The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart




" My father was a farmer upon the Carrick Border,

And carefully he brought me up in decency and order."

ROBERT BURNS was born on January 25th, 1759, in a clay built cottage, about two miles to the south of the town of Ayr and in the immediate vicinity of the kirk of Alloway and the " Auld Brig o' Doon." About a week afterwards part of the frail dwelling, which his father had constructed with his own hands, gave way at midnight, and the infant poet and his mother were carried through the storm to the shelter of a neighbouring hovel.

The father, William Burnes, or Burness (for so he spelt his name), was the son of a farmer in Kincardineshire, whence he removed at nineteen years of age, in consequence of domestic embarrassments. The farm on which the family lived formed part of the estate forfeited, after the Rebellion of 1715, by the noble house of Keith-Marischall ; and the poet took pleasure in believing that his humble ancestors shared the principles and the fall of their chiefs. " Though my fathers," said he after his fame was established, " had not illustrious honours and vast properties to hazard in the contest ; though they left their cottages only to add so many units more to the unnoted crowd that followed their leaders, yet what they could they did, and what they had they lost. . . . They shook hands with ruin, for what they esteemed the cause of their king and their country."(1) Indeed, after William Burnes settled in the west of Scotland, there prevailed a vague notion that he himself had been out in the insurrection of 1745-6 ; but though Robert would fain have interpreted his father's silence in favour of a tale which flattered his imagination, his brother Gilbert always treated it as a mere fiction ; and such it was.(2) It is easy to suppose that when any obscure northern stranger fixed himself in those days in the Low Country, such rumours were likely enough to be circulated concerning him.

(1) Letter (MS.) to Lady Winifred Constable, December 16th, 1789.

(2) Gilbert found among his father's papers a certificate of the minister of his native parish, testifying that " the bearer, William Burnes, had no hand in the late wicked rebellion."

William Burnes laboured for some years in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh as a gardener, and then found his way into Ayrshire. At the time when Robert was born he was gardener and overseer to a gentleman of small estate, Mr. Ferguson, of Doonholm ; but resided on a few acres of land which he had on lease from another proprietor, and where he had originally intended to establish himself as a nurseryman. He married Agnes Brown in December, 1757, and the poet was their firstborn.

William Burnes seems to have been, in his humble station, a man eminently entitled to respect. He had received the ordinary learning of a Scottish parish school, and profited largely both by that and by his own experience in the world. " I have met with few," said the poet,(3) after he himself had seen a good deal of mankind, "who understood men, their manners, and their ways, equal to my father." He was a strictly religious man. There exists in his handwriting a little manual of theology, in the form of a dialogue, which he drew up for the use of his children, and from which it appears that he had adopted more of the Arminian than of the Calvinistic doctrine— a circumstance not to be wondered at when we consider that he had been educated in a district which was never numbered among the strongholds of the Presbyterian Church. The affectionate reverence with which his children ever regarded him is attested by all who have described him as he appeared in his domestic circle ; but there needs no evidence besides that of the poet himself, who has painted, in colours that will never fade, "the saint, the father, and the husband" of The Cottar's Saturday Night.


(3) Letter to Dr. Moore, August 22nd, 1787.


Agnes Brown, the wife of this good man, is described as " a very sagacious woman, without any appearance of forwardness or awkwardness of manner ;" (4) and it seems that in features, and, as he grew up, in general address, the poet resembled her more than his father.(5) She had an inexhaustible store of ballads and traditionary tales, and appears to have nourished his infant imagination by this means, while her husband paid more attention to " the weightier matters of the law."

(4) Letter of Mr. Mackenzie, surgeon at Irvine. Morrison, vol. ii., p. 261.

(5) Morrison, vol. ii., p. 261.

These worthy people laboured hard for the support of an increasing family. William was occupied with Mr. Ferguson's service, and Agnes, like the " Wyfe of Auchtermuchtie," who ruled


" Baith calvis and kye,
And a' the house baith in and out,"


contrived to manage a small dairy as well as her children. But though their honesty and diligence merited better things, their condition continued to be very uncomfortable ; and our poet (in his letter to Dr. Moore) accounts distinctly for his being born and bred " a very poor man's son " by the remark that " stubborn ungainly integrity and headlong ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying circumstances."

