Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society once again welcomed Laura Spence to give a talk sponsored by the Ulster-Scots Agency. Appropriately her talk on 13 January was on Robert Burns, as it was less than a fortnight before the traditional celebrations for Burns Night.
She began by explaining how her interest in Burns had started when her grandmother read his poems to her from a large, illustrated volume. In particular she encouraged Laura’s interest in “Tam O’Shanter” by explaining to her the meaning of the poem. She also told her about the places associated with Burns.
Laura explained Burns’ popularity and character by comparing him with George Best: a handsome, exceptionally talented man from a working-class family who did not cope well with fame and publicity. He was born on 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire, and died aged 37 in 1796. He was the first son of William and Agnes Burness(the early version of the name) and grew up in a humble cottage. His father was poor and Burns helped out on the family farm. William wanted his children to have a good education and he also took them to the Presbyterian Church in Ayr every Sunday. There Robert would have seen sinners denounced by the Kirk Session and paraded on a stool before the congregation. His mother entertained her children by singing old folk songs and telling stories and this had an impact on Burns.
When Burns was seven the family moved to Mount Oliphant farm. The rent was £50 a year and it was hard work for the family. Robert suffered from pains caused by the strain of ploughing. By 1775 he was noticing girls and he wrote his first poem to impress Nelly Kilpatrick.
The following summer he went to Kirkoswold to work for his uncle who was a smuggler. Then Burns moved with his family to Lochlea where it was hoped life would be better. Unfortunately it was not. He did enjoy the social life in Tarbolton where he and his friends formed the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club. He also joined the local Masonic lodge.
Burns’ next job involved a move to Irvine where he worked in the flax business belonging to his uncle. He was soon ill with pleurisy because of the work and living conditions. His father was also experiencing failing health as well as financial problems. Burns continued to read: in particular he admired the writing of Robert Ferguson who used the Scots language. This showed Burns that he too could write in Scots as well as English.
Things got worse for the family: they were in considerable debt and his father’s health became worse. Betty came in to nurse his father, but Robert made her pregnant. Then his father died and was buried at Alloway. Robert and his brother now took on a new farm at Mossgiel and things began to improve. He wrote poems, including “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” whose main character was based on his father.
Burns now met and fell in love with Jean Armour and she became pregnant. She was sent away by her family and had twins. Jean’s father was a respectable man and he opposed her marriage to Burns and even sought damages. Burns then had an affair with “Highland Mary”. He went into hiding to try to escape Mr Armour’s demands. He needed money so in 1786 he published his first book by subscription. This is known as the Kilmarnock Edition. It sold out in a few weeks and a second Edinburgh Edition was published.
Now a successful writer, Burns was invited to Edinburgh and became the darling of society. He met a Mrs Maclehose whose husband was living in the West Indies and they became close friends. Unfortunately he did not make much money from the Edinburgh Edition as he sold the copyright to the publisher. He met James Johnston who was about to publish a song book. Burns started travelling around the country. He collected songs and sent them to Johnston and became a great authority on Scottish songs.
He returned to Mossgiel and Mr Armour gave permission for Jean to marry him as Burns now enjoyed considerable success. The family moved to Dumfries and had more children, but this did not stop Burns seeing other women. He met Anna, the niece of the owner of the Globe Inn. When she died in childbirth Jean took the baby and raised it with her own new child.
Burns was still experiencing money problems. As he had a wife and nine children to support he took a job as a tax man. He continued writing, but his health began to deteriorate. A doctor advised him to go to Brow where he immersed himself in cold water. Two months later he was dead at the age of 37. He was buried in the grounds of St. Michael’s Parish Church in Dumfries. He left 13 children of whom 9 were borne by Jean Armour. She died in 1834.
Laura Spence concluded her talk by speaking about Burns’ legacy as Scotland’s national poet: the special mausoleum erected in the church grounds, the trails which connect the places associated with him in Ayrshire, Burns Night suppers around the world and more statues than Shakespeare.
The Linen Hall Library in Belfast has the second largest collection of Burns material in the world. It had been collected by Andrew Gibson and when he needed money he sold it to the library. Finally Laura treated us to a rendition of “Tam O’Shanter”, probably Burns most famous piece of writing after “Auld Lang Syne”.