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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burns, Gilbert (1760 — 1827)

The poet's brother and his partner at Mossgiel farm from Martinmas 1783. A quiet, rather timid man who deceived the Alloway schoolmaster John Murdoch into thinking that he was the cleverer of the brothers, Gilbert, as Ferguson puts it 'never was able to shake off the mental attitude of the tenant farmer and the factor, whose ruling purpose in life is to do nothing that will offend 'the gentry''. Gilbert moved into Mossgiel farm, along with the rest of the family, after their father's death in 1784. Gilbert remained at Mossgiel until 1798, but he was only able to do so because of the generosity of his brother. Writing to Dr John Moore on 4th January 1789, Burns said: 'I have a younger brother, who supports my aged mother, another still younger brother, and three sisters in a farm. On my last return from Edinburgh, it cost me about £180 to save them from ruin. Not that I have lost so much; I only interposed between my brother and his impending fate by the loan of so much. I give myself no airs on this, for it was mere selfishness on my part: I was conscious that the wrong scale of the balance was pretty heavily charged, and I thought that throwing a little filial piety and fraternal affection into the scale in my favor might help to smooth matter at the grand reckoning'. By turning over almost half the profits of his Edinburgh volume, Burns gave his brother the necessary capital to enable him to carry on.

According to Snyder, Gilbert was probably loaned about £200. Compound interest was to be paid at 5% per year, and out of the interest Gilbert was to deduct £5 per year as an 'annuity to my mother allowed by my brother to be paid her out of the interest of his money in my hands', and the £7 or £8 a year which was the cost of supporting 'Dear-bought Bess'. The actual date of the loan is not clear. Burns wrote to James Johnson on 25th May 1788, expressing unease over money owed him by Creech, saying: 'I want it much at present, as I am engaging in business pretty deeply both for myself and my brother', so presumably the transaction was then at least contemplated.

Writing to Mrs Dunlop in September 1794, Burns reveals his concern over the money: 'You know that my brother, poor fellow! Was on the brink of ruin, when my good fortune threw a little money among my hands which saved him for a while. Still his ruinous farm threatens to beggar him, and though, a bad debt of £10 excepted, he has every shilling I am worth in the world among his hands, I am nearly certain that I have done with it for ever. This loss, as to my individual self, I could hold it very light; but my little flock would have been better for a couple of hundred pounds; for their sakes, it wrings my heart!' Though Burns did once think he might have to 'cut' Gilbert 'up' (bankrupt him), to relieve his own position, he never did.

Gilbert provided a home for 'Dear-bought Bess' — when Burns intended flight to Jamaica, he had a document drawn up leaving the profit of the Kilmarnock Edition and the proceeds from the sale of his estate to Gilbert on the condition that the child was brought up as if his own — and for his mother, until her death at the age of 88 in 1820. He also kept his sister Agnes until her marriage at the advanced age of 42, and his unmarried sister Annabella, who survived him by 5 years. In 1791, Gilbert himself married and, by his wife Jean Breckenridge of Kilmarnock, he had 11 children.

After leaving Mossgiel, Gilbert spent 2 years farming at Dinning, in Nithsdale. In 1800, he became manager of Captain John Dunlop's farm Morham, West Mains, East Lothian. Four years later he became factor on the East Lothian Estates of Lady Katherine Blantyre. Here, living at Grant's Braes, near Haddington, he ended his days.

In 1820, Gilbert Burns was given £250 for additional material to the eighth edition of Currie's The Works of Robert Burns. But the publishers, Cadell and Davies, warned him that he must not cast doubts upon the general accuracy of Currie's portrait. The timid Gilbert therefore missed this chance to defend his brother's reputation. But out of his cheque he repaid his dead brother's loan.

Some of Gilbert's other writings about his brother are of particular value, especially the letter to Mrs Dunlop known as 'Gilbert's Narrative', printed in the appendix, Burns Documents.

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