Burns in Irvine - recounted in the Burns Room and illustrated by the Wellwood Murals
The combination of the stunning murals of Edward and Elizabeth Odling (1965) and the commentary (text below) take you back into the 18th century as you hear about Robert Burns in Irvine in 1781-82. Below you will also find more about the flax trade and Robert Burns.
Irvine was where Robert Burns, aged 22, to quote his later words, "learned something of town life".
In this busy seaport, he made many friends, especially Captain Richard Brown, who suggested that he should publish his verse - Burns later recalled in a letter to Brown: "you wondered that I could resist the temptation of sending verses of such merit to a magazine".
For further information, see: "Ted and Elizabeth Odling - Artists of the West of Scotland" - a lavishly illustrated story, written by their family, describing their life and works (in Irvine, Argyll, Tuscany, and elsewhere).
The Burns Room commentary:
In 1781, Robert Burns, a 22-year-old farmer, came to Irvine from the farm known as Lochlie, ten miles south, near Tarbolton. One of the crops they were growing, backed by Government grant, was flax, which gives the fibres for making linen. Robert was not happy just to grow the flax in their fields, but wanted to learn the next stage - how the plant's fibres were combed straight in a process known as flax-dressing. "Partly thro' whim and partly that I wished to set about doing something in life, I joined with a flax-dresser in the neighbouring town of Irvine, to learn his trade and carry on the business of manufacturing and retailing flax". In Glasgow Vennel, he sought out the man who would be his partner, his mother's half-brother, Alexander Peacock - "a scoundrel . . . who made money by the mystery of thieving".
His plan was carefully thought out. The first step had been taken in joining the Masonic lodge in Tarbolton; as a Mason, he would have a ready-made source of friends in any town. Irvine then was a major seaport handling goods for Glasgow - an industrious town, with bustling streets. Its Parish Kirk could seat five times the population of Tarbolton, his home village. "For me it was an important era. . . From this adventure I learned something of town life." When Robert came to Irvine, the flax trade was uppermost in his mind. By the time he left, he sensed that his future was to be in poetry.
Flax-heckling - four years before mechanical methods were available - was a tedious, dusty, indoors existence - so different to the fresh air of his upland farm.
He became depressed - on December 27th he wrote to his father in Tarbolton: "I foresee that very probably Poverty and Obscurity await me and I am in some measure prepared and daily preparing to meet and welcome them". The local doctor, Surgeon Fleeming, attended him - a severe fever needing five visits in eight days - we know this from the doctor's daybook, discovered in 1956. "Ere long, perhaps very soon, I shall bid an eternal adieu to this weary life; here I penned such melancholic works as 'Dirge to Winter' and 'Prayer under Pressure of Violent Anguish' ".
Irvine also inspired Burns' restless mind. He spent much time in the bookshop of William Templeton, town councillor, bookseller and local worthy, where he discovered the works of Smollett and other Scots writers, and in particular the poems of Robert Ferguson, who had died seven years earlier in Edinburgh's mental hospital at the early age of 24. "Rhyme I had given up; but meeting with Fergusson's Scotch poems, I strung anew my wildly-sounding rustic lyre with emulating vigour."
At Irvine harbour, Robert struck up a friendship with Captain Richard Brown. Although from a humble family, Brown was well educated. He was visiting his home town, and later became captain of a large trading ship based on the Thames. Robert wrote: "He was the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself when WOMAN was the presiding star. His knowledge of the world was vastly superior to mine, and I was all attention to learn." Richard Brown - and Irvine - played a defining role in Burns' life. One Sunday, as they walked and talked in Eglinton woods, Brown "wondered that I could resist the temptation of sending verses of such merit to a magazine.
'Twas actually this . . . which encouraged me to endeavour at the character of a Poet." The sea-captain's words had persuaded the poet that some day he should publish his work.
