Mrs Frances Dunlop of Dunlop: 79 of Burn’s letters and 107 of Mrs Dunlop’s, over their 10-year friendship, survive to this day.
by Liz Strachan
Robert Burns regarded women primarily as potential bedfellows, but there were exceptions. There was the stunningly beautiful and talented Maria Riddell with whom, if circumstances had been different, he might have enjoyed a marriage of true minds as well as bodies. But she was a respectable, upper class, married lady and out of his reach.
The other exception was Mrs Frances Dunlop of Dunlop who was nearly 30 years older than Burns, physically unattractive and the mother of 13 children. With her, he had a unique friendship which, apart from five visits to her home, developed over 10 years of written correspondence of which 79 of Burn’s letters and 107 of Mrs Dunlop’s survive to this day.
Posterity is indebted to this pen friendship without which accurate knowledge of the life and times of our national bard would be much diminished.
In 1785, Mrs Dunlop’s beloved husband of 37 years died. In the same year, one of her sons, who had inherited her childhood home, had to sell up in order to pay off gambling debts. The Wallace estate of Craigie in Ayr had belonged to her family for centuries and she was heartbroken. Later that year, a friend lent her a copy of Burns’s first publication, the Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. She was especially delighted with The Cotter’s Saturday Night. Mrs Dunlop was proud to be a direct descendent of Sir William Wallace, victor at the battle of Falkirk Bridge in 1298 and Scotland’s national hero, so when she read the following lines, her depression lifted.
O Thou! who poured the patriotic tide,
That streamed thro Wallace’s undaunted heart.
Who dared to, nobly, stem tyrannic pride,
Or nobly die, the second glorious part.
Mrs Dunlop sent a letter to Burns at Mossgiel Farm 15 miles away, requesting six copies of his Poems and she also invited him to visit her at Dunlop House. Burns replied that he would be delighted to send the five copies remaining but that he was about to go off to Edinburgh to organise a further edition.
This was the beginning of a close friendship lasting 10 years and when it ended, both of them were very hurt.Her letters to him were always very long and rambling, written in a cramped almost undecipherable hand. It would have required a determined effort to read to the end of them. His letters to her, unlike his poems, were always in perfectly constructed standard English. In his first one, he established their relationship by praising Wallace in exaggerated flowery terms.
So Mrs Dunlop moved into his life. He sent her his newly composed poems, she took on the self-imposed job of literary advisor attempting to ‘improve’ his verse and persuading him to remove vulgar passages to make it more socially acceptable. She read The Twa Dogs,
‘Then sat they down upon their arse,
And there began a lang digression
About the lords o’ the creation.’
She wanted him to replace the offending word with ‘tails.’ He didn’t do this but in a later version, the line was changed to,
‘Upon a knowe, they sat them down.’
She was always pointing out trivial faults but, depending on his mood, he either ignored her advice or rejected it with good humour.
She also tried to discourage his use of the Scottish language in his poems. Thankfully, Burns rejected this advice also. His very best work, Tam o’ Shanter, Holy Willie’s Prayer, To a Mouse, The Twa Dogs, and many others including his love songs are in the Scottish language which was the perfect medium for the sentiments he wished to express. However, after the triumph of the Edinburgh Edition which gave him national acclaim, he was confident and arrogant enough to write to Mrs Dunlop,
‘Your criticisms, Madam, I understand very well, and could have wished to please you better. You are right in your guess that I am not very amenable to counsel. Poets, much my superiors, have so flattered those who possessed the adventitious qualities of wealth and power that I am determined to flatter no created being, either in prose or verse, so help me God!’
However, only the mediocre are at their best all the time and later, he admitted to some work that he was not overly proud of.
Mrs Dunlop also took the role of the caring, sometimes scolding mother of a genius child. As their friendship deepened, she knew when he was troubled and usually succeeded in getting him to talk about it. She knew and disapproved of his sexual affairs. We know more about his affair with ‘Highland Mary’ from his correspondence with Mrs Dunlop than any other source but yet, he says very little about Agnes McLehose for whom Ae Fond Kiss was written.
When he married Jean Armour, he wrote attempting to explain why he had failed to choose a more appropriate wife,
‘Circumstanced as I am, I could never have got a female partner for life who could have entered into my favourite studies, relished my favourite authors, without entailing on me, at the same time, expensive living, fantastic caprice, apish affectation, with all the other Boarding school acquirements.’
This and several other remarks about Jean before and after his marriage suggest that his love for Jean was not all consuming. His second legitimate son was named Francis Wallace Burns in honour of his friend. He wrote to Mrs Dunlop again,
‘About two hours ago, I welcomed home your little Godson. He is a fine squalling fellow with a pipe that makes the room ring. His mother as usual. Zelucco I have not thoroughly read so as to give a critique on it.’
The four words between the joy at his newborn child and an opinion on a novel show a coldness towards the woman who was his loyal, devoted and long suffering wife.
Knowing that his poetry and attempts at farming were not enough to support his growing family, Mrs Dunlop sent his children gifts of money and she also set about trying to get him a better paid job. Eventually after failing to persuade him to join the army or take a lectureship at Edinburgh University, she gave up and he secured his post in the Excise service by other means but she was always ready to put in a good word for him any time it was required.
Their friendship cooled a little in 1791. Mrs Dunlop’s milkmaid, Jenny Little was a prolific but very average rhymer but her mistress persevered in trying to get Burns to critique her poems. Burns was not interested and ignored every effort Mrs Dunlop made to push the girl’s efforts under his nose.
One day, however, the determined milkmaid turned up at Ellisland clutching her poems. Unfortunately her timing was disastrous. Jean was about to give birth, the house was in disarray and Burns arrived home with a broken arm having fallen off his horse. This was hardly an appropriate time for a poetry reading and Jenny had to leave, bitterly disappointed. Strangely, Mrs Dunlop’s sympathies lay with her maid. She paid for the girl’s book of poems to be published and upbraided Burns for his haughty dismissal of it.Their relationship survived this episode but in 1794 it deteriorated quickly and finally. Two of Mrs Dunlop’s daughters were married to French aristocrat émigrés – Britain was now at war with France and four of her sons had army connections. But Burns continued to be a fervent supporter of the French revolution and his politics were in complete opposition to hers.
After receiving a particularly insensitive letter about liberty and the gallant people of the Revolution, she stopped writing to him. He was bewildered and hurt at her stony silence and in his second last letter to her at the end of January 1796, he begged her to communicate with him again. He wrote despairingly about the death of his beloved only daughter Elizabeth and his own worsening illness, but still Mrs Dunlop did not relent.
Two weeks before his death he wrote farewell letters to several people including Mrs Dunlop. He said,
‘Your friendship which for many years you honoured me was a friendship dearest to my soul. Your conversation and especially your correspondence were at once highly entertaining and instructive. With what pleasure did I used to break up the seal! The remembrance yet adds one pulse to my poor palpitating heart. Farewell!’
Although the letter was lost or destroyed – probably by Dr James Currie, who was the first biographer of the poet – he did confirm that Mrs Dunlop had indeed replied and that the last letter that Burns was able to read on his deathbed contained the longed for words of reconciliation from his old, most-valued friend.
When retired maths teacher Liz Strachan is not assisting husband Sandy in the garden, she is golfing, bowling or gossiping with friends. But now and then, she gets the urge to write and has published over 120 stories and articles.Tweet
This is an article from the December 2006 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.