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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Aiken, Robert (1739-1807)

The son of an Ayr sea-captain, John Aiken, Robert Aiken (Orator Bob) became a prosperous and convivial lawyer in his native town. After meeting Burns about 1783, Aiken became impressed by the merit of the poet's work. Burns himself later declared that he had never fully appreciated his own work until Aiken read it aloud. The poet described Aiken as his 'first poetic patron' in a letter to John Ballantine of 20th November 1786, and a few weeks later in another letter to Ballantine dated 13th December, as his 'first kind Patron'. A similar reference occurs in a letter to Gavin Hamilton of 7th December 1786 and in a further letter to Ballantine written in January 1788. Aiken collected the names of a hundred and forty-five subscribers for the Kilmarnock Edition, almost a quarter of the total. Burns dedicated 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' to Aiken, and wrote the 'Epistle to a Young Friend' to the lawyer's son, Andrew Hunter Aiken. Robert Aiken successfully defended Gavin Hamilton before the Presbytery of Ayr in the summer of 1785, as a result of which Burns conceived the idea of 'Holy Willie's Prayer'.

Robert Aiken was the recipient of many letters from Burns. One, dated 16th December 1786 begins: 'Dear Patron of my Virgin Muse'. Another placed by Ferguson about 8th October 1786 is the famous letter which mentions the poet's first thoughts on the possibility of entertaining the Excise service, and contains the confession that 'even in the hour of social mirth, my gaiety is the madness of an intoxicated criminal under the hands of the executioner.' The note of hysteria, and the suggestion that it might be best for him to go abroad, have led to some biographers to connect this letter with remorse over the death of 'Highland Mary'. It was probably Aiden - his part in the affair has never been proved - who mutilated the promissory paper Burns gave to Jean Armour, by cutting out their names, possibly to placate James Armour. This led to a temporary coolness between the lawyer and the poet.

Burns's letter to Aiken were probably among the most revealing he ever wrote. Unfortunately, most of them have been destroyed; according to Aiken's daughter, through the dishonesty of a clerk in his father's office, though possibly just through sheer carelessness.

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Robert Burns Store

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Complete Burns Songs

linn recordings of burns Linn Records have completed their landmark recording of all 368 Burns songs, available as individual CDs or a 12 volume presentation box set. We have full details. Click here...


Burns Music & Recordings
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Burns Chess Sets

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