A Toast to the Lassie

A portrait of Robert Burns’s much-adored, long-suffering wife and muse

Almost every collection of Robert Burns’s poems includes an abbreviated (often inaccurate) account of the poet’s life. Standard biographies usually begin with the uneducated “Heaven-taught ploughman” of Ayrshire who was transformed, by the attentions of the great and the good, into “Scotland’s bard”; in fact, young Burns was well, albeit privately, educated and Scotland, unlike England, has never acknowledged a poet laureate. What has been most lacking is a readable, concise account of the most important woman (and there were many women!) in Burns’s tempestuous 37 years, namely his wife, Jean Armour. This book attempts to fill that void.

Armour, the “Mauchline belle” who became Burns’s wife, was one of eleven children born to an Ayrshire stonemason, James Armour. A vivacious brunette with a fine singing voice, she first met Burns in 1784 when she was 17; according to the lore, accepted by most biographers, it...