Capt. Richard Brown

Read about the Captain, his seafaring links, and his friendship with Burns

Richard Brown, sea-captain (1753-1833)

Richard Brown is the most influential Irvine native in the Burns story - born on 2 June 1753 to William Brown and Jane Whirrie* [OPR Irvine]. By 1781, when, aged 28, he met the 22-y-o Robert Burns, he was already a man of the world, as recounted in Burns' letter to Dr John Moore in 1787: Richard, the son of a 'plain mechanic', had been given a good education by 'a great Man in the neighbourhood', but the patron had died, and Richard 'in despair went to sea; where after a variety of good and bad fortune, he had been set ashore by an American Privateer on the coast of Connaught, stript of everything', and in 1781 was 'the Captain of a large west indiaman', based on the Thames. Burns describes Richard's mind as 'fraught with courage, independence, Magnanimity, and every nobler manly virtue' and commented that Richard was 'the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself when WOMAN was the presiding star; but he spoke of a certain fashionable failing with levity, which hitherto I had regarded with horror'; the meaning of this is made clear by a reference to the poet's 'Welcome to his love-begotten daughter'! On one of their Sunday walks, in Eglinton Woods, as recounted in Burns letter to Richard in 1787, Richard 'wondered that I could resist the temptation of sending verses of merit to a magazine: 'twas actually this that . . encouraged me to endeavour at the character of a poet'. In 1786, Burns sent Brown one of the very few signed presentation copies of the Kilmarnock edition - it was discovered by accident, stuffed down the back of a drawer in a sideboard when the piece of furniture was purchased at a sale of the late captain's effects!.

In 1785, on 13th May, described as "Sailer [sic] in Irvine", he married [OPR Dundonald] Eleonora Blair, daughter to the late David Blair in Girtrigg [Girtrig, on the east side of Drybridge] at Broomhill [on the south side of Dundonald]. In January 1788, they moved to Port Glasgow. Their seven children included Jean (1786), Anne (1788), Eleanora (1792), probably Richard (1794), Alexander (1796), and David (1799), the first two being christened in Dundonald Parish, the others at Port Glasgow.

Regular correspondence between Brown and Burns in 1787 to 1789 is known - seven letters from Burns and seven letters from Brown. From these letters, we known that in 1788 Brown captained the 'Mary & Jean' at Greenock before departure to Grenada, and in 1789 the ship 'Home'. However, their friendship faded in later years; the reason is not known, though several theories have been proposed without hard evidence.  

The Irvine seafaring link was cemented in the next generation when Richard Brown's daughter Eleanora (1792-1858) married (in 1819) Captain Robert Gilkison (c.1791-1860 at Port Glasgow), one of the five sons (all sea-captains at some stage in their lives) of the Irvine shipbuilder David Gilkison (1747-1805); Robert's brother William founded Elora in Canada. In Capt. Robert's interesting account of family seafaring (written in 1858), he records being put to sea at age 14, his first captain being Richard Brown, and explains that since Irvine harbour could not take the new large trading ships he would often stay with the Brown family in Port Glasgow before and after voyages. After a few profitable voyages, he built 'Woodbank' in Port Glasgow, a 'solid home of stone'. Among his friends was Alexander ('Sandy') Allan (d.1854), from Ayrshire, who had founded the Allan Line in 1819.

The seafaring link continued into the following generation when Robert and Eleanora's daughter Eleanora (Richard Brown's grand-daughter) (b.1821) married, in 1841, James Allan, manager of the Glasgow end of the Allan Line, with, in 1859, seven 2,000 ton steamers in service. They had five children.

Another literary link is that their son Robert (b.1820) married (in 1855) Harriet Hogg, daughter of James Hogg, the 'Ettrick Shepherd' (d.1835). Capt Robert Gilkison was pleased, in 1859, that 'trains and paddle-steamers' made it easy for his son and family, who lived in Glasgow, to visit him in Port Glasgow. Robert and Harriet emigrated with their large family to New Zealand in 1879. 

The letters from Burns to Brown passed to (Brown's daughter) Eleanora in 1833, then to her son Robert Gilkison in 1858 and were taken to Otago in 1879, then sold in 1903 by Robert's son Richard ('Dick') Gilkison (in Dunedin) to collectors for a total of about £1,300; four were purchased by The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

The Club thanks Bruce Gilkison in New Zealand for some of the information in this article - he is the great-great-grandson of the Ettrick Shepherd and the great-great-great-grandson of Robert Burns' Irvine captain friend !

* Note: His mother's maiden name is clearly shown in the OPR as Whirrie (not Whamie nor Whinie nor Wharrie) - we have a photocopy!


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

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