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Robert Burns Lives!
Whatever Happened to Gavin Turnbull? Hunting Down a Friend of Burns in South Carolina by Patrick Scott

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

Back in 1954 I found myself living with my sister Peggy in what was then known as Charleston Heights, a vast suburb just north of Charleston, SC. To “go downtown” meant going to King Street.  My high school buddies sometimes called our charming town the “City by the Bay”, long before Tony Bennett “left his heart in San Francisco”. Charleston prided itself on being “America’s Most Historic City” and, as you came down the second span at the foot of that mighty Cooper River Bridge, a huge sign said so.  After all, what was printed in The News and Courier or what the city fathers erected on signs was the law, if not the truth, at least for anyone from Charleston. The city is flanked on one side by the Cooper River and on the other by the Ashley River, and the Atlantic Ocean was formed when these two rivers merged. We had highbrows in the city and they were known, then and now, as SOBs because they lived South of Broad.  

When a hurricane dared come close to the city, school would be dismissed and some of us would make our way to The Battery to see the waves splashing as high as thirty feet. You didn’t hang around there long, but you could brag when school reopened that you had been there for the great water show. I played (very little) football, basketball, and baseball at North Charleston High School, famous for the words written over the entryway, “EDUCATION IS A POSSESSION OF WHICH MAN CANNOT BE ROBBED”. Mostly, however, I pumped gas at Mr. Hull’s Esso service station for a dollar an hour after school and on weekends.  Back then a dollar would buy you 3.3 gallons of gas! I learned my first business lessons from that fine old man and still use most of them today.

I write this to let you know what a special place Charleston is for me. I was thrilled to learn from this week’s article by Patrick Scott that Gavin Turnbull, one of Robert Burns’ friends, had emigrated from Scotland to Charleston. Many historians and Burns scholars had missed this fact for years. I have walked various streets that Burns walked in Scotland but never thought too much about his friend Turnbull who ventured away from the auld country to my neck of the woods. This is new material, as fresh as any you will find. Patrick’s article is a fun and exciting one and well worth reading. This is the latest ground to be broken on a Burns contemporary in, of all places, Charleston, South Carolina. I tip my hat to Patrick Scott! (FRS: 11.28.12)   

Whatever Happened to Gavin Turnbull?
Hunting Down a Friend of Burns in South Carolina
by Patrick Scott

It sometimes seems as if there is nothing new to be discovered about Robert Burns or his contemporaries.  The sheer bulk of over two hundred years of Burnsian scholarship, the long shelves of the Burns Chronicle, the thousands of volumes in the Roy Collection and the Mitchell Library and elsewhere—all warn us that there is much more material already in print than any of us can really get a grip on.  Surely, one feels, everything worth knowing has already been found by someone, if only we knew where it was published.    

But over the past few weeks, I’ve come on “new” information about one of Burns’s Ayrshire friends and near-contemporaries, Gavin Turnbull—new facts about his subsequent life as an actor and new poems included in neither of his published collections.  It wasn’t initially my discovery. The crucial link was made several years ago by David Radcliffe of Virginia Tech, who first identified where Turnbull went after he left Scotland.  However almost none of the information on Turnbull’s later life summarized below seems to be known in the mainstream Burns resources. I haven’t finished the research, but I want to share some of what I have found, and tell where the hunt has taken me so far. 

Turnbull and his earlier life are of course mentioned in many of the sources on Burns’s Ayrshire.  Paterson’s The Contemporaries of Burns (1840) paints a sympathetic portrait of Turnbull’s impoverished youth working for a Kilmarnock carpet-manufacturer and of his commitment to poetry:

“He resided alone in a small garret,” says our informant, “in which there was no furniture. The bed on which he lay was entirely composed of straw, ... with the exception of an old patched covering which he threw over himself at night.  He had no chair to sit upon. A cold stone placed by the fire; and the sole of a small window at one end of the room was all he had for a table, from which to take his food, or on which to write his verses” (Paterson, p. 93).

