Robert Burns: 4 uncomfortable home truths about the National Bard

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Robert Burns is celebrated the world round as the People’s Poet who could distill all of humanity in a just a few lines of verse.

But what of the character of the man behind some of the most enduring rhymes ever written?

Robert Burns continues to court controversy 200 years after his death. PIC: TSPL/John Devlin.

Robert Burns continues to court controversy 200 years after his death. PIC: TSPL/John Devlin.

Much has been written about the Bard’s morality, multiple partners and the impact his actions had on the those around him as he is judged by modern day mores.

Here we look at some of the 18th Century scenarios that continue to divide opinion on Burns today.

He accepted a job on a slave plantation

In 1786, Burns was a broken man, both financially and emotionally, following the death of his father and the poor offerings of the family smallholding in Ayrshire. His own health was also weakening.

Burns accepted a job on a sugar plantation in Jamaica as a bookkeeper with the poet himself describing the role as “a poor Negro driver”.

Burns was offered the role through a friend at a time when two thirds of the white population were Scots.

He bought a ticket for the voyage following the publication of his first ‘Kilmarnock’ poems but it was the success of the publication that drove him to Edinburgh rather than the Caribbean.

Slavery - and abolition - became a theme of some of his work, including The Slave’s Lament, published in 1792, ‘Scots Wha Hae’ contrasts the importance of freedom with the outrage of ‘Chains and Slaverie’.

His brood of illegitimate children

Burns had at least three illegitimate children with all born to women who worked in service.

The first was to Elizabeth Paton, who worked on the Burns’ family farm, who was judged by the poet as having a ‘plain face but good figure’. 
Paton adored Burns but her feelings were not reciprocated. Burns’ mother wanted him to marry Paton but his siblings talked him out of it given the aspiring writer’s earning potential, according to accounts.

Burns was later forced to make a formal apology in church for his behaviour and he later wrote of his resentment of being treated as a fornicator.

He also went on to write about the birth of his first child. Prof Robert Crawford of St Andrews University described what was essentially a love poem for his daughter - possibly the earliest one in the world - in an earlier interview with the BBC. As usual with Burns, tenderness could be found during the most troubling of times.

A “sex pest”?

Eighteenth century sexual morality was tested in the #metoo climate last year when poet and playwright Liz Lochhead called Burns a “sex pest” and compared him to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The claims centred around a 1788 letter Burns wrote to a friend in which he bragged of giving his pregnant lover Jean Armour a “thundering scalade [a military attack breaching defences] that electrified the very marrow of her bones”.

Furthermore, Burns said he “f***** her until she rejoiced”.

Lochhead described a “disgraceful sexual boast … seemed very like a rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend. It’s very, very Weinsteinian.”

Lochhead won both praise and condemnation for her comments.

Robert Crawford, whose biography of Burns quotes the letter, argued that “what he presents as ... exclamations of pleasure may well have been cries of pain.”

Meanwhile, Professor Gerard Carruthers, of Glasgow University, said there was “no good evidence” that the national icon was a rapist and complained of “judging history by the ephemeral journalistic stories of today”.

READ MORE: Liz Lochhead: Why I compared Robert Burns to Harvey Weinstein

The death of a lover

Jenny Clow gave birth to Burns’ son after they met in Edinburgh. The servant had been delivering a love letter between Burns and her employer, Edinburgh woman Agnes Maclehose, who wrote under the pen name Clarinda, when they met.

At the time Maclehose, who was estranged from her husband, and Burns were having an affair. Burns long-term love Jean Armour was pregnant with twins. The addition of Jenny Clow to the picture paved the way to tragedy. The boy died and Jenny became ill with the woman living out her final days alone in a room in Edinburgh.

Burns was informed of Jenny Clow’s plight by Maclehose who had become aware of her servant’s affair with the man she loved.

In a letter she put to Burns: “To whom can she so naturally look for aid as to the father of her child, the man for whose sake she has suffered many a sad and anxious night, shut from the world, with no other companions than guilt and solitude?

“You have now an opportunity to evince you indeed possess those fine feelings you have delineated, so as to claim the just admiration of your country.

“I am convinced I need add nothing farther to persuade you to act as every consideration of humanity must dictate.”

Burns sent her five shillings and wrote that her predicament made his “heart weep blood.”

Some accounts suggest he went to meet her in Edinburgh before her death and gave her more money.