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The Myth And
The Gentle

By Samuel K. Gaw
(Past President of The Burns Federation)



Over 250 years ago Culloden marked the end of the Stuart cause and the aim of the Stuart followers, expressed in the oath taken by all, "Freedom to Scotland and no Union".

More than 200 years have passed since the death of the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, to whom these events were to dominate his outlook on life and his works.

"At Wallace',
what Scottish blood
But boils up in a
springtide flood!"

With the blood of the Jacobite family, Keith, the Earl Marshall of Scotland, in his veins it is little wonder that he bemoaned the fact that the

"Noble Stuart line is gone
A race outlandish rules
their throne "

Burns suffers from his biographers and the rash of "Immortal Forgets" issued in his name when the anniversary of his birth ascends.

In recent years we have once again seen the rise of a once common fallacy that the Poet is a descendant of Clan Campbell, the Clan which so ignominiously were responsible for the Massacre of GIencoe and figured so prominently on the Hanoverian side at Culloden.

Burns, who showed his contempt for the privileged classes, the holders of "Ribbons, Stars and a' that", and distaste for the "Tinsel of State" seems an unlikely admirer of the Lyon Court and the subject of Heraldry.

Heraldry has been alluded to as being the "Gentle Art". Burns' forays into the realm of Heraldry show him to be a keen student of the craft and ironically the history encapsulated in this science was to dispel the Campbell tradition and totally refute that his very name, Burns (or Burness, the earlier spelling), was derived from an ancestor, Campbell of Burnhouse.

Burns, then 28, was introduced to the subject during his merry sojourn in Edinburgh. The Lyon Court in Scotland deteriorated, following the Union of 1707, a decline accelerated when Lyon, King of Arms, joined his cousin, the Earl of Mar on the wrong side in 1715.
The creation of ` jobs for the boys" is nothing new and John Hooke Campbell, an English gentleman, was given the Hanoverian appointment of Lord Lyon, and the ability to pocket the fees available. An Ayrshire lawyer, Robert Boswell, friend of the Poet, conducted the administration from his Edinburgh office and he, or Robert Rankin, there instructed Burns well in the intricasies of Heraldry, showing him the genealogies and heraldic records of Scotland stacked therein.

Scottish arms were simpler and more direct than the English counterpart, as can be seen in the helmet design. They were comparatively few and reflected the nature, industry or clan connection of the family, The Galley of the Isles, the black and yellow flag of Clan Campbell or the common animals, stags, boars and wildcats, all peculiarly Scottish.

Burns, with his detestation of the Anglicisation process at work …..

"Nothing can reconcile me to the common terms English
Ambassador, English Court where Britain is intended"

……was equally displeased not only to find a carpetbagger bleeding the principal office, but also the Scottish Heralds and Pursuivants adopting English procedures, bedecked in English tabards, a custom which was to continue till 1928.

He expressed his disgust as early as August 1787 in his letter to Dr Moore

" I have not the most distant pretensions to what the pyecoated guardians of escutcheons call, a Gentleman. When at Edinburgh last winter I got acquainted in the Herald's Office and looking through that granary of Honors I there found almost every name in the Kingdom; but for me.

My ancient but ignoble blood
Has crept thro' Scoundrels ever
since the flood.

Gules, Purpure, Argent, etc, quite disowned me. *
My Fathers rented land of the noble Keiths of
Marshal, and had the honor to share their fate.
I do not use the word, Honor, with any reference to
Political principles …….."

* (Gules, Purpure, Argent are heraldic terms for Red, Purple, White or Silver).

The Seal

Envelopes were unknown and hot wax, impressed with a distinctively engraved seal, gave a fixing and the desired privacy to a letter. By 1789 Burns had used two simple seals. Letters have come to light showing an oval with therein a figure holding a harp. Another, the favourite of tatooists, a heart transfixed with two arrows. The loss of one or other impelled the Poet to show his understanding of the "Gentle Art".