Despite these handicaps, Turnbull published a quite substantial first volume, Poetical Essays (Glasgow, 1788), followed by a slimmer and even rarer second volume Poems (Dumfries, 1794). As Professor Carruthers has recently commented, much of his poetry is high-flown and rather derivative, but not all, and it deserves fuller consideration. Here’s the impoverished Turnbull in mock-supplication to a local tailor, whom he wants to make him a new suit in exchange for the remnants of the cloth;

A poet, tatter’d and forlorn,
Whase coat and breeks are sadly torn,
Wha lately sue’d for aid divine,
Now, Taylor, maun apply for thine; ...
A ragged Bard, however gabby,
Will ay be counted dull and shabby; ...

And here’s Turnbull writing to Burns’s friend David Sillar, describing his poverty and loneliness (“I sit beside the chimla lug,/ And spin awa my rhyme”), complaining that “Noble Patrons” favour dullards whilst neglecting “chiels of maist ingine and skill,” but then going on to relish life anyway:

Then heed na, Davie, tho’ we be
A race expos’d to misery,
A’ mankind hae their skair;
Yet, wi’ the few whase hearts are fir’d
Wi’ love o’ sang, by Him inspir’d,
What mortals can compare.

Burns mentions Turnbull in three letters, two trying to send Turnbull money for six copies of the 1788 edition that Burns had been selling on Turnbull’s behalf (Letters I: 399, 413-414), and one from Dumfries in 1793 trying to interest George Thomson in three of Turnbull’s songs for his Select Collection (Letters II: 256-258).

Title-page from Gavin Turnbull’s first book
(G. Ross Roy Collection)

But despite his compelling story, the Burnsian sources on Turnbull offer little clue about his subsequent career.  He had moved to Dumfries to work in the new theatre, and married an actress there, but the earliest source, Alexander Campbell’s Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland (1798), gives no information even about Turnbull’s life in Dumfries.  Thomas Crichton, in the Weaver’s Magazine (Paisley, 1819), says simply “I have been informed that like his friend [Alexander] Wilson, he afterwards went to America” (Paterson, Appendix, p. 24). Paterson himself admits that “Of the subsequent history of Turnbull we are almost entirely ignorant” (p. 110), concluding “It is said he afterwards emigrated to America; and there is every probability that he died there” (p. 112). Maurice Lindsay similarly throws up his hands: “Turnbull married an actress, and with her emigrated to America, where all trace of them has been lost” (p. 364). None of the Burnsian sources risks supplying dates for Turnbull’s birth or death.

What got me past this logjam was Professor Radcliffe’s research into Turnbull’s usually-neglected non-Scots poems, which show the influence of the English Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser.  Turnbull wasn’t the only Scottish poet to be so influenced—others include James Thomson in his Castle of Indolence (1748) and James Beattie in The Minstrel (1771-1774).  Radcliffe’s remarkable web-site, Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830, reproduces several of Turnbull’s Spenserian poems, and notes that they were reprinted in various American newspapers, including ones published in Charleston, South Carolina.  In annotating the poems, and in his entry about Turnbull for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (as updated on the web, though available there only by subscription), Prof. Radcliffe provides, I think for the first time, such basic information as Turnbull’s dates (ca. 1765-1816), based on an obituary referenced to a Massachusetts newspaper. Turnbull emigrated to the States, he notes, “certainly before 1798,” and “by 1799 he had settled in Charleston” (ODNB). 

I started by looking out the books on Charleston theatre history, which confirmed Turnbull’s acting career there, and then went across campus to the South Caroliniana Library, where Frtiz Hamer, head of published materials, put me on to an index of immigrants who took U.S. citizenship (Hemperley, p. 225). The original federal documentation was destroyed many years ago, but at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, out on I-77, with the help of one of the archivists Steven Tuttle and an old friend Dr. Charles Lesser, I was able to get fuller information from a nineteenth-century summary on microfilm (cf. also Holcomb, p. 34).  Gavin Turnbull was admitted to citizenship in Charleston, SC, on October 23, 1813.  His age is given as 48, making his birth date 1765, and so confirming the birthdate given by Prof Radcliffe, but his place of birth is given as “Berwickshire, NB” (i.e. North Britain), not as previously suggested in Hawick (which is in Roxburghshire). At that time, in 1813, he was resident in Charleston, and listed his occupation as “teacher.”

