In Scotsman.com view (21 August) “Persona non grata” commented: “Robert Burns was a notorious drunkard. What a role model.” This is grotesquely inaccurate and grossly unfair.
Vilification of Burns started almost as soon as he died, and was carried on by Robert Heron, James Currie, James Irving, Josiah Walker, Allan Cunningham and even Walter Scott and his son-in-law Lockhart, each of them feeding on the other.
Yet in the last seven years of his life Burns was employed by the Excise, which monitored its employees extremely closely, and no such deviant behaviour was ever reported.
For example, Burns’ supervisor Alexander Findlater was so upset by the injustice that he felt compelled to write: “My connection with Robert Burns commenced immediately after his admission into the Excise (in 1789) and continued until the hour of his death (in 1796). In all that time the superintendance of his behaviour as an officer of the revenue was a branch of my especial providence…
“I have seen Burns in all his various phases… indeed I believe I saw more of him than any other individual after he became an Exciseman, and I never beheld anything like the gross enormities with which he is now charged…
“The virulence indeed with which his memory has been treated is hardly to be paralleled in the annals of literature.”
Another Excise supervisor, James Sinton, wrote a book, Burns: Excise Officer and Poet, a Vindication, and close friend Maria Riddell also came out strongly in Burns’ defence, as did many others.
One can follow this up in Graham Smith’s excellent 1989 book, Robert Burns the Exciseman. Burns was a man of his time and place and, of course, enjoyed a drink and the crack in pubs. But to label him a drunkard is as absurd as it is false.
(Emeritus Prof) NC Craig Sharp