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Postcards From the Edge: The Physical and Psychological Vacation Tours of Robert Burns in 1787

by Priscilla J. Kucik
Reprinted from The Burns Chronicle 2000

On July 31, 1786, the first edition of Robert Burns poetry, known as the Kilmarnock edition, was published.1 For the first time in his life, Burns had money to spare. Typical of his character,- he used it to honor another poet, Robert Fergusson, whom he considered Scotland's greatest poet, by putting a decent tombstone on his grave. The receipt for this stone is at the Lady Stairs House in Edinburgh and the grave is in the yard of Canongate Kirk in the same city.

In 1787, 300 copies of the second edition, known as the "First Edinburgh edition"2 (or the "stinking haggis" edition due to a misprint in "The Address to the Haggis") was published. Again, Burns had some extra money and this time he was able to finance a personal desire-- a vacation (actually, a series of four mini-vacations called "tours") throughout Scotland and England. These travels were a combination of pleasure and business and were as much a psychological and spirital journey as a physical one, Moreover, according to James Mackay--

The best analogy would be to liken these tours to the gigs of today's pop groups who have to go on the road to maintain faith with the fans who buy their records.3

Robert Burns was under many pressures, both financial and personal. Not knowing that he had less than ten years to live, he felt he had to make major decisions about his future. He was restless, unsatisfied, and searching for answers.

On the financial front, he made repeated attempts to recover money owed him from the infamous William Creech. May Cameron was pursuing him for child support by agressive legal means. He was considering buying land. He briefly considered the miltary and seriously planned emigrating to Jamaica.

His personal life was a mess. He was recovering from the death of "Highland Mary" Campbell and still disgusted with Jean Armour's "betrayal" of him (although not disgusted enough to stop sleeping with her). On the second tour, he makes the enigmatic statment that he must never marry. By the fourth tour, he is contemplating a happy marriage-- with Margaret Chalmers, not the again pregnant Jean Armour or the recently delivered May Cameron. For the latter two, he felt that a financial settlement was all he owed them.

He was at odds. He knew his Edinburgh success (these four tours occur between his two Edinburgh winters) was short lived. And he was not a city person nor a high society type, anyway. But he had outgrown the narrow intellectual confines of the farming community. Edinburgh still saw him as an inferior; the country people now saw him as different and above them. He was always seeking a balance -- He described one host's perfect hospitality--"I find myself very comfortable here, neither oppressed by ceremony nor mortified by neglect"4 He liked his women to be responsive once he made the first move but did not like to be agressively pursued.

Robert Burns craved new experiences--new places, new people, new loves. He was well read for his time and travelled vicariously through reading. It is interesting that the book Burns said, "I prize next to the Bible"5 and had worn out two copies carrying it in his pocket was Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling, a sentimental novel popular in the eighteenth century. The hero, Harley, a man of feeling, travels and meets people. There is crying on every page, by some character, for some sentimental reason. One editor even indexed the tears6 (chokings, etc. didn't count). by-page.

Index of tears
Index of Tears

The unashamed expression of emotion appealed to Burns, as did the book's gentle satire on the pretensions of social classes and the hero's constant education on people and life. (Henry's wife said he was the opposite of the hero and had feeling "only on paper") MacKenzie was unaware of Burn's admiration for him when he made the first public mention of the Kilmarnock edition in the Lounger. Life was about to imitate art as Burns commenced his vacations with great, if vague, expectations.

Although the trips weren't planned down to the last detail, some advance planning was necessary. His companion had to arrange for time off work, Burns wrote letters in which he told where he could pick up mail at various points in his journey. Daily progress was influenced by the weather and the time it took to recover from the night before. He stayed in homes, taverns, and castles. He bought gifts for his family (silks for his mother and sisters). He tried (unsuccessfully) to get a berth for one of his brothers. He dropped off copies of his poetry to be delivered to subscribers. He indulged in his love of graffiti, from etching poetry on windows to inscribing the Bible of the woman next to him in church, He saw historic sites, prayed in a Druid temple, and was "knighted" by a strong-minded lady descended from Robert the Bruce. He sang, danced, discussed politics and religion, caught a cold, had his horse impounded for grazing in an unauthorized area, and found time to contribute to James Johnson's Musical Museum. He was obsessed with cramming as much experience as he could into these few precious months, not knowing if he would ever again have such an opportunity.

His first and third tours are fairly well documented--he kept a journal and letters survive from both him and others. Public records help round out the story. The second and fourth are more mysterious-- a few vague undated letters and a lot of silence. He deliberately didn't record his actions, indicating that the journey may have been more of a psychological one. He emerges from the four tours stronger and more sure of himself.

Borders tour map
Borders tour map

The first tour took place May 5 to June 9, 17877. He travelled with Bob Ainslie, both of them on horseback, This is known as the "Border Tour"; they did cross the border into England twice, but did not consider seeing London. Their route was somewhat rambling and backtracking. Both Burns and Ainslie were womanizers and paid more attention to the lassies than the historic sights or various Masonic and burgess honors. Burns even paid a surprise uisit to Jean Armour after several month absence. He had resented her parent's previous attitude that he wasn't good enough; now their "mean servile compliance" disgusted him. This tour was more whim than planning and he returned to his old life less content than ever. Burns' "Edinburgh Journal" (Second Commonplace Book,1787-90) survives, minus nine pages. Forty-five year later, Ainslie's recollections embellished it, as did Currie and other biographers, using it basically as a "rough draft". Several dated letters supplement the information.

