HOW to get beneath the skin of a man whose poetry and songs have been beloved around the world for more than two centuries?
Be it the spine-tingling imagery of his famed poem Tam o’ Shanter, his prolific musings on love or an unrivalled prowess for capturing the majesty of the Scottish landscapes, the life and works of our Bard Robert Burns continue to fascinate, intrigue and enthral 225 years after he died.
Dr Pauline Mackay, a lecturer in Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, has dedicated her academic career to studying the Ayrshire poet, revisiting his best-loved classics, uncovering lesser-known pieces and attempting to unpick myths and misconceptions.
She has written a new book, Burns for Every Day of the Year, a hefty tome running to almost 620 pages, which covers a wealth of subject matter and gives fresh insight into his views on politics, love and religion.
“I was excited about doing this book because the nature of it – these 366 glimpses into Burns – was, in some ways, quite freeing,” says Mackay. “I wasn’t trying to write a chronological biography or impose any one narrative; I was able to let Burns’ words speak for themselves.
“The idea was it could be pleasingly random in places, but in others would be tied to important dates in Burns’ life and those of his contemporaries, as well as important events in Scottish history, culture and annual observances that we have in the 21st century.
Robert Burns at work. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
“Whether you are politically engaged, enjoy love poetry, like descriptions of nature and the seasons or are into the occult and the supernatural, there is something in Burns for everyone”.
Here, Mackay shares some of the gems she has gathered about Burns, shining a spotlight on his fierce intellect, imagination and inimitable ability with language.
Burns and politics is a fraught area, says Mackay. “The reason it is so fraught – the reason anything to do with Burns is quite fraught – is because he is a very complex and contradictory character. Explaining his political outlook is not straightforward and sometimes what he writes in his correspondence doesn’t quite square with his creative outlook within poetry and song.”
During the last seven years of his life, Burns was an exciseman working for the government. In the preceding decades, the American Revolution (1775-1783) had been rumbling away, as well as the French Revolution (1789-1799).
“Burns is very interested in this,” says Mackay. “He is engaged in the politics of his time. He engages with them creatively in his works. But while he is a government exciseman and a member of the local militia, Dumfries Volunteers, he can also write quite potentially inflammatory political satire.”
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Burns composed a poem called The Rights of Women for London actress Louisa Fontenelle in 1792. Its concluding lines, which invoke the French revolutionary cry, “ca ira!”, appear to have fuelled accusations that Burns led this rallying call in a packed theatre.
“That is where these complexities arise,” adds Mackay. “On one hand he is sending these political satires that almost align Burns with republicanism, then, on the other hand, he is saying to his superiors in excise, ‘Somebody said I led a cry of “ca ira!” at the Dumfries Playhouse but I didn’t …’
“The address he wrote for Louisa Fontenelle has the line: ‘Ah! ca ira! The Majesty of Woman!’ and it is possible that is where that story has come from or grown legs. Burns was called into question by his superiors and had his wrist slapped for it.”
Another fascinating area is Burns on the Jacobites – something Mackay touches on in her book’s entries for April, marking the anniversary of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.
“Whether or not Burns sympathised with the Jacobites or was attracted to them from a sentimental view, or whether he felt strongly in favour of their cause, we can’t say for certain,” she says.
The Battle of Culloden. Picture: Alamy
“But what we can do is look at each of the songs Burns collected, amended and wrote to do with the Jacobite uprisings and draw our own conclusions about why his relationship with Jacobitism is complex.”
Burns had a knack for falling in love fast and deeply, turning on a sixpence with his emotions. To that end, Mackay describes him as “a lover and a leaver”. She explains: “I think he knew that about himself to be honest. Love or lust? Who can know? Certainly, love was the word that Burns used.
“He had many relationships with women over the course of his short life. Some of these were close in proximity, some of them overlapped. The one person to whom he returned over and over again was Jean Armour Burns – she was the woman he married.”