Alexander Cunningham, a lawyer, friend in life and friend to Burns family in their time of need following his death, acquired a jewellers business and it was with him that Burns ordered his replacement seal with this letter ? 3rd March 1794:

"I lately lost a valuable Seal, a present from a departed friend, which vexes me much. I have gotten one of your Highland pebbles, which I fancy would make a very decent one; and I want to cut my armourial bearings on it...

"I do not know that my name is matriculated, as the Heralds call it, at all; but 1 have invented one for myself, so, you know, I will be chief of the Name; and by courtesy of Scotland, will likewise be entitled to Supporters. These, however, I do not intend having on my seal".

The Arms

I am a bit of a Herald; and shall give you, Secundum Artem, my Arms. On afield, azure, a holly?bush, seeded, proper, in base; a Shepherd's pipe and crook, Saltierwise, also proper, in chief. On a wreath of the colors, a ,woodlark perching on a .sprig of bay?tree, proper, for Crest. Two Mottoes: Round the top of the Crest "Woodnotes wild". At the bottom of the Shield, in the usual place "Better a wee bush than nae Meld ". By the Shepherd's pipe and croak, I do not mean the nonsense of Painters of Arcadia; but a Stock?and?horn, and a Club; such as you see at the head of Allan Ramsay, in Allan's quarto Edition of the Gentle Shepherd ".


The Arms as described by
Burns & approved by Lyon


The Campbell Connection -(Right)

The Yellow & Black flag of Clan Campbell is over the seal of Robert Burns 1837

(Matriculated the 22nd Day of April 1837)

(Left) - The Redesigned Arms

The spurious Campbell connection deleted and the seal of Robert Burns accentuated

(Matriculated the 14th Day of April 1851)


What about the other details. The Motto "Wood?notes Wild", a quotation from Milton's "L'Allegro", surmounting a whistling laverock perching on a bay?leaf sprig. Surely very suitable, a favourite Bird and, himself, a songster.

The Motto on the base, "Better a wee bush than nae beild". A truism still quoted in Ayrshire, and in the barren Ayrshire of Burns' boyhood shelter from even a small bush would be useful.

Burns never explained his fixation with Holly and the Holly Bush, although Ayrshire and the Carrick Bailiwick abounds with references.

His mother's great grandfather was an adherent of Peden the Prophet, soldier?covenanter and had been wounded at their defeat at Airds Moss. The Prophet had escaped by hiding in a holly tree and subsequently, at great risk to himself, preached at nearby Culzean. Culzean Estate contained the house where his mother was born. Characters immortalised in Tam O Shanter, abounded in the vicinity of Culzean which, translated, means "the place of the holly".

Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick was born and lived near the birthplace of the Poet's mother. On the Coat of Arms of Robert the Bruce are holly bedecked supporters.

In "The Vision" Coila, the muse herself wearing a crown of holly honoured Scotland's Bard with her own garland.

"But wear you this
she solemn said
And bound the holly
round my head
The polished leaves and
berries red
Did rustling play
And like a passing thought
she fled
In light away. "

The prickles on holly are confined to the lower branches but his insistence on this plant are unexplained, especially as he emphasises that it must be a small bush, not a tree.

In May 1794 examining proofs of the design he wrote "My seal is all well except that my holly must be a bush not a tree, as in the present shield", and a month later he further emphasised this.

Burns ordered the seal in 1794, but was not to receive the completed seal or seals until 1796, just two short months before he died. Sadly, his emphasised wishes were ignored ? the Stock and Horn appeared almost classical in design. The Club was certainly a Crook modelled like any one to be found at a Game Fair, the Bush was certainly tree?like.

Should Burns have made one mistake it is his insistence that the Motto "Better a Wee Bush" should be

"at the bottom of the shield in the usual place".

The usual place for the motto in Scottish Heraldry is above the Crest. English Heraldry has it usually below

The Campbell Legend

Lawful Armourial Bearings were never registered by Burns yet his design was incorporated officially into the Arms of relatives, and these were to spawn a strange legend, completely erroneous, oft repeated.

