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Burns, Robert


Robert Burns, 'ploughman poet' lauded by Edinburgh's social elite, also contributed to the Scottish musical tradition as an assiduous collector of traditional airs.

Born in 1759 into a farming family to which he contributed his share of hard labour, Robert Burns became the tenant farmer at Mossgeil, Ayrshire following his father's death in 1784. Burns had received some formal teaching, had read Shakespeare, Dryden and Milton, whilst also picking up basic French and Latin. His literary upbringing included an oral culture of folk songs and stories including tales of Wallace. This did not prevent him later playing up the idea of an uneducated 'ploughman poet' to his adoring Edinburgh audience.

His compilation of poems began in 1783 and by 1785 included The Cottars' Saturday Night, Holy Willie's Prayer and To a Mouse. In 1786, he published the Kilmarnock edition of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect which was popular locally before its success spread to Edinburgh. Burns's intention had been to raise money from his poems to emigrate to Jamaica, but the reaction to his work, especially in the Capital persuaded him to change his plans.

He left Ayrshire to spend the winters of 1786/7 and 1787/8 in Edinburgh receiving the acclaim of his admirers. While making the most of the Edinburgh social life, he also embarked upon several tours around Scotland absorbing the local cultures of folklore and song. He resettled into farm life at Ellisland, Dumfriesshire with Jean Armour, whom he married in 1788; but three years later in 1791 (the year Tam o' Shanter was written) he obtained work as an Excise officer at Dumfries, where he spent the last five years of his life.

In Edinburgh, Burns had met collectors of traditional Scottish music and song, an interest that filled his spare time, especially in his later years. He contributed to and edited James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum (1787 -1803), which along with George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793 - 1818), on which Burns also worked, contain most of Burns's own songs.

Unfortunately, his testament reveals little about Robert Burns, the man. He had not made a will before he died so we do not know how he wished his possessions to be disposed of after his death. His widow, Jean, was presumably able to sort out most of his affairs without recourse to the commissary court. It was only her recovery of the two outstanding debts owing to her husband for which she required legal authority. The sole purpose of this testament was to confirm Jean as her late husband's executor, thereby enabling her to recover the debts, one of which was due from George Thomson.

Of rather more interest than Robert Burns' testament is the 'State of Gilbert Burns's Acceptance to Mr Burns' Estate' [Ref: National Archives of Scotland - CS97/Box 101/15]. Gilbert was Robert's brother. The account covers the period from December 1793 to May 1798, and includes several interesting entries. These include an annuity payable to Robert and Gilbert's mother, accounts for a year's bed, board and washing for Elizabeth Burns, Robert's natural daughter, cash given to Mrs Burns while in Mauchline towards the expenses of her daughter's funeral, and some of the expenses of Robert's own funeral.

James Mackay, A Biography of Robert burns, (1992)
David Daiches, Robert Burns; The Poet, (1994)
Thomas Crawford, Burns: A Study of the Poems and Songs, (1994)
Gavin Sprott, Robert Burns: Pride and Passion, (1996)

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