These defects of temper did not, however, obscure the sterling worth of William Burnes in the eyes of Mr. Ferguson, who, when the gardener expressed a wish to try his fortune on a farm of his then vacant, and confessed at the same time his inability to meet the charges of stocking it, at once advanced £100 towards the removal of the difficulty. Burnes accordingly removed to this farm (that of Mount Oliphant, in the parish of Ayr) at Whitsuntide, 1766, when his eldest son was between six and seven years of age. But the soil proved to be of the most ungrateful description ; and Mr. Ferguson dying, and his affairs falling into the hands of a harsh factor (who afterwards sat for his picture in The Twa Dogs), Burnes was glad to give up his bargain at the end of six years. He then removed about ten miles to a larger and better farm, that of Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. But here, after a short interval of prosperity, some unfortunate misunderstanding took place as to the conditions of the lease; the dispute was referred to arbitration, and, after three years of suspense, the result involved Burnes in ruin. The worthy man lived to know this decision ; but death saved him from witnessing its necessary consequences. He died of consumption on February 13th, 1784. Severe labour and hopes only renewed to be baffled had at last exhausted a robust but irritable structure and temperament of body and of mind.

In the midst of the harassing struggles which found this termination, William Burnes appears to have used his utmost exertions for promoting the mental improvement of his children —a duty rarely neglected by Scottish parents, however humble their station and scanty their means. Robert was sent, in his sixth year, to a small school at Alloway Miln, about a mile from the house in which he was born ; but Campbell, the teacher, being in the course of a few months removed to another situation, Burnes and four or five neighbours engaged Mr. John Murdoch to supply his place, lodging him by turns in their own houses, and ensuring to him a small payment of money quarterly. Robert Burns, and Gilbert his next brother, were the aptest and favourite pupils of this worthy man, who survived till very lately, and who has, in a letter published at length by Currie, detailed with honest pride the part which he had in the early education of our poet. He became the frequent inmate and confidential friend of the family, and speaks with enthusiasm of the virtues of William Burnes and of the peaceful and happy life of his humbly abode.

" He was," says Murdoch, " a tender and affectionate father ; he took pleasure in leading his children in the path of virtue, not in driving them, as some parents do, to the performance of duties to which they themselves are averse. He took care to find fault but very seldom ; and therefore, when he did rebuke, he was listened to with a kind of reverential awe. A look of disapprobation was felt; a reproof was severely so ; and a stripe with the taws {leather strap}, even on the skirt of the coat, gave heartfelt pain, produced a loud lamentation, and brought forth a flood of tears. ... He had the art of gaining the esteem and good-will of those that were labourers under him. I think I never saw him angry but twice ; the one time it was with the foreman of the band for not reaping the field as he was desired ; and the other time it was with an old man for using smutty innuendos and double entendres. ... In this mean cottage, of which I myself was at times an inhabitant, I really believe there dwelt a larger portion of content than in any palace in Europe. The Cottar's Saturday Night will give some idea of the temper and manners that prevailed there."

The boys, under the joint tuition of Murdoch and their father, made rapid progress in reading, spelling, and writing ; they committed psalms and hymns to memory with extraordinary ease, the teacher taking care (as he tells us) that they should understand the exact meaning of each word in the sentence ere they tried to get it by heart. " As soon," (6) says he, " as they were capable of it, I taught them to turn verse into its natural prose order ; sometimes to substitute synonymous expressions for poetical words, and to supply all the ellipses. Robert and Gilbert were generally at the upper end of the class, even when ranged with boys by far their seniors. The books most commonly used in the school were The Spelling Book, The New Testament, The Bible, Mason's Collection of Prose and Verse, Fisher's English Grammar. . . . Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of the wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert's ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert's countenance was generally grave, and expressive of a serious, contemplative, and thoughtful mind. Gilbert's face said, Mirth, with thee I mean to live ; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was the most likely to court the Muses, he would never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind."


(6) Currie, p. 88.