In 1837 the Burns Crest was first incorporated into the Arms of James Burnes, Town Councillor, and grandson of the Poet's cousin. It was to this cousin that Burns sent along the song "The Bed of Sweet Roses" and told of the excesses of a religious order "The Buchanites" in Irvine. The cousins were the grandsons of James Burnes of Brawlinmuir in Kincardineshire. James, whose Arms were registered, was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, and Physician General to the East India Company.

His Armourial Bearings incorporate the device of Robert Burns. In 1837 these Bearings contained the directive that the design should be

"... a Holly bush surmounted by
a crook and a Bugle horn
saltyreways all Proper, being the
well?known device used by the
poet Burns ..."

It further asserted that he was descended from Walter Campbell of Burnhouse, who fled to Buchan during the 17th Century Civil Wars. Losing the name of Campbell, the Burnhouse was corrupted into Burness and then Burns, allegedly for reasons of security.

On the crest is a Lion Couchant, pierced by a spear, lying on a shield of Clan Campbell. A tree stump pretentiously shows life returning as proof that the family is reviving their "previous greatness". It will be seen from this that the Poet could have been kinder to the Scottish nobility for it was at Loudoun Castle, the home of the Earl of Stair, a Campbell, that the Treaty of Union was drawn up, and of which Burns said "cost Scotland even its very name"
Burns a Campbell? Following this approach in 1837 to the Lord Lyon the legend grew. Despite there being a Burnhouse in Ayrshire, it was suggested that Taynuilt, literally the Gaelic "Place by the Burn", a village in Argyll, was the origin of the name. The Reverend Alex Greig of Stonehaven, who had married a Campbell, was alleged to have conveyed the Campbell connection in 1787. Yet neither Burns nor his cousin made mention of it.

The legend is still repeated even today, without the speaker questioning why a Campbell should require, in a staunch Presbyterian area, to change his name, and why a Gaelic name should be translated before usage. And why, more conveniently, do they ignore the fact that the name Burness was common in the Mearns by the early 17th century.

The career of the aforementioned, James Burness, took off. He was head of the Medical Department of the Army in Bombay. Unfortunately in the Indian Mutiny his two brothers, they being also in the service of the East India Company, were massacred at Kabul.

Fourteen years were to elapse before his return to this country and he was to find that the description of his Grant of Arms was erroneous, having discovered that the Campbell connection was a figment of the imagination. In 1851 a second petition to the Lord Lyon simplifies the design by the removal of all reference to Clan Campbell and commemorates the massacre at Kabul of his brothers.


"... from a recent investigation,
great doubts have arisen in
regard to the origin of his name
being from that of Campbell".

The well-known Crest of Robert Burns, has, therefore, appeared twice officially included in the Arms recorded by James Burnes, the Grandson of Burns' cousin and yet it was never officially recorded by the Poet.

The Lyon Clerk wrote to the users of the Crest, the Burns Federation, and advised on the illegality.

Thanks to Lyon and Lyon Court the design as stated by the Poet was given to the Federated Burns Clubs.

Considerable research went into the elements to meet the Poet's design criteria. On an Argent field the Holly Bush is just that, not the lamented tree; the Club not a Bishop's Crozier; and the Stock and Horn a Bombardon type instrument like that found by Burns on Atholl's Braes.

Burns, annoyed by the insidious English elements creeping into Scots life and Heraldry since the Union, would approve of the Scots elements: the simple helm of an old Scottish Warrior Knight, the Mantling doubled Green and Silver, the Laverock perching on the sprig of Bay Tree, the Holly Bush, all elements in their natural colours, and in the Escrol above, the motto "Better a wee bush than nae bield".

These were the egalitarian symbols the Poet craved. They prove his complete understanding of the "Gentle Art" but not even "A Wee Bush" can save the Poet from his mistaken biographers

This article, contributed by Sam Gaw, was previously published in 1996 in the magazine "Scottish Highlights"

2008 The Robert Burns World Federation