Back at the South Caroliniana library, Mr. Hamer put me on to the early Charleston street directories, which located Turnbull as living in 1806 and 1809 at 21 Mazyck Street and in 1813 at 96 Tradd Street (though since the early nineteenth-century house numbering on Charleston streets has often changed).  The following week, I was driving down to Charleston on other business and was able to go by the City Archives in the new Charleston County Public Library. There, the city archivist Dr. Nicholas Butler and his colleagues steered me through further sources on the Charleston theatre, including the information on theatre buildings in Dr. Butler’s book about Charleston music, Votaries of Apollo (2007).  I looked at some of the Charleston newspapers there, and then at more when I got back to Columbia, following up with further books on American theatre history, and the bits of the jigsaw began to fall into place. Far from Turnbull being lost without trace, we can often trace what he was doing, and where, night by night, because he was an actor and newspaper advertisements tell us what role he was playing in each performance.  

Turnbull and his wife seem to have arrived in Charleston in November 1795. They became part of John J.L. Sollee’s repertory company at the City or Church-Street Theatre, opened in 1792 as a rival to the Charleston Theatre on Broad Street.  Sollee, a French immigrant, brought the core of his company down from Boston, arriving on November 6; a list of the actors in the City Gazette that day includes “Mr. and Mrs. Turnbull, just arrived from England” (Willis 292). The Turnbulls worked through a grueling season with seventy-nine performances running from November 1795 through to early May 1796, with two plays and often extra musical interludes on each program.  Along with many now-forgotten plays, Turnbull appeared in The School for Scandal, The Beaux Stratagem, She Stoops to Conquer, Catherine and Petruchio (Taming of the Shrew), Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth (Willis 312-316). In addition to Scottish character parts in the farces that concluded each evening’s performance, he also appeared as Fingal in Oscar and Malvina, a loose adaptation from James Macpherson’s Ossian; as Glenalvon in Home’s Douglas; and as Bauldy in the first production on the Charleston stage of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd.  Moreover, for the first of his two benefit nights, he staged and took the lead role in the first American performance of his own short play, The Recruit: A Musical Interlude, written and performed for the Dumfries Theatre in January 1794 and printed that year in his Poems.

Advertisement for the first Charleston production of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd
(Charleston Herald, April 29, 1796)

But there had been contractual disputes in the Sollee company, and by mid-May, as soon as Sollee’s season ended, Turnbull began appearing at the other Charleston theatre, on Broad Street, headed by the English actor-manager Thomas West. Turnbull’s move may have had political overtones, because the City Theatre was initially associated with Republicans, while West and the Charleston Theatre had Federalist connections (Rogers 110-112); in later years, when Charleston had only one theatre company, the political distinction disappeared.  In the fall of 1796, when West went north to Virginia, he took the Turnbulls with him.  They probably began in Norfolk in mid-October, had at least one performance in Petersburg on October 25, and opened in Richmond on November 24 (Shockley 119-134; p. 122).  The Turnbulls reprised many of their roles from Charleston, three nights a week. Turnbull again starred as Fingal. After Richmond, it was back to Petersburg, from mid-January to early March, 1797 (Wyatt, “Three Petersburg theatres,” 90-91). 

Meanwhile the rival company, which alternated between Boston and Charleston, had been recruiting other British theatrical star-couples, notably Mr. and Mrs. Williamson (nee Fontenelle) for 1797-98. The Turnbulls had known both Williamsons in Dumfries in 1792-1795, where Mrs. Williamson as Louisa Fontenelle had performed to the plaudits of Burns himself.  It seems to have escaped comment in recent Burnsian scholarship that Gavin Turnbull had been among the actors arrested with Williamson in Kendal that last winter, hauled before the Earl of Lonsdale on charges of vagrancy, and sent to the house of correction in Penrith (Henley-Henderson II: 354: more about this below).  At Mrs. Williamson’s benefit night in Charleston on March 6 1798, she proudly delivered the prologue “written at her particular request, by the late Mr. Robert Burns of Scotland, the Ayrshire Bard, from his manuscript and not yet  printed in his works” (Willis 395; cf. Poems, ed. Kinsley, II: 721-722). 

