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Robert Burns Lives!
'Law and Order' in 18th C. Edinburgh, The Case of Miss Burns V the Baillie

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

As I write this, I am on busy and noisy Earl’s Court Road in London with the windows throughout the apartment pushed open to combat what London calls a “heat wave” that no where rivals the high 90s we left in Georgia over a week ago! But, one can be thankful that our bedroom here is located on the back of the building and a good night’s sleep can be found! Susan and I are still on our “trip of a lifetime” with our grandchildren, Ian and Stirling, and their parents, son Scott and daughter-in-law Denise. I will give you more details of our trip in the days ahead, but our attention is presently turned once again to the writings of the late Dr. Robert Carnie.  Our thanks to his son Andrew for sharing several of his father’s speeches with our readers, and it should be noted they are presented as written without editorial by me. This particular speech is amusing and includes a brief description by Robert Burns. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. (FRS: 6.30.09)   

'Law and Order' in 18th C. Edinburgh
The Case of Miss Burns V the Baillie

With a poetical commentary by Robert Burns

We all know who Robert Burns was but the lady who called herself Miss Burns, although her real name was Matthews, was equally celebrated in her own time. She was a well known high class Edinburgh prostitute, who died in 1792, four years before her namesake the poet. The Baillie in the case was William Creech, the publisher of the 1787 Edinburgh edition of Burns's Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect and a prominent citizen of Edinburgh, of whom more hereafter. The Scots Magazine for December, 1798 published an account of this case (which I read for the first time in the University Library this morning) that adds some interesting particulars to the case, and suggests, then as now, legal cleverness can subvert justice. Miss Burns's house was in Rose Street, New Town, Edinburgh. On 6th August, the city officers left a citation at this address requiring Miss Burns to appear before the Baillies in the Council Chamber The citation alleged that Margaret Burns and a lady called Sally Sanderson, kept a 'very irregular and disorderly house' in Rose Street, Edinburgh', which caused great annoyance to their respectable neighbours. These outraged citizens alleged that there were great riots and disturbances in the house by licentious and profligate persons of both sexes, that there was fighting and cursing, (and worst of all) singing on Sundays. Miss Burns denied the complaint and asserted that she had not been in the house, despite the fact that the procurator-fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of a district attorney) produced witnesses. But Miss Burns also had a trump card - a solicitor who alleged that the witnesses had been improperly questioned. Nevertheless the Baillies, of whom the Senior or 'Old' Baillie was William Creech found the two women guilty and sentenced them to be banished 'forth of the city and liberties forever'. If they returned to the city they would have been subject to six months imprisonment in the House of Corrections for women. Miss Burns, already well known for her very fancy outfits, and her ladylike manners,  with the help of her influential friends (I hesitate to use the word 'customers') now presented a bill of suspension on October 1 to the Lord Ordinary, Lord Dreghorn, who insisted that the Procurator-Fiscal provide written answers to Miss Burns's petition. The legal juggernaut was now moving and when the next Lord Ordinary (Lord Ankerville) surveyed the evidence from both sides he refused Miss Burns's bill of suspension. Miss Burns's legal friends now thought she could still win her case by appealing to the Court of Session as a whole fifteen judges). That court required new submissions from Miss Burns and the P.F. The judges were very impressed with Miss Burns's solicitor's new petition which alleged that it was still not proved that Miss Burns kept a disorderly house 'at the time libelled', and that there were two opposing sets of witnesses: the neighbours who swore that she did, and her high society friends described as 'persons respectable in point of rank, or situation or character who were equally ready to swear that her house was not a disorderly house, at least when they had been in it. Miss Burns's lawyer also claimed for the second time that the baillies had used illegal procedures, and incredibly they persuaded one of the original complainers to assert that he had only signed the complaint because his neighbours had asked him to do so, and that he was sorry! The Lords of Session pronounced on 22 December, 1789 in favour of Miss Burns and suspended the sentence of banishment, and, for a relatively short period, Margaret Burns, who everybody in Edinburgh knew to be a high-class prostitute, returned to the oldest profession. When writing from Ellisland to his friend Peter Hill, Creech's clerk, early in 1790, Burns said:

