Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee


by Club Members

[ Home | Articles ]

Robert Burns: Scottish Soldier

by Linda Daly

"The soldier reflects the character and values of the society from which he is drawn as much as, if not more than, his fellow citizens."1

Robert Burns was a private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers during the last year and a half of his life. He may not have known that when he joined, he became a comrade in a proud tradition that spanned several centuries and is known throughout the world: the Scottish warrior of great feats and great mystique. The record of his service, though brief, reveals much about his character which some of his biographers seem to have missed.

Scottish regiments in the British forces can be said to date (ironically) from the 1745 rebellion. According to John Laffin, "Astute English politicians realized that the Highlanders were brave men who would be used in Bntain's far-flung wars." And, "For the govemment, the great advantage of the Highlanders was that they were expendable. If they were killed abroad, then they could not take part in another Jacobite rebellion in Scotland."2 From the Jacobite time until today, Scots both Highland and Lowland have been avidly recruited into regiments which served Britain so well that quotes about their prowess like "the thin red line" and "forward the tartan" built a reputation which has become a mystique. So much so, that today a phrase "the tartan curtain" refers to the exclusivity of Scottish regiments.

So where does Robert Burns fit into this military tradition? He enters it a scant few decades after the Jacobite rebellion during a busy time of regiment building due to invasion threat from France. This threat precipitated a wide-spread home guard movement which saw volunteer units sprout up in the 1790's and disband in the first decade of the 19th century when fear of invasion receded. One such unit, the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, was born in 1795 and disbanded in 1802.

To be exact, the Dumfries Volunteers began on January 31, 1795 when the inaugural meeting was held in the Dumfries Court House and attended by Robert Burns. At a meeting held February 20th Colonel de Peyster was elected Major Commandant of the Corps by the members. Mrs. De Peyster then provided the corps with a flag and Colonel de Peyster commissioned 100 muskets ("Brown Bess") from Birmingham on February 29th. Dr. John Harley was made surgeon to the corps and Rev. Dr. W. Burnside chaplain. John Hamilton was made captain (elected by 75 members, among them Robert Burns), David Newall made lieutenant to the first company and Wellwood Maxwell lieutenant to the second (Burns' company) on March 21st. Each company was limited to 50 men including officers and NCOs. Members agreed to serve without pay during the war with France and to have an area of operations not more than 5 miles outside of Dumfries.3

Burns was among 59 members taking the Oath of Allegiance and signing the Rules, Regulations and Bye-Laws on March 28th. The governing body of the corps was a committee consisting of all officers and eight members. The members served a three month term on the committee. Burns served on this committee for a term starting on August 22, 1795. The volunteers' uniform seems elaborate from the following description but was similar to those of other volunteer units of the time: "a blue coat half lapelled with red cape (a style of collar) and cuffs, and gilt buttons with the letters R.D.V. engraved on them; a plain white Cassimere vest, with small gilt buttons; white trousers made of Russia tweeling, tied at the ankle; white stockings; a black velvet stock; hair to be worn short, or turned up behind: a round hat turned up on the left side with a gilt button; a cockade, and a black feather (plume); their shoes to be tied with black ribbon."4 This was their dress uniform to be worn on public occasions, the undress uniform of short blue jacket with red shoulder straps, cape, and cuff was worn on ordinary occasions as the working uniform.5

Such was the organization of the volunteers and Burns involvement with them when in April 1795 Burns song Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat (also called "The Dumfries Volunteers"), appeared in the Dumfries Weekly Joumal. Its popularity has out lived the life span of the Dumfries Volunteers, lines from it having been used on post cards depicting soldiers of various time periods.6 This song speaks of his commitment to the corps' purpose and is not just hypocrisy as some of his biographers suggest. The sentiments of the song are backed up by Burns's record of activities as a Dumfries Volunteer.

William Will says that "Never was man more unfortunate in his biographers."7 Burns's early biographers tended to characterize him as dissipate and unsteady in his habits. His hard work at farming and at the excise disprove this characterization. But his conduct with the Dumfries Volunteers particularly stands out in disproving this. John Baynes states in his book on Scottish soldiers: "Burns was a much more complicated personality than his popular image of a heavy-drinking, womanizing peasant, occasionally throwing out a poem attacking the pretensions of the rich."8 The real proof of Burns character resides in a source rediscovered 100 years after Burns' death, the minute book of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers.