“By the time he married Jean, they had already two sets of twins born outside wedlock,” says Mackay. “Sadly, quite a few of Burns’ children died in infancy. Three children from these two sets of twins died. Only one survived to adulthood.
“Burns seemed to be committed to Jean when she fell pregnant the first time and they contracted this form of irregular marriage. But her parents were incensed, they were absolutely furious.
“It is believed that her father took what Burns terms the ‘unlucky paper’ to a local lawyer and had them deface it, almost like he was annulling the evidence of this irregular marriage. Burns was devastated, angry and dejected.
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“We get a sense of the bitterness he feels but also the loss he feels about Jean. Gradually, we begin to see that, as angry as he says he is, he just can’t stay away from her. I think he did genuinely love Jean Armour but then I also think he did genuinely love a fair, few women.
“After Jean’s parents had destroyed the paper and sent her away to Paisley, I believe Burns felt that she hadn’t done enough to defend their relationship and he felt let down by her.
“At that point, he had his very famous but tragically short-lived affair with Highland Mary. It is believed that when he set plans in motion to travel to the West Indies, this was to put distance between himself and the situation with Jean, not least because her father had taken out a fine against him.”
Burns had intended to start afresh with a new life in the West Indies, accompanied by Mary Campbell, who he referred to as Highland Mary. They parted to make their individual arrangements, but Mary contracted an illness and died very quickly.
“He seems to have been devastated by this and writes some really heartfelt, poignant and distressed poetry about Highland Mary and her death, ‘To Mary In Heaven’ is one of them,” says Mackay.
“In some ways, she was even more commemorated than Jean Armour throughout the 19th and 20th century because she was almost like this Highland ideal and his tragic lost love. After Highland Mary sadly passed away, Burns goes to Edinburgh.
Robert Burns with Highland Mary. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
“He had success with Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. He decided not to go to the West Indies. He postponed it several times and I don’t think he really wanted to go. In Edinburgh, Burns begins a passionate, lengthy correspondence with Agnes McLehose.”
Mackay did her master’s degree on the correspondence between Burns and Agnes McLehose, who used the nom d’amours “Sylvander” and “Clarinda”. There followed a series of complex love affairs.
“While writing these lengthy, sentimental letters to Agnes McLehose and having private meetings with her, at the same time Burns has conducted a physical relationship or had a one-off with her maid Jenny Clow,” says Mackay.
“When Burns leaves Edinburgh, Agnes McLehose gets in touch to let him know that Jenny Clow has a son. This combined with the fact that he married Jean Armour shortly after leaving Edinburgh, led to the breakdown of their relationship.
“The man’s love life is difficult to keep track of. While he is married to Jean, Burns has an affair with Helen Anne Park, who he met at the Globe Tavern in Dumfries, and she gives birth to a daughter shortly before Jean gives birth to his son William Nicol.
“He takes the baby girl home and Jean raises this child at the Burns’ house with the rest of the kids. There are only days between the birth of that baby and Jean Armour’s baby.
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“Jean gave birth to nine of Burns’ children and she was very tolerant. There is a famous saying that people have been repeating since the 19th century, where she supposedly said: ‘Ach, Rab should have had two wives.'”
Burns wrote some scathing religious satire but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t religious, says Mackay. “Burns is sincerely religious in his own way. He has read the Bible carefully and quotes from it frequently,” she explains.
“Rather than refusing to engage with the Kirk’s discipline for fornication, he goes along to be publicly rebuked on two occasions. What Burns satirises is not religion – what he satirises is religious hypocrisy.
“Burns takes aim at over-determined religious orthodoxy in the 18th-century Presbyterian Kirk because he considers that it doesn’t account for human beings’ natural instincts and appetites. What he can’t cope with is the hypocrisy and self-righteousness that he witnesses, and the effect that this has on individuals as well as the community. For Burns, that is not ‘real religion’.”
