“The desart were a paradise,
If thou wert there”
(to his 18 year-old housekeeper and nurse in his last few months)
Shortly before his 37th birthday, Robert Burns reported to his superior at the Dumfries Excise of having looked the Grim Reaper in the eye:
“you’ve heard this while how I’ve been licket,
And by fell Death ‘maist nearly nicket…”
He also asked for a Guinea’s advance.
Burns saw certain debt and uncertain health in the short-term, but possible salvation in the future. He must have also sensed increasing difficulty with one ambiguity in his life: demonstrating loyalty as an Excise Man and military Volunteer, while holding to views of Scottish Nationalism, Republicanism and Democracy.
His family expenses had been an average of £1101 over the previous five years in Dumfries. Initially, income plus perks had matched expenses, but perks had diminished drastically over the years because of reduced trade with - and increased hostility towards - France.
Over these years he had created many works of poetry and verse. However, he had no arrangement with his Edinburgh publisher, William Creech, to pay for material provided after the initial publication2 , and he gave his many contributions to James Johnson’s ‘Scottish Musical Museum’ freely.
Had he continued his career with the Excise in good health he could expect little more than his base salary as Gauger of £50 annually until promotion occurred. As it turned out, his pay would be reduced to £35 when unable to work because of sickness.
His options included waiting for promotion within the Excise department; writing editorials - for which he had been offered a Guinea (£1.05) a week; and creative writing with support from a wealthy patron or a shrewd publisher.
Promotion was based on vacancies and seniority: had he survived, the path could have been to Chief Office, Lieth, in January 1797, then Supervisor in Dunblane in August 1797 with a comfortable salary of £100 - £200. The ultimate – relatively wealthy - goal of Collector may have become possible as early as 1798.
However, he risked censure for expressing his views. He had been compelled once already to defend himself to his superiors yet, privately, he was increasingly outspoken. With growing British militarization and readiness for war with France, his views could not be condoned by his employer. Also, it is not likely he would have secured patronage for his creative work because of pre-war politics of the day. As an example, a long-term, respected correspondent - Mrs. Dunlop - had stopped responding to his letters.
His poor health was a greater concern. Physical injuries and ailments in recent years had included a broken arm in 1790, debilitating tooth-ache through much of 1795, and rheumatic fever after a daughter’s death in September, 1795. One or more of these events provided antecedent conditions for what is considered his most probable cause of death (bacterial endocarditis). Burns had also suffered increasingly from a depressed mood through recent winters. His writing reports “that horrid hypochondria pervading every atom of my body and Soul” to brother Gilbert in January, 1790; “….headache, nausea, and all the rest of the d____d hounds of hell….” to Ainslie in December, 1791; “a compleat Decemberish humour, gloomy, sullen, stupid” to Mrs. Dunlop late in 1793; “low spirits and blue devils” in “...this accursed time” in early 1794; and being worn out, “not middle-aged but old” in early 1795. He spent ‘many weeks’ in his sick bed in December, 1795 and January 1796.
This outlook was difficult for a person of remarkable prescience; one which he described in correspondence with increasing anguish and concern for his family.
Sadly, Robert’s last year was to be a spiral of declining ability to provide; increasingly poor health; anxiety over the family’s well-being; and farewells. However, it was also a year of increasing kindness and generosity by many people - including his landlord, merchants and tradespersons, friends and relatives. It was also a time of sharing his social and political ideas: he had many conversations with close friends and one remarkable, lengthy meeting in early June with a stranger, James MacDonald - a well-travelled young minister born in the Hebrides. It was a year when the first blush of the French Revolution was over, and there were realities to weigh when discussing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
Died: July 21st, 1796.
Younger brother Gilbert assisted with Robert’s affairs.
By September 1st, Gilbert had paid the most pressing debts of £14-15s-0d (£ 14.75), but was out of his depth in settling Robert’s accounts.
The remaining estate debts can be summarized as: - trade accounts (mostly to haberdasher David Williamson): £48-8s-9d; - rent to a very patient Captain John Hamilton: £24-1s-0d; - personal debts: £14-16s-10d. Together with accounts paid by Gilbert, the estate liabilities added up to just over £100 ($20,000). Assets included £25 in cash or notes, a small bad debt, Robert’s library and some furniture which together were valued at £95, and a significant loan from Robert to Gilbert.
Gilbert had three major conflicts of interest in Robert’s estate:
The Court of Session appointed William Thompson of Moat as “Factor Loco Tutoris” (Administrator for the Estate) on December 16th at the request of four friends of Robert’s. The Court also appointed the four friends as trustees for the children and Jean.
The immediate situation for Jean Armour Burns’ family was not good:
The four friends – John Syme, Alexander Cunningham, John McMurdo, Dr. William Maxwell, plus Captain Miller of Dalswinton (Dumfries Borough Member of Parliament, 1790-1796) - organized financial provisions for the widow and children.
