The Life of Robert Burns
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot
We come now to the concluding article on
Burns, one of “bits and pieces” about “Rabbie”! I wish there had
been additional space to give you a more comprehensive portrait
of Scotland’s National Bard. I purposely did not write about the
normal chronological events of his life from birth to death,
with all the family and business matters in between. I wanted
you to know something about his poems and songs. You can learn
about his many lovers, his quarrels, his aspirations, and his
failures from other sources. There is no doubt he was a man’s
man, a poet’s poet, and a master songwriter.
I love Robert Burns, not just for his genius in writing poetry
and songs but also for his human qualities. He was a man,
period! He did not try to mask his feelings for
the people he loved or disliked. His satire would make a fool of
you if he despised you. He worked hard. He drank hard. He wrote
freely. He loved unconditionally. He knew success. He knew
failure. There is a lot of Burns in a lot of us. At times I
think he would make a good member of Clan Shaw.
There are several libraries around the world that many Burns
scholars frequent. Although not a scholar, a few years ago I
stood awe-struck in the middle of the Burns Room in Glasgow’s
Mitchell Library. It is much the size of the high school
basketball court I remember playing on as a youngster in my
hometown of Mullins, SC. I marveled at the over 5,000 volumes in
the Mitchell Library about Robert Burns. Unfortunately, there
was no one on the staff who could
answer specific questions about the Burns collection or on Burns
himself - the last Burns specialist had gone on to a better
paying job elsewhere.
But, more happily, I have also stood in the middle of the Rare
Books Library at the University of South Carolina’s Thomas
Cooper Library in Columbia and could not believe the outstanding
G. Ross Roy Collection of Burns, Burnsiana, and Scottish
Literature. That library collection has over 5,000 volumes as
well and is the largest collection on Burns outside Scotland.
More importantly, they have G. Ross Roy, who is probably the
world’s foremost authority on Burns today. And, just as
importantly, they are blessed to have as their University
Librarian for Special Collections, Dr. Patrick Scott, a Burns
scholar in his own right. The library has been described by
renown Burns’ scholar Dr. Kenneth Simpson in his book
Burns Now as “the foremost center of Scottish literary
study in North America”.
It has always bothered me that, on his deathbed, Burns begged
George Thomson to loan him £5. If you are lucky enough today to
find a copy of his only book, POEMS, Chiefly in the
Scottish Dialect, you had better be prepared to fork
over $100,000, if not more. Many so-called “pirated” editions of
his book were published before copyright laws came into being.
His book was pirated and published in Belfast, Dublin,
Philadelphia, New York, and other major cities. “Pirated?” you
ask. Yes! Copyright laws did not exist in those days to protect
the young author. Many of these books today sell for obscene
prices. As a result, he never received a penny from the numerous
editions that flew of the presses around the world. Some of
these today sell between $1,000 to $5,000, if not more.
James Johnson and George Thomson published songs written by
Burns in The Scots Musical Museum and the
Original Scottish Airs. He refused to be paid for this
work. He felt these songs belonged to his fellow countrymen, and
if anything, the songs were a gift from him to them. How many
songs did he write? Some say around 400, but Dr. Roy says Burns
can be credited with 312 songs. He points out that there are
another 39 songs, some are by Burns and some are not. Auld
Lang Syne was written before Burns’ time, but in a
recent phone conversation Dr. Roy said “the one we sing we
attribute to Burns because he did so much with the song”.
No matter how many women he loved, he always went back home to
Jean. Most women would have tossed him and his things out the
door and moved on with their lives, but not Jean. She had
patience and love for him like none of the others. She birthed
him nine children and, if that was not enough, she took in one
child by other women. It was not the wag down the street that
said, “Oh Rob, he should have had two wives.” It was Jean!
Robert Burns was a
verbal swordsman. Robert Crawford points out that “Burns crossed
swords with Kirk, language, literature, King, government, and
himself.” One would do well not to tangle with this marksman. He
could sear the hide off his opponent without striking a flint!
