some exchanges with regular visitor to the site, Jessie Pettigrew, we
managed to coax her into writing an article on Burns relationship with
women. It is obvious to anyone who communicates with Jessie that she is
a lady of considerable knowledge, talent, wit and character and we are
delighted to share her writings with you. I'm sure everyone will agree,
Jessie has her own unique style. Thanks Jessie, for a well presented and
articulate piece !
Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759 and, naturally enough, the first of the fair sex to enter his life was his mother - Agnes Broun. It was from Agnes that Robert inherited his love of songs and rhyme as she would sing to him when he was nocht but a bairn on her knee. She had learned these songs while working in the fields as well as at the threshing. Many of her songs were learned from Will Nelson, her old boyfriend, singing them after him line by line until she got the tune right and knew all of the verses.
Some of these songs had never been written down but passed by word of mouth. The young Robert learned them too. Betty Davidson, an old friend of the family who often stayed with them, was another of Robert's sources of inspiration when he was very young. She would sit with the family around the ingle and tell stories of witches and warlocks and recount many tales of old legends and dastardly deeds. No wonder Robert, in later life, could compose such a tale as that of 'Tam O Shanter'!
Burns met his first young love when he was only fifteen, she being fourteen years of age. Nelly Blair was her name and we know of her today as Nelly Kilpatrick. She was the daughter of a local blacksmith and they met when his father hired some extra help to bring in the harvest while they were at the farm of Mount Oliphant. It was with Nelly in mind that he wrote his first song "Handsome Nell" -
Burns wrote later of this song, saying -
"I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart. I remember I composed it in a wild enthusiasm of passion, and to this hour I never recollect it but my heart melts, and my blood sallies at the remembrance.".
However, a year after his young romance had left him, Robert fell in love again when he went to school in Kirkoswald for tuition in surveying. Next door to the school lived
Thomson with whom he became besotted. Peggy was housekeeper at Coilsfield
- the Castle of Montgomery - and Robert had met her frequently at Tarboth
Mill. They attended the same kirk and contracted an intimacy even although
she was engaged to
fondly lov'd, and still remember'd dear,
Begbie, the daughter of a small farmer in the parish of Galston, was not
lovely song - "Mary Morison" - has caused much speculation as
for whom it was
Highland Lassie, O" was inspired by Mary Campbell of whom Burns'
Mary Campbell was dearly loved by Burns and, even in later years, he would think of her fondly, sometimes being full of despair. His beautiful poem "To Mary in Heaven" was written at Ellisland on the third anniversary of her death. Jean Armour had noticed that towards evening, the night before, her husband grew sad about something, and wandered solitary on the banks of the Nith and about the farmyard in the extremest agitation of mind, and though repeatedly asked to come in, declined the invitation. On the lee-side of a cornstack he screened himself from the cutting edge of the night wind and lingered till approaching dawn wiped out the stars, one by one, from the firmament; he then entered the house, and sat down and wrote his immortal address to "Mary in Heaven".
Lass o' Ballochmyle" was written in 1786 about Miss Wilhelmina Alexander,
sister of the proprietor of Ballochmyle. On 19th November, that year,
the poet enclosed the verses in a letter to Miss Alexander, in which he
Burns was on his tour of the Borders in May of 1787, he visited the farm
maid, you need not take the hint,
Robert's sojourn to Edinburgh in 1787, he met with Mrs. Agnes Craig or
fond kiss, and then we sever;
Jeanie Jaffrey, a daughter of the minister of Lochmaben, when but a girl
Park was the niece of Mrs. Hyslop of the Globe Tavern in Dumfries and
she bore a
Many elegies, epigrams, epistles and epitaphs were written by Burns during his short life-time and one elegy in particular was the "Elegy on the late Miss Burnet of Monboddo". Elizabeth Burnet was the youngest daughter of Lord Monboddo and Burns spoke of her with enthusiasm in many of his letters. In one of his letters to Mrs. Dunlop he wrote -
do not remember if ever I mentioned to you my having an idea of composing
an elegy on the late Miss Burnet of Monboddo. I had the honour of being
pretty well acquainted with her, and have seldom felt so much at the loss
of an acquaintance, as when I heard that so amiable and accomplished a
piece of God's work was no more. I have as yet gone no farther than the
following fragment, of which please let me have your opinion. You know
that Elegy is a subject so much exhausted, that any new idea on the business
is not to be expected; 'tis well if we can place an old idea in a new
wrote a charming song "Lovely Young Jessie" in 1793. The subject
Lorimer was the inspiration behind several of Burns' works and was referred
Jessie Lewars was the last of the fair sex to be immortalised by Robert Burns. This young lady was the sister of John Lewars, the poet's friend and fellow exciseman at Dumfries. During the poet's brief and fatal illness, Jessie Lewars acted the part of a ministering angel in the Burns' household and Burns seemed to imagine himself as the lover of his wife's kind-hearted young friend. The tender and beautiful lyric of "O wert thou in the cauld blast" was one of various tributes to young Jessie. According to the lady's own statement, Burns called upon her one morning and said if she would play him any favourite air for which she might wish new words, he would endeavour to produce something that should please her. She sat down to the piano, and played the air of the old ditty, already familiar to him by his wife's singing and, after a few minutes' abstraction, he produced the song - "O wert thou in the cauld blast". The last four lines of this song must surely be the finest words of love ever written -
Or were I Monarch o' the globe,
Jessie Lewars became a Mrs. Thomson and died in 1855. Her remains, appropriately, lie quite close to the poet's Mausoleum in St. Michael's Kirkyaird, Dumfries.
This insight into some of the lassies who inspired Robert Burns to write his famous, and some not so famous, works would not be complete without the mention of his beloved wife, Jean Armour Burns.Robert and Jean met in the little town of Mauchline where he attended the kirk, the ale house and the Masonic Lodge. He had set his sights on marrying Jean and, although she was pregnant at the time, her father would not allow the marriage of his daughter to a "worthless rhymer". Burns was shattered by this stern attitude and was abandoned by his Jean. However, two years later Burns and Jean were married, with her father's blessing, as Burns had made a name for himself by this time and had been accepted in the high society of the day. They set up home in Ellisland Farm near Dumfries. In 1791 they moved from Ellisland to the Wee Vennel in Dumfries where they lived happily until the poet died in 1796. The house was purchased by their son, Colonel William Nicol Burns, on his return from India. Jean and her family lived in this house until her death in 1834. She was buried beside her husband in the Mausoleum in St. Michael's Kirkyaird.
During my research for this short piece I discovered that Burns was full of romantic fantasy, never having spoken to some of the lassies of whom he wrote, but members of the fairer sex he may have seen at a distance and whose beauty filled him with passion. I also came to the conclusion that, although he admired, respected and loved his wife Jean, he was in love with his "Highland Mary" and remained so many, many years after her death.
would be impossible to mention all of the lassies who gave inspiration
to our National
S. F. Pettigrew F.S.A.(Scot.)