"At those years," says the poet himself, in 1787, "I was by no means a favourite with anybody. I was a good deal noted for a retentive memory, a stubborn, sturdy something in my disposition, and an enthusiastic idiot piety. I say idiot piety, because I was then but a child. Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar ; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles. In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery.(7) This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry; but had so strong an effect on my imagination that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp lookout in suspicious places ; and though nobody can be more sceptical than I am in such matters, yet it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors. The earliest composition that I recollect taking pleasure in was The Viston of Mirza and a hymn of Addison's beginning, How are Thy servants blest, O Lord! I particularly remember one half-stanza, which was music to my boyish ear :

' For though on dreadful whirls we hung

High on the broken wave' -

I met with these pieces in Mason's English Collection, one of my school-books. The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were The Life of Hannibal and The History of Sir William Wallace.(8) Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a tide of Scottish prejudice into my veins which will boil along there till the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest." (9)

(7) Mr. Robert Chambers tells me that this woman's name was Jenny Wilson, and that she outlived Burns, with whom she was a great favourite.

(8) The Hannibal was ient by Mr. Murdoch; the Wallace by a
neighbouring blacksmith.

(9) Letter to Dr. Moore, 1787,

And speaking of the same period and books to Mrs. Dunlop, he says : " For several of my earlier years I had few other authors ; and many a solitary hour have I stole out, after the laborious vocations of |the day, to shed a tear over their glorious but unfortunate stories. In those boyish days I remember in particular being struck with that part of Wallace's story where these lines occur :

' Syne to the Leglen wood, when it was late, To make a silent and a safe retreat.'

I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day my line of life allowed, and walked half a dozen miles to pay my respects to the Leglen wood, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loretto ; and explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic countryman to have lodged."

Murdoch continued his instructions until the family had been about two years at Mount Oliphant, when he left for a time that part of the country. " There being no school near us," says Gilbert Burns, " and our little services being already useful on the farm, my father undertook to teach us arithmetic in the winter evenings by candle-light ; and in this way my two elder sisters received all the education they ever received."

Gilbert tells an anecdote which must not be omitted here, since it furnishes an early instance of the liveliness of his brother's imagination. Murdoch, being on a visit to the family, read aloud one evening part of the tragedy of Titus Andronicus ; the circle listened with the deepest interest until he came to Act II., sc. 5, where Lavinia is introduced " with her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out." At this the children entreated, with one voice, in an agony of distress, that their friend would read no more. " If ye will not hear the play out," said William Burnes, "it need not be left with you"  "If it be left," cries Robert, " I will burn it." His father was about to chide him for this return to Murdoch's kindness ; but the good young man interfered, saying he liked to see so much sensibility, and left The School for Love in place of his truculent tragedy. At this time Robert was nine years of age.

" Nothing," continues Gilbert, " could be more retired than our general manner of living at Mount Oliphant ; we rarely saw anybody but the members of our own family. There were no boys of our own age or near it in the neighbourhood. Indeed, the greatest part of the land in the vicinity was at that time possessed by shopkeepers and people of that stamp, who had retired from business, or who kept their farm in the country at the same time that they followed business in town. My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us, as if we had been men, and was at great pains, while we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge or confirm us in virtuous habits. He borrowed Salmon's Geographical Grammar for us, and endeavoured to make us acquainted with the situation and history of the different countries in the world ; while, from a book-society in Ayr, he procured for us the reading of Derham's Physico- and Astro-Theology, and Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation, to give us some idea of astronomy and natural history. Robert read all these books with an avidity and industry scarcely to be equalled. My father had been a subscriber to Stackhouse's History of the Bible. From this Robert collected a competent knowledge of ancient history, for no book was so voluminous as to slacken Ms industry, or so antiquated as to damp his researches." A collection of letters by eminent English authors is mentioned as having fallen into Burns's hands much about the same time, and greatly delighted him.

When he was about thirteen or fourteen years old, his father sent him and Gilbert " week about, during a summer quarter," to the parish school of Dalrymple, two or three miles distant from Mount Oliphant, for the improvement of their penmanship. The good man could not pay two fees, or his two boys could not be spared at the same time from the labour of the farm !

