Scotland

What happened to Robert Burns' women?

Robert Burns tried to keep his scandalous sex life secret
Image caption Robert Burns tried to keep his scandalous sex life secret

It is no secret that Burns was a big fan of what was in his day known as "houghmagandy". But what about the women who fell under his spell? What were their lives like?

There were at least three cases where Robert Burns's liaisons resulted in an illegitimate child.

These women were all servants of one type or another, as were many women in Scotland at the end of the 18th century.

How did they cope when they found themselves in-service, unmarried and pregnant?

Burns's first child was with his family's own farm servant, Elizabeth Paton.

"Elizabeth was said to be devoted to Robert but that was not reciprocated," says Christopher Waddell, learning manager at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire.

He says: "She was described as having a plain face but a good figure. This was lust for Robert."

Mr Waddell says that when Elizabeth fell pregnant Burns's mother Agnes wanted her son to do the "decent thing" and marry her.

However, he says: "His siblings rounded on Robert and told him not to marry this girl."

He was his family's rising star and their hope of upward mobility.

By this time, in 1785, when Burns was 26, his great poetic talent was already in evidence.


The Fornicator

Ye jovial boys who love the joys.

The blissful joys of Lovers;

Yet dare avow with dauntless brow,

When th' bony lass discovers;

Pray draw near and lend an ear,

And welcome in a Prater,

For I've lately been on quarantine,

A proven Fornicator.


Prof Robert Crawford, of St Andrews University, says Burns wrote a poem about the birth.

He says: "It contains resentment at the way he has been treated, as a fornicator. He's humiliated in church, he's made to make a formal public apology for his fornication. I think he resents having his sex life criminalised."

But the poem combines resentment "with a clear and deep and abiding tenderness for his daughter".

He says: "This is a young father, in his mid-20s, who writes what among other things is a love poem to his daughter and I don't know of any earlier example of such a poem anywhere in the English-speaking world."

Burns chose not to marry Elizabeth Paton, though he did take his child into his family and she was raised by his mother.

Image caption Elizabeth Paton was a servant for the Burns family

Devastating consequences

What did the future hold for Elizabeth?

Mr Waddell says: "We know that she ultimately marries a local farmer. So she eventually gets her farm boy but it is not the one she initially wanted."

By the time his first illegitimate child was born in May 1785, Burns had begun his complicated on-off relationship with Jean Armour.

Before the end of the year she was pregnant with his child, though they would not marry until 1788, after the birth of her second child.

Jean and Robert had nine children together, the last of whom was born on the day of his funeral in July 1796.

Burns had another child with lady's maid Jenny Clow, who worked for Mrs Agnes Maclehose, a middle class lady in Edinburgh.

Image copyright VisitScotland
Image caption Burns was a regular visitor to the Globe Inn, where he met Ann Park

Passionate letters between Burns and Agnes were sometimes delivered by her maid Jenny, with devastating consequences.

Agnes must have been furious when she found out about her maid's resultant pregnancy, but her reaction is not recorded.

A few years later, after Jenny had given birth, Agnes mastered her feeling enough to write to Burns on Jenny's behalf.

Historian Louise Yeoman says: "Agnes Maclehose writes this remarkable letter which tells us that Jenny has kept her child, she's become sick, she's been kicked out of service, she's got all the symptoms of a rapid decay.

"She is laying it on thick, saying that Burns needs to come and help Jenny. When Burns writes back we find out that the baby was a boy."

'Damaged irremediably'

Burns's letter says that Jenny's distress makes his "heart weep blood" and he sends her money.

The letter says that Burns wanted to take the boy but Jenny would not allow him, despite the dire consequences which follow.

According to Louise Yeoman says: "There's been speculation that that baby grew up and became a merchant in London. There is no evidence of this.

"The most likely thing is that Jenny and the baby don't live very long. At the point where the big collection is made for the Burns's children, which helps the illegitimate daughters, there is no sign of the Burns son. I think that little boy must be dead by at least 1800, if not a lot sooner."

Prof Crawford says: "Although Burns sends money for Jenny Clow I think that's an instance where he can't sort things. She's destitute and she dies and she is one of the people whom Burns damaged irremediably."

In theory Burns's reputation should have suffered over these repeated episodes but it does not appeared to have stopped him. Even his marriage did not stop him.

Out of wedlock

In 1790, his job in the excise took him backwards and forwards to Dumfries, where he often stayed at the Globe Inn.

There he met a barmaid, likely to have been about 10 years younger than him, who inspired him to write one of his best-loved songs and there was soon to be yet another illegitimate baby on the way.

Mr Waddell says: "Although we can't absolutely say that the Anna in 'Yestreen I had a pint o' wine' has to be Ann Park, it seems very probable."

Louise Yeoman says Ann was sent away to Leith to have the baby.

She says: "We don't know what happened to Ann. She seems to have died because later Maria Riddell, one of Burns's friends and correspondents writes about what a wonderful person Jean Armour was that she took in an illegitimate baby of Burns's, born after wedlock, who had lost her mother.

"That is little Betty, Ann Park's daughter. But really the only mother she ever knew was Jean Armour."

Nobody's sex life has been picked over quite so much as that of Burns, Scotland's national rascal as well as its poet.

These were the scandalous affairs that Burns tried to keep secret, but the world found out all the same.

Dr Crawford says: "If I were trying to sum up Burns's attitude to sex and women I would find it difficult but ultimately it comes down to a volatile relationship between the riotous and the tender.

"Out of the volatility in that relationship, there are clearly casualties and Burns knew that, though he may have avoided sometimes facing up to it fully."

The Secret Sex Life of Robert Burns will be on BBC Radio Scotland at 10:30 on Sunday.

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