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Robert Burns – A Poet in Personal ‘Lockdown’ - the ‘Stay at home’ order, 1787

Robert Burns – A Poet in Personal ‘Lockdown’ - ‘Stay at home’ order, 1787

By Ron Grosset, adapted from a text by Gabriel Setoun, with detail from Robert Burns In Edinburgh, by Jerry Branningan, John McShane and David Alexander (published by Waverley Books)

When Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) was ordered to ‘stay at home’ in 1787 it was not as a result of an edict from William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time.

Burns was confined for six weeks. Given our current lockdown circumstances it is interesting to recall how Caledonia’s Bard occupied his time. He used it creatively, of course, and embarked on romantic interludes also, of course. But more on that soon and with a little background information to set the scene first.

The previous year and publication

The Kilmarnock Edition of Burns’ work was first printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock on 31 July 1786 in the Scottish town of Kilmarnock, about 17 miles (28 km) from Alloway, his home village. Burns then hoped for a second edition but could not reach a suitable agreement with Wilson, who wanted Burns to pay for the paper in advance. With no second Kilmarnock Edition of his poems coming to fruition, Burns first went to Glasgow, to seek a publisher there, and then to Edinburgh, encouraged by Dr. Blacklock, a blind Edinburgh poet of some distinction whom Burns respected.

Burns had worked towards publication of his: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Edinburgh Edition) for some time. The volume was first printed by William Smellie in Edinburgh and published by William Creech of Edinburgh on 17 April, 1787. The Kilmarnock Edition had made Robert Burns ‘Caledonia's Bard’, whilst the Edinburgh Edition elevated him into a position amongst the world's greatest poets. At that time Scottish society was led by Edinburgh, and Burns was the talk of the city.

Once the Edinburgh Edition was published achieving a fuller edition and a wider audience for his poetry, his work there was done, and there was no reason for the poet to prolong his stay in Edinburgh. It would be some time before his publisher William Creech could make a final settlement of accounts with the poet, and Robert Burns decided that the interval would be usefully spent travelling. He left Edinburgh on 5 May 1787, a fortnight after the publication of his poems.


For some time leading up to the episode of his confinement, Robert Burns had been undertaking what are known as his ‘tours’.

Burns spent the summer of 1787 travelling. He visited some of the classic scenes of Scottish history and romance. Until then he had seen little outside his native Ayrshire and Edinburgh. His first tour was to the Border country, crossing the Tweed at Coldstream where he stood on English soil for the first time. With his companion, Robert Ainslie, Burns visited such places as Roxburgh, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose, noting the scenery and admiring the ruins recorded in a journal of his tour. He journeyed to Carlisle and made his way back to Dumfries where he was honoured as a Freeman of Dumfries.


Burns inspected a farm at Ellisland on the Dalswinton estate in Dumfries and was not greatly impressed. On 9 June he called at Mossgiel to find things not going well with his brother Gilbert and the family. He met again with Jean Armour. This time he had the full approval of her parents whose attitude towards Burns was totally changed now that he had found fame and success. Not surprisingly, given his elevated status, the poet found himself incapable of settling down in the humble circles of his family life in Ayrshire.

Burns’ First Highland Tour

Two weeks later he was off on his first Highland tour. He travelled alone and left no record of his exact route although his letters reveal he visited Inveraray and Dumbarton.

He returned to Edinburgh in August to try to recover more of the money that Creech owed him. He also planned a more extensive tour of the Highlands with William Nicol, who taught at the High School in Edinburgh.

He visited Bannockburn, Killiecrankie and Culloden, to which he made brief patriotic references in his journal and letters, ventured as far north as Elgin and Inverness, called at Aberdeen and spent some time among his relatives in the country of his ancestors around Stonehaven. Burns and his companion travelled some 600 miles in 22 days in a post-chaise, a four-wheeled fast, horse-drawn carriage.

Burns’ final tour in October 1787 was along the Ochils through Linlithgow to Stirling. The principal point of interest in this journey was a stay at Harvieston House in the Devon Valley near Stirling, where Burns renewed acquaintance with Margaret Chalmers, whose family lived on a farm near Mauchline and whom he had met in Edinburgh.

Burns courted her for eight days, and according to Margaret herself, proposed marriage, which she refused. Margaret Chalmers married an Edinburgh banker, Lewis Hay, in December 1788, and as Burns had said, it is improbable that they met again.

