The morning of July 25, 1796 was showery in Dumfries, a small town in Scotland. It cleared for “a pleasant afternoon,” but clouded over late in the day for “a wet evening and night.”
The “pleasant afternoon” giving way to a wet and gloomy night provided an appropriate setting in which say goodbye to the man who would later be declared Scotland’s most revered poet – Robert “Rabbie” Burns. The weather on the day of his funeral was to be like his 37-year and seven-month-old life: showers, sunshine and dark clouds with heavy rain.
True blue Scots will be upset that I recall his death when they, and millions around the world who claim to be Burns fans, get set to celebrate on January 25 (or a conveniently close date) “the Scottish bard’s birthday.” They will celebrate with copious drams of Scotch, a feast including Haggis (that tastes much better than its contents suggest) and the reading of selected poems by the great man.
Only a few “men’s only” celebrations will include lines from many of Burns’ early poems, the lines which brought him his first notoriety – and which he desperately tried to track down, recover and destroy before he died. His “bawdy verse” flickers in the background of his classic writing – intriguing memories, secretly savoured, but never to be spoken in the presence of ladies although women inspired his rough-love rhymes as much as they inspired his true love verses.
His first poem, written when he was 15, was rich with teenage awe, but demonstrated an early eye for good looking females and what words might win their favours: “Once I lov’d a bonie lass,/ay, and I love her still;/And whilst that virtue warms my breast,/ I’ll love my handsome Nel.” He went on to say: “She dresses aye sae clean and neat./Both decent and genteel; And then there’s something in her gait/ Gars any dress look Weel.” For non-Scots “bonie” is obviously “bonny” and “something in her gait” in English is “something in her walk makes any dress look good.”
If anything even happened between him and Nel it isn’t recorded although his poetry began to flourish over the next decade and his first and last love Jean Armour was met when he was 24. His timeline tells us 1875 was the year he met Jean “The Belle of Mauchline” and the year he became a father for the first recorded time – but not with Jean. His first daughter – Elizabeth Paton Burns – was born to one Elizabeth Paton, a servant in his mother’s employ. She was the first of four women to bear a Burns child.
A few months later Jean Amour announced she was pregnant and in March 1886 gave birth to twins. Legend has it that her father fainted when he heard the news and denied her permission to marry the ne’er do well Burns. Robert and Jean continued to see each other although many believed Robert was about to marry Mary Campbell, another beauty destined to soon leave Scotland for Jamaica. Rumour had it that Robert would go with her but typhus intervened. Mary died and, some say, took an unborn child with her.
Robert said goodbye with his poem Highland Mary describing the country surrounding the Castle of Montgomery “where simmer (summer) first unfaulds her robes and there he langest (longest) tarry;/For there I took my last Farewell/O’ my sweet Highland Mary.” He finished the poem with a declaration of undying love “O pale, pale now those rosy lips I oft have kissed so fondly! And closed for aye the sparkling glance that dwelt on me so kindly! And mouldering now in silent dust the heart that loved me dearly, but still within my bosoms core shall live my Highland Mary.”
With that Robert wandered off to write more brilliant poetry and impregnate a servant girl named Mary Cameron who gave birth to a child in 1787. A year later, Burns finally married his first love Jean Armour, her father having removed his marriage ban after Burns became an acknowledged, noted and respected poet.
Shortly after the wedding Jean presented Robert with a second set of twins and in that same year of 1788 one Janet Clow, a domestic servant, named her first born son Robert Burns Clow after his father. It was also the year he wrote his famous Auld Lang Syne and it’s fair to wonder how he found the time.
In 1789, little more than a year after her second set of twins Jean produced another son and two years later in 1791 Robert fathered a daughter Elizabeth with Ann Park and another son, William Nicol Burns with Jean. A year later, Jean was again a mother with the birth of Elizabeth Riddell Burns and two years after that in 1794 with another son James Glencairn.
Two years later, 1796, Burns was dead. Sir Walter Scott tells us he knew he was dying but “his good humour was unruffled and his will never forsook him.” When he looked up and saw Dr. Maxwell at his bedside he said: “Alas, what has brought you here? I am but a poor crow and not worth plucking.”
Where was Jean, the mother of eight of his children? Sir Walter Scott said: “His household presented a melancholy spectacle: the poet dying; his wife in hourly expectation of being confined, four helpless children wandering from room to room gazing on their miserable parents and but too little food or cordial kin to pacify the whole or soothe the sick.”
Five days after his death there was an “uncommonly splendid” funeral procession from town to cemetery with the Cinque Ports Military Band playing the Dead March in slow solemn time. And an hour after the procession passed Jean Armour, the Belle of Mauchline, wife of Rabbie Burns, gave birth to their ninth child, Maxwell Burns. In other amours he had fathered at least four or five more.
And it seems to me that those of us who lift a glass to the poet on the 25th should henceforth lift it a little higher to honour Jean. She lived on a meager pension for another 28 years after Robert’s death. There are a couple of statues of her, one in Mauchline erected in 2002, another in Dumfries opposite St. Michael’s Church dedicated in 2004.
Better late than never, but not much for a lady who gave the poet the love and freedom he needed to develop the talent the world came to treasure. If you are “doing” Burns night remember the Bard as always – but remember too the women whose minds and bodies brought joy to his mind and words.