To find a letter listing the names and ages of family members over two centuries ago would be a great discovery in anyone's ancestral research. Just such a newly-identified document naming the children of Robert Burn and written just weeks after his death in July 1796, is featured in a free exhibition in National Records of Scotland.
Burns’ boss, John Mitchell, head of the Excise Collection at Dumfries was reporting on efforts to help the poet’s widow Jean Armour and her five sons. Of course their names are already known, but the letter underlines their sad circumstances in 1796. The youngest son Maxwell is aged ‘5 weeks’, having been born the day of his father’s funeral. He died in 1799, and his elder brother Frances in 1803. The other sons survived and went into public service like their father.
Provision for the poet’s children is one of the themes explored in the exhibition through court records from NRS that show how the family was supported in the early years, and how in 1786 Burns arranged to provide for his illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Paton.
Mitchell’s letter of 1796 contains a touching and remarkable snapshot of Burns’ character, and confirms that he retained his radical political views despite having nearly been dismissed in 1792-3. An earlier letter of 1789 has also been identified and is on display; it reveals how the poet became an Excise officer, his idealistic view of public service and a typical flash of humour.
These remarkable documents are being shown for the first time, showing different facets of Burns the father and the radical public servant. Learn about other documents concerning Robert Burns in our Hall of Fame and guides to help you find other exciting records in National Records of Scotland.
Robert Burns: Radical Exciseman
25 January – 23 February 2018
Monday to Friday, 09.30-4.30pm
National Records of Scotland, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY
Detail from a letter by John Mitchell concerning the estate of Robert Burns and listing Burns' children's names and ages.
National Records of Scotland, GD151/11/26/47A