Burns, the “Ploughman Poet” – as he presented himself in the Kilmarnock Edition – went to Edinburgh and enjoyed newfound fame. “He was lionised by Edinburgh society and took every opportunity he could to experience that,” says Mackay.
“In his letters, slightly earlier on during his time in Edinburgh, he writes saying he has long wanted to journey around Scotland, but it is not really possible. But it does become possible with the success of his writing and the patronage that he enjoys.
Dr Pauline Mackay, author and lecturer in Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow
“Burns makes several tours from Edinburgh. He does a tour of the Borders and north of England. He does a tour of the West Highlands and also a big Highland tour that takes him right the way up through the Great Glen, Inverness-shire and Loch Ness, up round Caithness and down to Aberdeen.
“He is on a pilgrimage to important historical and cultural sites. Burns is also observing people. He is listening to traditional music and songs. He is taking inspiration from everything he sees from the landscape and he is pouring that into his verse.”
Interestingly, says Mackay, Burns is always keeping a close eye on the surrounding agriculture. “You can take the farmer out of Ayrshire, but you can’t take Ayrshire out of the farmer,” she adds. “When he is up in Aberdeenshire, his Highland tour journal is brilliant.
“He was in a chaise – a type of horse-drawn carriage – and the journal is in pencil and it is horrible and bumpy handwriting, so you can tell he has been writing it in the chaise. He is making observations about the terrain, the land and the methods of farming.
“Burns made all these normal observations in his tour journal but then, in his poetry and song, we get a real sense of the way that his imagination and creativity was roused by that journey.”
Woven throughout the October entries within Burns for Every Day of the Year, Mackay brings together works and letters inspired by the supernatural.
“Burns grew up aware of this folk superstition that surrounded him within rural culture,” she says. “There are some wonderful letters where he describes the stories that his mother’s maid, in particular, used to tell him.
“He explains how these stories both terrified him and fired his imagination. He could never forget those. You can see how this is brought to bear in his work and poetry. On October 31, a lot of people might have expected me to pick Tam o’ Shanter but Burns did write a poem called Halloween.
Alloway Auld Kirk, Ayrshire. Picture: Colin Mearns/The
“What is interesting is that Halloween is not a scary poem, it is not a terrifying or ghoulish story like Tam o’ Shanter, but rather a survey of Halloween high jinks and Scottish folk customs.
“My book includes an extract from Tam o’ Shanter on October 30. Burns wrote Tam o’ Shanter for Captain Francis Grose, who was an antiquarian. Grose was the author of a book called The Antiquities of Scotland and compiling his second volume.
“Burns said to him, ‘You need to include a sketch of Alloway Auld Kirk’ – which is where Burns’ father was buried – and legend has it Grose said, ‘Fine, but give me some stories to go along with it.’
“Burns sent Grose a letter with three supernatural stories about Alloway Auld Kirk, as well as the poem Tam o’ Shanter. You can see the way that these stories build up to the poem itself.”
Burns was hugely inspired by nature and the seasons, says Mackay. “He was a farmer and in tune with the land and his surroundings,” she says. “You get a sense of the keen observation of his natural surroundings. The way he deploys that imagery in love poetry is remarkable.
“He has such a keen eye and a sense of exactly the right words and images to use in any given place. That made it easy to map some his poems and songs onto the seasons. There is a series on winter which he claimed was his favourite season because in some ways it aligned with his mood.
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“Burns is referred to as suffering from ‘melancholy’, what we would nowadays consider to be depressive. For this reason, he was sometimes in a wintry mood and enjoyed the low light and language that helped him to describe that season, the gloom, awful weather and barrenness.
“But we have such unbelievably joyful descriptions of spring and summer. Then, when we move into the autumn, Burns is a farmer and harvest time was important to him. We have amazing poems like John Barleycorn and Corn Rigs – there is so much to enjoy within each season.”
Burns for Every Day of the Year by Pauline Mackay is published by Black & White, priced £20