" We lived very poorly," says the poet. " I was a dexterous ploughman for my age ; and the next eldest to me (Gilbert) could drive the plough very well and help me to thrash the corn. A novel-writer might perhaps have viewed these scenes with some satisfaction, but so did not I. My indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel factor's insolent letters, which used to set us all in tears."

Gilbert gives his brother's situation at this period in greater detail : " To the bufferings of misfortune," says he, " we could only oppose hard labour and the most rigid economy. We lived very sparingly. For several years butcher's meat was a stranger in the house, while all the members of the family exerted themselves to the utmost of their strength, and rather beyond it, in the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in thrashing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm, for we had no hired servant, male or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years, under these straits and difficulties, was very great. To think of our father growing old (for he was now above fifty), broken down with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with a wife and five other children, and in a declining state of circumstances—these reflections produced in my brother's mind and mine sensations of the deepest distress. I doubt not but the hard labour and sorrow of this period of his life was in a great measure the cause of that depression of spirits with which Robert was so often afflicted through his whole life afterwards. At this time he was almost constantly afflicted in the evenings with a dull headache, which, at a future period of his life, was exchanged for a palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed, in the night-time."

The year after this Burns was able to gain three weeks of respite, one before and two after the harvest, from the labours which were thus straining his youthful strength. His tutor Murdoch was now established in the town of Ayr, and the boy spent one of those weeks in revising the English grammar with him ; the other two were given to French. He laboured enthusiastically in the new pursuit, and came home at the end of a fortnight with a dictionary and a Télémaque, of which he made such use at his leisure hours, by himself, that in a short time (if we may believe Gilbert) he was able to understand any ordinary book of French prose. His progress, whatever it really amounted to, was looked on as something of a prodigy ; and a writing-master in Ayr, a friend of Murdoch, insisted that Robert Burns must next attempt The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue. He did so, but with little perseverance, we may be sure, since the results were of no sort of value. Burns's Latin consisted of a few scraps of hackneyed quotations, such as many that never looked into Ruddiman's Rudiments can apply on occasion quite as skilfully as he ever appears to have done. The matter is one of no importance ; we might, perhaps? safely dismiss it with parodying what Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare ; he had little French, and no Latin : and yet it is proper to mention that he is found, years after he left Ayrshire, writing to Edinburgh in some anxiety about a copy of Molière.

He had read, however, and read well, ere his sixteenth year elapsed, no contemptible amount of the literature of his own country. In addition to the books which have already been mentioned, he tells us that, before the family quitted Mount Oliphant, he had read " The Spectator, some plays of Shakespeare, Pope (the Homer included), Tull and Dickson on Agriculture, Locke on the Human Understanding, Justice's British Gardener's Directory, Boyle's Lectures, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, A Select Collection of English Songs, Hervey's Meditations" (a book which has ever been very popular among the Scottish peasantry), " and the Works of Allan Ramsay " ; and Gilbert adds to this list Pamela (the first novel either of the brothers read), two stray volumes of Peregrine Pickle, two of Count Fathom, and a single volume of " some English historian," containing the reign of James I. and his son. " The Collection of Songs," says Burns,(10) "was my vade mecum. I pored over them, driving my cart or walking to labour, song by song, verse by verse, carefully noticing the true, tender, or sublime, from affectation or fustian; and I am convinced I owe to this practice much of my critic-craft, such as it is."


(10) Letter to Dr. Moore, 1787.


He derived during this period considerable advantages from the vicinity of Mount Oliphant to the town of Ayr, a place then, and still, distinguished by the residence of many respectable gentlemen's families, and a consequent elegance of society and manners not common in remote provincial situations. To his friend Mr. Murdoch he no doubt owed, in the first instance, whatever attentions he received there from people older as well as higher than himself: some such persons appear to have taken a pleasure in lending him books; and surely no kindness could have been more useful to him than this. As for his coevals, he himself says, very justly : " It is not commonly at that green age that our young gentry have a due sense of the distance between them and their ragged playfellows. My young superiors," he proceeds, " never insulted the clouterly appearance of my plough-boy carcass, the two extremes of which were often exposed to all the inclemencies of all the seasons. They would give me stray volumes of books : among them, even then, I could pick up some observation; and one, whose heart I am sure not even the Munny Begum scenes have tainted, helped me to a little French.(11) Parting with these my young friends and benefactors, as they occasionally went off for the East or West Indies, was often to me a sore affliction; but I was soon called to more serious evils." The condition of the family during the last two years of their residence at Mount Oliphant, when the struggle which ended in their removal was rapidly approaching its crisis, has been already described; nor need we dwell again on the untimely burden of sorrow, as well as toil, which fell to the share of the youthful poet, and which would have broken altogether any mind wherein feelings like his had existed without strength like his to control them.

