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“I’ve seen thee dappl’t, sleek and glazie,
“A bonnie gray:” (Auld Farmer’s salutation to his Auld Mare)
It has to be said that Robert Burns never really took to farm life, although he certainly did his share and his closeness to the land became the inspiration for much of his poetry.
Despite managing his education, which was sporadic with years of no direct teaching, (though books were always made available), it was working the farm with his father and his brother, Gilbert, that took almost all his time. To understand the level of their poverty here’s a short extract from something his brother wrote:
“We lived very sparingly. For several years butcher’s meat was a stranger in the house.”
In 1777 William moved the family to an even worse situation at a farm at Lochlie, it had 130 acres and an extortionate rent. Then began four years of wrangling between William and the Landlord. Robert’s father’s health was disintegrating and this was the only factor that kept him from prison.
Robert and Gilbert decided to sub-rent three acres from their father to grow flax, it appeared that this would be a good crop to grow in future. Robert went off to Irvine to learn how to dress flax. The choice of teacher was unfortunate, the man was untrustworthy and his wife burned his premises to the ground.
In 1784 William Burnes died a bankrupt.
Robert and Gilbert moved to a farm at Mossgiel. The rent was reasonable but their first four years suffered from terrible weather.
It was early in 1786 that Burns made arrangements to publish his first book and in the wake of its success he travelled to Edinburgh, leaving farm life behind. For a while.
In 1788, even though he had succeeded in getting his Excise appointment, he rented a farm in Ellisland from his friend Patrick Miller who he had met on his first Scottish journey. It was a disaster.
He took up his job as Exciseman in September 1789 and managed to dispose of the farm in 1791. He moved the family to Dumfries for a new start and by now he was 32. His attachment to farm life was finally at an end.