Burns' Return to Edinburgh

Back in Edinburgh once more, Burns worked enthusiastically on the task of collecting Scottish songs with an Edinburgh engraver, James Johnson, who was compiling the first volume of The Scots Musical Museum. His delight in this work was overshadowed by continuing doubts about his future. Another visit to Ellisland again left him undecided about accepting the farm, and still Creech had not paid up. In Edinburgh society, as he had predicted, Burns was not the celebrity that he once had been and he knew he must leave the capital to make his living in a more everyday way.

At last, however, having run out of patience with his publisher and recognising the futility of his hopes of preferment or appointment in some other role, he had resolved early in December to leave Edinburgh, when he was unexpectedly compelled to stay against his will. A double accident befell him.

Mrs Nancy McLehose

In December 1787, he attended a party given by the sister of revenue officer John Nimmo. The party was notable because he was introduced to Mrs Agnes (Nancy) McLehose, née Craig, at Miss Nimmo's house in Alison Square. Agnes McLehose, Nancy to her friends, was small and pretty. She and Burns were immediately attracted to each other and neither made any attempt to conceal the fact.

Married at the age of seventeen, Nancy was badly treated by her husband and left him after four and a half years. She had borne three children (one dying in infancy) and was carrying a fourth. Her husband had taken the children from her by force, then because of debt was thrown into prison. On his release he left the country, never to return, leaving Nancy to fend for herself and the children. Since 1782 Nancy had lived in Edinburgh under the protection of her cousin, William Craig.

Nancy then invited Burns to her house in Potterrow for tea. However, the day before they were due to meet, Burns injured his leg in an accident. Through the carelessness of a drunken coachman, he was thrown from a carriage and had his knee severely bruised and was confined to his room for six weeks, Dr. Alexander Wood having diagnosed a dislocated knee.

The meeting with Mrs McLehose was a serious matter and, for both, most unfortunate in its results.

Sylvander and Clarinda

Burns’ reaction to falling in love yet again was typical. During his enforced ‘stay at home’ confinement he began a lengthy romantic correspondence with Nancy in which they addressed each other by the names of Sylvander and Clarinda. Nancy was aware that in the eyes of society and in those of her cousin, on whom she depended, her position as a married woman was a delicate one. She seems to have held Burns at arm’s length while continuing to inflame his passion.

These letters are well-known, but more famous is ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, the parting song which Burns sent to Mrs McLehose after their final meeting in December 1791.

The letters came thick and fast via the Penny Post. The Penny Post was started in Edinburgh by Peter Williamson – or Indian Peter as he was known, is an adventure story of its own. Any letter dropped at one of numerous locations between 9 am and 9 pm would be delivered within the hour. Enter into the story Jenny Clow.

Jenny Clow

Jenny Clow was a domestic servant to Mrs Agnes McLehose. She was the daughter of Andrew Clow and Margaret Inglis from Fife and was the youngest of eight children.

The letters between Sylvander and Clarinda became so frequent that Agnes became afraid that the liaison would be exposed, so, having started the exchanges via by The Penny Post, she switched to using her maid, Jenny Clow, to be the messenger. A decision she and Jenny Clow were soon to regret.

There were 52 letters from Burns to Mrs McLehose – all but the fIrst four bearing the pseudonym "Sylvander," to which she responded as "Clarinda". The majority were written in a period of 14 weeks of the winter of 1787-8.

While Burns was ‘locked down’ because of his injured knee, Mrs McLehose sent Jenny Clow to deliver one such letter to the poet and stayed too long. Burns seduced her.

The twenty-year-old Jenny Clow gave birth in November 1788 to Robert Burns’s child, Robert Burns Clow.

Leaving Edinburgh

Burns’ affair with Nancy showed no signs of progressing, and he rode off from Edinburgh to return to Mossgiel. Back in Ayrshire, events moved swiftly. He took up again with Jean Armour who was about to give birth to another set of twins—girls who both died within a few weeks of their birth—and married her. He also signed the lease on Ellisland Farm in the spring of 1788. Meanwhile Robert Burns made it known that he was willing to take the baby Robert Burns Clow into his home, but his mother would not part with him.

Through the influence of Robert Graham of Fintry, a commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise, the government organisation responsible for the collection of tax, Burns was granted a six-week course of instruction designed to fit him to be an exciseman and—this completed—he moved into Ellisland in June to prepare the place for Jean and their one surviving child, Robert (the other twin, Jean, had died late in 1787).

Nancy McLehose heard of Burns’ marriage from his friend, Robert Ainslie, who also had a mild flirtation with Nancy. She maintained silence for a year then wrote again to Burns.