But the partnership and work which had brought Robert Burns to Irvine, ended rather suddenly - at Hogmanay celebrations - as he wrote in a famous autobiographical letter, "while we were giving a welcome to the New Year, our shop, by the drunken carelessness of my Partner's wife, took fire and was burnt to ashes; and left me, like a true Poet, not worth sixpence. I was obliged to give up business." Mrs Peacock, a little the worse for drink - most unusual for a solemn Irvine housewife - knocked over a candle, and the workshop went up in flames. Overnight, Robert's flax work was at an end.
Robert Burns stayed on in Irvine until the spring of 1782 - presumably he wasn't needed back home on the farm, and he had good company in Irvine - Captain Richard Brown, bookseller Willie Templeton, Provost's son John Hamilton, the members of the Masonic lodges, perhaps the attractive wench, the vagrant Jean Glover, certainly many others of whom we know nothing - but Burns had indeed learned something of town life.
Whereas Alloway may celebrate the birth of Robert Burns the man, Irvine must surely celebrate the birth of Robert Burns, the poet of Scotland and of the world. (This last sentence was the theme of the Immortal Memory proposed by Harry Gaw when President of Irvine Burns Club in 1963.)
The flowers create fields of blue
- its stems are used for linen, and its seeds give linseed oil.
Stems were drawn through the nails, to remove rubbish and leave pure fibres
Where Burns worked until an accidental Hogmanay fire destroyed the workplace
Flax is the fibre used to make linen. Flax fibres come from the annual plant Linum usitatissimum ('the most useful flax') or Common Flax, with erect slender stems about 50 cm high, and large purplish-blue flowers. It is a fairly demanding crop needing well-watered and fairly heavy soils.
When the seeds are beginning to ripen, the crop is pulled up by the roots. In the days of Robert Burns, agricultural labour was still cheap enough for harvesting to be economic, but as the 19th century went on, Britain increasingly imported flax from the Baltic. A by-product is linseed oil.
Combing the stems removed the seed heads. The stems were tied in stooks, and placed in water-filled pits for retting ('rotting'), decomposing for a week or two, producing an awful stench, but softening the glue of the plant fibres. Then, at the local mill, scutching, beating the stems with a hinged batten, separated the useful fibres from the outer bark and the central woody stem. Heckling removed remaining non-fibrous material and other impurities by drawing the stems through a big comb consisting of a bed of nails in a wooden board. Carding then parted the fibres, leaving them fibres lying parallel. Spinning was done by the womenfolk on the farm, using treadle-operated spinning wheels.
The Heckling Shop
This building, at no. 10 Glasgow Vennel ('the narrow street which carried the trade from Irvine to Glasgow') was restored in the 1980s. In Burns' time, the premises were divided into a but-an-ben, the but end being used to store flax, and the ben end being where the flax was dressed. It is recorded that, even in this confined space, work horses belonging to the neighbour were also stabled, most probably during the night when the heckling was finished. Here Robert Burns worked for ten hours a day in the ill ventilated building, drawing the rough flax through the heckles. It was indeed dull, monotonous work for a man like Burns; the dust from the flax was stifling and the odious smell sickened him.
Burns, as his brother Gilbert wrote, began "to think of trying some other line of life. He and I had for several years taken land of my father for the purpose of raising flax on our own account. In the course of selling it, Robert began to think of turning flax-dresser, both as being suitable to his grand view of settling in life, and as subservient to the flax raising. He accordingly wrought at the business of a flax-dresser in Irvine for six months, but abandoned it at that period, as neither agreeing with his health nor inclination." (Gilbert Burns, in a letter to Mrs Dunlop, 1797).
Footnote: J Gibson Lockhart, in 'The Life of Robert Burns' (1828), reported that "Mr. Sillar assured Mr. Robert Chambers that this notion [of turning flax-dresser, both as being suitable to his grand view of settling in life, and as subservient to the flax-raising] originated with William Burnes, who thought of becoming entirely a lint-farmer ; and, by way of keeping as much of the profits as he could within his family, of making his eldest son a flax-dresser."
