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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burns, William (1767-90)

The poet's youngest brother, whom Burns took under his personal care when William was a youth of 18, something of a problem and urgently in need of a vocation. Burns first of all tried to get Ainslie to find William a job as a saddler's apprentice in Edinburgh but Ainslie apparently failed to do so. William then boarded himself upon the poet in Nithsdale. Some months later, however, William was duly apprenticed to a saddler in Longtown. From there he moved to Newcastle, where he worked with Messrs Walker and Robson, saddlers. When William found a job in London as journeyman saddler with William T Barber, in the Strand, the poet wrote from Ellisland on 10th February 1790, warning the youth of the perils of that city (where Burns himself had never been!), particularly 'that universal vice, Bad Women'. Yet when William had announced that he was in love, the poet had preiously told his young brother in May 1789: 'I am, you know, a veteran in these campaigns, so let me advise you always to pay your particular assiduities and try for intimacy as soon as you feel the first symptoms of passion; this is not only best, as making the most of the little entertainment which the sportabilities of distant addresses always gives, but is the best preservative for one's peace. I need not caution you against guilty amours — they are bad everywhere, but in England they are the very devil.'. 'Intimacy' in Burns's day, did not mean sexual intercourse as it does in ours.

Several letters between the brothers survive to show Robert's concern 'for Williams welfare, even to the point of giving him money, and William's respect for his brother's advice. There is also the suggestion that William was an easy giver-up, since the poet had frequently to counsel him: 'I beg you will endeavour to pluck up a little more of the man than you used to have'; and again: 'In a word, if ever you be, as perhaps you may be, in a strait for a little ready cash, you know my direction; I shall not see you bent while you fight like a man.'

On 16th July 1790, Burns told his brother that John Murdoch the family tutor of their Alloway days, would get in touch with him. Murdoch did see William once before the unfortunate youth died on 24th July. On 14th September, Murdoch, after a delay of nearly two months, wrote a long letter to Burns explaining how, on receipt of the poet's letter of 16th July, which he received: 'on the 26th in the afternoon per favour of my friend Mr Kennedy, and at the same time was informed that your brother was ill. Being engaged in business till late that evening, I set out next morning to see him, and had three or four medical gentlemen of my acquaintance, to one or other of whom I might apply for advice, provided it should be necessary. But when I went to Mr Barber's, to my great astonishment and heartfelt grief, I found that my young friend had, on Saturday, bid an everlasting farewell to all sublunary things.'

Death was supposed to have been caused by a 'putrid fever'. Burns despatched a draft in payment of all bills incurred by his brother's last illness and funeral, the receipt for which is dated 8th October. Robert's relationship with William, Snyder says, was: 'affectionate, loyal, serious, never over-bearing or dictatorial, and always frank in his counsel. He treated William as he might have treated one of his sons had he lived long enough to see him in the years of his young manhood.'

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Complete Burns Songs

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