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Robert Burns Lives!
A Reply to Mark Wilson’s Essay ‘Was Robert Burns a Member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries?’

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

Back in October 2009 an article written by Mark Wilson entitled “Was Robert Burns A Member of The Friends of the People in Dumfries?” appeared on Robert Burns Lives!. Mr. Wilson was challenged by Patrick Scott Hogg, author of Robert Burns The Patriot Bard, to prove the claim in his book that Burns was a member of the group. I encourage you to go the index of Robert Burns Lives! and read the article by Wilson in Chapter 73. Please click here to pull up Wilson’s article: (Chapter 73). Below is a reply from Hogg to Wilson regarding the article.

I also ask that any reader, including Mark Wilson, who wishes to reply to Hogg do so, and I will print the article(s). Same is true for anyone who wishes to reply to Mr. Wilson. To me, what all of this boils down to is scholarship and research, and the sources used for such a claim. To me, claims and counter claims, without resources to back up one’s argument, leaves one without a foundation and means nothing! The claims of Burns’s membership in The Friends of the People should have some hard evidence proving he was a member of this radical group that the government was keeping an eye on regarding possible crimes against the Crown. The crimes they were seeking were sedition and treason. Basically, my approach is simple – “Show me the proof”. (FRS: 3.24.10)

A Reply to Mark Wilson’s Essay
‘Was Robert Burns a Member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries?’

by Patrick Scott Hogg

Biographer of Robert Burns The Patriot Bard (2008) and Co-editor with Dr Andrew Noble of The Canongate Burns (2001).

Mark J Wilson has contributed an article here which purports to examine my claim in Robert Burns The Patriot Bard that Robert Burns was a covert member of the Friends of the People in Scotland and he draws the conclusion that the argument is false and does not stand up to scrutiny. I would like to reply to his article to show your readers that the most interesting aspect of his piece is the evidence he deliberately excludes than what he includes. Hence, Wilson selectively ignores most of the evidence I marshalled. Anyone who deliberately ignores key evidence tends to write an unbalanced viewpoint and mislead readers by setting up a straw man, a false portrayal of an opponents view, to make it easy to knock them down. What I would like to show in this reply is that although I cannot prove definitively, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Burns was an active member of a covert branch of the pro-democracy group The Friends of the People, the evidence strongly reinforces the view in the affirmative. Also, when the evidence is closely unpicked it will readily be seen that it is impossible to conclude that there was certainly no covert group of the Friends of the People in Dumfries.

Wilson’s claim is false that my views are founded purely on archival evidence of two individuals from Dumfries who attended the National Convention of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh on 29th October 1793. At least he accepts that two people from Dumfries did attend the Convention. Wilson, though, misrepresents my case which begins by anchoring the evidence in the words of the poet himself in a letter to Graham of Fintry of early January 1793 where Burns lists the evidence of spy accusations aimed at his radical activities in Dumfries. I am the first biographer to explore this area and explain the extensive spy network which existed across Scotland. My archival work has shown evidence from the Laing Mss that Graham of Fintry was paid out of the spy funds and was a more loyalist supporter of the Dundas regime than previously known and also that the so-called biographer Robert Heron was also paid out of the same funds to attack radicals in the press.

The spy report accused Burns of being 1) a member of a political grouping in Dumfries, and 2) that Burns acted as its leader. Burns himself writes ‘It has been said that I not only belong to, but head a disaffected party in this place’. Burns then admitted to Fintry that he did attend meetings with several friends and acted on their behalf by ordering The Edinburgh Gazetteer for the small group in Dumfries. I then point out the fact that the Prospectus of The Edinburgh Gazeteer was mailed to secretaries and presidents of the Friends of the People across Scotland and was their broadsheet. The enthusiasm with which Burns received and ordered the voice of the radical Friends of the People is unbound and extant in his letter to Capt William Johnson. So, my evidence that Burns was possibly a member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries, or a covert group supporting the aims of the Friends is based on both the evidence of the poet’s letter to Fintry and the spy report which listed various accusations about his radical behaviour. Additional evidence from Robert Ainslie years later states that Burns was a ‘friend of the people’ while in Dumfries and further circumstantial evidence refers to the room in which Burns met with friends which required a locked door for meetings.

