Robert's irvine illness

In November 1781 Robert Burns  suffered a period of illness and depression in Irvine - at his window are the ghosts of the dead!

In 1956, as pharmacist Charles Balcombe cleared his attic at 40 Kirkgate, he found an old ledger - the daybook of Dr Charles Fleeming, the doctor who visited Burns.

Read on to discover what the doctor prescribed . . 
and about the pavement sculpture in Irvine today . .

Burns' illness
Daybook entry

Transcription & interpretation (by Mr C G Drummond of the Pharmaceutical Society) of the Daybook entry (p.241) (image #253)

line 1: 1781 Robert Burns Lint Dresser Dr [doctor’s visit, or he visited the doctor?]

line 2: Nov. 14 To you V S – Vomitor [an emetic, probably Ipecacuahna] – Mater [materia] pro Elixr sacr [Sacred Elixir was Tincture of rhubarb and Aloes, aloes being the ‘sacred’ drug; the ‘material’ for this suggests that the doctor may have supplied the aloes and powdered rhubarb for Robert to steep in wine or spirit or water rather than the more expensive Elixir itself] td [ter in die (sumendum) = (to be taken) thrice per day] ii [?

line 3: 19 To Do. [to ditto, i.e. Burns] . . . [word unclear] anodyne [probably opium in some form as a painkiller or as an astringent] – 20 Idem [the same] repet [repeated] – 21 P. Rhei [Pulv. Rhei - powdered rhubarb] . . .  [word unclear] gr. [grains] xviii

line 4: 22 To Do. P. cort. Per. [Pulv. cort. Peruvian, i.e. powdered Peruvian or Cinchona bark] gr. xv Dos. xii [12 doses of 15 grains each]

"The nature of the illness is a matter for conjecture. Burns must have felt quite ill to have gone to the doctor at all and to have been seen five times in nine days."

Pavement sculpture: designer Ian Cooper

located at Irvine Cross, outside The Carrick (formerly the Eglinton Arms)
(original installation 1996, commissioned by Eglinton Burns Club, removed 2013, reinterpreted and replaced 2019)
Papaver somniferum
Papaver somniferum

The 'anodyne' (painkiller) prescribed was probably the opium poppy

Cinchona
Cinchona

The powdered bark of a S. American tree, in its raw form, contains quinine, prescribed to reduce Burns' high fever

Ipecacuanha
Ipecacuanha

The powdered root of a South American tree, used as an emetic (discovered in Brazil in the 1600s)

Aloe vera
Aloe vera & Rheum palmatum (rhubarb)

This 'sacred elixir' acted as a powerful laxative

Read on for

a poem Burns wrote during this time 
and

an extract from the letter he wrote to his father

Poem written while in Irvine 

(highlighted lines appear in the pavement sculpture)

O raging Fortune's withering blast
Has laid my leaf full low!
O raging Fortune's withering blast
Has laid my leaf full low!

My stem was fair, my bud was green,
My blossom sweet did blow;
The dew fell fresh, the sun rose mild,
And made my branches grow.

But luckless Fortune's northern storms
Laid a' my blossoms low,

But luckless Fortune's northern storms
Laid a' my blossoms low.

Extract from the letter to his father from Irvine, dated 27th December 1781

. . . The weakness of my nerves has so debilitated my mind that I dare not either review past events, or look forward into futurity; for the least anxiety . . . produces most unhappy effects on my whole frame. . . . I am quite transported at the thought  that ere long, perhaps very soon, I shall bid an eternal adieu to all the pains, & uneasiness & desquietudes of this weary life; . . . I foresee that very probably Poverty & Obscurity await me & I am in some measure prepared and daily preparing to meet & welcome them. I have but just time & paper to return you my grateful thanks for the many Lessons of Virtue & Piety you have given me.

What was the illness?

"Smallpox, malaria and typhoid have all been postulated and dismissed. Whatever the doctor's diagnosis, the medicines appear to have been effective. If it was rheumatic heart disease that killed Burns in 1796, was this the episode of rheumatic fever that precipitated that condition?"
(Patrick Scott Hogg, 'Robert Burns: The Patriot Bard', 2011)

A severe recurrent attack of rheumatic fever "appears to me to be the most likely diagnosis."
(David Murray, 'Robert Burns and the Medical Profession, Part II', on electricscotland)

His symptoms also suggest the equivalent of 'farmer's lung', from the dust of the farm work.


  • Wellwood Burns Centre & Museum
  • 28 Eglinton Street,
  • Irvine, Ayrshire, KA12 8AS

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