life of the Bard and we start by referring to a letter, written not by Robert, but by his brother Gilbert, sent to Dr James Currie after the death of the poet.

When my father built his clay bigging, he put in two stone jambs, as they are called, and a lintel, carrying up a chimney in his clay gable. The consequence was, that as the gable subsided, the jambs remained firm, threw it off its centre; and one very stormy morning, when my brother was nine or ten days old, a little before daylight a part of the gable fell out, and the rest appeared so shattered, that my mother, with the young poet, had to be carried through the storm to a neighbours house, where they remained a week, till their own dwelling was adjusted.’

This early episode in the life of the Bard was a forerunner of the many storms he would face in his turbulent life. Gilbert continued to supply Dr Currie with a biography of his brother’s early life as he tells of the education given to Robert and himself by John Murdoch.

‘ With him we learnt to read English tolerably well, and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar. I was too young to profit much from his lessons in grammar, but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character, as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had the opportunity of reading while he was at school; for the Life of Wallace, which he classes with it in one of his letters, he did not see for some years afterwards when he borrowed it from the blacksmith who shod our horses.’

Two years later, Murdoch left his school to take up work elsewhere. Gilbert recounts a visit to their house.

‘Murdoch came to spend the night with us, and to take his leave when he was about to go to Carrick. He brought us a present and memorial of him, a small compendium of English Grammar, and the tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and by the way of passing the evening, he began to read the play aloud. We were all attention for some time, till presently the whole party was dissolved in tears. A female in the play (I have but a confused recollection of it) had her hands chopt off, her tongue cut out, and then was insultingly desired to call for water to wash her hands. At this, in an agony of distress, we with one voice desired he would read no more. My father observed that if we would not hear it out, it would be needless to leave the play with us. Robert replied that if it was left he would burn it. My father was going to chide him for this ungrateful return to his tutor’s kindness; but Murdoch interfered, declaring that he liked to see so much sensibility; and he left the School for Love, a comedy (translated, I think, from the French) in its place.

With Murdoch now departed, William Burnes took over the task of educating his children himself. Gilbert continues…..

‘Nothing could be more retired than our general manner of living at Mount Oliphant; we rarely saw anybody but the members of our own family. There were no boys of our own age, or near it, in the neighbourhood. Indeed the greatest part of the land in the vicinity was at that time possessed by shopkeepers, and people of that stamp, who had retired from business, or who kept their farm in the country at the same time that they followed business in town. My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men; and was at great pains, as we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm our virtuous habits.

He borrowed Salmon’s Geographical Grammar for us, and endeavoured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world; while, from a book-society in Ayr, he procured for us Derham’s Physico and Astro-Theology, and Ray’s Wisdom of God in the Creation, to give us some idea of astronomy and natural history. Robert read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to Stackhouse’s History of the Bible, then lately published by James Meuros in Kilmarnock; from this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history; for no book was so voluminous as to slacken his industry, or so antiquated as to damp his researches. A brother of my mother, who had lived with us some time, and had learnt some arithmetic by our winter evening’s candle, went into a bookseller’s shop in Ayr to purchase the Ready Reckoner, or Tradesman’s Sure Guide, and a book to teach him write letters. Luckily, in place of the Complete Letter Writer, he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers, with a few sensible directions for attaining an easy epistolary style. This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language

My brother was about thirteen or fourteen, when my father, regretting that we wrote so ill, sent us, week about, during a summer quarter, to the parish school of Dalrymple, which, though between two and three miles distant, was the nearest to us, that we might have an opportunity of remedying this defect. About this time a bookish acquaintance of my father’s procured for us a reading of two volumes of Richardson’s Pamela, which was the first novel we read, and the only part of Richardson’s works my brother was acquainted with, till towards the period of his commencing author. Till that time, too, he remained unacquainted with Fielding, with Smollet (two volumes of Ferdinand Count Fathom, and two volumes of Peregrine Pickle, excepted), with Hume and Robertson, and almost all our authors of eminence of the later times. I recollect, indeed, my father borrowed a volume of English history from Mr Hamilton of Bourtree-hill’s gardener. It treated of the reigns of James 1, and his unfortunate son Charles, but I do not know who was the author; all that I remember of it is something of Charles’s conversation with his children. About this time, Murdoch, our former teacher, after having been in different places in the country, and having taught a school some time in Dumfries, came to be the established teacher of the English language in Ayr, a circumstance of considerable consequence to us. The remembrance of my father’s former friendship, and his attachment to my brother, made him do everything in his power for our improvement. He sent us Pope’s Works, and some other poetry, the first that we had the opportunity of reading, excepting what is contained in the English Collection, and in the volume of the Edinburgh Magazine for 1772; excepting also those Excellent new songs that are hawked about the country in baskets, or exposed in stalls in the streets.