From this base of evidence I speculated that the ‘Mr Drummond’ from Dumfries who attended the late Convention of the Friends of the People in 1793 was probably the John Drummond know to Burns from his Ellisland days. I openly state the obvious, that it might have been a Mr Drummond unknown to the poet. But in the balance of probability, given how small a place Dumfries was in 1792-3, it is almost certain Drummond and his friend who attended the Convention were known to Burns.

Rather than being unhistorical in my views as Wilson falsely suggests, my exploration of this pivotal period in the poet’s life, is tempered by an understanding of the acute scrutiny and pressures under which Burns and his contemporaries lived. Quite clearly it would have been suicidal of Burns as an Exciseman employed by the crown to have formally set up a branch of the Friends of the People in Dumfries and openly publicise the group’s existence. Necessity therefore dictated if he was daring enough to participate or lead such a small radical conclave in Dumfries – later dubbed the ‘Sons of Sedition’ by the loyalist clique in Dumfries - it would be a covert group that would meet behind closed doors for as long as the group existed. The view I have put forward can either be accepted or rejected, but it is supported by evidence and one of the poet’s closest confidants, Robert Ainslie, who stated Burns was a Friend of the People during this last period of his life.

Wilson could have pointed out that my research reveals the true identity of the spy known only by the initials ‘JB’ who infiltrated the Friends of the People in Edinburgh. The letter ‘J’ in the initials has been mistaken by the style of writing employed. Close examination shows it was a capital ‘I’. The archives show that a Claude Irvine Boswell who wrote his initials ‘IB’ offered to spy on the Friends of the People. I showed this evidence to the leading Scottish historian on the Friends of the People Dr John Brims and he remarked that is seemed certain to have been Irvine Boswell.

Mr Wilson then goes on to state quite erroneously ‘The claim that Burns was a member of the Friends of the People in Dumfries is the major point of departure from previous Burns biography in Patrick Scott Hogg’s The Patriot Bard.’ This is far from true. It depends on which previous biography is examined and compared. There are a catalogue of major differences between The Patriot Bard and the Mackay biography of Burns. Mackay presented readers with a radically neutered pro-Pitt, hence Toryist pro-Hanoverian Burns I prove beyond any doubt that Burns continued to write radical controversial poetry and prose from 5th January 1793 onwards till the end of his short life. I prove Burns detested Pitt’s government and loathed the war Pitt and Dundas engineered. Another point of departure is the unravelling of the poet’s radical worldview into a detailed explanation of how the various strands of Burns’ often apparently contradictory views were not contradictory at all, but complimentary: how his Jacobite sympathy fused with his Presbytarian values and how they were influenced by Covenator beliefs from his mother’s side of the family. I also provide considerably much more detailed analyses on the poet’s early education and how that helped to shape his radical views. Overall my biography of Burns is a major departure from the Mackay view of Burns because I present a much more hyper intelligent principled radical poet who was not just a ‘friend of the people’ but also one who had the courage to write covertly either anonymously or pseudonymously despite the oppressive sedition laws and that is why I was the first person to ever point out the fact that Scots Wha Hae and A Man’s A Man were first published anonymously.

What rather surprises me about Wilson’s attack on The Patriot Bard is that he ignores the interwoven prose essay singed ‘A Briton’ which I argue is a new work by Burns. He does not even mention the additional prose essay (in an appendix) I also believe to be the work of Burns, signed under the pen name ‘Agricola’; a pen name we know for certain Burns employed. These two documents are of considerable importance to Burnsians if they are accepted as the last public statement of the national poet. The first prose essay has already been accepted by eminent authorities such as Prof David Daiches, Prof Carol McGuirk and many others. Mr Wilson ends his paltry criticisms ‘All those who take Burns and the proper examination of his historical context seriously, be warned’. Indeed, be warned of the prejudice and sometimes personally charged motives that underpin what turns out to be rather spurious and weak criticism. In posts to the Burns forum mentioned by Mr Wilson I was accused quite nastily of being a ‘liar’ and had abuse thrown at me that I had ‘no evidence’ whatsoever for Burns being a member of the Friend of the People before The Patriot Bard was even in print. I commend your readers to fairly examine for themselves the evidence within Robert Burns The Patriot Bard where they will find a better explained appreciation of the complex historical era Robert Burns lived through than found in any previous biography. This is of course, partly thanks to the research of many modern historians whose learned perspective I have incorporated in the biography which compliments my own detailed archival work.

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