Robert Burns is the last of the four Famous Scots from the Past featured in our Fringe Festival exhibition this year. With limited space available, the challenge has been to choose a single document that helps us get closer to Scotland’s national poet.
We started by considering how the official records, in which NRS is so strong, could help tell part of the poet’s remarkable life. By contrast with other archives and libraries which look after manuscripts of his poems and songs, NRS has little direct evidence of his creative life.
Would we choose the record of his birth and baptism in the Alloway parish register (one of the thousands of pre-1855 ‘Old Parish Registers’), or look to the end of his life, using the inventory of his estate, and court records, to trace how his affairs were handled for the benefit of his widow and children? Or should we explore his career as an exciseman, which can be charted in the Exchequer and other records?
All these documents, which NRS cares for and makes available for study, form our main link with Burns. But there is an older connection that takes us back to a pivotal year in his life and an important landmark in our own history. New Year 1788 saw the poet continue his second visit to Edinburgh, where he had arrived the previous October. He was lodging on the west side of St James’s Square, just yards from the back of the newly-built Register House, which opened to the public during 1788.
Burns lived in the attic storey of the house of his friend William Cruickshank, a classics master at the High School. The winter of 1787-88 witnessed a bout of creativity as Burns composed songs for the ‘Scots Musical Museum’, helped by the twelve-year old Jenny Cruickshank, who played the airs on the harpsichord.
His planned return to Ayrshire and to Jean Armour, who was again pregnant by him, was delayed by a leg injury he had sustained in December 1787. Cooped up in his attic rooms, Burns expressed his admiration for Mrs Agnes Maclehose, with whom he corresponded as ‘Sylvander’ to her ‘Clarinda’, and got Jenny Clow, her letter-carrying maidservant, with child.
In February 1788 he was reunited with Jean, and two years of agonising over whether to marry her came to an end during the summer. They were said to have made a legal ‘irregular’ marriage by declaration before witnesses. In August 1788, when they were confronted by Mauchline kirk session, Robert and Jean ‘acknowledged that they were irregularly married some years ago’. This may refer to a written pledge of marriage in 1786 made by Burns, but which Jean’s enraged father had mutilated.
Mauchline parish register on display [NRS, OPR 604/2]
That document has not survived, but the parish register on display shows how the matter was resolved in 1788, and brings us closer to one of the most famous relationships in Scotland’s literary history.
You can find more of our records concerning Burns’ personal life and career in the Excise Service in the NRS Hall of Fame.
Find out more about the Bard’s colourful personal life and literary career with Burns expert Professor David Purdie in a free talk on 31 August 2017.
This illustrated talk will include Burns’ intensive song-writing at St James’ Square in Edinburgh during the winter of 1787-88, just yards from General Register House. Book your place here.
Head of Outreach
National Records of Scotland