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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burns, Jean Armour (1767-1834)

The girl who became Burns's wife was one of the eleven children of James Armour, a master mason of Mauchline. Burns seems to have met her early in 1784, soon after he moved to Mossgiel, and was in a mood of emancipation following his father's death. She was one of the Mauchline Belles.

The version of the first meeting of the two accepted by the hagiologists (though it has no basis in verifiable fact) is that when Burns was at a dance during Race Week, April 1784, where he was something of a wall-flower, his collie dog arrived. As he sent the dog home he was heard to remark that he wished he could find a lass who would love him as faithfully as his dog did. Crossing the village green a few days later, he was asked by a shapely brunette if he had found his lass yet. If this story is true — Jean, not surprisingly, gave a different account years later — it suggests that she sought out the poet. The association was not hurried — there was still Elizabeth Paton and 'Dear-bought Bess' on Burns's mind — but by early 1786, Jean was pregnant. She also had in her possession a paper signed by Burns, which, under the Scots law of the day, probably constituted a marriage contract. In March 1786, Mrs Armour had to run for a cordial for her husband, who fainted on being told the news. Mrs Armour first tried to conceal the sad fact, sending her daughter off to Paisley to stay with her uncle. Possibly Mrs Armour hoped that her daughter might perhaps still capture the weaver, Robert Wilson, who had once been interested in her. But Holy Willie Fisher was soon on the scent. The Minutes of Mauchline Kirk Session for 10th June 1786 show that Jean Armour was 'called, compeared not, but sent a letter directed to the minister, the tenor whereof follows: 'I am heartily sorry that I have given and must give your Session trouble on my account. I acknowledge I am with child, and Robert Burns in Mossgiel is the father. I am, with great respect your most humble servant.''

Between March and June, however, Burns's own attitude had changed. His first impulse on realising that Jean was to bear his child seems to have been to marry her. He suggested as much in a letter to Gavin Hamilton, dated 15th April, and the same month told Arnot of Dalquhatswood: 'I would gladly have covered my Inamorata from the darts of Calumny with the conjugal Shield, nay had actually made up some sort of Wedlock; but I was at that time deep in the guilt of being unfortunate, for which good and lawful objection, the Lady's friends broke all our measures, and drove me au desespoir.'

What happened was that old Armour, revived by his wife's cordial, forced Jean to yield up what Burns later referred to as 'the unlucky paper', but which 'made up some sort of wedlock', and took it to the lawyer Robert Aikin in Ayr, who cut out the names of the two parties, a mutilation which could have had no point other than to appease an unreasonable and irascible client, marriage by declaration alone being then valid.

Meanwhile Burns regarded Jean's yielding up the paper to her father and her own departure to Paisley as 'desertion'. His greatest wish now was to get a certificate from the Kirk Session testifying that he was a single man. On 25th June he appeared before the Session and acknowledged his share in the affair. During July and August, he made the necessary 3 appearances, and got his certificate from Daddy Auld.

During the summer months, however, an hysterical note creeps into Burns's letters. There were possibly two causes for this. Burns, who had told Arnot in April 1786 that he was looking for 'another wife', and on 12th June 1786, had confessed to David Brice that he had been guilty of 'dissipation and riot... and other mischief', may very well have compromised himself with 'Highland' Mary Campbell, to the extent that she was also carrying a child of his. Burns, who had allowed his desperate thoughts to turn to Jamaica, that haven of refuge of unfortunate Scots in the 18th Century, also found that James Armour had invoked civil law against him. Learning of the Jamaica project and that Burns was thinking of publishing a book from which there might be profit, Armour forced Jean to sign a complaint, with the result that a warrant was issued against Burns. Anticipating this, however, Burns had got the lawyer Chalmers to draw up a deed of trust making over all his property and profits to his brother Gilbert, who was to use them to bring up 'Dear-bought Bess'. Burns then virtually went into hiding, and was still full of apprehension when the Kilmarnock Edition came out on 21st July 1786.

Old Armour, however, seems to have been impressed by the obvious change which was coming over Burns's fortunes. By 1st September, Burns was able to tell Richard Brown: 'I am under little apprehension now about Armour. The warrant is still in existence, but some of the first Gentlemen in the county have offered to befriend me; and besides, Jean will not take any step against me, without letting me know, as nothing but the most violent menaces could have forced her to sign the petition.. She would gladly now embrace that offer she once rejected, but it shall never more be in her power.'

On 3rd September, a brother of Jean's came up to Mossgiel to tell Burns that Jean had borne him twins, Robert and Jean. In October Mary Campbell, whom Burns had promised to marry and possibly take with him to Jamaica, died of 'malignant fever' at Greenock, but in circumstances which have suggested to some writers premature childbirth (see Highland Mary). On 27th November Burns set out, bound, not for the West Indies, but for Edinburgh. With Mary out of the way, Burns could not resist the temptation of impressing Jean with his new found fame at the close of one of his tours in the summer of 1787. The inevitable result was that Jean became pregnant again. This time, now that Burns was a man of fame, the attitude of the Armours was different. Possibly they 'threw' Jean at Burns, hopefully assuming she would have the wit to make him marry her before giving her body to him once more. In any case, then they found out that poor Jean had muffed things again, they were furious and refused to allow her to remain under their roof.