Of the minute book, Wills says: "The Volunteers set up a standard of discipline in some ways even more rigid than that of the Church, and yet Burns stands the test and comes off with flying colours."9 He attended the meetings, the drill sessions, served on the committee and never once was fined for absenteeism or drunkenness or insolence as many members, both officers and privates, were. Drills were held for two hours twice a week and committee service involved supplying the corps with arms and other material. Certainly this amount of work on top of his excise duties and 'writing the occasional song'..... (A Man's a Man for a' That, Last May a Braw Wooer', This is no My Ain Lassie, The Heron Ballads', Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat) is not dissipation or hypocrisy unless we redefine these terms!

Burns took seriously the rule to serve without pay and to provide his own clothing. Though often short of funds himself, he objected to the decision at the May 18, 1795 meeting on the appointment of several members of the volunteers to solicit contributions to the corps. He signed a letter with twenty-four other members which protested solicitation as a form of begging: "We cannot help expressing our disapproval of the mendicant business of asking a public contribution for defraying the expenses of our Association". And continued with: "That the Royal Dumfries Volunteers should go a-begging with the burnt-out cottager and shipwrecked sailor is a measure of which we must disapprove."10 This prompted the committee to decide not to accept donations under a guinea and retum any already collected under that amount. Burns' attitude here is another demonstration of his real concern for the oppressed.

"All his life he had been championing the cause of the distressed or the oppressed, whether the oppressors be the Church or the State" William Wills says of Burns.11 Hence his interest in both the American and French Revolutions. He acted upon his beliefs when he sent the guns he captured from the smuggling brig to Dover for shipment to the French Legislative Assembly. "Before those troublesome cannons reached Dover, the whole political situation had altered. England, that had, so far, regarded France with a kind of amused tolerance, was set by the ears by France's Declaration of War on Engiand's ally, Germany, and occupation of the Rhine Delta."12 This had unfortunate consequences for Burns as "All who were known ever to have expressed sympathy with the Revolutionaries were immediately suspect."13

Burns became worried that his employment as exciseman was threatened and he did what he had to do to prove his loyalty and keep his post. Here Burns's attitude seemingly changed, but in reality did not as we are seeing two separate things: his empathy with the oppressed versus threat of foreign occupation of the very ground he lived on. France as a cause for the oppressed became France the foreign power threatening invasion, perhaps to march its soldiers up the very street in which Burns's family lived. Remember, the volunteers were only to operate in a radius of 5 miles around Dumfries, so their purpose was to defend home ground, not to defend a political or moral view. "He (Burns) hated war. He saw it as senseless. Were his country invaded he would fight. But for no other reason."14 As for gaining justice for the oppressed, a piece from the song Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat says it best:

A sad incident at the close of Burns' life involving the Dumfries Volunteers shows his character as responsible and not dissipate. About the bill for his uniform, Hugh Douglas said that, "He did not in fact owe serious amounts to anybody -- it was only in his own mind that the debtor's prison loomed". Burns knew he was dying and wanted to set things right for his own peace of mind and the secunty of his family. "When he received a letter to say that the bill from a local outfitter for his volunteer uniform was overdue he panicked and wrote off at once to his cousin, James Burness in Montrose to ask for 10 pounds."15 He wrote also to George Thomson who sent him five pounds on July 14.16 In the light of his earlier disapproval of accepting donations for the corps' uniforms and his steadiness in meeting attendance and drill, it is a shame that this small debt had to cloud his last days.

Burns's high regard as a conscientious soldier can be seen in the great ceremony with which his funeral was conducted. It involved other military units besides his own Dumfries Volunteers and is described in detail by several sources. Alan Bold says "it is conducted in military manner by the Dumfries Volunteers, the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles on Monday, 25 July, when he is buried in the northeast comer of St. Michael's churchyard, a quarter mile from his home."17 Hugh Douglas states, "The splendid cortege made its way from the Town hall to St. Michael's kirkyard, the unpaid volunteer unifom hat and sword crowning the coffin."18 James MacKay describes the Dumfries Volunteers as the pall bearers, wearing black crapes on their lett arms while the Cinque Port Cavalry band played the Dead March from Saul by Handel. The Angusshire Fencibles closed the procession with a guard that fired three volleys over the grave.19

So ended in deserved splendor a life which often was not recognized for its true worth while he lived, and sadly by many people for a long time after. Were it not for Burns's service in the Dumfries Volunteers and the record of it in the minute book, part of the vindication of his lifestyle would not have occurred. This record shows Burns worthy to be numbered among the Scottish soldiers who came before and after him and on whose deeds was build the Scottish military mystique.


Copyright (C) 1999 The Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee. All rights reserved.

[ Home | Articles ]

Page last updated 6 may 1999