(11) The allusion here is to one of the sons of Dr. John Malcolm, afterwards highly distinguished in the service of the East India Company.

The removal of the family to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton, took place when Burns was in his sixteenth year. He had some time before this made his first attempt in verse, and the occasion is thus described by himself in his letter to Moore :

" This kind of life—the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave—brought me to my sixteenth year; a little before which period I first committed the sin of Rhyme. You know our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labours of harvest. In my fifteenth autumn my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language ; but you know the Scottish idiom—she was a bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass. In short, she, altogether unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious passion which, in spite of acid disappointment, ginhorse prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold to be the first of human joys, our dearest blessing here below ! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell: you medical people talk much of infection from breathing the same air, the touch, etc. 5 but I never expressly said I loved her. Indeed, I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when returning in the evening from our labours ; why the tones of her voice made my heart-strings thrill like an Æolian harp; and particularly why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand, to pick out the cruel nettle stings and thistles. Among her other love-inspiring qualities, she sang sweetly ; and it was her favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men who had Greek and Latin; but my girl sang a song which was said to be composed by a small country laird's son, on one of his father's maids, with whom he was in love ; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he; for, excepting that he could smear sheep and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. Thus with me began love and poetry, which at times had been my only, and till within the last twelve months, have been my highest, enjoyment."

The earliest of the poet's productions is the little ballad:

"O once I loved a bonnie lass,
   Aye, and I love her still,

And while that honour warms my breast,

I'll love my handsome Nell," etc.

Burns himself characterises it as " a very puerile and silly performance," yet it contains here and there lines of which he need hardly have been ashamed at any period of his life;

"She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
   Baith decent and genteel,

And then there's something in her gait

   Gars ony dress look weel"

 " Silly and puerile as it is," said the poet, long afterwards, " I am always pleased with this song, as it recalls to my mind those happy days when my heart was yet honest and my tongue sincere. I composed it in a wild enthusiasm of passion, and to this hour I never recollect it but my heart melts, my blood sallies at the remembrance " (MS. Memorandum-book, August, 1783).

In his first epistle to Lapraik (1785) he says:

"Amaist as soon as I could spell,

I to the crambo-jingle fell,
   Tho' rude and rough ;

Yet crooning to a body's sell

   Does weel enough."

And in some nobler verses, entitled, On my Early Days, we have the following passage :

" I mind it weel in early date,
When I was beardless, young, and blate,
   And first could thrash the barn.
Or haud a yokin' o' the pleugh,
An' tho' forfoughten sair eneugh.
   Yet unco proud to learn—
When first among the yellow corn
   A man I reckon'd was,
An' wi' the lave ilk merry morn

   Could rank my rig and lass—
Still shearing and clearing

   The tither stookit raw,
Wi' claivers and haivers
   Wearing the day awa—


E'en then a wish, I mind its power,

A wish that to my latest hour
   Shall strongly heave my breast,

That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,

Some useful plan or book could make.
   Or sing a sang, at least.

The rough bur-thistle spreading wide
   Among the bearded bear,

I turn'd the weeder-clips aside,
   And spared the symbol dear."

He is hardly to be envied who can contemplate without emotion this exquisite picture of young nature and young genius. It was amidst such scenes that this extraordinary being felt those first indefinite stirrings of immortal ambition, which he has himself shadowed out under the magnificent image of the "blind gropings of Homer's Cyclops, around the walls of his cave."(12)


(12) Letter to Dr. Moore.



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