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The Recipients of Burns’s Letters

James Burness

First cousin of Robert Burns. Born 1750 in Montrose. (Note original spelling of name Burness, latterly changed by the poet, to Burns.) James became a solicitor in Montrose, although little is known of him other than through his connections to Robert Burns. In particular, a total of 9 letters are known to have been written from Robert Burns to his cousin. These letters also record that James assisted in the promotion of the First Edinburgh Edition of Burns work and that he made financial contribution to help in the project. Following Robert’s death, he offered to assist in the education of the poet’s son Robert Jnr, but Jean Armour did not wish to split the family.   
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William
Burness

Born in 1721 at Clochnahill, (pronounced- Cloch-na-hill – with the “och” sound as in a Scottish “Loch”) in Kincardineshire. As a consequence of the Jacobite Rebellion, he and his brother moved initially to Edinburgh in search of employment, and two years later arrived in Ayrshire. (See article “Beginners Guide to Robert Burns” in the Archive section)

Only one letter has been found from Robert to his father, written whilst the poet was living and working in Irvine. Rabbie’s short stay in the old market town of Irvine, (noted then as “Irvin”) on the west coast, approximately 12 miles north of Ayr was to be the poet’s darkest period. Extremely ill, living in terrible conditions and virtually penniless, Robert Burns suffered deep depression at this time.

Whilst Father & Son were often in conflict, Robert clearly held him in high regard. Undoubtedly, William Burness strict views, and his commitment to “education” played a most significant role in the Roberts achievements. William Burness died 13th February, 1784. 

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Mrs. Frances Anna Dunlop

Born 1730, daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie (near Ayr) and apparently a line descendant of the famous Sir William Wallace (Braveheart!), Francis Dunlop was one of Burns most regular correspondents.

Following a number of family problems, culminating in the death of her husband (John Dunlop of the village, Dunlop, near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire), Frances Dunlop was at a low point. A friend presented her with a copy of a Burns poem, and such an impact it had, she wrote to the poet, ordering 6 copies of the Kilmarnock Edition. The piece in question? What else but “The Cotter’s Saturday Night” (The subject of this poem was none other than Robert’s own father!)

A strong friendship developed through correspondence, clearly demonstrated in the number of letters written. Perhaps most interesting is the stark contrast in backgrounds. It is clear however, that unlike many “socialites” of the time, the relationship was not based merely on her curiosity of the farmer poet, or his “pop star” image.  Frances Anna Dunlop genuinely respected Burns. The feeling was mutual and he trusted her views. She assumed the role of providing critical appraisal on his work and advice on his direction in life, but their strong friendship was fractured over Rabbie’s outspoken political views. 

The problem was Burns’s apparent support for the French Revolution….particularly distressing for Frances Dunlop  as her Sons served in the army, and she had family ties with the French nobility. 

Latterly, she ignored his letters and the relationship faltered. She died in 1815, at the ripe old age of  85.

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Agnes McLehose …or….. “Clarinda

Born 1759, Agnes, daughter of a Glasgow surgeon,(Andrew Craig), was to become the subject of one of the greatest love stories “never told”.

Following a whirlwind romance, at the age of 17, “Nancy” Craig married James McLehose, a Glasgow lawyer. The marriage was turbulent and he regularly beat her. Pregnant with his 4th child, she left him and returned to her father.  James McLehose retreated to Jamaica, but they never divorced.

Now living in Edinburgh, Nancy met the now famous poet and it appears it was “love at first sight” 

Burns first letter to Nancy was on 6th December 1787, in which he is responding to her request to join her for tea ……which he had to postpone for a few days. 

Burns was clearly infatuated by Agnes, and she with him. Robert had aspired to being matched with a woman of the higher classes. She was taken by the imagery of the famous, handsome poet of whom everyone was speaking. Given her married status, a true love affair was impossible. 

The two now took on the pen names Clarinda & Sylvander to protect their identities in correspondence. Burns tried very hard to seduce her by letter, and many Burns scholars have since argued over the actual extent of the relationship. One question is still unanswered….Did he or Didn’t he….!!! Whilst it would appear from the tone of the letters that it was unlikely “he did”…..no one will ever know.  

The relationship cooled and Agnes distanced herself as Rabbie’s literary advances grew stronger….clearly too strong for her comfort and she warned him off. Burns wrote for her “Ae Fond Kiss”, arguably the greatest love poem ever written, in December 1791.
The final letter to his beloved Clarinda was 25th June 1794. 

35 years after Burns death, his beloved Clarinda, now an old lady, wrote in her diary…”This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!”    She died in 1841 aged 82.  Clarinda & Sylvander live on. Much has been said and much has been written of this great love story, but only by those knowledgeable or interested in Robert Burns. One day, this story will be told to the World !

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John Moore

Dr John Moore (1729 - 1802)

Moore was first introduced to Burns by Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop - the poets most regular correspondent and critic. She sent Dr. Moore a copy of "The Kilmarnock Edition" which had particularly intrigued him, and asked that Mrs Dunlop arrange for Burns to get in touch.

Moore was an academic of some note, who studied medicine both in Scotland and in Paris. He was also an author, having written a number of authoritative books on culture, medicine, the French Revolution (which he witnessed) and a novel - "Zeleco" - which Burns particularly admired.

John Moore

Initially, Burns was hesitant in contacting Dr Moore, feeling out of his depth with such an intellect. When contact was made, Moore tried to persuade the poet to stop writing in the Scottish dialect - a piece of advice which Burns thankfully ignored !

Most importantly however, Burns wrote the following letter to Moore - a short autobiography of the poets life. This document is considered to contain the most revealing information on Robert Burns and gives the reader great insight into his mind, perceptions and life.


Letter Index

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