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Robert Burns' links to Edinburgh

Robert Burns
Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard, was acclaimed in Edinburgh

Michael TRB Turnbull explores the places and poetry around Edinburgh which are connected to Scotland's national bard.

Roving eye

"In his several business visits to the city Robert Burns came principally to be present at the printing and production of his poems, but he also made a deep impression on many members of Edinburgh society for whom, as a 'ploughman poet' he was something of a curiosity.

Burns statue, Lith, photo courtesy of Michael TRB Turnbull
The inscription on the Burns statue in Leith is just one of the memorials dedicated to the Bard.

Burns, however, also had charm and a roving eye. Eliza Burnett was the daughter of James Burnett ,the lawyer Lord Monboddo, and was thought to be one of the most attractive and intelligent women of her day.

When Burns first met her at one of her father's famous suppers at the Burnett home in the Canongate, he wrote: 'Fair Burnett strikes the adoring eye, Heav'n's beauties on my fancy shine.'

Eliza died from consumption and a grieving Robert Burns composed her epitaph: 'Thy form and mind, sweet maid, can I forget? In richest ore the brightest jewel set!'

Heart of gold

Another of his friends was William Smellie, who printed the second 'Edinburgh' edition of Burns' poems and introduced him to the notorious Crochallan Fencibles. This exclusive drinking club at Dawnay Douglas' tavern in Anchor Close sat next to Smellie's printing house in the High Street.

To this day the stools from Smellie's print shop can be seen in the Writers' Museum beside the Lawnmarket. Burns left this portrait of William Smellie which suggests that, because of his incorrigible multi-tasking, he lived up to his last name but had a heart of gold:

"His uncomb'd grizzly locks, wild staring, thatch'd;

A head for thought profound and clear, unmatch'd;

Yet tho' his caustic wit was biting-rude,

His heart was warm, benevolent and good."

Took a swipe

Another acquaintance was the bookseller, publisher and Lord Provost William Creech. Creech had taken over Allan Ramsay's premises in the Luckenbooths, a ramshackle building beside the north wall of St Giles High Kirk. It was at Creech's amiable establishment that all the intelligentsia of Edinburgh assembled, like bees converging on a honey-pot.

Creech could be maddeningly difficult to deal with. He infuriated Burns, for example, by holding back some of the money from the sale of his poems. In revenge, Burns duly took a swipe at him in print:

"A little pert, tart, tripping wight

And still his precious self his dear delight"

Simple stone

Although nine years older than Burns, the Bard had a great admiration for his fellow-poet Robert Fergusson, who died in tragic circumstances. His bronze likeness stands outside the Canongate Kirk.

Statue of Robert Fergusson in edinburgh, photo courtesy of Michael TRB Turnbull
The poet Robert Fergusson was buried in a pauper's grave

When Robert Burns came to Edinburgh in 1787, he was so incensed at the absence of a memorial to Fergusson that he asked permission from the Town Council to pay for a headstone and a carved epitaph. Burns' words on the stone read:

"No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,

No storied Urn, nor animated Bust;

This simple Stone directs Pale Scotia's way

To pour her Sorrows o'er her poet's Dust."

Forced separation

Of all the ladies that Burns met and loved in Edinburgh, it was Mrs Agnes MacLehose, née Nancy Craig who created the most lasting impression on his writing.

In December 1787 Nancy encountered Robert Burns at a Miss Nimmo's house in Alison Square, in a building long since demolished. Nancy then invited Burns to her house in Potterrow for tea.

Clarinda memorial, photo courtesy of Michael TRB Turnbull
The memorial to Nancy Craig in Edinburgh

However, the day before they were due to meet Burns injured his leg in an accident with his horse and was confined to his room for six weeks. This did not deter the flowering of their relationship as during this time of forced separation he and Nancy wrote letters to each other. He styled himself "Sylvander" and she was "Clarinda".

They met again in 1791 for the last time. In the sadness of his departure, Burns wrote one of his finest songs for her:

Ae Fond Kiss

Mementoes of Burns and Nancy Craig are on display at the Writers' Museum. Many of Burns' autograph letters and literary works, including the correspondence between "Sylvander" and "Clarinda" is at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Unmarked grave

One of Edinburgh's High School masters who was friendly with Burns was William Cruickshank. Burns stayed with Cruickshank at his house in St James Square and it was for Cruickshank's daughter, Jenny, that he wrote his 'A Rose-bud by my early walk'.

Burns monument, canongate, photo courtesy of Michael TRB Turnbull
The Burns monument viewed from Canongate

When Cruickshank died in 1795 Burns also wrote an 'Epitaph for Mr W. Cruickshank':

"His fau'ts they a' in Latin lay,

In English nane e'er kent them."

In an unmarked grave east of the obelisk to the political martyrs at Old Calton Burial Ground lies William Nicol, another friend of Robert Burns. In August 1787 Burns lodged at Nicol's home for almost three weeks and then took the quick-tempered schoolmaster with him on his tour of the Highlands later that year, comparing himself to 'a man traveling with a loaded blunderbuss at full cock.'

Afterwards, Nicol bought a holiday home in Dumfriesshire where he visited Burns. During their celebrations together Burns wrote his well-known drinking-song 'Willie brew'd a peck o' maut', referring to Nicol's homemade whisky. Willie brew'd a peck o maut

Walter Scott

Perhaps the most tantalizing meeting that Burns ever had took place sometime during the winter of 1786-87. At Sciennes Hill House, the home of Professor Adam Ferguson, the 16-year old Walter Scott, later to be the great novelist, caught the eye of Robert Burns by being the only person in the room who could identify the lines of verse written under a print of a dead soldier which hung on the wall.

Hearing the young man identify the lines, Burns gave him a glance of admiration, adding: "You'll be a man yet, sir!" Scott only saw Burns once again when the poet was examining the contents of a bookstall near St Giles. On that occasion Burns did not notice him!

Today, there are two main memorials to Robert Burns in the city. On the south side of Regent Road is the Burns Monument designed by Thomas Hamilton, a variation of his earlier monument to Burns at Alloway. Originally, the building housed the fine marble statue of Burns by John Flaxman. This is now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the relics of Burns previously contained in the monument are now at the Writers' Museum.

In Bernard Street, Leith, the bronze statue of Burns by D. W. Stevenson faces up Constitution Street to Edinburgh. The statue was a gift of the Leith Burns Club."

More information in Michael T R B Turnbull's "The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide: A Spooky Saunter Through Edinburgh's Chilling Cemeteries" and "Curious Edinburgh".


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