Separately, in London, Sir James Shaw and Sir Peter Laurie raised financial assistance, ultimately forwarding these funds for Thompson of Moat’s management. Both benefactors were future Lord Mayors of London; Shaw had a humble farming background and was a distant relative of Burns’.
Ultimately it was public generosity, together with profits from posthumous publications of Burns’ poetry, which enabled ends to meet:
A total of £3,070 ($600,000) was raised, including profits from the publication of the Currie Edition: this provided an annual income of just over £100, in addition to the widow’s pension.
Jean Armour Burns died in 1834 at the age of 67, and is buried with Robert in the Burns Mausoleum which was erected in St Michael’s, Dumfries in 1817.
There have been many statements made as to whether – and by how much – Robert Burns was solvent or insolvent at the time of his death. Many of the statements have the credibility of statistics, and all miss the larger issue: the survival of Jean Armour Burns’ family was tied to (a) the success or otherwise of the Burns’ family farm in Mossgiel, (b) the generosity and ingenuity of Robert’s friends and, ultimately (c) the success of posthumous publications of his works.
The Family Loan
Robert’s loan to Gilbert, made in 1788 following the financial success of the Edinburgh Edition, enabled Gilbert to maintain the Burns’ family on their farm at Mossgiel. The family farm was marginal at best, and Gilbert admitted to Robert in 1788 that it was failing. This situation did not change. The debt remained essentially unchanged after eight years: it carried interest of 5%, and deductions were made for Bought Bess’ lodging and schooling and for cheese shipped to Robert’s family (about 100 lb/year between 1793 and 1797).
Gilbert was insolvent: by his reckoning in May 1798, his assets - primarily the farm chattel - were worth £420 ($84,000) if sold at fair price, and were approximately equal to his liabilities of £165 to Robert’s estate, £144 in other bills, and £110 in farm rental. (The balance sheet also identified £72 in an accumulated annuity debt to their mother, which might not have been recognized in court.)
Jean Armour Burns was reluctant to call the loan because this may have put the Burns family in dire straits. Indeed, a forced sale may well have realized only a portion of the farm’s assets, which would have left both her and Gilbert’s families penniless.
The trustees acted respectfully - and dispassionately: in 1797 they required a partial payment of £40 by July 1798 for extension of the loan. Gilbert paid in bank notes. Quite possibly connected to raising the funds, in 1798 he moved the family out of Mossgiel to a farm in Dinning, Nithsdale. However, continuing financial pressure led him to apply to the trustees for a loan. The terms offered by the trustees were not conducive.
In April 1800, Gilbert obtained a bank loan for £200 ($40,000) – provided on the separate personal sureties for the full amount from three kind individuals. Also in 1800, he moved on to manage a farm in Morham, East Lothian and, in 1804, to be Factor of Lady Blantyre’s East Lothian estates.
During this time, Gilbert provided some cash, cheese and potatoes to Jean Armour Burns but, from 1801 onward, he was technically in default of his loan to the trustees. The loan was eventually settled, with partial interest, in 1820 on receipt of £250 for Gilbert’s contributions to the eighth edition of Currie's ‘The Works of Robert Burns’.
The chapter on Gilbert closes with their mother Agnes Broun’s death in Gilbert’s home in 1820, aged 88, and Gilbert dying seven years later at the age of 68. His widow Jean lived on a further 15 years.
Revenues from Publishing
The Kilmarnock Volume: ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’; 1786; 612 copies printed. Burns’ autobiography indicates a net profit of nearly £20, after paying outlays; the printer’s accounts indicate Burn’s profit exceeded £50.
The Edinburgh Edition: ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’; 1787; 3,000 copies printed.
A letter from Burns in January, 1789, states “I believe I shall, in whole (£100 copyright included), clear about £400, some little odds; and even part of this depends upon what the gentleman (Creech) has yet to settle with me. In a month, I shall go to town to wind up the business if possible.”
The first London edition was published by Cadell in July, 1787, and pirated versions were published in Ireland and America shortly thereafter; all without royalties to the author.
Compiled by Jim Fletcher, Halifax Burns Club, May 2017
1. £1.0 (1796) = 110.0 GBP (2017) = 180.9 CAD (2017); say $200 CAD or USD
2. Creech paid Burns £105 for the copyright in 1787; £1.0 (1787) = 144.0 GBP (2017)
An image of the Kilmarnock First Edition. Only 74 copies are known to exist. One copy recently sold at auction for $52,590.
Signature of Gilbert Burns
By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Wlliam Maxwell
“Burns and the Bankers”; Clark McGinn; Burns Chronicle; the Robert Burns World Federation Ltd.; 2017 (27pp)
“The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography”; Robert Crawford; 2009
“The Death and Legacy of Robert Burns”; Stewart Cameron; Halifax Burns Club; January 2013
“Chronological Summary”; Burns Chronicle; the Robert Burns Federation; 1893 (30pp)