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Robert Burns Lives!
My Friend Robert Burns by Ian MacMillan

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Over the years, Ian MacMillan has been a regular contributor to Robert Burns Lives! His first visit with us was in March 2006, when he presented Chapter 22, “22 Days - A Highland Immortal Memory”. He then followed shortly after with Chapter 25 (January 2007) entitled “Robert Burns Diamond Stylus”. Ian took a while off but returned with Chapter 122, “Pretty Nancy” in June of 2011. Today his gift to us is Chapter 149, “My Friend Robert Burns”. Few contributors to these pages have given more of their time and efforts on behalf of Robert Burns than Ian, and it is those like him who make our website unique. Friends like Ian have shared their works on Burns time and time again, and either next week or the one following, we will be posting Chapter 150! I’m grateful to each, particularly Ian MacMillan, for standing with us since beginning this quest to honor our Bard. I look forward to the continued expansion of Robert Burns Lives! in the years to come by providing more thoughtful and provocative articles for our readers.

He has been described to me by someone who should know as “one of the good guys”.  I love Ian’s frank way of speaking, without being overly blunt, as evidenced by this statement regarding his article below: “I have deliberately used ‘Rabbie’ in my article as my own favourite fond name for our Bard. Purists may disagree – you OK with that?” (My reply was basically the same one I gave to Eddi Reader when I posted her article February 2, 2009 on “What Burns Means to Me” [Chapter 37].  She had been hassled by some Burns people who can’t stand for anyone’s belief about Burns to be different from theirs and she had begun referring to them as “the Burns police”.)  I emailed Ian back with this reaction: “Ian, Rabbie was, is, and always will be one of my favorite names for our Bard! What you refer to as ‘purists’, I refer to as ‘the Burns Police’. I do not pay much attention to them, if any!”  So, “just be yourself” is what I advised in my introduction to Eddi Reader and I say the same thing to Ian.

Ian served as a guide to a group of friends from our Burns Club of Atlanta on tour in Scotland to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Burns’s birth. Woody Woodward, the club’s current vice-president, had been on that tour (led by Kate Graham of Caledonian Travel) and he kept asking me, “Whatever happened to Ian MacMillan?” Ian replied to my email of enquiry about another article for this web site with “please say hello from me to Woody. I well remember standing chatting to him about the ‘Little White Rose’ by the Commando monument at Spean Bridge…Please also send my respects to the Atlanta Burns Club members I had the pleasure of meeting, as well as Kate.” Consider it done, Ian, and always know you are welcome at our Burns cottage in Atlanta and at our home where a bed, knife and fork will be waiting on you and your Jean!  (FRS: 8.21.12)


Ian MacMillan and his wife Jean


I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine who died over 250 years ago. His name is Rabbie Burns, mine is Ian MacMillan. The MacMillans have a long history going way back into the mists of a Celtic past. So I am a Celt and proud of it. The Celts believed that each of us finds in life an ‘Anam Cara,’ a soul-mate to share our brief journey on this mortal coil. An Anam Cara is a friend who knows the real you, the inner you, all your good points, all the bad sides to your character, and who has been there for you for the highs and lows that we all experience in our lives. A person who has shared life with you and who you really trust. I consider myself very lucky to have two Anam Caras who have known me for most of my life. My wife Jean, whom I met over 40 years ago and my friend Colin Stevenson whom I met at School when we were 5. I hasten to add that I have ‘shared’ a lot more with Jean than with Colin (including 4 sons) just in case anyone gets the wrong idea. Now I do not know whether Rabbie and I would have ever been that close but I feel I know him better than almost any human being I have met or read about. I admire and respect him and am sure we would have been good friends.    The reason I know him is that he has told me all about himself with naked honesty. His hopes and fears, his passions, his depressions, his loves of his country, of woman, nature, music and poetry. So let’s have a look at my friend who, in his late 20s was proclaimed the Bard of Scotland. This man, born to humble beginnings, in a little country far away on the North-West edge of Europe, whose name, poems and music are known right across the world. His brief, 37 year life, has been analysed, dissected, discussed and debated until it seems each hair on his head has been studied deeply by some expert Professor of something important. There are over 6 million web sites devoted to him and there are Burns Clubs all over the globe.

I have selected extracts from a few of his poems, his letters and his songs to allow him to tell you, in his own words, what inspired and drove him to this fame.


Rabbie Burns wrote some 270 poems. I have chosen extracts from just 3 and hope this will whet your appetites to read more.