The Charleston Theatre, Broad Street, 1793

In 1798, control of Sollee’s company passed to a partnership involving the Williamsons and the French acrobat Alexander Placide. Louisa Fontenelle Williamson died in 1799, and Williamson himself in 1802. It may be significant that the Turnbulls rejoined the company only after Louisa’s death, but while her husband was still living.  Both Turnbulls are listed as acting with the Williamson-Placide company in Charleston continuously from the 1799-1800 season through to the 1806-1807 season (Hoole, pp. 65 ff.; cf. detailed cast-lists in Sodders). In addition, in 1800-1806, the Turnbulls went with the same company for shorter seasons in Savannah, Georgia, then a city half Charleston’s size (Patrick esp. pp. 41-47). They were useful repertory actors, but hardly stars.  By 1807, in Hamlet, instead of playing Hamlet’s friend Horatio, Turnbull had the less demanding role of the Player King. By then he was forty-two, and ready to retire from the theatre.  On May 30, 1807, presumably for his final benefit before retiring, he reprised the lead in his old play The Recruit (Hoole p. 73). Mrs. Turnbull is listed in the company without her husband in 1807-1808 and again in 1809-1810. Gavin Turnbull returned without his wife to a much-scaled-back company for one last season in 1812-1813, after Alexander Placide’s death (Hoole, p. 79). There was no theatre company in Charleston in 1813-1815, because of the war with Britain, and Turnbull died early in 1816.

What had Turnbull been doing since the summer of 1807?  The occupation of “teacher” in the 1813 naturalization record is confirmed by the city directories, which listed him in 1807 as “comedian,” but as school master in 1809 and 1813.  In 1808 and 1809, as Professor Radcliffe notes, he also published  poems in the prestigious Philadelphia magazine The Port Folio, “Ode to Suspicion” in 1807, and ‘”Elegy on my Auld Fiddle” in 1808, as well as in Virginia and New York newspapers. Naturalization required that Turnbull have been resident in Charleston for the three years before 1813, so even if he traveled elsewhere, Charleston remained his home base.

In adopting a theatrical career, Turnbull had certainly not abandoned his ambitions as a poet. During his first spring in Charleston, poems by “Mr. G. Turnbull, of the Church-Street Theatre,” appeared regularly in two local newspapers, the City Gazette and the Columbian Herald. Professor Radcliffe mounted some Turnbull poems on his Spenser website, noting that the newspaper appearances were often reprints from Turnbull’s 1788 book or his briefer 1794 pamphlet.  So far, I’ve found over fifty separate poems with Turnbull’s name or initials in the Charleston papers from 1796 alone, most but not all of them reprints, and the same papers have a few unsigned or pseudonymous pieces that it is tempting to think might also be Turnbull’s.

Gavin Turnbull’s elegy on Robert Fergusson
(Charleston Herald, March 21, 1796)

Prominent among Turnbull’s newspaper contributions were poems on Scottish topics, though I haven’t yet come on any American reprinting of his poem dedicated to Burns. His moving tribute to Robert Fergusson (Columbian Herald, March 21, 1796) is formal and neoclassical, but his more playful tribute to Allan Ramsay, a prologue to Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd (Columbian Herald, March 11, 1796), has Ramsay speaking in his own voice, as his departed spirit describes taking his place among the Immortals:

When Death, that camsheugh carl, had fell’d me,

And first Elysian souls beheld me,

My auld blue bonnet on my head,

And hamely Caledonian weed,

They cry’d, “preserve’s! what’s yon droll body,

That gangs just like a niddy noddy?

‘Tis but some poor auld Scottish herd”.

“Na fash!” quo’ Hermes, “he’s a Bard,

Sic as the deel a’ mae ye’ll find,

And ane of the Dramatic kind” ...

And a’ that had a spunk o’ grace

Gied me kind welcome to the place.

