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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burns, Margaret (d. 1792)

The poet's 'poor namesake', and an Edinburgh prostitute.

Margaret's real name was Matthews. She was young, beautiful and lived in Rose Street. To quote Chambers; 'In August of the year 1789, some of her neighbours (in Rose Street) lodged a complaint that "since Whitsunday last, she and a Miss Sally Sanderson, who were persons of bad character, had kept a very irregular and disorderly house, into which they admit and entertain licentious and profligate persons of both sexes to the great annoyance of their neighbours and breach of the public peace..." The case caused a considerable sensation, and more so when the two defendants were "banished forth of the city and liberties for ever". Miss Burns entered an appeal to the Court of Session by presenting a petition to the Lord Ordinary (Dreghorn): this was refused; she reclaimed to the Inner House, and the case was decided in her favour (22nd December, 1789)'

Shortly after, her health failed and she died in Rosslyn.

Prior to the success of her appeal, Burns wrote from Ellisland on 2nd February 1790, to the Edinburgh bookseller, Peter Hill:

'... how is the fate of my poor Namesake Mademoiselle Burns decided? Which of their grave LORDSHIPS can lay his hand on his heart and say that he has not taken advantage of such frailty; nay, if we may judge by near six thousand years' experience, can the World do without such frailty? O Man! But for thee, & thy selfish appetites & dishonest artifices, that beauteous form, & that once innocent & still ingenuous mind, might have shone conspicuous and lovely in the faithful wife and the affectionate mother; and shall the unfortunate sacrifice to thy pleasures have no claim on thy humanity? As for those flinty-bosomed, puritannic Prosecutors of Female Frailty, & Persecutors of Female Charms — I am quite sober — I am dispassionate — to shew you that I am so I shall mend my pen ere I proceed — it is written that "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", so I shall neither say, G–curse them! Nor G–damn them! But may Woman curse them! May Woman blast them! May Woman damn them! May her lovely hand inexorably shut the Portal of Rapture to their most earnest Prayers & fondest essays for entrance! And when many years and much port and great business have delivered them over to Vulture Gouts and Aspen Palsies, then may the dear bewitching Charmer in derision throw open the blissful Gate to tantalise their impotent desires which like ghosts haunt their bosoms when all their powers to give or receive enjoyment, are for ever asleep in the sepulchre of their fathers!!!'

At the time of the case, Burns's publisher, Creech, was then a Bailie of the City and on the Bench when Miss Burns's case was heard. He was very annoyed at the final decision. A London Journal reported that 'Bailie Creech, of literary celebrity in Edinburgh, was about to lead the beautiful and accomplished Miss Burns to the hymenal altar!' Creech was furious and was only persuaded not to sue by the promise of a counter-statement. This he got , and the statement ran thus:

'In a former number we noticed the intended marriage between Bailie Creech of Edinburgh and the beautiful Miss Burns of the same place. We now have the authority of that gentleman to say that the proposed marriage is not to take place, matters having been otherwise arranged to the mutual satisfaction of both parties and their respective friends.'

Burns wrote an epigram, 'Under the Portrait of Miss Burns':

"Cease, ye prudes, your envious railings,
Lovely Burns has charms: confess!
True it is that she had one failing:
Had a woman ever less?"
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Complete Burns Songs

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