Sue Gyford: Brief encounter left lasting impression on Burns

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As Scotland celebrates Burns Night, Sue Gyford looks back at the Bard’s important links with the Capital

HE was the Ploughman Poet, forever linked in readers’ minds with his birthplace in Alloa, and his life, and death, in Dumfries.

But Robert Burns’ life was not entirely given to the rural idyll. The years he spent in Edinburgh, while relatively brief, played a pivotal role in his life, loves, and poetry.

His first major success had been the publication of “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect”, in 1786, known as the “Kilmarnock edition”.

It was on the back of its popularity that Burns made his way to Edinburgh, according to Grierson Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University, Susan Manning: “This was not part of his long-term game plan,” she says.

“He was intending to emigrate to Jamaica or the slave-owning states. He had booked his passage and published the Kilmarnock edition and then began to get rumours from friends in Edinburgh that it was going down rather well, so he jettisoned the plan to go to Jamaica and set off for Edinburgh.”

Reportedly travelling for two days on a borrowed pony to reach the Capital, he took quarters in Baxters Close, near the top of Lawnmarket.

Interest in the poet increased as the Kilmarnock edition gained readers and strong reviews – and an erroneous reputation as an uneducated, “heaven-taught ploughman”.

The publisher William Creech quickly proposed to publish an Edinburgh edition of his collection, including further poems not included in the Kilmarnock edition. Many of the run of 3000 were sold before they were printed, and the novelty of the farmer-turned poet thrilled Edinburgh’s aristocrats and intelligentsia, Prof Manning says.

“He was taken around and shown off at people’s dinner parties. He was a bit sceptical of how this would last – he knew he was flavour of the month but it’s not going to last.”

He was right. His stay in Edinburgh lasted in total around 60 weeks between 1787 and 1791, divided into seven separate periods. Between many of them, he took tours around different parts of Scotland and after his first trip, returned to discover that his star was already fading.

But there was more to Burns’ Edinburgh than currying favour with the literati – it was here he wooed the woman who was to inspire his lovelorn ballad of parting and regret, Ae Fond Kiss.

Agnes McLehose, known as Nancy, had been married to James McLehose, but he had left Scotland to work in Jamaica. She settled in Edinburgh, and as Burns rose to fame was determined to meet him.

Their first encounter was at a tea party in the house of a Miss Nimmo on December 4, 1787, when she invited him to tea. His letter of response read: “I can say with truth, Madam, that I never met with a person in my life whom I more anxiously wished to meet again than yourself . . . I know not how to account for it.”

There followed many meetings and an exchange of letters in which they used the names Clarinda and Sylvander to refer to one another.

Clarinda was not the only object of his affections. While writing to her, he was also continuing a physical relationship with her servant girl, Jenny Clow. And eventually he would return home to his wife, “Bonnie Jean”.

The waning of the city’s interest in Burns marked a turning point for his career. Rather than continue with his poetry, he began writing songs, after being approached by James Johnson to collaborate on his collections of Scottish songs, Scots Musical Museum. It was a direction which would characterise much of Burns’ remaining career.

He decided eventually to return to his farming roots and took on Ellisland Farm in Dumfries and Galloway.

Gordon Jamieson, secretary of the Edinburgh and District Burns Clubs Association, says: “He didn’t manage to get someone who would finance him for the rest of his days like some of the aristocracy.

“He was unable to get them to promote him and look after him, and he had other members of the family who were depending on him.”

His passion for Clarinda simmered, however, and letters were still exchanged between the pair. They met for the last time in December 1791. Mr Jamieson says: “On the last occasion he met her down the Grassmarket at the White Hart and he walked her home. Whether he stayed the night we don’t know – she didn’t kiss and tell.”

Later that month, from Dumfries, he sent her Ae Fond Kiss.

She died in 1841 and lies buried in Canongate Kirkyard – overlooked by Edinburgh’s Burns Monument in Calton Road.

It is not the only monument in Edinburgh – a statue in his memory also stands in Bernard Street, Leith. So while the Bard might not be considered a son of Edinburgh, there is no denying that he continues to hold a special place in the hearts of its residents.


Burns’ Address to Edinburgh, 1786 (first stanza)

Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!

All hail thy palaces and tow’rs,

Where once, beneath a Monarch’s feet,

Sat Legislation’s sov’reign pow’rs:

From marking wildly scatt’red flow’rs,

As on the banks of Ayr I stray’d,

And singing, lone, the lingering hours,

I shelter in they honour’d shade.