Both those poems were reprints, and the Ramsay monologue had been written first for the Dumfries theatre. Turnbull seems to have functioned as the in-house theatre poet both there and in Charleston. One piece not apparently previously in print was his orotund “Prologue ... to The Heroine, A Comedy by William Reid Blacksmith” (Columbian Herald, March 26, 1796) which is headed “Written and spoken by Mr. Turnbull, at the Theatre, Dumfries.”  I can’t find anything else about Reid, or his play, but one might conjecture some link to Turnbull’s earlier and quite different “Epistle to a Blacksmith” in colloquial Scots (Poetical Essays, 188-190), which I had previously thought might refer to the blacksmith-poet John Gerrond. In addition to reprinting the five songs from his own play The Recruit (Columbian Herald, February 19, 1796), he published a “Monody: Malvina to Oscar” (Columbia Herald, March 22, 1796), clearly relating to the music-drama in which he had appeared both in Dumfries and Charleston. Among new work for the stage, Turnbull now published a group of seven songs he had written for the nautical drama Just in Time (Columbian Herald, April 20, 1796).   Also new was his “Epilogue” (Columbian Herald, April 20, 1796), beginning “All the world’s a stage,” written as the finale for his benefit performance (March 12, 1796).  Perhaps most revealing among his new writing for the stage at this time was his “Ode to Columbus” (City Gazette, supplement, March 5, 1796), probably a new prologue for the patriotic theatrical extravaganza repeated year after year by the Charleston theatre companies:

... Freedom, guardian of the land,

In her right hand the hero brings

By heaven appointed to command

And curb the insolence of kings.

Reinforcing his chosen role as Charleston’s local bard was his 59-line poem “On the Late Fire” (Columbian Herald, May 18), published a mere two days after a fire swept through part of the city, and possibly intended for declamation at the theatrical benefit soon staged for the disaster relief fund. 

Some of Turnbull’s poems show the characteristic nostalgia of the emigrant for his homeland.  He reprinted, for example, both his neoclassical “Ode to the Tweed” (Columbian Herald, April 19, 1796), and his depiction of Ayrshire farm life “The Cottage” (Columbian Herald, March 18, 1796), rather in the tradition of Fergusson’s “The Farmer’s Ingle” or Burns’s “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” However, as Radcliffe notes, between its first printing in 1788 and the Dumfries reprint of 1794, Turnbull had added to “The Cottage” a fifth stanza, retained for Charleston publication, drawing a political message from the picture of rural contentment in the original four stanzas, and advising the spendthrift rich:

But cou’d your haughty minds once condescend

  To leave a while the formulas of state,

Ye’d see sweet peace and happiness attend

  The humble cot, and at an easy rate,

More real joy and bliss ...

One of his new poems in Scots, “A Legacy” (Columbian Herald, March 24, 1796), the deathbed monologue of a Scots schoolmaster with very little to bequeath, reinforces the theme that happiness does not depend on wealth:

Now, Jook, if I should chance to die,

And leave my hale estate to thee,

‘Tis fit that ye should hae a guess

Of what ye shortly may possess;

Lest some ane sue ye fur a share,

You, I appoint the lawfu’ heir

Of a’ my siller, goods, and gear ...

.. what will much delight a scholar

Ye’ll get an inkcase and a roller,

A pencase of a spleuchan made,

A broken knife that wants the blade,

A pair of specks that want the een,

Yet better specks were never seen ...

A psalm book and a bagpipe’s drone,

A mouse trap and a lexicon....

Another new poem, published that first summer in Charleston, counsels a recent immigrant friend to be realistic in his expectations. Entitled “Ode to a Friend Dissatisfied with his Situation” (Columbian Herald, May 23, 1796), the poem describes the vanity of always expecting to find happiness elsewhere:

In vain from place to place we roam,

In vain we quit our native home,

In vain explore tempestuous seas,

To purchase happiness and ease.

And hope to find serener skies

Where, undisturbed, contentment lies.


Bright reason wisely whispers “Care,

Weak man, will haunt thee ev’rywhere:”

Content alone can boast the charm

That can the busy fiend disarm,

And care will ever fly the cell

Where innocence and Virtue dwell.

