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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns and Sex By George Scott Wilkie

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

I have known of George Scott Wilkie since 2002 when he published Understanding Robert Burns, Verse, Explanation, and Glossary. In fact, if one can say they know someone by reading a book, then I know him quite well! He published The Lassies in 2004, and for me it was like new found time with an old literary friend. Wilkie will teach you verse by verse about Robert Burns if you are willing to read the works of a man who “walks the walk” and “talks the talk” on the subject of the Bard. He will not lead you astray concerning Burns. In his introduction to Understanding Robert Burns, Wilkie concludes with these words, “Read and enjoy the words of Robert Burns and you will join the many millions who have fallen under his spell”. One cannot ask for more than a’ that.

Some months ago while attending our monthly gathering of the Burns Club of Atlanta, I was chatting with good friend and fellow member Keith Dunn prior to the start of the meeting. Another member walked by carrying a book that looked familiar to me and I mentioned to Keith it looked like a volume written by George Scott Wilkie. After inquiry, the owner revealed that it was indeed Wilkie’s Understanding Robert Burns. It’s easy to spot a distinctive book one has spent so much time with!

Last year, out of the blue, I received an email from George Wilkie with some words of encouragement about a situation that will remain untold, but his words meant the world to me. “When ignorance is on the march, stand aside and let it pass you by!” Thanks, George. I did just that!

We are in for another treat from this author. His new book, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters, is due to be published on April 14. George describes it as a selection of letters written by Burns, Clarinda, his brother William, and others. His publisher, Neil Wilson, portrays it as “a comprehensive publication of the correspondence of Robert Burns spanning 1780 to 1796 arranged chronologically.”

One closing word on Wilkie. He “was exposed to the work of Burns as a Leith schoolboy and has retained his interest in the bard throughout his life. He is retired and lives near Cambridge.” (FRS: 3.23.11)

Burns and Sex
By George Scott Wilkie

Author George Scott Wilkie

It might seem that attempting to portray Robert Burns as a man of high morals is defending the indefensible, but it is my belief that he was just that.

He certainly fathered several children outside of the marriage bed, but that was a far from unusual occurrence in the 18th century. The main difference between then and today’s society is that Burns, in common with the majority of his peers, either took the child into his own family or ensured the mother was financially secure. No benefit agencies existed to take responsibility for unmarried mothers and no council flats were put at their disposal.

Burns was fifteen when he first felt the blood racing in his veins as he and his partner in the harvesting pulled the thorns and nettle stings from each other’s hands after a day’s toil in the fields. Fourteen-year-old Nelly Kilpatrick was the lass who awakened his feelings and was also the inspiration for one of the Bard’s early ventures into verse. However, his admiration for young Nell was because of her gentle demeanour and modesty and was confined to no more than words of admiration.

Young Robert soon became fascinated and enthralled by the young lasses in his neighbourhood, and although he appeared to fall in love with astonishing ease, still showed an incredible maturity in realising that beauty was skin-deep and a fine intellect was preferable to a pretty face.

The charms o’ the min’, the langer they shine
The mair admiration they draw, man;
While peaches and cherries, and roses and lilies,
They fade and they wither awa’, man.

Wise words indeed, but totally forgotten when he became smitten by the beauty of a young woman he encountered on a random walk and who was the subject of a beautiful poem he composed about her, The Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle.

He wrote a lengthy epistle to the young lady, Wilhelmina Alexander, enclosing a copy of the poem, but she chose not to reply to him although she still had his poem in her possession many years after when she died.

However, it was not long before the young man discovered that modesty was all very well, but that a proper sexual relationship was infinitely preferable.

His young brother, William, had moved to London and sought advice from Robert on how he should conduct himself now that he had fallen in love. Robert’s answer tells us exactly what he considered the right approach.

Your falling in love is indeed a phenomenon. To a fellow of your turn it cannot be hurtful. I am, as you know, a veteran in these campaigns, so let me advise you always to pay your particular assiduities and try for intimacy as soon as you feel the first symptoms of the passion: this is not only best, as making the most of the little entertainment which the sport-abilities of distant addresses always gives, but is the best preservative for one’s peace. I need caution you against guilty amours, they are bad and ruinous everywhere, but in England they are the very devil.