My first choice, not surprisingly, is about his love for women.  He wrote his first poem to ‘Handsome Nell’ when he was just 15 and tells us how he fell head over heels in love with this farm-girl at harvest time. But it is possible that he did not consummate any of his passionate affairs until he was 25. His father had died, worried out of his life by debts, also his concerns for his wayward son. On the evening of the funeral it is said that one of the servants, a cheery, sonsie lass called Bess Paton, comforted Rabbie in the only way she knew. So he was first introduced to that delight which he tells us he held above all other earthly pleasures. Surprise, surprise, 9 months later, along came a wee girl and Rabbie wrote for her -

            A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter

                        Welcome! my bonnie, sweet, wee dochter,
                        Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,
                        And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for,
                                    Baith kirk and queir;
                        Yet, by my fath, ye’re no unwrought for,
                                    That I shall swear!

                        For if thou be what I wad hae thee,
                        And tak the counsel I shall gie thee,
                        I’ll never rue my trouble wi’ thee,
                                    The cost nor shame o’t,
                        But be a loving father to thee,
                                    And brag the name o’t

Just a tiny glimpse of a passionate, caring and loving man.

My second choice is from -

                The Death And Dying Words Of Poor Maillie

Maillie was a pet lamb of Rabbie’s, now fully grown into a big fat ewe. Maillie got herself tangled up in a piece of rope used as a tether and fell into a ditch. Hughoc, a simple lad from the village came running up to Rabbie and his brother Gilbert in a right state, yelling out that poor Maillie was dying. After they had released her back to her two lambs, Rabbie, still grinning, wrote about her supposed death and dying words. We hear Maillie telling all about the terrible tragedy that befell her, then, when a shocked Hughoc came along, how she turns to him and commands him with her dying words.  She addresses her kind master, she gives wise words of counsel to her lambs on how to live their lives and avoid danger, and ends with -

                        ‘And now, my bairns wi’ my last breath,
                        I lea’e my blessing wi’ you baith;
                        An’ when you think upo’ your mither,
                        Mind to be kind to ane anither.’

                        ‘Now, honest Hughoc, dinna fail,
                        To tell my master a’ my tale;
                        An’ bid him burn this cursed tether,
                        An’ for thy pains thou’se get my blather’ 

                        This said, poor Maillie turned her head,
                        And clos’d her een among the dead!

The ‘blather‘, her reward to Hughoc, was her stomach, I assume for making his haggis!

I think this poem reveals the wicked humour of this man which we enjoy in To A Louse, Holy Willie’s Prayer, Address To A Haggis and of course in Tam O’ Shanter.   Also, when we remember that in those days, without libraries, TV and newspapers, often the only reading material, apart from the odd tinker’s tract, Rabbie’s fellow farm workers would have access to was the Bible. No wonder his poems about such familiar events were so instantly popular, that his Kilmarnock edition was a sell out.

My last choice is another example of this. Of how, as he went about the hard work on the farm of ploughing, sowing, harvesting, etc, he was interested in the most minute detail of nature all around him. He wrote of wild flowers, songbirds and chuckling streams. He wrote about a head-louse crawling up a lovely damsel’s fine hat in Church, expressed his anger when a wounded hare, shot by a clumsy sportsman, went by him and, of course, we all know about the wee field mouse whose nest he disturbed and his words of empathy and companionship -

                        The best-laid schemes o’ mice an man gang aft agley.

A similar emotion moves him when, ploughing on a cloudy, wet, windy Ayrshire day, he stops to look at a mountain daisy -

                             To A Mountain Daisy

                        Cauld blew the bitter-biting North
                        Upon thy early humble birth;
                        Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
                                    Amid the storm,
                        Scarce reared above the parent earth
                                    Thy tender form


Now let’s turn from his poems to his letters. Most students of his works are amazed how he found time to engage in such a vast amount of correspondence, many of which, luckily for us, has survived and now can be seen in museums and libraries. We learn so much about him from about 700 letters to family and friends, words of encouragement, love letters, business letters etc. Also from letters to him and from the details in the journals he kept of his travels. I’ll just pick one letter from him and one letter about him.

In May of 1786, Rabbie, at the grand old age of 27, was asked by his friend and lawyer, Robert Aikin, to write some words of worldly advice to Aikin’s son, Andrew.

                             Epistle To A Young Friend                 opens with -

                        I lang hae thought, my youthful’ friend,
                                    A something to have sent you,
                        Tho’ it should serve nae ither end
                                    Than just a kind momento;
                        But how the subject theme may gang,
                                    Let time and chance determine;
                        Perhaps it may turn out a sang:
                                    Perhaps, turn out a sermon.

He then goes on to advise about how to deal with the good and wicked in men, the fairer sex, to keep to his faith and devotion, and ends with -

                        Adieu, dear amiable youth!
                                    Your heart can ne’er be wanting!
                        May prudence, fortitude and truth,
                                    Erect your brow undaunting!
                        In ploughman phrase, ‘God send you speed,’
                                    Still daily to grow wiser;
                        And may ye better reck the rede,
                                    Than ever did th’ adviser!

