Before coming to Mauchline, Robert Burns’ family lived comfortably on Lochlea Farm near Tarbolton. His father William had a disagreement with the Landlord and died on 13th February 1784. When their father’s affairs at Lochlea were reaching crisis, Robert and his brother Gilbert rented the farm of Mossgiel, Mauchline from Gavin Hamilton. The farm was 118 acres, the rent was £90 per annum and the farm was stocked by the Landlord. The whole family put in their individual savings and each member of the family was allowed an ordinary wage for the labour they performed on the farm. Robert and his brother Gilbert received £7 per annum each.
Robert entered Mossgiel full of good intentions. He read farming books, he calculated crops and he attended markets. However, bad seed was bought the first year and a late harvest the second year led to the loss of half of the crops.
He then began to be known in the Mauchline neighbourhood as a maker of rhymes. Burns said that the first which saw the light was a ‘burlesque lamentation on a quarrel between two reverend Calvanists, both of them dramatis personae in my Holy Fair. With a certain description of the clergy, as well as the laity, it met with a roar of applause.’
Robert Burns arrived at Mossgiel in 1785 aged 26 and during 1785 he wrote,
Epistle to Davie, a brother Poet
Davie was David Sillar, one year younger than Burns and, like him, the son of a small farmer in the Tarbolton area. His ‘Poems’ published in 1789 prove him to be no poet. Davie lived in Irvine from the end of 1783, first as a grocer and then as a schoolmaster. He was an Irvine Councillor and eventually a Baillie and died in Irvine - much respected - in 1830.
Epistle to John Goudie, Kilmarnock
To give him his correct name, John Goldie was a busy-brained old tradesman in Kilmarnock who moved from being a strict anti-burgher into free-thinking opinions, through study of Dr Taylor of Norwich’s work of ‘Original Sin’. John Goldie became an author himself, and in 1780 he published a volume of ‘Essays on various subjects, Moral and Divine‘. Goldie was about 70 years of age when he was friendly with Burns and Goldie was at that time also interested in Astronomy. Goldie's book of Essays saw a second edition of six volumes in 1785 and this became known locally as ‘Goldie's Bible’.
Holy Willie’s Prayer
This poem was handed around in manuscript form during the Poet’s lifetime but first appeared in print in 1799 in a Stewart and Meikle two penny tract. Holy Willie was Willie Fisher, an elder of the Parish Kirk of Mauchline, who had been mainly instrumental in prompting Mr (Daddy) Auld, the Minister, and his Session, to raise proceedings against sundry of the Parishioners for ‘habitual neglect of public ordinance’.- In other words for staying away from Church. Among the victims of this prosecution was Gavin Hamilton, the Poet’s laird and very good friend who not only was absent from Kirk meetings, but was even known to dig potatoes from his garden on the Lord’s Day. One of the indictments against Gavin Hamilton was for setting off on a journey to Carrick one Sunday, having been warned not to by the Minister. However, Gavin Hamilton appealed to the Presbytery where, due to the eloquence of his Lawyer, he obtained an order for erasure of the obnoxious minutes of Mauchline Kirk Session. When Holy Willie’s Prayer made it’s appearance in print, it alarmed the Kirk Session so much that they held several meetings to look over their spiritual artillery to see if any of it might be used against profane rhymers. The fact that the Poet did not misrepresent the man, against whom the ‘Prayer’ was written, is proved by events. Holy Willie, was afterwards found guilty of stealing money from the Church offerings and his life ended in a ditch, into which he had fallen while going home after a ‘debauch’. ‘Holy Willie’s Epitaph’ which normally follows Holy Willie’s Prayer, was not printed until 1801. Daddy Auld was born in 1709 and died in 1791 and is buried in Mauchline Churchyard where his grave can be seen. Gavin Hamilton’s grave can also be seen in Mauchline Churchyard.
Death and Doctor Hornbook
This was composed in the Spring of 1785. ‘Doctor Hornbook’ was John Wilson, the Parish School teacher in Tarbolton. Burns, then resident at Mossgiel, Mauchline, had been attending a Meeting of St James Lodge of Freemasons at Tarbolton* and John Wilson was a ‘Brother’ there. Wilson eked out his small teacher’s salary by running a grocery shop in which he sold medicines as well as foods and he had a card in his window which offered free ‘medical advice’. Wilson took every opportunity to talk about his self-acquired skill as a practitioner, and so disgusted Burns on the night referred to with the rubbish he was speaking, that Burns conceived the poem Death and Doctor Hornbook on the way home from the Masonic Meeting. Next day he recited a Poem very like the published version to his brother in the fields. Not long after the poem became public, John Wilson had a dispute over his salary at Tarbolton and moved to Glasgow. He was very successful there firstly as a teacher and then as Session Clerk of Gorbals Parish and he, himself, attributed that success in great measure to the interest in him as the subject of Death and Doctor Hornbook. John Wilson died in 1839.
