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Burns's Life


First Contact

Robert Burns's first visit to Dumfries and Galloway was in 1787 during a short tour of the Borders with his friend Robert Ainslie, a law student. Following the success of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems Burns was celebrated as 'the Heaven-taught Ploughman' by Edinburgh Society.

He arrived in Dumfries from Carlisle on 4th June. Dumfries Town Council immediately made him an honorary burgess.

Burns had always been doubtful of earning his living by his pen and was looking for another means. And so, he turned his attention to finding a farm. In March 1788, despite misgivings, he signed a lease to Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire. Shortly before, however, he had written to Robert Graham of Fintry, a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise that he "wished to get into the Excise". Graham, another admirer, used his influence and arranged for Burns to receive a position in the Dumfries area as soon as one became available. 


Burns arrived at Ellisland on 11th June 1788. He was then 29 years of age. The farm was so neglected that it did not even have a farmhouse and he had to live in a hut at nearby Isle Tower until one was built.

Burns could take comfort, however, in the knowledge that even if the farm was to fail he would soon have a job in the Excise to fall back upon. After many problems with the builders they moved into the new house in May 1789. Their second son Francis was born in August, and a month later Burns began his excise duties. Excise was a tax collected at the point of manufacture or import rather than at the point of sale. A wide range of goods was liable for it, mostly notably silk, tobacco and spirits.

Burns as a guager had to calculate and collect the tax due. In addition to improving a rundown farm he had to travel over 200 miles per week on horseback, collecting excise duties and completing the necessary paperwork during his evenings. For this he received £50 per year plus £50 for every smuggler arrested and half of any goods seized.

Although Burns had two full-time jobs and was suffering from ill health, he found time to write many songs. The long hours on horseback allowed him to work over verses. He was also a prolific letter writer.

In July 1790 Burns was transferred to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division which reduced his weekly mileage. He was good at his job and popular with his superiors. His standard of living on the farm was above average and he had the means to employ farmworkers to help him with improvements.

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