'how is the fate of my poor namesake, Mademoiselle Burns decided? Which of their grave lordships can lay his hand on his heart and say that he has not taken the advantage of such frailty; nay, if we may judge by near six thousand years of experience can the world do without such frailty?' He goes on to suggest that it was men's appetites, and 'flinty-bosomed Puritanic prosecutors', not female frailty that produced the Mis Burnses of this world. Apparently Miss Burns's health deteriorated rapidly and she dies outside Edinburgh at Rosslyn shortly afterwards. Miss Burns's notoriety was now so great that the poet's contemporary, the artist and caricaturist John Kay, introduced her into a couple of his very popular drawings which were sold as individual prints and were later made into a two-volume collection sold in the 19th century under the title Kay's Original Portraits. Many of the subjects of these satirical drawings knew Burns personally, and many of them are mentioned in his letters. In fact, if you want a satirical look at what the Edinburgh of Burns's time was really like, there is no better place to go than Kay's Original Portraits. In two of these plates Margaret Burns is portrayed. In the first of these (No. 192), drawn in 1785, she is portrayed in a group consisting of three men, all well known Edinburgh citizens, an army officer, Major Andrew Erskine; the Honorable Andrew Erskine who fancied himself as a poet, and the third was Sir John Whitefoord, the impoverished owner of the estate of Ballochmyle, and one of Burns's earliest patrons. The two women in the print are Miss Margaret Burns and one Meg Murray who kept a lodging house in Shakespeare Sq. What these three male worthies thought about being associated in this way with two of Edinburgh's most infamous females is not recorded. The second undated print is of Miss Burns on her own in all her glorious finery, and this is the print to which Burns appended, (presumably on his own copy) the words:

     Cease ye prudes, your envious railing!
     Lovely Burns has charms - confess!
     True it is she had one failing:
     Had ae woman ever less?  

After Margaret Burns died, Robert Burns wrote an epitaph on her: (quote two stanzas)

     Fair Burns for long the talk and toast
           Of many a gaudy Beau
     That Beauty has forever lost
           That made each bosom glow.

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

Where does William Creech, Robert Burns's Edinburgh publisher, fit into all this? Creech (1745-1815) was the son of a minister at Newbattle. He studied at Edinburgh University with a view to becoming a doctor, but gave this up and joined the publishing firm of Kincaid & Bell. In 1771 he became the partner of Kincaid. When Kincaid retired in 1773, Creech was the sole proprietor of the most prominent bookselling and publishing firm in Edinburgh. He ran the business until his death in 1815. He was a minor prose writer & a dreadful poet, but a very good business man, very mindful of his public image. As Baillie Creech he became a magistrate in 1788, and from the magistrate's seat he was one of the baillies who passed judgement on Miss Burns in 1789. He was well known as a model citizen, giving to charities, giving voluntary service and so on. But as Ross Roy puts it: 'Though his honesty was unquestioned, he found parting with money so painful an operation that he postponed it as long as possible' In other words he was both parsimonious and dilatory in financial matters, and although he and Burns had originally been friendly, Burns's correspondence reveals his increasing anger at how Creech handled the poet's account. Burns wrote a fair but unfavourable account of Creech in his Edinburgh Commonplace Book:

'My worthy bookseller is a strange multiform character. His ruling passions of the left hand are an extreme vanity and something of the more harmless modifications of selfishness.'

There is plenty of evidence that both in the conduct of his business and in his public career as a baillie and later as Lord Provost, Creech practised frugality to an excessive degree'. Burns's only poem on Creech 'Wille's awa' was written before the quarrel over money, and is jocular in tone, (quote three stanzas from CW) but strongly satirises Creech's intellectual vanity and his attitude of self- importance. Creech was respected but not liked in the community of Edinburgh, and it is no surprise that there was a comic aftermath to the case involving him and Miss Burns. The story is told in a footnote to the account of Miss Burns in the 1877 edition of Kay's Original Portraits II, 400) Creech was a life-long bachelor and he was furious to discover that a London newspaper had announced that "Baillie Creech, of literary celebrity in Edinburgh, was about to lead the beautiful and accomplished Miss Burns to the hymeneal altar.' A very angry Creech wrote to the newspaper demanding a retraction. The apology was even worse than the original slander, for it did not say that there had been no such marriage planned, but that Creech and Miss Burns had decided not to get married, 'matters having been otherwise arranged to the mutual satisfaction of both parties and their respective friends' heavily implying that the pair were involved in an illicit affair. Robert Burns surely enjoyed this malicious joke.

RHC, April, 1988. 

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