* Burns Attendances as Depute Master at St James’ Masonic Lodge, Tarbolton
Notes from Lodge records:- In 1785 – June 29th, July 20th, August 2nd, August 18th, September 7th, September 15th, October 26th, November 10th, December 1st, December 7th and in 1786- January 7th and March 1st. At the March Meeting Burns’ brother Gilbert was ‘passed and raised’.
Epistle to J Lapraik was dated 1st April 1785
Lapraik was known as ‘The Bard of Muirkirk’, born in 1727, and would be 58 when Burns wrote the ‘Epistle’. Burns was known to have improved some of Lapraik’s work.
Second Epistle to J Lapraik was dated 21st April 1785
The reply to Burns’ first Epistle has not been preserved but this Epistle is in reply to that.
Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin
Also written in 1785, this song is sung at Burns Suppers all over the world. The Tune the Poet intended to be used is called ‘Dainty Davie’ and it is not known who composed the tune or who adapted Burns words slightly to fit it. An old music book calls the song ‘There was a lad was born in Kyle’, attributes the words to Burns and uses a tune called ‘O Gin ye were deid guidman’. This is the version, we sing today.
Though Cruel Fate
This is a song sung to the tune of ‘The Northern Lass’. The subject of the song is Jean Armour and contemplates a lasting separation with howling deserts and roaring oceans between Burns and Jean Armour.
Epitaph on Robert Ruisseaux
Ruisseaux is the French for rivulets and it is thought that it is a play on the poet’s own name Burns. It has been suggested that these three verses were originally intended by Burns to take the place of his composition ‘The Bard’s Epitaph’, which so fitly closed his Kilmarnock volume.
Epistle to William Simpson, Ochiltree
This was written in May 1785 to William Simpson, who was then schoolmaster at Ochiltree. Simpson was another poet who, from talent as well as education, seemed to have better merited the Burns’ designation ‘my rhyme-composing brither’ than either Sillar or Lapraik, although he was never, like them, induced to give his effusions to the public. In 1788 William Simpson moved to Cumnock where he carried out the duties of Parish Teacher with great efficiency. He died, much respected, in 1815.
Third Epistle to J Lapraik
This Epistle was dated 13th September 1785 and comes about five months after the two prior ones. The last verse records that the harvest of 1785 was late and stormy.
Epistle to Rev John McMath
This was dated 17th September 1785 and enclosed a copy of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, which John McMath had requested. Rev McMath was assistant to Dr Peter Wodrow, Parish Minister of Tarbolton. He is said to have been an excellent preacher until he resigned his charge and enlisted as a soldier.
Young Peggy blooms our boniest lass
Peggy was Miss Peggy Kennedy, the daughter of a land owner in Carrick, and Burns was introduced to her while she was on a visit to a friend in Mauchline during the Autumn of 1785. She was then a girl of 17 and appeared to be the future bride of Captain Maxwell, who was a young member of the oldest and richest family in Galloway. Burns, inthe warmth of his admiration, sent a respectful letter to her enclosing this song ‘as a small though grateful tribute for the honour of her acquaintance’. However, Peggy fell for McDouall of Logan. Robert Burns heard about this in the Autumn of 1786 when he was about to leave Ayrshire for Edinburgh and it is said that, before he reached Edinburgh, he had written the lyric to ‘Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonie Doon’ about what had happened to Peggy.
Man was Made to Mourn
This is a dirge. Some of these verses contain Burns’ feelings between what he felt was his own intellectual strength and his own actual circumstances. The idea for this writing is said to come from an old Scots dirge called ‘The Life and Age of Man’.
To a Mouse
This World Famous poem was dated November 1785 and the inspiration came from Burns turning up a mouse in her nest with the plough at Mossgiel. Part of the poem –‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men, gang aft agley’ has passed into History as an often-used proverb.
Second Epistle to Davie
David Sillar published his own Poems in 1789 and prefixed, by way of introduction, this Epistle addressed to him by Burns. The date of this epistle has not been ascurtained but it is thought to be 1785. Burns, like Davie, played the fiddle having started to teach himself when he was 22 years old. His family were not appreciative of his efforts on the violin when he rose early on Winter mornings ‘to scrape away’ and he was reduced to playing it when bad weather drove him in from the fields. Burns never attained any great musical proficiency but he could manage to read from music any simple tune he desired and play it on the violin or the flute.