Few, if any, were a match for his genius or his caustic wit. He
took no prisoners. He did not win all the battles he took upon
himself to fight, but he came close. By the early 1790s, his
reputation had grown from local village rhymer to Scotland’s
most celebrated poet. Worldwide recognition would follow.
I first studied Burns in 1954 as a high school junior in North
Charleston, SC. I still have that book entitled England in
Literature. The ten pages on Burns that we studied in
Mrs. Grimes’ English class have only a few marks on them. Two
are in parentheses with the word “know” written across the top
in red pencil. They are: “The best laid plans o’ mice an’
men/Gang aft agley/An’ lea’e us naught but grief an’ pain/For
promised joy!” from To A Mouse, and “O wad some
Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” from
To A Louse. Little did I know that 50 years later
nearly 800 books on or about Burns would be housed in a small
room off my office that I have affectionately named “The Burns
Another Burns connection to the Shaw name is the number of Shaws
who purchased the 1787 Edinburgh edition of POEMS, Chiefly
in the Scottish Dialect. Listed in both the “skinking”
and “stinking” Edinburgh issues are the following Shaws: George,
Samuel, Charles, Irvine, Charles, David, Captain J., and one
subscriber simply listed as Mrs. Shaw. Noteworthy about or among
these Shaws were Samuel, a writer from Edinburgh, Captain J.
Shaw of the late 76th Regiment, and one of the two
listed with the name Charles bought three copies, as did Irvine.
Altogether, Shaws purchased a total of 13 Edinburgh editions.
According to The Burns Encyclopedia by Maurice
Lindsay, two more Shaws played a small part in Burns’ writing.
Andrew Shaw graduated from the University of St. Andrews with a
Doctor of Divinity degree and later became Professor of Divinity
at St. Andrews. He gained the reputation as a good speaker yet
was supposedly a very shy man. Andrew was one of the two Shaws
of “The Twa Herds”. The other Shaw in the Burns
poem was David Shaw, Moderator of the General Assembly in 1776,
the year the great romance between America and Britain came to
an end. It is claimed David Shaw never wore reading glasses,
wrote neatly until his death at age ninety-one, and never had
wrinkles or furrows.
More interesting is a man who took it upon himself to raise
money for Burns’ widow, Jean, and their children. His name was
Sir James Shaw. Remember the name. He didn’t forget his roots as
he was from Kilmarnock where Burns and John Wilson, the printer,
published the original book of poems by Burns. As I recall,
James Shaw raised more money for the widow and her children than
anyone. (Some of the Lions of Edinburgh who made such a
big-to-do over Burns never gave a penny to the widow’s fund.
Most notably among that group is Hugh Blair, professor and
minister.) Gavin Sprott writes in Pride and Passion
that “this Ayrshire man who had made good in America settled
in London and eventually became Lord Mayor of the city in 1805”.
Shaw also helped to secure positions for Burns’ sons – “Robert
in the Stamp Office in London, and commissions for James and
William with East India Company”.
Since I began this series of articles, Kenneth Simpson has
teamed with Colin Baxter, he of postcard fame, in publishing the
finest little book on Burns that I have seen. It is simply
entitled, ROBERT BURNS. You can order this book
directly from the publishers, Colin Baxter Photography, Ltd.,
Grantown-on-Spey, Moray PH26 3NA, UK. Payment of £3.95 can be
made by Visa or MasterCard, plus £3 for shipping/handling. I
heartily recommend this book to all who have an interest in
This concludes our series of articles on Robert Burns, and I
appreciate Meredith asking me to write about him. It has been a
privilege to share my thoughts about Scotland’s National Bard.
If you are interested in further insights on Burns, you may find
my regular column, “Robert Burns Lives!” on
www.electricscotland.com of interest. I also write book
reviews and interview authors in separate columns. Click on
The Family Tree in the same website and follow the
links to the three articles that appear quarterly. It would be
an honor to have you come along with me on the journey of books,
authors and Robert Burns that I started several years ago. (FRS: