On this day, 225 years ago, the 21st of July 1796, Scotland lost arguable one of its most revered geniuses – The National Bard – Robert Burns. He died in his home in Dumfries at the young age of 37. His death has been popularly depicted as due to years of hard backbreaking labor and toil as a farmer. Additionally, it has been occasionally believed to have occurred because of a misdiagnosis of gout, and the corresponding treatments. Most recently it has been argued that he succumbed to an undiagnosed heart defect. We are not going to focus on the possible causes, but just conclude that all those factors might have contributed to his early and untimely passing.
We are also not going to debate his life and legacy, or to try to make it fit squarely into our modern world. We simply acknowledge that he, like all of us, was flawed. His initial biographer, Dr James Currie, portrayed him in his final years as an alcoholic. This depiction is thought to be inaccurate, but it was a narrative that sold a lot of books. It is true that Robert Burns fathered many children outside of his marriage (some estimate that he might have fathered as many as fourteen illegitimate children). Yet, we are not here to judge him. Rather, we want to pay our respects to a man who, beyond a doubt, absolutely loved the country of Scotland and all its people!
Here in Scotland (as well as around the world within the Scottish Diaspora) we celebrate Robert Burns, his life and his poems, every year on or around his birthday – January 25th. It is during the Burns Suppers when admirers share their stories about ‘Scotland’s Favourite Son’ (as a side note, as with any beloved ‘child’, Robert Burns has many nicknames which you’ll notice throughout this article). It is also the time of the year when we write stories about his life. In fact, if you are interested in learning more about a Burns Night Supper, please check out virtual supper from this past January.
Today, the day of his passing, is acknowledged, but not to the same extent as his birthday. Nevertheless, we invite you to join us virtually to take a trip St Michael’s Churchyard in Dumfries, so that we can visit Robert Burns’ Mausoleum and pay our respects to the National Poet of Scotland.
As a member of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, Robert Burns was laid to rest in a military funeral on Monday the 25th of July 1796. His funeral procession was accompanied by soldiers, pipers, and drummers from as far as Angusshire. The procession moved to the tune of Handel’s “Dead March” from Midsteeple on High Street through the center of Dumfries to St Michael’s Church.
There he was laid to rest into a very modest and unremarkable plot in the northeast corner of the churchyard. His grave was adorned with the simplest of stone markers – a rectangle slap of stone with the word “Burns” chiseled into it.
This inconspicuous grave was almost as tragic as the day itself because it was on the very day of his funeral that his wife Jean Armour gave birth to their son Maxwell. Unfortunately, we will also visit Maxwell shortly…
Soon after the funeral, both friends and fans alike, started voicing their wishes for a more elaborate resting place for the ‘People’s Poet’. In fact, many visitors were having a hard time locating his gravesite. However, the more immediate concern was the welfare of his widow and children. Luckily for them, locals rallied to raise funds to initially support them. Later, and more significantly, it was the proceeds from the sales of Burns’ biography that helped to secure the stability of a home and the welfare of his surviving family.
After ensuring the future of his family, John Syme and other friends of Burns formed a committee and turned their focus back to improving the burial site. After raising enough funds (including a sizeable donation from Sir Walter Scott) for the improvements, the committee in 1813 received numerous designs for a mausoleum. They eventually settled on the design from a London -based architect, T F Hunt, and with an Irish-Italian sculptor, Peter Turnerelli, for the sculptures.
The sculptures, or the statuary group, depicts ‘Rabbie’ Burns on a field with a plough, being guarded by a heavenly figure with a cape, or a mantel. This figure is sometimes misunderstood but has an interesting backstory. As a teenager toiling away long, brutal days on the fields around the lands of Kyle in Ayrshire, Robert was taken with the idea of having a muse to help inspire him. So, he just created one! He named her Coila, as a refence to the historical King of the Picts– Coil or Coel. King Coel is believed to have ruled the lands in Ayrshire. He is also thought to have been buried in Tarbolton, a town that Robert Burns frequented (and famously started the “Bachelor’s Club” for likeminded young men who wanted to forget the hardships of farm life with a revelry of all sorts).
Nonetheless, Coila became the inspirational muse of Robert’s young mind, and it was her who encouraged him to live his true life– as a poet. Coila is often portrayed in a tartan skirt and a crown made of holly, while also adorning a cape that both protected Robbie from the elements while working the plough and inspired him to see nature and all living things with empathy, so that he could then write about them in a manner that was both relatable and accessible to all.
Once the designs were decided on, the construction began on the mausoleum itself. The first thing that was completed was the burial vault beneath the mausoleum. On September 19th, 1815, the remains of Robert Burns and his two deceased sons were exhumed from their original graves and then reburied into the Mausoleum vault. The two sons buried beside him were the forementioned Maxwell Burns, who died on the 25th of April 1799, three months prior to his third birthday, and Francis Wallace Burns who passed away on July 9th, 1803, at the age of 14.
Below is a fascinating article published in Dumfries Courier at the time of this reburial.
The above article mentions the wish to have a mold made of Burns’ skull. Well, they might not have got around to doing that in 1815, but just you wait…
The small, yet stunning, sandstone mausoleum was completed in September 1817. From there on it went on undisturbed for some time until 1834 when Jean Armour, wife, and widow of Robert Burns, passed away. She was then laid to rest into the vault next to her beloved husband – ‘Robin’ - as she called him. It was during her burial that the decision was made to make a cast of Robert Burns’ skull in hopes to use Phrenology (a pseudoscience that believed the mental abilities could be studied from the shape and the bumps on the skull) to unlock the secrets of the mind of a genius.
As the 19th century drew towards a close, the Mausoleum needed some repairs, and it also received a bit of a facelift; it was painted white, which is the unmistakable sight that it holds to the present day in the churchyard. In 1934, further repairs were carried out as the statutory group of Burns and Coila was refurbished by sculptor Joseph Hermon Cawthra. More recently, the Mausoleum went through major refurbishments in 2012. This included the installation of a new copper roof, and waterproof paint which was applied to establish the integrity of this important memorial to one of the most important figures in Scottish history, literature, imagination, and life itself.
Finally, on this important day, please join us- including Finn and Sawyer- in paying our respects to a man who has left behind a legacy that can be felt and shared by all Scots…old and new…and with anyone around the world that finds inspiration for their own lives from the ‘Ayrshire Bard’ who passed away 225 years ago today.
Epitaph on my own Friend
By Robert Burns
An honest man here lies at rest, As e’er God with His image blest: The friend of man, the friend of truth; The friend of age, and guide of youth: Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d, Few heads with knowledge so inform’d: If there’s another world, he lives in bliss; If there is none, he made the best of this.
Until next time – Explore & Discover