Burns in Dumfries
A visit to Robert Burns's final home
Are you (relatively) new to this Substack column? You might like to read the intro to these articles highlighting our 14 years of hosting music & walking tours of Scotland.
Last week, we visited the Colvend coast in the southwest of Scotland, with its beautiful views, and learned about a certain 18th-century resident, John Paul Jones. Hopefully you also listened to Alan Reid’s song about a few of his exploits. The Colvend coast and John Paul Jones’s cottage are located on the Solway Firth, the body of water separating Scotland’s southwest region from England.
About a dozen miles from the Solway Firth, up the River Nith, is the city of Dumfries. The bridge shown below is quite old; it was mentioned in an accounting of bridge tolls collected in 1426 by the local Franciscan monastery, though there apparently had been a timber bridge in that spot since around 1280.
The most famous resident of Dumfries was Scotland’s great poet and songwriter, Robert Burns, who lived there during his final years.
But before we get to Burns, allow me a quick digression about an infamous resident of Dumfries. A friend happened to tell me of a book he was reading, called And the Band Played On, about the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic. As he recounted stories from the book, and how they handled the dead and the survivors, it hit me that the main focus of the book had to do with the maker of the violin I’ve played most of my life, Alexander Hume. Hume’s son Jock was one of the three violinists who went down with the Titanic. His pregnant girlfriend delivered a baby girl after the ship sank, but Jock’s father would have nothing to do with here (Hume had fantasies of being important and high class). Thanks to the Scottish tradition of handfasting, Jock had been invited to live with his girlfriend by her mother in a sort of common law marriage. That baby girl became the grandmother of the author of the book. While in Dumfries, I ran across another book about this local violinmaker, describing his mistreatment of his children as well as his accomplishments as violinmaker, musician and teacher.
Let’s put it this way: Alexander Hume was not a nice guy, though he was a brilliant violinmaker. My violin, marked “London 1923,” has puzzled many violin shops because its quality stood out from typical English violins. The reason was that the violin wasn’t English at all; it was Scottish. Violin shops are generally unaware of the quality of Scottish violins (and therefore underrate and underprice them!), but Scotland historically has had the highest number of violinmakers per capita in the world. Hume had basically been run out of Dumfries, and moved to London before he made my violin.
The pictures above show, on the left, the final home of Robert Burns, which is now a museum, and on the right, a painting hanging in that home showing Burns reading for dignitaries in Edinburgh in 1787. I was delighted to come upon this painting at the Burns house, especially because a list of the personalities in the image was included at the bottom of the painting. These include Robert Burns, standing and reciting a poem, and the Duchess of Gordon, sitting and listening. At the far right, according to the list, is “Willie Marshall, the butler,” who was pouring tea. William Marshall was a brilliant fiddler, composer, mechanician, clockmaker, gardener, and yes, butler to the Duke and Duchess of Gordon. In fact, Robert Burns wrote several famous songs to Marshall’s compositions, including his honeymoon song, “Of All the Airts the Wind can Blaw.” He called Marshall “the first [i.e. finest] composer of strathspeys of the age.” It’s amusing to see Burns as the star of the moment, while this great musician that Burns admired so much was off to the side pouring tea.
To make ends meet as a poet, farmer, husband and father, Burns took a job in 1789 as an exciseman (assessing and collecting taxes) and had to ride 200 miles per week on horseback. One of his most famous songs was called The De’il’s Awa’ wi’ the Exciseman (The Devil’s Away with the Exciseman) about the devil fiddling through the town and taking away the taxman! Here are a few lines from it:
There's threesome reels, there's foursome reels, There's hornpipes and strathspeys, man; But the ae best dance e'er cam' to the land Was -- the de'il's awa' wi' the Exciseman.
Thanks to a promotion in the excise work, Burns spent more time in Dumfries, so he didn’t have to ride as much, though he still lived on his farm 7 miles away. A few years later, though, it became clear (according to modern analysis of his symptoms) that he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which became severe enough to keep him in bed for weeks. He died in 1796 at the age of 37. During the funeral ceremony, his wife bore their ninth child. Only three survived infancy.
He and his wife, Jean Armour, had been in love and together since 1784, and had several children before they actually married in 1788. The church chastised him publicly, which we mostly know about because Burns wrote a sardonic poem in 1784 called “The Fornicator.”
Below is a painting of Jean Armour, and a 2004 statue of her erected in Dumfries.
Though loyal to his wife and children in many ways, Burns also had affairs with several other women, both before and after meeting his wife, resulting in at least three children. One of these women was Anna Park, a server at the Globe pub in Dumfries, where Burns sometimes ended his workdays and stayed overnight. When we visited the pub, they showed us the chair Burns used to sit in, and his bedroom.
Anna bore their daughter Elizabeth just days before Burns’s wife Jean gave birth to their son William. Burns’s wife later took Elizabeth on and raised her with their other children. One letter by Maria Riddell (the woman Burns accompanied when they visited the lead mines we discussed a couple weeks ago), suggests that baby Elizabeth may have lost her mother, but we don’t know whether Anna died or something else happened.
Many like to speculate about Burns’s “womanizing,” sometimes with disgust at his infidelity, or with bit of wink-wink-nudge-nudge storytelling, as can happen at certain Burns Dinners. But these judgments are difficult to make from the outside, especially with someone like Robert Burns, who wore his passions quite publicly on his sleeve in the form of love poems and songs.
He wrote a number of such poems and songs for his wife, and some for other women. It appears that he wrote his famous love song “Yestreen, I had a pint of wine” for Anna. It is also sometimes called “The Gowden [Golden] Locks of Anna.”
On the glass windows of the bedroom in The Globe pub, Burns scratched some of his poems. One of them was especially interesting — his famous song/poem, “Comin’ through the rye,” except the version he scratched there started out “Comin’ through the grain,” and moved on to rhyme with different words and a slightly different meaning than the usual poem/song. There is yet another version of the song/poem that also starts with the word “grain” and is quite bawdy.
Below is the entrance in an alleyway to The Globe pub, and to the right, one of the poems Burns scratched into the glass of his bedroom window on the second floor.
The poem in this window is one of my favorites. It reads:
I murder hate by flood or field, Tho' glory's name may screen us; In wars at home I'll spend my blood- Life-giving wars of Venus. The deities that I adore Are social Peace and Plenty; I'm better pleas'd to make one more, Than be the death of twenty.
The church that the Burnses attended in Dumfries is across the street from the Jean Armour statue. Here are some of the stained glass windows in that church, including images of both Jean and Robert:
Behind the church is a cemetery. Many of the tombstones have lots of writing about the deceased and their life and character. The women are all referred to by their maiden names.
In the back is a grave site where Robert Burns was originally buried in 1796, before he was re-interred in the mausoleum along with his wife Jean, who died in 1834. And not far away is a flower garden that includes this plaque with his famous poem for Jean, “My Luve's like a red, red rose.”
Throughout Dumfries are statues, signs, streets, houses, displays, and markers about Robert Burns. Here’s a statue of him, with excerpts of his poems around the base.
In 2009, a Scottish television station ran a contest in which Scots voted for the Greatest Scot of All Time. The winner was Robert Burns. Coming in a close second was the national medieval hero and patriot William Wallace, followed by Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. (Others in the top ten included actor David Tennant, Robert the Bruce, comedian Billy Connolly, and Andrew Carnegie.)
In the coming weeks, we’ll visit a few more of Burns’s homes and haunts, and learn more about why he is regarded as Scotland’s national bard.
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