Honouring Burns and his love of pubs… by Nicola Young

As Burns night approaches it’s time once again to honour Scotland’s national Bard.

There are many things spoken of when it comes to Burns and his love for women but this year, I also read many of his poems that would firmly place Burns in the camp of a firm believer in equality.  I like to think that this was because he had met so many wonderful landladies in the pubs across our country.

In Tam O’Shanter for example “The landlady and Tam grew gracious, Wi’ secret favours, sweet, and precious:, The souter tauld his queerest stories; The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:”

I love the way he so easily mixes Landlady with Landlord – one-and-the-same.

The other thing I learned about Burns this year was that he used a diamond tipped stylus to write on windows – many of them belonging to pubs and Inns.  Remember, this was illegal and he often wrote controversial versus on these windows that challenged the views of the day. I like to think that, in taking these risks, he wanted his words to be read and remembered. And where better, than in a place of intellect, lively discussion and open minds (and a great back-bar).

A great example of this is The Globe Inn in Dumfries, forever associated with Robert Burns. Burns had moved to Dumfries in 1787 from Ayrshire, first of all to farm then later as an Excise Officer. It was during this period that he frequented The Globe Inn, often staying overnight.

Three window panes featuring Burns poems were found in the Globe Inn. The verses, found in one of the upstairs lodging rooms, are here.

I Murder hate by field and flood,

Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;

In wars at home I’ll spend my blood,

Life-giving wars of Venus:

The deities that I adore

Are social Peace and Plenty;

I’m better pleased to make one more,

Than be the death of twenty.

I would not die like Socrates,

For all the fuss of Plato;

Nor would I with Leonidas,

Nor yet would I with Cato:

The Zealots of the Church, or State,

Shall ne’er my mortal foes be,

But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,

Within the arms of Cosbi!

My bottle is a holy pool,

That heals the wounds o’ care an’ dool;

And pleasure is a wanton trout,

An ye drink it, ye’ll find him out.

In politics if thou would’st mix,

And mean thy fortunes be;

Bear this in mind, be deaf and blind,

Let great folks hear and see.

The Black Bull Inn, in Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, is one of the country’s oldest inns and pubs, having been established in 1568, as well as one of Burns’ favourite haunts.

The verse Burns wrote at The Black Bull Inn was called ‘The Epigram to a Scrimpit Nature’.

It reads: “Ask why God made the Gem so small, and why so huge the Granite?

“Because God meant mankind to set the higher value on it.”

He didn’t restrict his window writing to the establishments of Dumfries.  Falkirk has two Inns engraved on the same trip in 1787.

The original Carron Inn in Falkirk had a visit from Robert Burns in 1787 when he came to tour the ironworks while on his grand tour of Scotland (when he collected ideas for songs and poems).  Whether by design or accident, he arrived on a Sunday and would not have been allowed to tour the ironworks on the Sabbath so he retired to the Carron Inn for the night. With drink flowing, he used his diamond tipped stylus to write yet another poem on the window of the Inn.

“We cam na here to view your works,

In hopes to be mair wise,

But only, last we gang to Hell,

It may be be nae surprise;

But when we tirl’d at your door,

Your porter dought na bear us;

Sae may, should we to Hell’s yetts come,

Your billie Satan sair us.

The Soo Hoose/Carronbridge Inn is now just along the road from the original Inn.

On his first night in Falkirk on 23rd August he stayed at the Cross Key’s where he inscribed this poem on the window.

‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,

That never did a lassie wrang;

Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,

For misery ever tholed a pang.’

The Cross Keys remained in business until the 1960s, after which it became used for retail.

But, sadly, Burns didn’t leave all of his pubs with a poem and he visited a fair few.

Still in Dumfries is the Old Bridge Museum. This used to be an Inn where Burns liked to drink.

In Glasgow, as well as the Black Bull in Trongate, he went to the Saracen Head on more than one occasion between 1788 and 1891 where he is believed to have enjoyed a Tennent’s Ale or two. But it was in the Black Bull, and under its roof that Robert Burns had made his headquarters in 1787 and 1788, that he wrote Clarinda.  Unlike the Black Bull, that no longer survives today, you can still visit the Saracens Head and it is thought to be the only remaining pub in Glasgow that Burns visited.

In Edinburgh, Burns lived in the Grassmarket in 1786. When he arrived in Edinburgh the Kilmarnock edition had already changed his life and the capital city was full of cultural nationalism.  Burns frequented the pubs and taverns in the Old Town including the Beehive Inn and the The Sheep Heid Inn.  A literally tour takes in a couple of other pubs that Burns may have frequented along with his writer friends, including the Jolly Judge and the Ensign Ewart.

Burns went to Edinburgh to arrange for a new edition of his poems and enjoyed the support of the Caledonian Hunt who sponsored the Edinburgh Edition but it was the Crochallan Fencibles where Burns probably felt most at ease. This literary club had members who carried assumed names and met in the Anchor Close pub just off the High Street.

William Smellie, the editor of the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, was the founder of the club and it was he who introduced Burns.  In his book of popular songs that he composed for the club called The Merry Muses of Caledonia he writes of Smellie,

“And, though his caustic wit was biting rude,
His heart was warm, benevolent, and good.”

And finally, to Ayrshire. The place where Burns is most associated. The village of Tarbolton in Ayrshire, where the Burns family lived from 1777, is home to a small inn where the young Burns and six of his friends created a debating society named the Bachelor’s Club. They met in the upstairs room of the pub each month. Although no longer an Inn you can still visit it today.

Category: Features