Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Robert Burns and the Covenanters

Robert Burns (1759 - 1796) is of course Scotland's National Bard. He was born at Alloway, Ayrshire, the son of tenant farmer William Burns and Anges Broun. Next year is the 250th anniversary of his birth, and to mark the anniversary the Scottish Executive has been working on a programme of events branded as Homecoming Scotland. Burns has some Covenanter connections, hardly surprising for an Ayrshire ploughboy in the 1700s.

At Greenhill Covenanter Museum in Biggar, Burns' Covenanter poem is set in a metal plaque, sunk into a large stone:

The Solemn League and Covenant
Cost Scotland blood, cost Scotland tears;
But it seal'd Freedom's sacred cause -
If thou'rt slave, indulge thy sneers.

1) It's said that Burns named his favourite horse "Jenny Geddes" after the famous Covenanter who threw her stool at the Dean in St Giles Cathedral in 1637.

Genealogy is often a dubious basis for history, it's hard to prove and a lot of it is made up. So take that as a health warning for the rest of this post.

2) Burns' maternal great grandfather was shot with Richard Cameron at Airds Moss. (see Scotland and Scotsmen Vol II p 554 by John Ramsay, published 1888)

3) Burns' maternal great grandmother spoke of giving refuge to Covenanters in her younger days. His mother Agnes, at the age of 9 and upon the death of her own mother, went to live with her grandmother, who told her that in her early days she had given shelter to some of the Covenanters (see Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Robert Burns by Charles Rogers, 1877)

4) John Brown of Priesthill is one of the most famous Covenanter martyrs, due to the manner of his death (aged 58, in May 1685). He was shot dead in front of his wife by Claverhouse. John Ramsay (see point 2 above) spent time with Burns, and his reminiscences are further considered by AB Todd in Covenanting Pilgrimages and Studies (1911), in the chapter "Priesthill and John Brown":

"...In the course of their conversation Ramsay relates how Burns attributed his inclination at times to lean to the Jacobite side to the fact that some of his paternal ancestors had suffered for siding with the Pretender's party in their ill fated risings. On the other hand, his feelings, he said, led him to take the side of the Covenanters, because that one of his maternal ancestors had been slain on Ayrsmoss by the persecutors of the men of the Covenant. Now, who could this maternal ancestor of Burns' be but a son of John Brown of Priesthill? Bear in mind that the maiden name of the mother of Burns was Agnes Brown, who was married to William Burness on 15th December 1757, and that Robert Burns, their son, was born in 1759, only seventy four years after the martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill.

We know that at the time of his murder John Brown had a son, then in the mother's arms, and that she was about to be delivered of another child, who, for anything we know, may also have been a son. Burns, therefore, must have been a descendant and not at all a remote one of the martyr of Priesthill.

This is the more certain as, among all the other Covenanters who were put to death on or near to Ayrsmoss (July 1680), there is not another of the name of Brown. None of the nine who fell with Cameron in the fierce and desperate fight on Ayrsmoss bore that name. The martyr of Wellwood was named William Adam. The martyr shot by the wayside when sick and resting a little way out of the then village of Muirkirk, was named Smith.

Who, then, could this maternal ancestor of Robert Burns be but a descendant of John Brown of Priesthill?..."

[I must admit I can't see the obvious connection in that excerpt!]

5) Burns' uncles, Thomas and Archibald Bourns, emigrated to Virginia in 1747. There they and their families practised "...the strict Covenanter faith...". More information here

6) Burns' world-famous Selkirk Grace was originally known as the Galloway Grace or the Covenanters' Grace.

Burns is claimed to be many things - Williamite, Jacobite, champion of the working class, proto-Marxist, philander, genius - so it's no surprise that 19th century Scottish historians should link him to the Covenanters.

The sources listed above deserve further examination, as there could be some substance in them. A solid Burns/Covenanter connection could create an opportunity for people in Scotland to look more closely at the story of the Covenanters, while the tourists are flooding into Edinburgh snapping up the tartan nicknacks for The Gathering 2009!


Christian Radio Blog said...

A very interesting and, I suspect, correct, insight into Rabbie Burns.

Burns is often looked upon as being anti church - but I think the reality is that he, being very knowledgeable and respectful of the Bible (regardless of some of his personal foibles), was anti the hypocrisy he saw from churchmen.

For Burns to be associated with and influenced by Covenanter helps makes sense of his stance for the rights and freedoms of his fellow man.