This was how Burns had conducted his many affairs over the years. When he was seventeen his mother had a young servant girl by the name of Elizabeth Paton helping her in the house and very soon she became pregnant to the young Bard. Robert’s mother was keen that her son should marry Elizabeth but his siblings protested that she was much too rough and uneducated for their elder brother and her child was eventually accepted into the household and brought up as a member of the family. Young Robert loved his daughter and composed a beautiful poem that promised she would be brought up and treated with the same love that a child born in wedlock would receive.

However, his poem, The Fornicator, is a boastful tale in which he mocks those who have to use the services of prostitutes and how he much prefers to lie on the grass with a willing partner, but in a letter to a fellow poet, J. Lapraik, he admits that his fondness for the girls has sometimes cost him money.

There’s ae wee faut they whiles lay to me,
I like the lasses, - Gude forgie me!
For monie a plack they wheedle frae me
At dance or fair;
Maybe some ither thing they gie me
They weel can spare.

Young Robert was constantly in conflict with the church over his attitude to sex, a conflict that frequently caused him to be sat on a stool reserved for the chastisement of those accused of houghmagandie, or sex outside of marriage. This was a common offence, particularly in the countryside where the young girls were well aware of the birds and the bees and who seldom wore any form of underwear beneath their loose smocks. He wrote to a friend complaining of how he perceived this to be an unjust persecution.

I long had a wishing eye to that inestimable blessing, a wife. My mouth watered deliciously, to see a young fellow, after a few idle commonplace stories from a gentleman in black, strip & go to bed with a young girl & no one durst say black was his eye; while I, for just doing the same thing, only wanting that ceremony, am made a Sunday’s laughing-stock, and abused like a pickpocket.

His distrust of prostitutes is revealed again in another letter of advice to young William before his stay in London.

Another caution; I give you great credit for your sobriety with respect to that universal vice, Bad Women. It is an impulse, the hardest to be restrained, but if once a man accustoms himself to gratifications of that impulse, it is then nearly or altogether impossible to restrain it. Whoring is a most ruinous expensive species of dissipation; is spending a poor fellow’s money with which he ought clothe and support himself nothing? Whoring has ninety-nine chances in a hundred to bring on a man the most nauseous & excruciating diseases to which Human nature is liable; are disease & impaired constitution trifling considerations? All this is independent of the criminality of it.

However, when an Edinburgh prostitute named Margaret Burns (no relation) was banished from the city he wrote in her defence, and when she died he wrote a few verses in her memory.

The final verse reads………..

Beneath this cold, green sod lies dead
That once bewitching dame
That fired Edina’s lustful sons,
And quenched their glowing flame.

One young woman in particular had long been a favourite of young Robert. She was Jean Armour, a girl who had long since caught the eye of the Bard and who also fell pregnant by him. Burns wanted to do the honest thing by Jean and the pair went through a simple act of signing a paper to declare themselves married. Jean’s parents had other ideas for they had no wish to see their daughter wed to this poor ploughman whose reputation was not that of a desirable partner for their only daughter. They ripped the paper into shreds and banished young Jean to live with an aunt well out of the reach of Burns.

Robert was furious with what he considered an act of betrayal by Jean and promptly had himself declared as being a single man again, a simple act in these bygone days.

He had decided that life in Scotland was always going to be fraught with problems and made the decision to travel to the West Indies, a favourite destination for young Scotsmen at that time. In fact he had also resolved to take a young woman named Mary Campbell with him. She was his Highland Mary and although his friends tried to warn him of Mary’s colourful past Burns was deaf to their warnings and arranged to meet with Mary to travel together to Jamaica. Two things then occurred that had a huge effect on the life of the Bard.

His poems were proving to be very popular in Edinburgh and his first edition was soon to be published. Then his beloved Mary became ill and died. Whether she died in childbirth remains a mystery, but Burns was heart-broken and abandoned his plans to emigrate.

The death of Mary Campbell had a lasting effect on Burns and it was some six years after her death that he wrote Highland Mary, a beautiful song that tells of his sadness, particularly in the closing verse.

O, pale, pale now those rosy lips I aft hae kissed sae fondly;
And closed for ay the sparkling glance that dwelt on me sae kindly;
And mould’ring now in silent dust the heart that lo’ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom’s core shall live my Highland Mary.

By 1788 Burns was acknowledged as Scotland’s Bard and was the darling of Edinburgh’s society. It was then that he met Nancy McLehose, a young woman whose husband had deserted her along with her young children.