Robert Burns mentioned flax in his first letter to Willie Niven, in July 1780: "I have three acres of pretty good flax this season; perhaps in the course of marketing it I may come your way."
Irvine Burns Club possesses a copy of the 'Glasgow Mercury' for the week Thurs Jan 16 - 23, 1783 [Vol VI, no. 264, price 3d], on the front page of which appears the following public notice:
Premiums for flax-raising
Trustees Office, Edinburgh,
Dec. 18, 1782
The Commissioners and Trustees for Fisheries, Manufacturers, and Improvements in Scotland, do hereby advertise, that they have determined the Gainers of the Premiums for Flax-raising, crop 1781; and that the persons preferred are as follows, viz.:
Being Twenty Shillings [£1] per acre [to a max.of six acres]
here follows a long list of farmers, arranged per county
Being for Lintseed saved for sowing
here follows a shorter list, and under Ayrshire we see:
Robert Burns Lochlee Tarbolton £3 0s
This document, thought then to be the only surviving copy of that edition of the 'Mercury', was exhibited at "The Burns Exhibition" in Glasgow in 1896, and afterwards returned to Thomas Wilson, Glentane Cottage, West Kilbride. At some point it then passed to Burns Cottage, Alloway, and was later acquired for Irvine Burns Club in 1976.
Copies are now known to also be held by the Mitchell Library (Glasgow City Council) and by the University of Strathclyde Andersonian Library.
Robert Burns' own comments about the Irvine months [1781-82] :
"My twenty third year was to me an important era. Partly through whim, and partly that I wished to set about doing something in life, I joined with a flax-dresser in a neighbouring town, to learn his trade and carry on the business of manufacturing and retailing flax. This turned out a sadly unlucky affair. My partner was a scoundrel of the first water who made money by the mystery of thieving; and to finish the whole, while we were giving a welcome carousal to the new year, our shop, by the drunken carelessness of my partner's wife, took fire and was burnt to ashes, and left me like a true Poet, not worth sixpence.
"('O why the deuce should I repine, and be an ill-forboder? I'm twenty-three, and five-feet-nine, - I'lI go and be a sodger!') I was obliged to give up business [the flax-dressing scheme]: the clouds of misfortune were gathering thick round my father's head, the darkest of which was, he was visibly far gone in a consumption; and to crown all, a belle-fille whom I adored [? Ellison Begbie], and who had pledged her soul to meet me in the field of matrimony, jilted me with peculiar circumstances of mortification. The finishing evil that brought up the rear of this infernal file, was my hypochondriac complaint being irritated to such a degree that, for three months, I was in diseased state of body and mind, scarcely to be envied by the hopeless wretches who have got their mittimus - 'Depart from me, ye cursed'." [autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, 1787].
The flax trade
Linen established textile working in Scotland (though it swung to cotton on the west and hemp and jute in the east), contributing to Scotland's self-sustained industrial growth. Heckling - the political term
The following notes are based on an account by Graham Ogilvy in Billy Kay, "The Dundee Book", and an article by David McKie in 'The Guardian' of 28 April 2005
The flax hecklers of Dundee established a reputation as the most radical and stroppy element in what was a famously radical town and by 1800 were already operating as a powerful trade union, to the extent that in 1809 a local employer noted that they were to some extent in control of the trade, dictating wages, conditions and bonuses (mostly alcoholic). The heckling shop, said another observer, was frequently the arena of violent harangue and ferocious debate. One heckler would be given the task of reading out the day's news while the others worked.
When they moved from factory floor to public meeting, they then fired off interjections designed to tease or comb out truths that politicians might prefer to conceal or avoid. Thus heckling entered the world of political debate, combining an incisive comment or question with spontaneous wit - quick-fire challenges enjoyed by those speakers who could deal with them and amuse their audience with a ready riposte.
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