The summer after we had been at Dalrymple School, my father sent Robert to Ayr, to revise his English grammar with his former teacher, He had only been there one week when he was obliged to return, to assist at the harvest. When the harvest was over, he went back to school, where he remained two weeks; and this completes the account of his school education, excepting one summer quarter, some time afterwards, that he attended the parish school of Kirkoswald (where he lived with a brother of my mother’s) to learn surveying.

The letter continues with a harrowing narrative of the hardship and poverty that surrounded the Buns family.

Mount Oliphant, the farm my father possessed in the parish of Ayr, is almost the poorest soil I know of in a state of cultivation. A stronger proof of this I cannot give, than that, notwithstanding the extraordinary rise in the value of lands in Scotland, it was, after a considerable sum laid out in improving it by the proprietor, let a few years ago five pounds per annum lower than the rent paid for it thirty years ago. My father, in consequence of this, soon came into difficulties, which were increased by the loss of several of his cattle by accidents and disease. To use the buffetings of misfortune we could only oppose hard labour, and the most rigid economy. We lived very sparingly. For several years butcher’s meat was a stranger in the house, while all the members of the family exerted themselves to the utmost of their strength, and rather beyond it, in the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in thrashing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm, for we had no hired servant, male or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years under these straits and difficulties was very great. To think of our father growing old (for he was now above fifty), broken down with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with a wife and five other children, and in a declining state of circumstances; these reflections produced in my brother’s mind and mine sensations of the deepest distress. I doubt not but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life was in a great measure the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert was so often afflicted through his entire life afterwards. At this time he was almost constantly afflicted in the evening with a dull headache, which, at a future period of his life, was exchanged for a palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed in the night-time.’

John Murdoch also communicated with Dr Currie regarding the early education of the Burns boys.

‘My pupil, Robert Burns, was then between six and seven years of age; his preceptor, about eighteen. Robert and his younger brother, Gilbert had been grounded a little in English before they were put under my care. They both made a rapid progress in reading, and a tolerable progress in writing. In reading, dividing words into syllables by rule, spelling without book, parsing sentences, &c., Robert and Gilbert were generally at the upper end of the class, even when ranged with boys far their seniors.’

Murdoch continues his letter with a rather surprising statement.

‘Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of the wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind all the rest of the school. Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave, and expressive of a serious and contemplative mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth, with thee I mean to live;” and certainly, if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was the most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’

It was late in 1786 when Burns started to write letters on a regular basis and he continued to do so until his death ten years later. The earlier ones are slightly stiff and formal, then, as he gains recognition as a poet, they become flamboyant as he sends them out in great numbers. Eventually however, as he sinks into exhaustion through trying both to run a farm and ride some 200 miles per week on Excise duties, the letters become less numerous and lose their flamboyance. Those written in the period leading up to his death tell a tale of abject poverty and suffering, but continue to be written with dignity and style.

The most famous of the letters written by Robert Burns was undoubtedly the correspondence between him and Agnes McLehose, better known to the world as Clarinda. As Agnes was a married woman, although estranged from her husband, it would have been social suicide for each of them to have been discovered to be corresponding regularly, so in order to maintain their anonymity she became Clarinda and he Sylvander. Many of these letters have survived through the years, in spite of nearly being cast aside as worthless on her death. We are able to include some of the letters written by Clarinda, and can share her emotional turmoil in her struggle to maintain faith with her strict religious beliefs as she fought to keep their affair on a platonic level.

In 1787 Burns wrote a very lengthy autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore that offers an insight into his early life, so in order to learn a little of the poet in his pre-fame days we will ignore its chronological position and place it at the beginning. Although many aspects of his early life have already been covered by Gilbert’s letter, this is how Robert Burns recalled his childhood and youthful years The many letters that follow are the nearest thing to a complete autobiography of Robert Burns that we could ever hope for.

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Robert Burns Index


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