Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Gewd Auld" Robbie


(Taken from the Wikipedia article on Robbie Burns)

Love affairs

His casual love affairs did not endear him to the elders of the local kirk and created for him a reputation for dissoluteness amongst his neighbours. His first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785–1817), was born to his mother's servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760-circa 1799), while he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who became pregnant with twins in March 1786. Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father "was in the greatest distress, and fainted away." To avoid disgrace, her parents sent her to live with her uncle in Paisley. Although Armour's father initially forbade it, they were eventually married in 1788. Armour bore him nine children, but only three survived infancy.

Burns was in financial difficulties due to his want of success in farming, and to make enough money to support a family he took up a friend's offer of work in Jamaica, at a salary of £30 per annum. The position that Burns accepted was as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. This seems inconsistent with Burns' egalitarian views as typified by his writing of The Slave's Lament six years later, but in 1786 there was little public awareness of the abolitionism movement which began about that time.

At about the same time, Burns had fallen in love with Mary Campbell (1763–1786), whom he had seen in the church while he was still living in Tarbolton. She was born near Dunoon and had lived in Campbeltown before moving to work in Ayrshire. He dedicated the poems The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven to her. His song "Will ye go to the Indies. my Mary, And leave auld Scotia's shore?" suggests that they planned to emigrate to Jamaica together. Their relationship has been the subject of much conjecture, and it has been suggested that on 14 May 1786 they exchanged Bibles and plighted their troth over the Water of Fail in a traditional form of marriage. Soon afterwards Mary Campbell left her work in Ayrshire, went to the seaport of Greenock, and sailed home to her parents in Campbeltown.

Kilmarnock Edition

As Burns lacked the funds to pay for his passage to the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton suggested that he should "publish his poems in the mean time by subscription, as a likely way of getting a little money to provide him more liberally in necessaries for Jamaica". On 3 April Burns sent proposals for publishing his "Scotch Poems" to John Wilson, a local printer in Kilmarnock, who published these proposals on 14 April 1786, on the same day that Jean Armour's father tore up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to Jean. To obtain a certificate that he was a free bachelor, Burns agreed on 25 June to stand for rebuke in Mauchline kirk for three Sundays. He transferred his share in Mossgiel farm to his brother Gilbert on 22 July, and on 30 July wrote to tell his friend John Richmond that "Armour has got a warrant to throw me in jail until I can find a warrant for an enormous sum ... I am wandering from one friend's house to another".

On 31 July 1786 John Wilson published the volume of works by Robert Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Known as the Kilmarnock volume, it sold for 3 shillings and contained much of his best writing, including The Twa Dogs; Address to the Deil; Halloween; The Cotter's Saturday Night; To a Mouse; Epitaph for James Smith and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate, and soon he was known across the country.

Burns postponed his proposed emigration to Jamaica on 1 September, and was at Mossgiel two days later when he learnt that Jean Armour had given birth to twins. On 4 September Thomas Blacklock wrote a letter expressing admiration for the poetry in the Kilmarnock volume, and suggesting an enlarged second edition. A copy of it was passed to Burns, who later recalled, "I had taken the last farewell of my few friends, my chest was on the road to Greenock; I had composed the last song I should ever measure in Scotland–'The Gloomy night is gathering fast'–when a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The Doctor belonged to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope. His opinion that I would meet with encouragement in Edinburgh for a second edition, fired me so much, that away I posted for that city, without a single acquaintance, or a single letter of introduction."

In October, Mary Campbell (Highland Mary) and her father sailed from Campbeltown to visit her brother in Greenock. Her brother fell ill with typhus, which she also caught while nursing him. She died of typhus on 20 or 21 October 1786, and was buried there.

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