New play reveals ‘harsh fate’ of Robert Burns’ lassies

Keara Murphy, in Clarinda's Tearooms, Edinburgh, portrays the plight of Burns' women. Photograph: Neil Hanna
Keara Murphy, in Clarinda's Tearooms, Edinburgh, portrays the plight of Burns' women. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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HE IS portrayed as the great Scottish romantic, a handsome devil – irresistible to women – whose conquests and grand passions inspired some of the world’s most romantic poetry and song.

But now a new play gives voice to what happened to just four of the many women Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard, seduced.

The Secret Sex Life of Robert Burns by playwright Keara Murphy reveals the stories of women such as Elizabeth Paton, his family’s farm servant, and Jenny Clow, maid servant of Mrs Agnes Maclehose, the famous “Clarinda”.

Murphy says the production, a documentary-drama to be staged at the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh on Thursday and which includes humour and music, aims to “jolt” the audience into imagining life for the women who could be ostracised and destitute after “falling from grace”.

Murphy, an actress and comedian, said if Burns were alive today his Facebook status would be “complicated”.

The play is the first production of Blue Eyed Lassie, a theatre company set up by Murphy to encourage female-led work in Scotland.

Murphy said: “The names of Burns’ amours are well known but what happened to them is often glossed over. Some experienced great hardship – and even death – as a consequence of falling in love with our national poet. It is time some of their voices were heard.

“I’m trying to ask the audience, ‘Can you imagine being left pregnant and having to sit in the Kirk with a blanket with ‘Fornicator’ written on it and having to ask for charity to survive?’ That’s not to say the men didn’t suffer but it was much, much worse for women.

“Burns had an eye for young servant girls but many of them might not have been able to read and write and thought ‘God gave you a baby’.”

It is not known how many illegitimate children Burns fathered. However, Paton gave birth to a daughter in 1785 and the child was raised by Burns’s mother. May Cameron, an Edinburgh servant girl, had a child by Burns in 1787. In 1788 Burns married Jean Armour, however, that same year Clow gave birth to a baby fathered by Burns. In 1791 Ann Park gave birth to a daughter by Burns.

Clow was seduced while delivering “intense” letters between her mistress and Burns.

“Jenny got pregnant and apparently Burns didn’t know anything about it. A few years later Mrs Maclehose wrote a snotty letter to Robert Burns telling him that Jenny had kept the baby but that she had been thrown out of service and was very ill,” said Murphy.

Professor Robert Crawford of St Andrews University, said Burns’s women had been the focus of feminist scholarship over the past 20 years, reflecting both the “zeitgeist” and the poet’s complex nature.

“The way we view him is complicated by his poetry about women which can be passionate, tender, but also dismissive, bawdy or voyeuristic. ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ in particular is about sexual voyeurism while I think ‘A Red, Red Rose’ is his most romantic.

“An issue with Burns is that he repeatedly lusted after upper-class and middle-class women who were unattainable to him, so he sleeps with women such as Clarinda’s maid. Burns was incredibly well-read and the well-off women were more highly educated than women in his own class whose education was limited.

“But his central relationship was with Jean Armour. It was also the most complicated.”

Chris Waddell, learning manager at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, said: “Burns had been mythologised down the centuries, portrayed as either saint or as drinker who was a serial abuser of women.

“I think he was neither, and fell somewhere in between. He was certainly a player but no more than many others in his day. But, like all of us, he wanted different things at different times, from domesticity to dashing about and sometimes wanted it all at once.”