Nancy was unusual in these days in being a well educated young lady and she was keen to meet this ploughman poet who had taken the city by storm. She succeeded in her wish to meet Burns who was immediately smitten by this buxom young woman. However, Nancy was far from being the sort of girl who would melt in his arms. She was both devout and chaste and it is unlikely that things would have progressed after the initial meeting had Burns not injured a leg in a coaching accident and found himself bored and alone in his room. With time on his hands he wrote a short note to Nancy expressing his pleasure at having met her. Nancy replied immediately and thus began the series of letters that was to become famous as the Clarinda Correspondence. This was because Nancy was terrified that her reputation would be ruined if she, a married woman, were to be discovered writing to a man other than her husband. At her suggestion she began to sign her letters as Clarinda, and Robert became Sylvander.

The letters flowed between them at a phenomenal rate, sometimes two or three in a day, and Burns became totally infatuated by his pen friend.

Eventually they held clandestine meetings at Nancy’s house, but Burns was to find that his usual approach towards sex met with no approval from Nancy.

He did his utmost to turn their platonic relationship into a full-blooded sexual one but Nancy resisted his every move, albeit judging by the following extract from a letter she wrote to him, she was very close to giving into him on at least one occasion………..

Sylvander, the moment I waked this morning, I received a summons from Conscience to appear at the Bar of Reason. While I trembled before this sacred throne, I beheld a succession of figures pass before me in awful brightness! Religion, clad in a robe of light, stalked majestically along, her hair disheveled, and in her hand the Scriptures of Truth held open at these words – ‘If you love me, keep my commandments.’ Reputation followed; her eyes darted indignation, while she waved a beautiful wreath of laurel, intermixed with flowers, gathered by Modesty in the Bower of Peace. Consideration held her bright mirror close to my eyes, and made me start at my own image! Love alone appeared as counsel in my behalf. She was adorned with a veil, borrowed from Friendship, which hid her defects, and set off her beauties to advantage. She had no plea to offer but that of being the sister of Friendship and the offspring of Charity. But Reason refused to listen to her defence, because she brought no certificate from the Temple of Hymen! While I trembled before her, Reason addressed me in the following manner; --‘Return to my paths, which alone are peace; shut your heart against this fascinating intrusion of the passions; take Consideration for your guide, and you will soon arrive at the Temple of Tranquillity.’

Sylvander, to drop my metaphor, I am neither well nor happy today; my heart reproaches me for last night. If you wish Clarinda to regain her peace, determine against everything but what the strictest delicacy warrants.

Burns may have found his encounters with his beloved Clarinda to be frustrating, but whereas Clarinda succeeded in preserving her cherished honour, her maid was not so successful and became pregnant by Burns as she visited the Bard’s lodgings on regular occasions, sent by her mistress to deliver and collect the letters that passed between them.

The damaged leg eventually returned to good health and Burns left Edinburgh and returned to Ayrshire.

His first task was to seek out Jean Armour who was living in poverty in Alloway. He took her under his roof and bought her a mahogany bed, all of which might seem peculiar considering his relationship with Nancy, but Nancy had actually tried to encourage him to settle down and get married to somebody who would make him happy.

However, this reunion was far from being romantic as Jean was on the verge of giving birth and Burns wrote a shameful letter to a friend boasting how he had made love to Jean on some horse litter at that stage.

Robert Burns never had the belief that his poems and songs would earn him enough money to live on and always believed that his destiny was to be a farmer.

Sadly for Burns, although he had been an expert in the sowing of wild oats, commercial farming proved too much for him. His body had suffered dreadfully as a youngster when he was the principal labourer on his father’s farm in his early teens and years of malnourishment brought their own problems until he was forced to abandon farming and eventually move to lodgings in Dumfries while working as an exciseman. He had enjoyed several years of marriage with Jean Armour and appears to have foregone his lust of earlier years. Then he met Anna Park! Anna was a barmaid at the Globe Inn in Dumfries and had a reputation as a young lady who could be persuaded to serve her male customers with more than ale if required. Burns became infatuated by young Anna and she in turn became pregnant by Burns. Anna disappeared from the scene, apparently she had gone to Leith, but Burns produced the new baby which he presented to his wife, Jean Armour, a week before she was due to deliver her own child.

Jean accepted the new addition to her family with the comment that ’Rab should have had twa wives’.

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