Report by Sandra Millsopp
Bangor Historical Society began its 2017-2018 season on 14 September. The chairman Ian Wilson paid tribute to Paul McKay who had died during the summer. Paul had been secretary of the society for many years and had organised many successful outings until his retirement. Ian also announced that Sandra Millsopp who writes the society’s reports for the Spectator had been awarded a PhD for her thesis on nineteenth century Bangor.
The talk was sponsored by the Ulster-Scots Agency as part of their autumn series. The speaker was Laura Spence and her topic was Robert Burns. She had been introduced to Burns’ work by her Scottish grandmother and his story intrigued her. He was born in 1759 in Alloway on 25 January and died in Dumfries at the age of 37. At various times he was a farmer and a taxman. He married Jean Armour and fathered a total of 13 children by her and other women. He is widely recognised as the national poet of Scotland.
Burns was the first son of William and Agnes Burnes. He worked on the family farm and grew up listening to his mother singing old folk songs and telling stories. His first song was written to impress a girl who was helping at the harvest. He stayed for a time with an uncle who was a smuggler and then he moved to a farm at Lochlea and with his friends formed the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club. His next job was as a flaxdreesser for another uncle. Here the bad conditions made him ill.
He continued to read and write and admired the work of the poet Robert Ferguson. In 1787 he changed the spelling of his surname from Burnes to Burns. By now he had returned to the family farm. He had several lovers and illegitimate children. He began to publish volumes of verse. ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ was based on his father. By now he had met Jean Armour, but her parents opposed the marriage although she gave birth to twins. In 1787 he went to Edinburgh where his poems had received great acclaim and he met Agnes Maclehose, whose husband was in the West Indies. He also met James Johnston who was collecting old tunes and he wrote words for them.
Burns was now a celebrity and he had money. Jean Armour’s parents agreed to their marriage. He still had lovers and illegitimate children. When one of them died, Jean who had a child about the same time agreed to raise her child. Burns now became an excise officer at Dumfries as it offered a steady income. He wrote poems at night, including famous ones like Auld Lang Syne. By 1795 the family were living in a comfortable home and Jean was expecting her ninth child. Burns’ health, however, was deteriorating. The hard farm work and a bout of pleurisy in his youth were affecting his health and he did not recover. He was buried in St. Michael’s Parish Church in Dumfries. His funeral was watched by an enormous crowd. In 1815 his remains were removed to a special mausoleum. Jean died in 1834. Today his works remain popular and he is commemorated by statues and by the Burns’ night supper.