The Braes o’ Ballochmyle
This is a song where Burns wrote on the manuscript ‘I composed these verses on the amiable and excellent family of Whitefoord leaving Ballochmyle, when Sir John’s misfortunes obliged him to sell his estates’. Itis thought that it was written in the Autumn of 1785, about a year before its counterpart ‘The Lass o’ Ballochmyle’. The tune was composed by Burns’ friend, Allan Masterson, who was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander. The song starts with a mention of Catrine, which was an estate adjoining Ballochmyle. Ballochmyle Estate changed hands at the end of 1783 when it was bought by Mr Claud Alexander, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies. Claud’s sister Wilhelmina was the beauty who struck the fancy of Burns in July 1786.
Address to the Deil
Gilbert Burns gave the Winter of 1784-85 as the date of this famous poem.
The Ayrshire Bard – The Grief Behind The Glory
1786 January 1st to April 3rd age 27
The Holy Fair
This was written in Burns’ prolific Spring of 1786. It is suggested that Burns based the title and measure on Fergusson’s ‘The Hallow Fair’ forwarded to him at his request by John Richmond. Burns said that he ‘often had Ramsay and Fergusson in his eye…… but rather with a view to kindle at their flame than for servile imitation’.
The Auld Farmer’s New Year Morning Salutation to his Auld Mare, Maggie
On giving her the accustomed ripp of Corn to Hansel in the New Year.
A Winter Night
This is another of those pieces which Burns must have had unfinished at the time of his Kilmarnock publication. It is touching that, even in his own personal misery and in a storm, he thinks of the cattle, the sheep and the birds.
The Cotter’s Saturday Night
Inscribed to Robert Aitken, Writer in Ayr, who was one of Burns early friends and patrons. On the morning of Monday 8th May Burns crossed the Tweed for the first time into England on his Border tour with Ainslie. Kneeling on English soil with his face toward Scotland and with head bared, he fervently recited this poem. Burns is indebted to the ‘Farmers Ingle’ of Fergusson for suggesting the title and structure of the poem and William Burns, the poet’s father, supplied the model of ‘the Saint, the Father, and the Husband’.
The Twa Dogs
A tale. The first we hear of this poem is in one of the Bard’s letters dated 17th February to his Mauchline friend, John Richmond, then in Edinburgh. After mentioning ‘The Ordination’, ‘Scotch Drink’, The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ and ‘An Address to the Deil’ as being newly written he adds – ‘I have likewise completed my poem on The Dogs but have not shown it to the World.’ This Poem was placed at the beginning of The Kilmarnock Edition by request of Wilson, the printer, who felt that it was essential to place one of the more important pieces at the beginning, where potential purchasers might open and read, before deciding to buy the book. Robert had decided to introduce his favourite dog, Luath, at some time into one of his books after Luath was killed by the cruelty of someone the night before his father’s death.
On 27th February 1786, Burns wrote to his friend John Richmond, then in Edinburgh in which he says ‘I have been very busy with The Muses since I saw you and have composed among several others, The Ordination, a poem on Mr McKinlay’s being called to Kilmarnock.’
Address to a Louse
On seeing one on a ladies’ bonnet in Church.
The Author’s Earnest Cry
To the Right Honorable and Honorable, the Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons. The opening words of the poem ‘Ye Irish Lords’ have given rise to some discussion. The records of that period show several Irish Lords as ‘among the Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons’. Election patronage in Scotland was then in the hands of a very few dominant Dukes and Earls, whose daughters were married to poor Irish Lords who were keen to improve their position and found no difficulty in being elected ‘Scotch Members of Parliament.’ Burns saw this as a disgrace to Scotland and this gave rise to the poem. An Edinburgh Edition of the Poet’s Works dated 1805 changed the first line to ‘Ye Scottish Lords’ instead of ‘Ye Irish Lords’ and this ‘politically correct’ and probably unauthorised change made the rest of the poem a nonsense.
There are various versions of this poem, the manuscript one was 60 verses but this was trimmed down for first publication. Others include ‘suppressed’ stanzas.
The Inventory, Addressed to Mr Aitken
In answer to a Mandate by The Surveyor of the Taxes
In 1785, in order to address the National Debt, Prime Minister Pitt made a considerable addition to the number of taxed articles and amongst these were female servants. Mr Aitken of Ayr was surveyor of taxes for Burns’ district and hence these curious verses addressed to him.
Halloween, a Poem
This poem will be well enough understood by most people. It is thought to be a night when Witches, Devils and other mischief-making beings are out on their errands. The fairies are said to hold a grand Anniversary celebration.
Lament, occasioned by the unfortunate issue of a friend’s amour
In his autobiography Burns says ‘The unfortunate story (Jean Armour’s desertion of him in Spring 1786 by command of her father) that gave rise to my printed poem THE LAMENT, was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect on, and had very nearly given me one or two of the principal qualifications for those who have lost the chart and mistaken the reckoning of rationality. The very fact of writing such poems as ‘The Lament’ and ‘Despondency, an Ode’ caused his feelings to subside and the excitement and work of supervising the printing of his poems, completed the cure.
Despondency, an Ode
It is sad to think that Burns, who was then only 27 years old, writing about despondency and his ‘enviable early days’.
Ode To Ruin
Following the same theme as ‘Lament’ and ‘Despondency’, Burns outraged feelings turn into feelings of resignation to his lot.
Song –Again Rejoicing Nature sees
Sung to the tune – Jockey’s Gray Breeks. It is thought that this was written around the same time as The Lament, Despondency and Ode to Ruin and it is said that the chorus is part of a song composed by an Edinburgh friend and put in to please him.
This has become a much longer list than I thought and I am sure we could write all day about Burns’s time in Mauchline. The list underlines our statement that Robert Burns was:-
‘Born in Alloway, Died in Dumfriesbut Lived in Mauchline’
Written by Gilbert Burns, brother of Robert
‘The farm of Mossgiel lies very high, and mostly on a cold wet bottom. The first years that we were on the farm were very frosty, and the Spring was very late. Our crops, in consequence, were very unprofitable and, notwithstanding our utmost diligence and economy, we found ourselves obliged to give up our bargain, with the loss of a considerable part of our stock. It was during these years that Robert formed his connection with Jean Armour, afterwards Mrs Burns. This connection could no longer be concealed, about the time we came to a final determination to quit the farm. Robert dared not engage with a family in his poor, unsettled state, but was anxious to shield his partner by every means in his power, from the consequences of their imprudence. It was agreed, therefore, between them that they should make a legal acknowledgement of their marriage – that he should go to Jamaica to push his fortune – and that she should remain with her father till it might please Providence to put the means of supporting a family in his power.
Mrs Burns was a great favourite of her father’s. The intimation of a marriage was the first suggestion he received of her true situation. He was in the greatest distress and fainted away. A husband in Jamaica appeared to him and his wife little better than none, and an effectual bar to any other prospects of a settlement in life that their daughter might have. They therefore expressed a wish to her that the written papers requesting the marriage should be cancelled and the marriage thus rendered void. Jean, in her melancholy state, felt the deepest remorse at having brought such affliction on parents that loved her so tenderly, and submitted to their entreaties. Humble as Miss Armour’s situation was, and great though her imprudence had been, she still in the eyes of her partial parents, might look to a better connection than that with my friendless and unhappy brother.’
From Burns’ Autobiography
‘This is the unfortunate story that gave rise to my printed poem, The Lament. This was a most melancholy affair, which I cannot yet bear to reflect on. I gave up my part of the farm to my brother (In truth it was only nominally mine) and made what little preparation was in my power for Jamaica. But before leaving my native Country forever, I resolved to publish my poems. I was pretty confident that they would meet with some applause but, at the worst, the roar of the Atlantic would deafen the voice of censure and the novelty of West Indian scenes would make me forget neglect.
Letter from Burns to John Richmond
Mossgiel, February 17th 1786.
I have some important news with respect to myself, not the most agreeable, news that I am sure you can guess, but I shall give you the particulars some other time. I am extremely happy with my friend Smith: he is the only friend I have now in Mauchline.
Finally, readers might be interested to know that in April 1786 Burns invited subscribers to cover the cost of publishing his ‘Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns.’ This is described as ‘a blue-paper thin octavo volume’, which was issued to eager crowds of subscribers as fast as they could be made up. The typographers check-note of distribution shows the following list:-
Mr Aitken, of Ayr - 145 copies
Robert Muir, Kilmarnock - 72 copies
Gilbert Burns, Mossgiel - 70 copies
James Smith, Mauchline - 41 copies
Gavin Hamilton, Mauchline - 40 copies
John Logan, Laight - 20 copies
John Kennedy, Dumfries House - 20 copies
Mr McWhinnie, Ayr - 20 copies
David Sillar, Irvine - 14 copies
William Niven, Maybole - 7 copies
Walter Morton, Cumnock - 6 copies
John Neilson, Cumnock - 5 copies
The Author - 3 copies
The Printer - 70 copies
Sundry Persons - 67 copies
Total 600 copies
These books sold for three shillings (15p) and Burns says in his autobiography that he cleared only £20 from this venture after paying costs. However, the copy account between Burns and the Printer shows Burns’ profits ought to have been over £50.