Robert Burns deliberately kept his second tour a secret. The dates are uncertain, probably mid-June to July 1,1787. A drunken accident with his horse made him use the month of July to recover from his injuries. He kept no journal and his letters are vague on details. It is on this trip he makes the statement that he must never marry, leading many to believe that he made a pilgrimage to Highland Mary's grave, which was in the area. However, there is no proof this happened,

Highland tour map
Highland Tour Map

His third tour was the big one--August 15 to September 16, 17878 It was an extensive tour of the Highlands and Stirlingshire--Burns said he travelled 22 days and 600 miles. His journal started with good intentions of being a detailed account but soon became "buzz words" and phrases, perhaps with the hopes of using it as a rough draft and expanding it when he returned. He was more concerned with with actually doing thinqs rather than recording them. On his first tour, he summarized his activities at the end of each day; on the third, he wrote "catch phrases" throughout the day. His documentation of the first and third tours makes evervone even more curious why he was so secretive about the second and fourth ones.

His travelling companion this time was William Nicol, a poor, brilliant scholar but somewhat lacking in social skills. The last quality caused some difficulties and Nicol did get on Burns' nerves at times, but Burns saw him as honest, kind-hearted, and never boring. Nicol was fifteen years older than Burns and they did this tour in a chaise; Burns was only too happy to give up the "joys" of horseback riding by this time. Burns was unimpressed with the farm land and technology in this area, showing that the Jamaica trip was still competing with the idea of having a farm in Scotland. In his letters, he mentions drinking alone as well as socially; drinking alone usually indicates a troubled mind and this trip also had some depressing moments.

It is also considered that Burns travelled on the Ocean9 twice (a ship along the "wild rocky coast" at Montrose and a ferry from Queensferry to Edinburgh), adding to his travel adventures.

Robert did not keep a journal of his fourth tour with Dr. James M. Adair in early October 1787 but his friend did. The trip was less than two weeks. Robert Burns spent eight happy days with Margaret Chalmers. They did not get married but Adair met her friend, Charlotte Hamilton, and they did marry. Adair was open in his gratitude to Burns for this serendiptious event.

As important as these tours seem to have been to Robert Burns, they are not mentioned as much in his poetry as one would think. Perhaps it was too personal an experience.

It's easy to get bogged down in the details of Burns' four vacation tours--names, dates, persons met. Much has been written about records of events that seem not to have happened (Masonic and burgess honors) and the absence of mention of more notable events. After Burns' death, literally everyone was eager to give some details of his life, whether or not they were true. Some of the accounts of Robert Burnssound like they are describing a lab rat rather than a human being. Sifting through the details could be a lifetime of scholarly research.

But the real "fun" part is following the journeys with Robert Burns, the human being. He and his friends indulge in juvenile antics and clowning around--preaching hellfire and brimstone in an empty church while the other stands on the fornication stool, kneeling down right before sunrise and invoking the Sun to appear (well fortified with drink during the vigil), and other good natured fun. Flirting played a great part. Some women responded too well (such as Nancy Sherriff who pursued the panic-stricken Burns on horseback) and some are strangely silent (such as Euphemia Smythe, who in later years said she only remembered something about him reciting a poem after supper). Drinking and parties, of course, led to many adventures, including a disabling drunken horse race. But there were serious, reflectful moments. He wrote some insightful letters about his dilemmas, wrote some poems, and thought seriously about his future. The options he considered all involved money--and he was still trying to collect past due money from William Creech and being pursued by numerous paternity suits. He was eager to give his life stability with a happy marriage but wasn't sure which woman was the right one. Sometimes the landscape caught his attention more than the people; other times, the people were so interesting he forgot to mention historical sites or honors given to him. He was 28 years old and the burdens of life weighed heavily upon him. Many people recognized him from his portrait but few knew him as a person. However, it seems that knew himself better by this time and like the majority of humanity, put one foot in front of the other and went on with his life.


  1. The Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee was founded on the 200th anniversary of this event.
  2. A copy of this edition is in the Rare Book Vault of the Golda Meir Library at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  3. MacKay, James, A Biography of Robert Burns, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 1992, p. 303
  4. Roy, G. Ross, The Letters of Robert Burns Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985, Vol I, p 161.

    This sense of "balance" even extended to his children. At one point, Burns decided that with the first set of twins by Jean Armour, named Jean and Robert, that Jean could keep the girl but when the boy was old enough, Robert's mother would raise him!!!

  5. ibid, Vol I, p. 17
  6. MacKenzie, Henry, The Man of Feeling, Cassell and Company, Ludgate Hill, London, 1886, pp vi-vii
  7. For a detailed account, see Brown, Raymond Lamont, Robert Burns's Tour of the Borders, 5 May - 1 June 1787 Rowman & Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1972
  8. For a detailed account, the following three books are helpful:
    • Ewing, J.C, ed. Journal of a Tour in the Highlands Made in the 1787 by Robert Burns Gowans and Gray, London and Glasgow, 1927 [this is a facsimile with a (Thank God!) typed transcript]
    • Brown, Raymond Lamont, Robert Burns's Tours of the Highlands and Stirlingshire 1787, The Boyden Press, Ipswich, 1973
    • Harvey, William, Robert Burns in Stirlingshire Eneas MacKay, Stirling, 1899
  9. The North Sea (also known as the Germanic Ocean) is an arm of, and technically part of, the Atlantic Ocean.

Copyright (C) 2000, 2001, Priscilla Kucik. All rights reserved

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Page last updated 4 March 2001