If Robert Burns had been like most of us, falling in love, getting married and staying faithful, he would not have written the most tender and beautiful love poems of all time.
Burns felt the first stirrings of love when he was a young lad of 14 and his earliest surviving verses were for Nelly Kirkpatrick who worked alongside him at the harvest of 1773. His lines are of admiration and respect for the lovely young girl:
But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,
And, what is best of a’,
Her reputation is complete
And fair without a flaw.
The heady, euphoric state of new love encourages even the most prosaic of us to pen a few lines of verse, so Burns’ lifelong succession of love affairs meant he was never short of inspiration.
He wrote his greatest poems when he was head-over-heels in love and with his shortbread tin good looks he was welcomed into the arms of one ‘lovely dear’ after another.
In 1780, when the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club was formed, one of the rules was that each member must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex, an early statement of Burns’ polygamous attitude to women. He wrote:
The sweetest hours that e’er I spent
Are spent among the lassies-o.
Furiously loving the women and loved by them in return, there weren’t many pretty Ayrshire lassies who escaped his amorous attentions and most of them were immortalised in his poetry. Depending on the nature of the affair, the poems were sometimes bawdy, often dew fresh and occasionally just so beautifully passionate that the lines are unforgettable.
In 1784, he flirted with Lizzie Paton, a rather coarse farm servant, the result of which was his first illegitimate child. It was probable that Lizzie was merely available rather than attractive to Burns and in his poem, My Girl, She’s Airy, he at first praises her slender figure, but finishes with lines which are vulgar in the extreme. Lizzie accepted that Burns would not marry her and disappeared from the scene, leaving the child to be reared by Burns’ mother.
However, Burns was proud of his sexual prowess in fathering Elizabeth and wrote in A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter
Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter!
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for.
And in the last verse,
I’ll never rue my trouble wi’ thee
The cost nor shame o’t
But be a loving father to thee,
And brag the name o’t.
He was always as good as his word.
During this time Robert met 18-year-old Jean Armour, the girl he eventually and rather reluctantly married after she had given birth to their second set of twins. If he did not exactly keep her barefoot, he certainly kept her pregnant and in the kitchen. Meanwhile he lived his bachelor life, often away for long spells in Edinburgh where he was welcomed and entertained by leading literary figures.
Married love did not usually inspire him, but at the height of his philandering in Edinburgh he had a pang of conscience for his wife at home. The tender lines of I Love my Jean were set to the air of a strathspey:
There’s wild woods grow, and rivers row,
And money a hill between;
But day and night my fancy flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.
Poor devoted, long-suffering Jean; she adored him and bore him nine children, the last one on the day of his funeral in July, 1796. She forgave his philandering and even took in his illegitimate daughter by barmaid Ann Park, only a few days after the birth of her own son, William. To add insult to infidelity, he flaunted the affair in a poem which raised a few genteel eyebrows.
Yestreen I had a pint o’ wine,
A place where body saw na;
Yestreen lay on this breast o’ mine
The gouden locks of Anna.
If Robert truly loved any woman, it was Mary Campbell, the mysterious Highland Mary
If Robert truly loved any woman, it was Mary Campbell, the mysterious Highland Mary. She was nursemaid to the son of Gavin Hamilton, Robert’s friend and lawyer. His sexual adventure with her resulted in yet another illegitimate birth, but sadly, Mary and the baby died. She had been a welcome distraction for him at a time when he was in trouble with the Kirk Session and James Armour over Jean’s pregnancy and when he was considering emigrating to Jamaica.
It is possible that Mary Campbell had become his common-law wife and that marrying Jean made him a bigamist.
In Highland Lassie-o, he wrote,
She has my heart, she has my hand,
By secret troth and honour’s band.
Til the mortal stroke shall lay me low
I’m thine, my Highland lassie-o.
Certainly he had been besotted by Mary and his poetic muse knew no bounds. Amongst the many tributes to her is the hauntingly beautiful Afton Water.
Before his marriage to Jean in August 1788, Robert was in Edinburgh and ecstatically in love. The lady was Margaret Chalmers to whom he wrote, ‘When I think I have met you, and have lived more of real life with you in eight days than I can do with anybody else I meet in eight years’.
But only a few weeks later, he was in love with Nancy McLehose, a married woman whose husband was in Jamaica. The lovers called themselves Clarinda and Sylvander and they wrote each other dozens of steamy letters. More worldly-wise, she probably allowed him to love her only at arm’s length and their passion was further hampered by his dislocated knee.
He wrote for her, when she made the decision to join her husband, one of the finest love songs of all time, Ae Fond Kiss.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly
Never met – or never parted – We had ne’er been broken hearted.
Lovesick or not, and with injured leg on a cushion, he managed to suspend his all-consuming love for Nancy in order to seduce Jenny Clow, her maid servant. Once again, Robert had to record the affair:
Oh Jenny’s a weet, poor body,
Jenny’s seldom dry,
She draigl’t a’ her petticoats,
Comin thro’ the rye!
Poor Jenny, she paid dearly for her dalliance with Robert among the corn rigs. She became pregnant like all the others and lost her job. Robert, to his credit, did offer to take care of his illegitimate son (or, rather, have Jean Armour take care of him) but Jenny refused. She died of tuberculosis in 1792.
Another of his casual affairs in Edinburgh led to the pregnancy of a servant girl called May Cameron. There was no love poem for poor May, merely 12 shillings to persuade her to go back to the country and out of his life. Yet Burns was till capable of composing the most delightfully innocent songs.
Jean Cruickshank was the talented 12-year-old daughter of a respected friend, and she and the poet enjoyed singing together at the harpsichord. For her, he wrote A Rosebud by my Early Walk.
Within the bush, her covert nest
A little linnet fondly prest
The dew sat chilly on her breast
Sae early in the morning.
We do not know for whom A Red, Red Rose was written. This masterpiece is the most passionate of all, and every woman would like to think it was for her alone.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in love am I,
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
All of Burns’ love poems are not of equal merit, but the best are the finest lyrics in our language, set to the most beautiful old Scottish melodies. For 200 years they have stirred the heart, for these songs are universal; they are the words of everyone in love, at all times and in every land.
But what about the poet himself? He belonged to an l8th century farming society where illegitimacy rates were high, not only because contraception was unavailable, but because it was a rite of passage in rural Scotland for young men to prove their manhood by seducing girls.
He was never a reprobate, although he was often a rascal. He was a genius who gave Scotland everlasting song, and this and all his other work will mark him as one of the greatest figures in world literature for ever.
But he was also a man… and a man’s a man for a’ that.
Liz Strachan was educated at Aberdeen Academy and Aberdeen University, after which she taught mathematics for 36 years. She was inspired to start writing after getting full marks for ‘helping’ her son with his essay on Hamlet.Tweet
This is an article from the November 2002 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.