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A Thumbnail Sketch of Jean Armour

by Marjorie Garlock Cather


Of a the airts the wind can blow
I dearly like the west.
For there the bonnie lassie lives
the lassie I lo'e best
Where wild woods grow and rivers row
And monie a hill between
But day and night my fancys flight
Is ever wi my Jean.

- Robert Burns, Of a' the airts the wind can blow

If Burns is to have a corner in our hearts we must also provide a corner for Bonnie Jean.

Robert Burns and Jean Armour came from the same sort of background. They were born in the same area of Scotland - she in 1767 in Mauchline, Ayrshire, and he in July 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire.

They both had austere religious fathers. And mothers with a more lighthearted gay approach to life. Both came from large families. Jean was one of eleven children, and Robert was one of seven.

Jean Armour's father was a respected master mason who provided a comfortable home for his family, on the other hand Robert's father was a struggling farmer, and he was raised in extreme poverty, which might account for Jean Armour's optimistic and loyal nature as opposed Robert Burns' uncertain vascillating temperament.

From the information handed down to us both Jean and Robert were exceptionally good looking. They both had pleasing personalities and were graceful dancers.

Jean Armour's first meeting with Burns did not occur until sometime after the Burns family settled at Mossgiel in March 1774. The meeting was a chance one at a country dance in Mauchline. At that time it does not appear that it was a person to person encounter, but she seems to have a fond memory of an observation that she had overheard him making in his usual jolly manner. During one of the dances Burns was dancing with a lass and his collie dog followed he and his partner around the floor. It triggered the Burns remark, "I wish I could find a lassie as fond of me as my dog."

Not too long after this village dance Jean was doing laundry on the village green in Mauchline and Burns and his collie happened along. The dog scampered over her laundry and she asked Burns to call his dog to him, which he did, and they exchanged a few pleasantries. She said to him, "Have you found any lassie yet to love ye as well as yer dog?" This meeting led to an almost immediate attraction to each other.

Opportunities for the lovers meeting were quite frequent for Burns' favorite "howff' during his leisure time was the Whiteford Arms. The inn so closely adjoined the Armour house that Burns and Jean could speak to each other from one of the back windows of the inn which looked into a window of the Armour house.

They carried on a secret courtship for a year because the lovers knew that old Mr. Armour would be very opposed to Burns as a son-in-law. This was a very passionate love affair. The result being Jean became pregnant.

The condition of Bonnie Jean became known in the late winter of 1785.

Burns wanted to marry her but she refused, her father was adamantly opposed to the marriage because Burns was penniless and unable to support a wife.

Robert Burns had given her a written document of marriage (which her father destroyed) but he could not provide a home for her and their child (which turned out to be twins.)

Robert Burns was hurt by her seeming rejection of him, and in his anger left her completely dependent upon her family.

While Robert Burns left her for Edinburgh in November of 1786 to live the good life, romance other women, have his poems published and make plans to emigrate to Jamaica, Jean Armour was left to deal with the birth of twins, Robert and Jean, and the subsequent death of little Jean all alone. Through all of this travail she showed great strength and loyalty to Robert Burns (whom she still loved).

In 1787 Burns and Jean Armour became intimate again, she became pregnant and he provided a place for her to live, but he no longer wanted marriage, she accepted these terms. She gave birth to twin daughters who died, and Robert Burns left her again. Jean remained loyal and constant, finally Robert and Jean married in the spring of 1788. Burns never regretted his decision. In his poetry Burns always glorifys marriage and family life as happy states.

This says a lot about Jean Armour, that the man who avoided marriage was so happy with it.

When Robert Burns bought a dairy farm in Ellisland Jean Armour had no experience, but went to Burns' mother and learned all the skills she needed. Jean Armour maintained the farm and looked after the children (their own and a few of his illegitimate) without help until the later years when they could afford a dairy maid to help.

Bonnie Jean bore Robert Burns nine children, the youngest named Maxwell after her attending physician, was born posthumous on the very day and almost to the hour that his father died.

Robert Burns died in Dunfries on July 21, 1796, at the age of thirty seven years.

As a widow Bonnie Jean was regarded with much esteem as a person in her own right. She was not merely Robert Burns' widow. She was able with the aid of the royalties from her husband's words to support and educate her family in a way that gave credit to the memory of her husband.

Jean Armour was a loving stabilizing influence on Robert Burns and was one of his greatest inspirations.

The good times far outweighed the bad, and his life was made happier and more fruitful because of her.

Jean Armour died on March 26, 1834 at the age of sixty eight. She was buried beside her famous husband in the mausoleum at Dumfries. In death as well as life she was still at his side.

To Her Memory -- Peace

With thee she lieth in gray Dumfries
Hers were thy sorrows, successes, joys
She cuddled thy lassies and reared thy boys.
She dropped o'er thy grave her quick hot tears,
And gave to thy memory her widowed years.

- By Rev. Arthur John Lockhart

Reprinted from Mither Wit and Native Fire, Copyright (C) 1992, The Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee. All rights reserved.

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Page updated July 26, 2001