The Jamaican voyage Burns never took

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ROBERT Burns had everything needed to become an icon in his native Scotland. He was working class and had to overcome grinding poverty before finding success. He was also, to put it mildly, a bit of a lad - part incorrigible womaniser, part dashing romantic - and to lift his spirits he liked a good drink. He then died tragically young. Scots celebrate him as their national Bard because most can, in some way, identify with him.

Yet what few people realise is that, before he found fame, Scotland very nearly lost Burns - to Jamaica. It was a mighty close thing and had certain events at the most crucial point in his life turned out differently, Burns would have been gone.

It is difficult to imagine the literary and cultural life of Scotland without Burns: No Tam o’ Shanter, no Auld Lang Syne, no Man’s A Man For A’ That, no Burns Suppers. The country would have been bereft of all this - and much, much more - if Burns had, as planned, boarded the two-masted brigantine Nancy at Greenock and sailed to the West Indies to make his fortune.

It was to be no flight of fancy on the part of Burns. He had put down nine guineas deposit and secured steerage passage on the Nancy. Moreover he had a job to go to in Jamaica, as a bookkeeper on an estate in the town of Port Antonio, owned by one of his friends, Dr Patrick Douglas. Burns had negotiated a three-year contract at a wage of 30 a year. He firmly believed he would never see his native land again. In late August 1786 a melancholy Burns wrote:

"Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!

My peace with these, my love with those.

The bursting tears my heart declare—

Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!"

The roots of his misery and woe were fairly obvious to his large circle of friends in Ayrshire. For a start he was penniless, the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, which he and his brother Gilbert owned was so unproductive that the two men were earning only seven pounds a year each.His various romantic liaisons were also becoming increasingly complicated. Burns had already fathered one child, Bess, in 1785, the result of an affair with family servant Elizabeth Paton. In early 1786 he discovered that his new sweetheart and wife-to-be Jean Armour, was also pregnant. The news was received very badly by Jean’s father, "Old Armour", as Burns called him. He fiercely opposed the idea of an impoverished farmer marrying his daughter and pursued Burns through the courts for maintenance.

Burns found solace the only way he knew how - with another woman, Mary Campbell or "Highland Mary". She was from Dunoon and Burns became so infatuated with her that, in May that year, the two lovers pledged themselves to each other by standing on either side of the River Ayr and exchanging bibles. Burns resolved that when he sailed for Jamaica, Mary would sail with him. He needed only the 20 to purchase tickets for them both.

What took place between August and October 1786 changed the face of Scottish culture and of world literature. Burns was persuaded to publish a book of his poetry to raise money for the trip. The Nancy, due to leave Greenock on 10 August with freight and passengers bound for the Jamaican port of Savannah-la-Mar, was delayed until 5 September.

Then, on 3 September, Jean Armour gave birth to twins, Jean and Robert. This delighted him as did the news that the 612 copies of his book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, were selling like hot cakes thanks in no small measure to a glittering review in the Edinburgh press. The Kilmarnock Edition, as the book became known, had elevated him to celebrity status.

In October came news that Mary Campbell, while waiting at a relative’s house in Greenock, had contracted a fever and died.

It was enough to make him abandon all plans of sailing to Jamaica. With his new-found wealth and status he headed, instead, for Edinburgh. The rest, as they say, is history.

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