Perhaps surprisingly, Turnbull never (as far as we know) managed to publish a new collection of his poetry in America.  He certainly made several efforts to do so.  The first was when he was in Virginia, in Petersburg, early in 1797.  The proposal in the Virginia Gazette on January 31 invited subscriptions at one dollar for Poems, Pastoral, Descriptive, and Elegiac; with Seven Poems in the Scottish Dialect, which sounds very like a straight reprint of his 1788 collection, and follow-up announcements on March 10 and June 5 promised the book was ready to go to press (Wyatt, in Preliminary Checklist, p. 16).  Radcliffe notes a second subscription announcement in 1800, in the South Carolina State-Gazette, published in Charleston.  Then, after Turnbull’s death in 1816, a third proposal was made in Charleston, to publish a collected edition of his poems, “with an additional Canto to his Bard, and other original Poems, not hitherto published; also his Lectures, Moral, Classical, and Satirical,” both as “a just tribute to departed genius,” and “to add to the comfort of an aged Widow” (Charleston Courier, June 3, 1816).  This was to be substantial book of 300 pages, costing two dollars, but like the two previous editions proposed in America, there is no record of it ever reaching publication.  Turnbull’s last years as a schoolmaster had not brought success or security, for the 1816 advertisement urges potential subscribers to consider “the melancholy fate of genius crushed by indigence” and the “sad condition that attends the widowed partner of his hapless destiny.”

Despite the abundant information on Turnbull’s life in Charleston, there are still some blank spaces.  Like Burns, he had had masonic connections in Ayrshire, and Charleston, a longtime centre of American freemasonry, was the birthplace in 1801 of the Scottish Rite (33rd Degree), yet I have not found Turnbull in the published sources on Charleston masonry.  Neither does Turnbull feature in the histories of the St. Andrew’s Society of Charleston, founded in 1729, not even as a deserving candidate when they wanted a schoolmaster in 1809, nor to declaim Scottish poems on the opening of their hall in 1815, an honour that went to another recent Scottish immigrant, the elocutionist James Ogilvie.  And despite stray references in the later poetry, Turnbull’s political views in the mid-1790s remain unclear, though they surely played some role in his decision to emigrate, just as the hostile political environment had done in his friend and fellow-poet Alexander Wilson’s decision to go to Pennsylvania.  Robert Crawford depicts Turnbull’s politics as relatively conformist in contrast to Burns’s (Crawford, p. 376, 385) pointing particularly to his satirical poem “The Clubs,” first published in Dumfries and reprinted in Charleston (Columbia Herald, March 15), which includes a specific disavowal of seditious groups.  However, the extra stanza Turnbull added to “The Cottage” for 1794, his arrest in Cumberland before he emigrated, the political connections of the City Theatre in Charleston, some of the unsigned poems on British politics in the Columbian Herald in 1795-1796, and his continuing links with Alexander Wilson, all suggest there is more to find out.   

There is, however, one tantalizing hint in Turnbull’s story that may lead back more directly to Dumfries and Burns—the incident just mentioned, in 1795, when the Dumfries actors, Turnbull among them, were arrested by the Earl of Lonsdale.  One result was the poetic account “Fragment—Epistle from Esopus to Maria,” usually attributed to Burns (Kinsley II: 769-771). It is variously titled in different editions, and in one transcript by John Syme is headed “Fragment—Part Description of a Correction House.”

From these drear solitudes and frowzy cells,

Where Infamy with sad repentance dwells;

Where Turnkeys make the jealous portal fast,

Then deal from iron hands the spare repast; (lines 1-4)

Written in the voice of J. B. Williamson (“Esopus”), it includes references to several plays that would later feature in the repertoire in Charleston, including Oscar and Malvina. The poem has special interest because it includes a third-person description of Burns himself during the Dumfries years,  portraying him as a marginalized radical, at risk of arrest for sedition, confinement in the hulks (prison ships) in London, and then transportation to Australia like the Scottish radical Thomas Muir of Huntershill:

The shrinking bard adown an alley sculks,

And dreads a meeting worse than Woolwich hulks—

Tho’ there his heresies in Church and state

Might well award him Muir and Palmer’s fate (lines 39-42).

While the majority of scholars accept Burns’s authorship, the evidence for it is all late or inferential.  There is no manuscript in Burns’s hand, and the poem was first published by Allan Cunningham in 1834; Cunningham’s transcript is in the British Library, and Syme’s transcript was first published by J. C. Ewing in 1935.  The attribution itself comes from the transcripts, not from letters or other contemporary reference. A detailed case against Burns’s authorship was mounted in 1930 by J. DeLancey Ferguson, but Kinsley in 1968 retained the poem as authentic, rejecting Ferguson’s argument in part because “evidence is wanting that there was anyone other than Burns in Dumfries society who was capable of writing” the better passages in the poem (Kinsley III: 1471).  Turnbull’s poetry varied greatly in quality, and at its best never rivals Burns at his best, but Turnbull was documentably present, as Burns was not, at the events that the first part of the poem commemorates.  Much about the poem remains problematical, not least the bitterness with which Burns himself is depicted in lines 49-56, and I intend to explore the issues more fully in future, but for those who already doubt Burns’s authorship, Turnbull is perhaps an alternative worth consideration.   

