25 January 1759 - 21 July 1796
Robert Burns is widely regarded as Scotland's national poet. He was born of a farmer in Alloway, Ayrshire. He received little regular schooling and was educated mostly by his father and a teacher, John Murdoch. As a youth he started to write poetry whilst working as a labourer on his father's farm. He achieved national success following the publication of the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems in 1786. He was married to Jean Armour from Mauchline, Ayrshire.
His first contact with Dumfries came on a visit in 1787 when Dumfries Town Council made him an honorary burgess. In 1788 he took the lease of a farm at Ellisland, 6 miles north of Dumfries, and began a second job as an exciseman the following year. It was at Ellisland that he wrote his famous poem about witches, 'Tam o' Shanter'. In 1791 he abandoned farming and moved with his family to Dumfries, staying in a small flat in Bank Street. His song writing there was prolific and included 'The Deils Awa Wi' the Exciseman', 'Duncan Gray' and 'The Lea Rig'.
In May 1793 the family moved to a better quality house in Mill Street, now called Burns Street. Their standard of living was good and they employed a maid servant. Songs written in Mill Street include 'My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose', 'A Man's A Man for A' That' and 'Scots Wha Hae'. His days in Dumfries were spent stamping leather, gauging malt vats, noting the manufacture of candles and granting licenses for the transport of spirits.
Usually dressed in a 'decent suit of dark clothes', he had a distinguished head with dark brown eyes and a high forehead. His features were a little coarse and he had a slight stoop but at nearly 5' 10" (1.8m) in height he must have cut a good figure in town.
In May 1795 Alexander Reid painted a portrait of him. Burns described it:
"there is an artist, of very considerable merit, just now in his town, who had hit the most remarkable likeness of What I am at this moment that I think ever was taken of anybody. It is a small miniature...'
His health, however, began to deteriorate seriously. As a youth he had been the chief labourer on his father's farm in Ayrshire. The effort of ploughing the farm's rough ground had placed a great strain on his heart. As a cure he tried sea bathing in the Solway at Brow Well, nine miles to the south east of Dumfries. This only made him worse and he died at home on 21 July 1796. He was 37 years old.
His funeral was very grand and was watched by an enormous crowd but he was buried in a humble grave in the corner of St. Michael's churchyard, 50 metres to the left of where you are standing.
The appeal of Burns' poems and songs even in his own lifetime covered all social groups and to this day remains universal.
It was widely felt that Burns' original grave, marked with a plain stone slab was an insufficient memorial to the poet. When Dorothy and William Wordsworth visited Dumfries in 1803 they had difficulty in even finding the grave.
In 1813 a number of prominent citizens in the town decided to launch an appeal to build a fitting mausoleum. One of the subscribers was the Prince Regent, later George IV. After a public advertisement, fifty designs were received and the plans of T F Hunt, a London architect, and Peter Turnerelli, a sculptor, were eventually approved. On the 19th September 1815 Burns' body was exhumed and placed in the new mausoleum.
Mrs. Burns continued to live in the small house where her husband died. Her modest manner and amiable character made her a popular figure in Dumfries. When she died in 1834 and her remains were added to the vault the opportunity was taken to make a cast of Burns' skull.
Peter Turnerelli's original statuary group deteriorated and was replaced in 1936 with a similar design by Herman Cawthra. It depicts Burns' own conception of "Coila", representing the Ayshire district of Kyle where he was born, throwing her inspiring mantle over the poet as he works at the plough.
John McDairmid, editor of the Dumfries Courier, later wrote:
'As a report had been spread that the... coffin was made of oak, a hope was entertained that it would be possible to transport it from the north to the east corner of St Michael's without opening it or disturbing the sacred deposit it contained. But this hope proved fallacious; on testing the coffin, it was found to be composed of the ordinary material, and ready to yield to the slightest pressure, and the lid removed, a spectacle was unfolded, which considering the fame of the mighty dead, has rarely been witnessed by a single human being.
There were the remains of the great poet, to all appearance nearly entire, and retaining various traces of vitality, or rather exhibitioning the feature of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death - the lordly forehead, arched and high - the scalp still covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white.
The scene was so imposing, that some of the workmen stood bare and uncovered... and at the same time felt their frames thrilling with some indefinable emotion, as they gazed on the ashes of him whose fame is as wide as the world itself.
But the effect was momentary, for when they proceeded to insert a shell or case below the coffin, the head separated from the trunk and the whole body in the exception of the bones, crumbled into dust. Phrenology at that time had not become fashionable... and as no such opportunity can occur again, it is perhaps to be regretted that no cast was taken of the head..."
Ellisland Farm, an engraving from an article in the 'Illustrated London News' celebrating the centenary of the birth of Robert Burns, 25th January 1859.
The house in Which Burns Died, Dumfries,' a hand coloured steel plate engraving from a paining by William Henry Bartlett.
'Burns Funeral, 1796', an etching by George Aikman.
Robert Burns' a miniature watercolour on ivory by Alexander Reid, 1795. (c) National Galleries Scotland.
The earliest known photograph of the mausoleum, c1850. It shows Robert Burns Jnr and Colonel William Nicol Burns, sons of the poet, with the writer Thomas Aird.
Jean Armour with her granddaughter, Sarah. An engraving of a portrait by Samuel MacKenzie.
Cast if Robert Burns's skull made in 1834
'Burns Mausoleum', an engraving by William Henry Bartlett, c1838.