Burns, dallying with Clarinda in Edinburgh, heard about Jean's misfortunes shortly before Christmas. He was suffering from an injured leg as the result of a carriage accident, so he begged Willie Muir of Tarbolton to give her shelter. Tardily, Burns left Edinburgh for Mauchline where he arrived on 23rd February 1788. He took a room for Jean in Mauchline and arranged for a doctor to attend her. To Clarinda he wrote comparing Jean to a 'farthing taper'. To Ainslie on 3rd March, the day of Jean's confinement he wrote: 'Jean I found banished like a martyr — forlorn, destitute and friendless; all for the good old cause: I have reconciled her to her fate: I have reconciled her to her mother: I have taken her a room: I have taken her to my arms: I have given her a mahogany bed: I have given her a guinea; and I have f---d her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory. But — as I always am on every occasion — I have been prudent and cautious to an astounding degree; I swore her, privately and solemnly, never to attempt any claim on me as a husband, even though anybody should persuade her she had such a claim, which she has not, neither during my life nor after my death. She did all this like a good girl, and I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones.'

Hardly surprisingly, the second set of twins both died within a few weeks.

On 7th March, four days after Jean was made to swear she would never try to claim him as husband, Burns told Brown that he had 'towed her into convenenient harbour where she may lie snug and unload; and have taken command myself not ostensibly, but for a time in secret...'

Writing to Smith on 28th April, Burns said: 'To let you a little into the secrets of my pericranium, there is, you must know, a certaqin clean limbed, handsome, bewitching young hussy of your acquaintance, to whom I have lately and privately given a matrimonial title to my corpus.' Burns's uncle, Samuel Brown, got a letter hinting marriage, dated 4th May, and on 25th May, Burns wrote to James Johnson: 'I am so enamoured with a certain girl's prolific twin-bearing merit, that I have given her a legal title to the best blood in my body; and so farewell Rakery!' On 28th May, the surprised Ainslie was told: 'I have been extremely fortunate in all my buyings and bargainings hitherto; Mrs Burns not excepted, which title I now avow to the world...' None of these references suggested the enraptured lover some of Burns's more romantic biographers would have us believe him!

The mystery with which Burns sought to disguise his marriage with Jean has never been satisfactorily unralvelled. But in the Train manuscript the note occurs: 'Jean Armour and Rob Burns were privately married in the writing office of Gavin Hamilton, Mauchline by John Farquhar Esq of Gilmilnscroft, J.P' As Train's father had been land steward at Gilmilnscroft, his account has at least an air of probability (see Gray of Gilmilnscroft, John Farquhar)

Jean bore Burns 9 children, the last on the day of her husband's funeral. Only three of them survived her. She seems to have been a generous, compliant woman, with a clear singing voice, though in no way her husband's intellectual equal, and willing to put up with his wildest extravagancies, even to the extent of taking in his bastard daughter by Anna Park with the remark 'Our Robbie should have had twa wives.'

Jean outlived her husband by 38 years, answering the questions of the early haliologists with patient good nature. Latterly she suffered from high blood pressure, and endured a series of strokes, the second of which left her partly paralysed and dependent on her favourite grand-daughter, Sara.

No portrait of her is known until she became a grandmother. Three of her in later years exist. Of the verbal portraits, that of Mrs Grant of Laggan is perhaps the best. Mrs Grant found her, at 55 'a very comely woman with plain sound sense and very good manners'.

Burns wrote in all 14 songs commonly associated with Jean. Of these, by far the greatest is 'Of a' the Airts the Wind can Blaw', of which Burns said, 'The air is by Marshall; the song I composed out of compliment to Mrs Burns', The song first appeared in 1790 in the Scots Musical Museum. The air first appeared as 'Miss Admiral Gordon's Strathspey' in William Marshall's Collection of Reels, in 1781.

Among the other songs inspired by Jean Armour is that confident out burst of marital satisfaction, 'I hae a wife of my ain', framed on an old model, though entirely original, and set to a tune taken from James Oswald's Curious Collection of Scots Tunes, 1740. It also appeared in the Museum. Schumann set the poem under the Germnan title, 'Niemand', as he did also 'Out over the Forth, I looked to the North', originally set to a Gow tune. 'O were I on Parnassus Hill' to another of Oswald's airs, appeared in Thomson's Scottish Airs, 1798.

Writing to Peggy Chalmers on 16th September 1788, Burns told her that his marriage 'was not in consequence of the attachment of romance perhaps; but I had a long and much loved fellow creature's happiness or misery in my determination, and I durst not trifle with so important a deposit. Nor have I any cause to repent it. If I have not got polite tattle, modish manners, and fashionable dress, I am not sickened and disgusted with the multiform curse of boarding school affectation; and I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and kindest heart in the county. Mrs Burns believes, as firmly as her creed, that I am le plus bel esprit, et le plus honnete homme in the universe; although she [Jean] scarcely ever in her life, except the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and the Psalms of David in metre, spent five minutes together on either prose or verse.l I must except also from this last a certain late publication of Scots poems which she has perused very devoutly; and all the ballads in the country, as she has (Oh, the partial lover! You will cry) the finest "wood-note wild" I ever heard.'

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