In other words, Burns regrets that he hasn’t followed his own good advice.

Last, a letter about him. After Rabbie died, as he expected, his fame soared and enthusiasts and critics rushed to gather as much information as possible about his life. James Gray, Latin master then rector of Dumfries Academy, taught Rabbie’s children and knew the family well. In a letter dated 1814 he tells us clearly how Burns’ concern for his children’s education was as assiduous as Rabbie’s own father had been for him.

            ‘He superintended the education of his children with a degree of care that I have never seen surpassed by any parent in any rank of life whatever.

            In the bosom of his family he spent many a delightful hour in directing the studies of his eldest son - I have frequently found him explaining to this youth, then not more than 9 years old, the English poets from Shakespeare to Gray, or storing his mind with examples of heroic virtue as they live in the pages of our most celebrated English historians.’


We think that Rabbie’s focus shifted from poems to songs when he was about 28. In Edinburgh and during his 22 day tour of the North-East Highlands in 1787 he went out of his way to meet musicians and song-writers. For the last 9 years of his life he seemed to be on a mission to collect and save old Scottish songs which he would then modify and improve. He contributed over 300 songs to two printed collections which we can access today.

It will not surprise you to know that the songs I have selected are all about women Rabbie was in love with - Love is the theme for many of his songs. You will be pleased to hear that you are not going to have to suffer my singing, I’ll read the words.

The first song I have chosen is I Love My Jean. Written for Jean Armour, who in spite of all his affairs, trials and tribulations, became the mainstay of his life - his Anam Cara - when they at long last overcame all the hurdles and married. He tells us ‘The air is by Marshall, the song I composed out of compliment to Mrs. Burns. It was during the honeymoon.’

                        Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,
                                    I dearly like the West,
                        For there the bonnie lassie lives,
                                    The lassie I lo’e best:
                        There’s wild woods grow and rivers row,
                                    And mony a hill between:
                        By day and night my fancy’s flight
                                    Is ever wi’ my Jean.

We, of course, know that even if he did ‘lo’e Jean best’, he also loved many others. His brother Gilbert said that Rabbie was always imagining the latest lady he met as some kind of beautiful Goddess. One such was Agnes McLehose, an Edinburgh grass-widow, who, not surprisingly, he re-named as Clarinda.  They conducted a strange platonic affair pitched in a pseudo-classical, romantic manner. But he did write for her one of his most famous love songs -

                                                Ae Fond Kiss

                        Had we never lov’d say kindly,
                                    Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
                        Never met - or never parted -
                                    We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Walter Scott said these 4 lines ‘contain the essence of a thousand love tales.

His last song was to one of his friends and neighbour’s daughter - Jessie Lewars. She was 18 and tended to Rabbie on his death-bed as well as to Jean, who was heavily pregnant. She also looked after their young children. She had a nice voice and Rabbie liked hearing her sing and play her harpsichord to him. It pleased the dying man to fancy he was in love with this young girl. He wrote for her one of his most tender lyrics -

                              O Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast

                        O wert thou in the cauld blast,
                                    On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
                        My plaidie to the angry airt,
                                    I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee;

                         Or did misfortune’s bitter storms,
                               Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
                        Thy bield should be my bosom,
                                    To share it a’, to share it a‘. 


I hope from these selected words and all they say about Rabbie that I have given you some idea why I would have liked to count him as one of my friends.

He was not perfect - which of us is? - but he freely and honestly admitted his flaws. He was a philanderer, he had affairs. He was not a drunkard, as some claimed, but certainly enjoyed rumbustuous nights where the drink flowed freely. The following extract in my opinion sums up very well his enjoyment of guid company over a dram or two as well as his own views on friendship is all about.

                                    Here’s a man an honest man
                                    What wad ye wish for mair man?
                                    Wha kens before his life may end
                                    What his share be o’ care man?
                                    Then catch the moments ere they fly
                                    And use them as ye ought man
                                    Believe me happiness is shy
                                    And comes not aye when sought man.

Robert Burns was no sooner in his grave when critics started to pick his life to pieces. They would never have dared while he was alive - who would want the satirical Holy Willie pen turned on them? I think a lady writer summed all of this up very clearly. In reply to one of his more poisonous critics she wrote - we never notice or remark on the dust on the pebble but shout out loudly at the faintest speck of dirt on a flawless gem.

So ‘warts and all’, I like the man and accepting the bad along with the good is part of true friendship.

I hope that these examples from his works help you understand why I refer to friendship. Also why his genius is recognised all over the world.

His words are as fresh and relevant today as when they were written, some 250 years ago.

            My friend Rabbie Burns.

                                                       Ian MacMillan, Fernbank, Wester Ross, March 2006

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