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Burns' pistols

In Burns' day, the government officially excised or removed a proportion of the value of goods as they were imported or produced. Burns trained as an excise officer in 1788 and began duties in the same year while farming at Ellisland. Excisemen, or gaugers, covered large areas of rural Scotland. Their job was to inspect and record a wide range of taxable materials such as malted grain, candles, soap and paper before and after manufacture. To do so, Burns would use dipping rods to gauge fluid quantities, scales to weigh dry goods, and excise return forms to record often quite complicated calculations. These measures were needed to monitor, for example, the malting of barley for whisky over a period of time so that the correct amount of tax would be levied on the producer.
Image Rights Holder:
National Burns Collection
Robert Burns (1759 - 1796) (poet)
Ellisland Farm, Dumfries & Galloway
However thankful Burns was to leave farming behind and get a relatively secure commission in the Excise, he was acutely aware of how unpopular gauges were. As well as carrying his commission (a warrant giving Burns legal powers of entry to inspect premises - Burns' commission is now in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia) he would also carry firearms, such as pistols to defend himself and apprehend deviants. Although forced to make compromises in terms of repressing his own anti-establishment political views, Burns did try to 'see himself as others saw him'. Burns is said to have composed 'The Deil's Awa Wi' Th' Exciseman' on duty. The song is a comical piece regarding the abduction of an exciseman by the devil as a reason to party!'We'll mak our maut, and we'll brew our drink, We'll laugh, sing and rejoice, man, And monie braw thanks to the meikle black Deil, That danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman'