Scotland’s national bard had reluctantly joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in 1795 after war had broken out between Britain and France in order to secure his job as an excise man and camouflage his radical political views, which at the time could have led to imprisonment or transportation to Australia.
The position did not pay but each member was still required to be kitted out in a fancy uniform which consisted of a blue coat, with red cape and cuffs with gilt buttons on which was engraved the letters “R.D.V”. Unable to pay for the uniform Burns was provided the clothes on credit but when the tailor, David Williamson, learned in July 1796 that the poet was dying he quickly presented him with the bill.
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The new book In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s War, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow reports: “Burns flew into a rage, humiliated at having to beg the sum from friends.”
The book also revealed the national bard’s last wishes were ignored. Burns had asked that the Dumfries Volunteers not fire over his grave as was tradition. He said: “don’t let the aukward squad fire over me?” Yet on 25 July 1796 soldiers in uniform lined the streets and three volleys were fired over his coffin.
Yesterday Uglow explained: “Burns joined because he needed to look patriotic, and stand alongside the authorities in the town, to be sure of keeping his job – there was much hostility towards radicals in the early 1790s, with a fierce crackdown on anyone who spoke out against the government. But he kept his radical views in private, as we can see from his poems.
“He didn’t want the ‘aukward squad’ to fire over his grave, largely because he had just had a row over the payment for his expensive volunteer uniform. But also, perhaps, he didn’t want to support the authorities and the war in death?”
Uglow believes the Napoleonic campaigns helped make Scotland’s reputation as a fighting nation: “The Highland regiments won great acclaim in Egypt and in all campaigns up to Waterloo, and became national heroes,” she said. She also says Scotland was changed by the experience: “It was affected, like the rest of the nation, by the drain of manpower, food shortages and the trade blockades, but particularly by the Highland clearances in the latter years of the war. The perception of the nation changed, largely through the work of Walter Scott.”
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