The White Hart Inn, Edinburgh

Burns was summoned back to Edinburgh by Agnes McLehose by letter, who informed him that Jenny Clow, (who had given birth to Burns’ child Robert Burns Clow) was dying. On 29th November 1791, Burns arrived at the The White Hart Inn on his last visit to Edinburgh – curiously not staying with any of the good folks he had met in the New Town or the Southside. He stayed for a week and met with Jenny for a few hours giving her an undisclosed sum of money.

Ae Fond Kiss

At the end of November, Clarinda accepted an invitation from her husband in Jamaica to join him there and in the belief that she was about to leave the country forever she consented to receive a parting visit from Burns – the meeting took place on 6th December 1791. They exchanged locks of hair and never saw each other again. The poem Ae Fond Kiss And Then we Sever, normally referred to as Ae Fond Kiss, was written after their last meeting. The lyric by Burns is recorded by many as a famous song.

Robert Burns Clow later became a wealthy merchant in London. Robert married and had a son, also Robert Burns Clow, who went to Borneo, married a chief's daughter and was killed by pirates. Although he named his own son after Robert Burns, he never capitalised on the link with his famous poet father.

Available from Waverley Books -

The Complete Poems and Songs Of Robert Burns ISBN 9781849342322

Robert Burns In Your Pocket ISBN 9781902407814

Robert Burns In Edinburgh by Jerry Brannigan, John McShane, David Alexander ISBN 9781849341714

Young Robert Burns (for young readers) ISBN 9781902407074

Burns' Night is on Monday 25 January 2021

At this time of year, with Burns Night approaching us on Monday 25th January, eyes turn again to Scotland.

And to the question of did Robert Burns wear tartan and did he wear a kilt?

Burns was a lowland farmer. He was conventionally dressed, in breeches.

He wore the Shepherd's Check, a black and white checked fabric. This design is also known as the Border tartan, and that is sometimes known as the Northumbrian tartan, Shepherd's Plaid, or Borders' check. It has been around for a long time and so it has many names. Sir Walter Scott was also known to wear the Border tartan. James Hogg also wore this tartan. The modern Border tartan is a crossweave of small dark and light checks, much simpler than many of the colourful, complex tartans we know and think of today when tartan is mentioned.The picture here, right, is of Robert Burns at Sciennes House, Edinburgh. The painting is by Charles Martin Hardie. This picture is reproduced in the book: 'Robert Burns in Edinburgh' by Jerry Brannigan, John McShane and David Alexander, picture permission: Abbotsford House.

And did Robert Burns write Auld Lang Syne?

No, but he was the first to record this traditional song on paper. It is a Scots-language song preserving old friendships and looking back. Burns was the first person to write down the song. He wrote it down and the song was published as 'The Scots Musical Museum' in 1787 by James Johnson. 'Auld lang syne' can translate as 'long, long ago' or 'for the sake of old times'.

Haggis Recipe

And as the countdown to Burns Night begins, and Scotland has entered yet another lockdown as of midnight last night, we wish to think about happier times and good things. We are share this recipe for Haggis, from our archive, reproduced from "The Glasgow Cookery Book" (copyright Glasgow Caledonian University, published by Waverley Books), a wonderful recipe book with over 1000 recipes.

We're wishing you a happy new year! With the lyrics of 'Auld Lang Syne'

We are sending you good wishes from a cold and wet Scotland after a snowy morning.

We know many essential workers are still hard at work this evening, and will be throughout the night.

We wish everyone a happy, restful and peaceful night wherever in the world you are, and all the best for 2021 from everyone at Waverley Books, and G&G.

Hear Auld Lang Syne here:

£5 off when you spend £23.97 : until last posting date for Christmas 9th December with Code: wavfive

Hello Waverley customers,

Thanks so much for staying with us this year again. We're offering a fiver off (£5 off) when you spend £23.97 until 9th December. It's not much, we know, but it is a little something.

Please use voucher code: wavfive

Paypal is now set up too.

Our books and notebooks are packed and despatched by BookSource, Cambuslang, Glasgow.

They advise us that orders after 9th December cannot be guaranteed by Royal Mail after 9 December.

Please order for your gifts before 9th December.

If you are visiting today from Germany, we now have some stock held in Frankfurt. Please visit : for quicker despatch to your door.

if you are visiting today from USA, please see Waverley West. Based in Kingston, New York, Waverley West will be a quick way to order for you :

We love hearing from you and your comments and thoughts. Please keep contacting us, and if you run into any questions, ask us please.

With best wishes and many thanks from the socially distanced team at Waverley in Glasgow, and Edinburgh, Scotland

A new video to promote Mark Mechan's Tumshie

Hello, today we have uploaded a promotional video for TUMSHIE by Mark Mechan and you can find it if you go to the book product page, and click on the link for the book trailer video: