Today we’re celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet known as our National Bard. All over the world Burns Suppers will take place in his honour, even if this year they are mainly online. His song, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as being one of the most popular songs in the English language.
It was Burns’ song of equality and universal brotherhood which was chosen as the anthem to open the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 in Edinburgh. The song is commonly known as ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’.
For those who enjoy the historic ‘Outlander’ series by Diana Gabaldon, you’ll find that a key plot feature is based on the printed lines of Robert Burns. Through the lines ‘Freedom an whisky gang thegither‘ Claire finds out that Jamie is alive and working as a printer in Edinburgh. Want to find out more? …I’ll be happy to tell you all in my Outlander Tour if you want to book ahead.
Although Robert Burns wasn’t born in Edinburgh, he visited the city more than once and spent several months here. During his time in Edinburgh he found a local publisher and printer for his much-enlarged second collection of ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’. He impressed, charmed and completely swept Edinburgh high society and the literati off their feet. As a result, he gained 1500 subscribers for his Edinburgh Edition of poems, ensuring it became a great success.
However, Burns only wrote 2 of his new poems in the city for his Edinburgh Edition of poetry. ‘Address to a Haggis’ was one of them and this poem is traditionally recited at every Burns Supper as part of the evening’s celebration.
Let’s step into Burns’ shoes and discover some of the places and people connected with him in Edinburgh.
Pear Tree House
Burns left Ayrshire for the capital on a borrowed pony and arrived in Edinburgh 2 days later on 28th November 1786. He had been encouraged to come to the city by the blind Rev Dr Thomas Blacklock, who influenced others, after having Burns’ book of poems read to him by Professor Dugald Stewart. Blacklock and Stewart were sure there would be a market for an Edinburgh Edition of Burns’ poetry, after the success of Burns’ first or Kilmarnock Edition.
Dr Blacklock lived in the property which is now The Pear Tree House (and has been a pub for many years). He was both a poet and a critic. Burns was on the point of preparing to leave for Jamaica, when a letter from Blacklock “overthrew all my schemes by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition. The doctor belongs to a set of critics for whose applause I had not dared to hope.” During his stay in Edinburgh, Burns visited Blacklock on several occasions.
Robert Burns arrived in the city as something of a celebrity, partly due to Henry Mackenzie’s review of his book of poems in the Lounger, a weekly Edinburgh publication. As a result, Burns became ‘The heaven-taught ploughman” from ‘humble and unlettered station.’ These words sealed the view of Burns as a lowly, but naturally gifted genius. In fact Burns was not a ploughman, but a tenant farmer and had actually received a reasonable education.
Lady Stair’s Close
On arriving in the capital, he initially lodged with his Ayrshire friend, John Richmond in Baxter’s Close in the Old Town. The close no longer exists, but it was very near Lady Stair’s Close and Lady Stair’s House which is now the Writer’s Museum. Here (once it’s open again) you’ll find exhibits for Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Richmond was a legal clerk and his landlady was Mrs Carfrae who Burns described in detail. The lodgings were in a tenement and were basic, with Burns sleeping on chaff on the floor. This didn’t stop Mrs Carfrae from increasing the rent soon after Burns arrived. He also describes the fact that on the floor above was a brothel. Given low ceilings and poor insulation, all could be heard – a fact that Mrs Carfrae wasn’t happy about!
The Edinburgh Edition of Robert Burns’ poems was published by William Creech and printed by William Smellie.
Smellie was also the first editor of The Encyclopaedia Britannica 1768-1771. His printing works were in Anchor’s Close and he became a good friend of Robert Burns. It is said that he introduced Burns to the Crochallan Fencibles, one of Edinburgh’s many sociable gentlemen’s clubs, which took place at the Anchor Inn. Anchor Close takes its name from the Anchor Inn and although the inn is no longer there, the close still exists.
Like many of the other Edinburgh clubs in the 18th century, a great deal of drinking took place. Burns collected and composed several bawdy songs for the club’s enjoyment and entertainment. These were later published in ‘The Merry Muses of Caledonia’.
Robert Burns’ Songs
Actually it was in Edinburgh that Robert Burns really started his intense activities as a song-writer and collector. In 1787 he used Edinburgh as his base for tours of the Scottish Borders and Highlands. He would eventually write and collect over 400 songs for publication as part of James Johnson’s ‘Scots Musical Museum’ and George Thomson’s ‘Select Collection of Scottish Airs.’
In Edinburgh, 12 year old Jenny (Jean) Cruickshank helped Burns in his endeavour. In the winter of 1787, he stayed with the Cruickshank family in St James Square. Having hurt his foot Burns was confined indoors, so Jenny played the tunes on the harpsichord, whilst he wrote the words to the music. Burns wrote a song for Jenny herself called ‘Rosebud’.
The Cruickshank’s home was in St James Square, which has long since been redeveloped. Currently it’s under reconstruction again as the new St James Quarter and luxury W hotel with its distinctive spiral ribbon roofline. Locally the hotel is known as the ‘Walnut Whip’ as it resembles a British type of confectionary. There are of course other names given locally which are less printable!
Walter Scott meets Robert Burns
During the winter of 1786-1787 Burns was invited to a literary supper at the house of Adam Ferguson, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Ferguson hosted many literary suppers for his distinguished and literary Edinburgh friends at his home, Sciennes Hill House. A young, impressionable, 16 year old Walter Scott accompanied his father to the dinner. He never forgot his one and only encounter with Robert Burns. Walter had been able to name the poem, a few lines of which appeared below a sentimental print which had caused Burns to shed some tears. Burns had rewarded the young Walter with a look and a word, which years later Walter would still remember with pleasure.
Mrs Agnes (Nancy) McLehose
When Robert Burns first arrived in Edinburgh, he left behind him an already complicated love life. As well as being an outstanding poet, Burns is possibly also just as notorious for being a womaniser. There were certainly plenty of pretty ladies who caught his eye during his time in Edinburgh.
Mrs Agnes McLehose (Nancy to her friends) was a married woman. She had separated from her bullying husband and moved to Edinburgh in 1782. She was originally part of Glasgow society, where she’d been admired for her beauty. As a teenager she revealed a considerable talent for poetry and literature. Having heard of Burns’ fame, she was determined to meet him when he arrived back in Edinburgh. She arranged this through her friend, Miss Nimmo and she met Burns for the first time in December 1787. They were immediately attracted to each other and soon became utterly besotted.
‘Clarinda’ and ‘Sylvester’
When Burns injured his foot, they started up an intense and passionate correspondence, sending up to 6 letters in one day. However, Nancy was concerned for her reputation as a married woman. So to protect both their identities, they wrote under the names of Clarinda and Sylvester. Despite their impassioned correspondence, their relationship is generally believed to have been platonic. The letters were often transported between the pair by Nancy’s servant Jenny Clow. Jenny’s relationship with Burns was definitely not so chaste, as she ended up giving birth to his son in 1788.
Burns called on Nancy at her home in General’s Entry at Potterrow several times. He called her “Goddess of the Potterrow“. When he turned up one day in a sedan chair for a visit, she was worried what her neighbours would think. Thereafter she asked him if he was taking a sedan chair to arrive after dark when he couldn’t be seen!
“Of Good Enough Character?”
In 1937 the Clarinda Burns Club wanted to have a memorial plaque to Clarinda close to where she had lived. Her home at General’s Entry no longer existed, so the proposed site was to be nearby on the side of a local primary school. However this caused great debate and rather a lot of outrage as to whether Clarinda was “of good enough character”! Edinburgh Corporation Education Committee decided that “the idea was totally unacceptable. It is beneath the dignity of our city to sanction such a tablet in view of Clarinda’s character.”
The Clarinda Burns Club persisted in their efforts and finally it was agreed to erect the plaque. You can now see it at the corner of Potterrow and Marshall Street.
The White Hart Inn
Burns left Edinburgh in Spring 1788 and eventually married his earlier love Jean Armour.
He still corresponded from time to time with Nancy. The last time he actually met Nancy McLehose was when he travelled back to Edinburgh in 1791. He had heard that she planned to journey to Jamaica for a reconciliation with her husband.
Burns stayed at the White Hart Inn, in the Grassmarket, which is still there. The two met and talked for the final time. After returning home, Burns composed the beautiful love song ‘Ae Fond Kiss‘ which he sent to her.
Clarinda meets Jean
Nancy’s reconciliation with her husband didn’t go well and she returned immediately from Jamaica to Edinburgh.
Burns died in July 1796 and some 38 years after his death, Jean Armour was persuaded to come to Edinburgh. Here she met with Nancy and the pair seem to have liked each other. “Bonnie Jean” showed no envy towards Nancy and seems to have been impressed by her “worth and sensibility.”
On 22nd October 1841 Nancy died and was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. You can still view her gravestone marker in the church wall which simply states “Clarinda”.
Celebrating the memory of Robert Burns around the world.
Most Burns Suppers have certain set elements, such as the food, some of the poems, The Immortal Memory, the traditional toasts, along with singing, Scottish dancing and enjoying a dram of whisky or two.
Taking pride of place at all Burns Suppers is the traditional and iconic haggis. Of course in Scotland it’s said that haggis roam wild and free if you are lucky enough to spot one! Here’s one seen wandering in the snow!
Nowadays the ‘Great chieftain o’ the pudding’ race’ can be vegetarian if you prefer and is equally delicious. Which butcher produces the best haggis is hotly debated and argued throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. It’s best not to think too much about what’s inside a haggis and simply enjoy it!
To accompany your haggis two traditional vegetables are served. These are mashed neeps (turnips) and mashed tatties (potatoes). The rest of the menu is up to yourself, but make sure to include some whisky.
Virtual Burns Suppers
If you’ve never been to a Burns Supper before, why not join in the celebrations of his life and work online this year. Because of Covid-19 there are plenty of virtual Burns Suppers to choose from. Sit back in your armchair and join in from wherever you are in the world.
Janey Godley, a Scots comedienne, is hosting the Big Burns Supper which you can watch for free online from 7pm (GMT) tonight.
Historic Environment Scotland are also having a Virtual Burns Night at Edinburgh Castle which you can join from 5pm (GMT) today or watch later at a time which suits you.
Have a great Burns’ Night!