This is necessarily an interim report.  Each day, I have been coming on further references that need following up. Everything isn’t available on Google, and not everything can be borrowed through Inter-Library Loan (though my colleagues give it their best effort).  What we can be sure of is that, though he left Scotland in 1795, and in due course took American citizenship, Turnbull never gave up either his cultural identity as a Scot or his ambition as a poet. 


Several of the people who helped me in this research are acknowledged in the text above. In addition, I want to thank Kenneth Simpson, Gerald Carruthers, Corey Andrews, and Frank Shaw for their interest and feedback on the project, and David Radcliffe for his generous encouragement when I first emailed him that I was following up his earlier Turnbull discoveries.


Butler, Nicholas, Votaries of Apollo: the St. Cecilia Society and the Patronage of Concert Music in Charleston, South Carolina, 1766-1820 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007).

Carruthers, Gerard, “Robert Burns’s Scots Poetry Contemporaries,” in Burns and Other Poets, ed. David Sergeant and Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012): 38-52.

Crawford, Robert, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography ((Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). 

[Crichton, Thomas], in his “Biographical Sketches of Alexander Wilson,” in The Weaver [Paisley], 2 (1819); extract reprinted in Paterson, Appendix, pp. 23-24. 

Ewing, J. C., “Burns’s ‘Esopus to Maria’,” Burns Chronicle, 2nd. Series, 10 (1935): 32-38.

Ferguson, J. DeLancey, “Robert Burns and Maria Riddell,” Modern Philology, 28:2 (1930): 169-184.

Hagy, James W., City Directories for Charleston, South Carolina for the Years 1803, 1806, 1807, 1809, and 1813 (Baltimore; Clearful Company, 1995).

Hemperley, Marion R., “Federal Naturalization Oaths, Charleston, South Carolina, 1790-1860, part 3” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 66 (1965), 219-228 (p. 225).

Holcomb, Brent H., South Carolina Naturalizations 1783-1850 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1985).

Hoole, W. Stanley, The Ante-Bellum Charleston Theatre (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1946).

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Lindsay, Maurice, The Burns Encyclopedia, 3rd ed. (London: Robert Hale, 1980).

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Patrick, J. Max, Savannah’s Pioneer Theatre from its Origins to 1810 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1953).

Radcliffe, David Hill, “Gavin Turnbull, 1770 ca.-1816,” in Spenser and the Tradition; English Poetry 1579-1830, at

_________________, ‘Turnbull, Gavin (c. 1765-1816),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 55: 587;  updated version on the web by subscription at:

Rogers, George C., Jr., Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969; repr. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1980)

Roy, G. Ross, ed., Letters of Robert Burns, 2nd ed., 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

Seilhamer, George O., History of the American Theatre: New Foundations, 1792-1797 (Philadelphia: Globe Printing House, 1891).

Shockley, Martin, The Richmond Stage, 1754-1812 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977).

Sodders, Richard P., The Theatre Management of Alexandre Placide in Charleston, 1794-1812, 2 vols., unpub. Ph.D. diss. (Louisiana State University, 1983).

Turnbull, Gavin, Poetical Essays (Glasgow: David Niven, 1788; repr. ECCO Print Editions, n.d. [2012]).

_____________, Poems (Dumfries: for the Author, 1794; repr. ECCO Print Editions, n.d. [2012]).

Willis, Eola, The Charleston Stage in the XVIII Century with Social Settings of the Time (Columbia, SC: the State Company, 1924; repr. New York: Blum, 1968).

Wyatt, Edward A., IV, “Three Petersburg Theatres,” William & Mary Quarterly, 2nd series, 21:2 (April 1941): 83-110.

_________________, ed., Preliminary Checklist for Petersburg, 1786-1876: Virginia Imprint Series, no. 9, series eds. John Cook Wyllie and Randolph W. Church (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1949).

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