The women in Robert Burn's life

Robert Burns and his Women


Robert Burns:
Who was he?

Short biography:
Early life
Farm Life
Later life

Background to the man:
His poetry
His women
His politics
His Freemasonry

His celebration:
Burns Night
Celebration running order
Auld lang syne

Burns home page

Robert Burns: His Women

"Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
"Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
"Never met -nor never parted-
"We had ne'er been broken hearted" (Ae fond kiss)

It has been said that though Burns’ genius with poetry is what he is remembered for, this was not his greatest gift. Mrs Maria Riddell wrote of him: “but none certainly ever outshone Burns in the charms – the sorcery I would almost call it, of fascinating conversation, the spontaneous eloquence of social argument, or the unstudied poignancy of brilliant repartee.” He was, in short, a charmer. And a womaniser.

When he was 15 (1774) he wrote a poem called “Handsome Nell” for a girl called Nellie. As for other relationships in his teenage years we know little or nothing, but for the charmer that was Robert Burns we can be sure they happened.

In 1781 he proposed to Alison Begbie, daughter of a farmer, but she rejected him perhaps seeing that as a farmer he had no prospects whatsoever, which was true.

Up to this time he had been a "good boy" however, when he lived in Irvine for a short time, Robert met an educated sailor by the name of Richard Brown, who did two things for Robert, one of which was very good, the other was to have rather a dubious effect on Robert’s life: The first thing was that Richard encouraged and inspired Robert to write more poetry. The other was to suggest that Robert should consummate his relationships with women. This had rather alarming results.

In 1785 pursuing his charming fillette, Elizabeth Paton, a servant, had his first child.

Also in 1785 he began a relationship with Jean Armour, daughter of a Master Mason, who bore his second child in 1786. There was a form of marriage but his complete lack of money or prospects (rather than his radical views) resulted in the marriage contract being mutilated – this, of course, had no real effect in law, they were still legally married, but Robert took it seriously.

Then he had a relationship with Mary Campbell, who died in childbirth quite possibly with his child.
Jean Armour’s father was pursuing Robert for child support (or go to jail). It was at this time that Robert claimed he’d leave the country and booked passage on a ship to the West Indies. He did it three times, but didn’t go. It was around this time that his first book was published.

In Edinburgh he had physical relationships with two servants May Cameron and Jenny Clow, both of whom bore him children. He also had a passionate but non-physical relationship with Agnes McLehose, the entire affair was conducted by letter. Agnes was a little more cautious since she was married and her husband was out of the country on business.

By this time Jean Armour’s family had revised their opinion of Robert and were now pursuing him to accept Jean as his wife.

In 1787 Peggy Chalmers, who was his intellectual equal rejected his offer of marriage. Whether this was due to his reputation or his lack of income is unclear, but was probably wise since he was actually married at the time.

In April 1788, after his passionate epistolary (letter-based) relationship with Agnes McLehose ended, Burns finally acknowledged Jean Armour as his wife and they remained together until his death. Jean was tolerant of his behaviour and even raised some of his illegitimate children as her own.