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 happened at a local dance when Burns’s black-and-white collie dog, Luath, caused havoc by racing about the dance floor, and Burns was heard to remark: “I wish I could find a girl to love me half as well as my dog.” A few days later when Jean saw the poet on the village green she asked him if he meant it. Thus it began, but although Burns was immediately smitten he had other pressing concerns: Elizabeth Paton, a serving girl in the Burns household, had just presented him with his first bastard child (“Dear bought Bess”). Still, Jean remained “ever on my mind,” Burns told a friend, and on more than just his mind because, a year later, Jean herself was pregnant, as it turned out, with twins. It is said that when Jean told her father the news, he fainted; having been revived with smelling salts and being told that Burns was the father, he fainted again.

This was the inauspicious beginning of a lifelong romance that would take years to evolve into a settled marriage. Melanie Murray’s Should Auld Acquaintance: Discovering the Woman Behind Robert Burns is part biography of Armour, part travelogue recalling the author’s adventures on the Burns trail in search of clues, and part memoir, wherein the author is not abashed to intertwine the ups and downs of her own romantic history with those of her subject. This confusion of purpose complicates any scholarly consideration of Murray’s book; this is unfortunate because some of her comments about Jean Armour are insightful; also, despite a sometimes gauche naiveté, Murray, a professor of literature at Okanagan College, manages to make her crash course on the inexhaustibly fascinating story of Robert Burns and Jean Armour interesting throughout.

Jean’s teenage pregnancy was borne stoically. To avoid shame, Jean was sent away to Paisley and her father obtained a warrant for Burns’s arrest. But the poet proved elusive and temporarily went into hiding. Eventually both he and Jean were summoned to public penance by the Kirk elders; just how effective this shaming upon “the creepy stool” was can be gleaned from these lines of Burns:

My downcast eyes by chance did spy
What made my lips to water,
Those limbs so clean where I, between,
Commenc’d a Fornicator.

Burns’s first impulse on learning of Jean’s pregnancy had been marriage. But when James Armour mutilated their handwritten marriage contract, Burns changed his mind. By then he had also met “Highland” Mary Campbell and begun what he described (in a letter to a friend) as “dissipation, riot, and other mischief”; Mary too was soon in the family way.

But on July 31, 1786, Burns’s life, and Jean Armour’s, was forever changed; 637 copies of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, three shillings each, were printed; the famous Kilmarnock edition is today one of the most valuable first editions in the world. Burns’s life, and Jean’s, would never be the same. Jean’s most important contribution was to the hundreds of songs Burns wrote; she would sing over the old tunes in what Burns called her “lilting woodnote wild” while he supplied the lyrics.

One recurrent problem with Melanie Murray’s book is that she does not hesitate to fill in, at considerable length, detailed conversations between Burns and Jean, conversations that the reader knows might well have happened, but the content of which, that reader knows equally, is forever lost in the mists of time. In other words, her attempt to blend fact and fiction, to tell a novelist’s tale but respecting the historical record, is unconvincing. This problem has bested more skilled authors than Murray—notably James Barke, whose five-volume cycle of novels on the life of Burns, although the product of a lifetime of painstaking research, ran aground on this very shoal.

Real life is seldom a match for a novelist’s fecund imagination. Should Auld Acquaintance hovers uncertainly between fiction and fact, and perhaps does justice to neither. Nor is the reader reassured to encounter sentences like this: “Like Jean I fell under the spell of a poetry man … To be cast in the role of the muse was irresistible.”

The second half of the book, with Jean now married to Burns and living in Ellisland in Dumphries (the period spanning the last seven years of Burns’s life), is better; there is less personal narrative from Murray, and a deeper understanding of the hardships that Jean Armour endured, living with a husband whose duties as an excise officer, collecting taxes from those who made beer and whisky, now took him constantly from home—“Common gauger, searcher of auld wives clarty Ale-barrels,” in the poet’s telling. Almost each year Jean bore him another child, the last birth on the very day of her husband’s funeral, July 25, 1796. And now she was Widow Burns, 31 years old, with six children to feed and clothe.

Constant in her devotion, steadfast in her admiration of her husband’s genius, Jean Armour lived on in Dumphries, dealt graciously with a constant stream of inquirers and raised her children. A charitable trust set up to honour the poet’s memory allowed her to live adequately, albeit never luxuriously. Her children grew up and scattered; only three survived Jean’s death in 1834.

Among the hundreds of poems and songs that Burns wrote, scholars have identified only about 14 written to, or about, Jean Armour. The most celebrated of these is “Of A’ the Airts the Wind Can Blaw,” of which Burns said: “This song I composed out of compliment to Mrs. Burns.”

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best:
There wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between;
But day and night my fancy’s flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.