Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland's best known poet. He was a tenant farmer in Ayrshire who came to prominence through the publication of his poems in the 1780s. His intention had been to raise money from his poems in order to emigrate to Jamaica, but the positive reaction to his work, especially in Edinburgh, persuaded him to change his plans. He left Ayrshire to spend the winters of 1786-7 and 1787-8 in Edinburgh and also embarked upon several tours around Scotland, absorbing the local cultures of folklore and song. He resettled into farm life at Ellisland, Dumfriesshire with Jean Armour, whom he married in 1788, but in 1792 obtained work as an excise officer at Dumfries, where he spent the last five years of his life.
Robert Burns in the National
Records of Scotland
Burns and his wife, Jean Armour, appear in several historical records held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). The parish registers recording his birth and his marriage to Jean Armour form part of the Old Parish Registers series, which can be searched via ScotlandsPeople. Details of Burns' short career as an exciseman can be gleaned from Exchequer excise salary books (E562/6), Customs and Excise records (CE6/9 and RH1/2/881) and a letter in the Mar and Kellie collection (GD124/15) where the poet explained his near-dismissal from the Excise service and his independence of mind. These and other records relating to Burns and Jean Armour con be found in our online catalogue, and can be seen in the Historical Search Room. Several items are featured here: his birth and baptism, his appearances before Mauchline kirk session, the letter from John Mitchell, his testament in Dumfries Commissary Court registers and the trust settlement in the Court of Session papers.
Birth and baptism
The birth of Robert Burns on 25 January 1759 and his baptism the next day are recorded in the parish register of Alloway, Ayrshire (OPR578/4, page 17). The future poet was the eldest of seven children of William Burnes, a gardener and tenant farmer, and his wife, Agnes Brown. In 1756 William met Agnes at the fair in the parish of Maybole, where she lived, and they married in December 1757.
Download a transcript from the baptism register of Alloway parish as Pdf file (New window, Acrobat Pdf 119 Kb).
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Mauchline kirk session
Robert Burns appeared before the kirk session of Mauchline in 1786 to admit that he was the father of Jean Armour's twin children, and underwent public repentance during June to August (CH2/896/12 pages 162-173).
Download extracts from Mauchline kirk session minutes as Pdf file (New window, Acrobat
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In 1788 it came to the attention of the kirk session that Burns and Jean Armour had been irregularly married, ie in a civil ceremony and not by a minister. As was usual in such cases, the session summoned them and rebuked them on 5 August, impressing on them that they were bound together as husband and wife (OPR604/20, p.235).
Download a transcript from the marriage register of Mauchline parish as Pdf file (New window, Acrobat Pdf 136 Kb). Download a transcript from the marriage register of Mauchline parish as RTF file (New window, Acrobat RTF 3Mb)
John Mitchell’s letter to Robert Graham of Fintry
In addition to the official records of Burns' career as an Exciseman already mentioned, a letter survives that records the poet's visit to the Excise Office in Dumfries, 14 July 1796. Written by Burns' superior, John Mitchell, Collector of Excise in Dumfries, it gives a vivid glimpse of his state of mind one week before he died: 'reduced & shattered as he was, in the extreme, his wit and humour remained.' (GD151/11/26/46). It proves that Burns made a return journey to Dumfries to collect his salary, an arduous undertaking unrecorded in accounts of his life.
Download a transcript of John Mitchell's letter as Pdf file (New window, Acrobat
Download a transcript of John Mitchell's letter as RTF file (New window, RTF 583Kb).
Testament of Robert Burns
A testament for Burns appears in Dumfries Commissary Court records (CC5/6/18, pages 74-75). This is not a will, in the popular sense, but a 'testament dative' whereby his widow had recourse to the commissary court to recover two outstanding debts owing to her husband for which she required legal authority. A digital copy and transcript of this testament can be seen free of charge in the Famous Scots section of the ScotlandsPeople website.
Trust settlement in Court of Session records
Of rather more interest than Robert Burns' testament is the 'State of Gilbert Burns's Acceptance to Mr Burns' Estate' (CS97/Box 101/15). Gilbert was Robert's brother. The account covers the period from December 1793 to May 1798, with copy correspondence to October 1800. The trustees of Robert Burns' family devised a scheme for the support of his surviving children, Robert, Francis-Wallace, William-Nicol and James Burns. The scheme was to publish a four volume edition of Burns' complete works – 'well known as the Ayrshire poet' – including posthumous poems and a biography written by Dr James Currie, MD, FRS, of Liverpool. Subscriptions were raised to meet the initial cost of publication, which was in the hands of Thomas Cadell and William Davies in London and William Creech, bookseller in Edinburgh. The money raised by publication was to be used for the support of the children and their mother, Jean Armour, Robert Burns' widow. The factor overseeing the arrangements for their upkeep was William Thomson of Moat, writer in Dumfries. The accounts include an annuity payable to Robert and Gilbert's mother, a year's bed, board and washing for Elizabeth Burns, Robert's natural daughter by Elizabeth Paton, cash given to Mrs Burns while in Mauchline towards the expenses of her daughter's funeral, and some of the expenses of Robert's own funeral.
a transcript of the trust settlement as Pdf file (New window, Acrobat Pdf
a transcript of the trust settlement as RFT file(New window, RTF