Robert Burns ‘racked up massive debts in promotion bid’

Robert Burns died owing the equivalent of a year's salary to tradesmen, after becoming ill and dying before he could be promoted. Picture: Getty

Robert Burns died owing the equivalent of a year's salary to tradesmen, after becoming ill and dying before he could be promoted. Picture: Getty

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Robert Burns racked up a mountain of debt because he thought he would be promoted to a wealthier position in the excise service, according to an expert on the poet.

Burns had a secure job collecting taxes from people as an exciseman, but he made little from his poems and famously lived beyond his means. By the time he died in 1796, he owed more than his yearly salary to a dozen tradesmen.

Picture: Burns Cottage

Picture: Burns Cottage

Dr Clark McGinn, who is researching a new book on Burns, said the poet earned around £100 per year from his job and spent £110 per year. But he has calculated that Burns was in line for a string of promotions that would have earned him £800 to £1,000 per year by 1800. The increased wages would have been easily enough to pay off all his debts.

Dr McGinn said: “People nowadays like to make five-year plans, and I think that’s exactly what Burns was doing.

“In the excise you got promotion by seniority not ability, and if you kept your nose clean you just climbed the ranks.

“If Burns had stayed working hard, he would eventually have become a collector of excise in Leith in about 1802.

“Collectors were paid according to the size of their district and the most successful could make £1,000 per year. He would have been rich, with more than enough money to feed the family, have a nice house, a horse and carriage and pay back all his debts.

“Then he fell ill and it all backfired. He didn’t have the time to work his way out of the hole he was in because he’d got sick. It would have taken five more years and he didn’t have five more days.”

Burns, who only published one book during his life – Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – relied on his excise job to bring in money.

In a BBC Radio Scotland documentary to be broadcast on Wednesday, Dr McGinn said the poet was so in debt his only escape would have bankrupted his brother, Gilbert. Burns’s main asset was a £180 loan to his brother – but Gilbert’s own affairs were so shaky that calling the debt in might have bankrupted them both.

Dr McGinn said: “If he’d made Gilbert bankrupt, the creditors would have claimed his assets, but it would only just have covered the debts that Burns left.

“He was running up bills that he had no foreseeable way of paying unless he got those ­promotions. He was banking on it.”

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