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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Corbet, William (1755 — 1811)

A senior officer of the Excise whose influence was of assistance to Burns in his own Excise career.

According to Joseph Farington, RA, who met Burns at Friar's Carse in 1792, and who, when he revisited Scotland in 1801 had dinner in Glasgow with Corbet's brother, Corbet: 'was the officer who succeeded to the command of the troops engaged in the Island of Jersey after Major Peirson was killed. His portrait is in the picture printed by Copley of that subject.' Unfortunately Farington did not identify Corbet in Copley's picture which is now in the National Gallery, London. The Battle of Jersey was a French raid upon the island in 1781.

If Farington's reminiscence was accurate, Corbet must have been promoted in the Excise service with some rapidity, for in 1784 he is listed as being a Supervisor in Linlithgow. In 1786 and 1787 he was Supervisor-General at Stirling, and from 1789 to 1791, Acting Supervisor-General at Edinburgh, a post he held permanently thereafter until 1797, when he became Collector of the Excise at Glasgow. At Glasgow, he was a member of the convivial club called the Board of Green Cloth. He married Jean McAdam of Kirkcudbright, by whom he had several children. His Glasgow address was 14 Miller Street. He died at Meadowside, Partick, and was buried in the cemetery of Ramshorn Church.

He first appears in the Burns story in February 1790, when Mrs Dunlop asked Burns if A Mr Corbet in the Excise 'could be of any use' in getting him on. If so, she could perhaps renew an old friendship with Mrs Corbet on his behalf.

Burns replied in March 1790: 'You formerly wrote me, if a Mr Corbet in the Excise could be of use to me. If it is a Corbet who is what we call one of our General Supervisors, of which we have just two in Scotland, he can do everything for me. Were he to interest himself properly for me, he could easily, by Martinmas 1791, transport me to Port Glasgow, port Division, which would be the ultimatum of my present Excise hopes.' ('A Port Division' Burns explained to Mrs Dunlop on 3rd February 1792, 'is twenty pounds a year more than any other Division, besides as much rum and brandy as will easily supply an ordinary family.')

Mrs Dunlop wrote to Mrs Corbet, and after an unnecessary setback of despair because rumour had promoted Corbet Collector 7 years ahead of fact, she managed to interest him in Burns. At any rate, towards the end of 1790, Corbet apparently asked Findlater, Dumfries Supervisor and Burns's immediate superior, to let him have an assessment of the poet's character and ability.

Two days before Christmas 1790, Findlater wrote to Corbet, describing Burns as 'an active, faithful and zealous officer' who 'gives the most unremitting attention to the duties of his office... and, tho' his experience must be as yet small, he is capable, as you may well suppose, of achieving [sic] a much more arduous task than any difficulty that the theory or practice of our business can exhibit'.

Corbet, one infers from Burns's own references to him, did actually visit Dumfries and meet the poet, late in 1791 or early in 1792. He may have been responsible for getting Burns transferred to a 'foot-walk' in Dumfries — 'Dumfries third division' — just before the poet left Ellisland, instead of the laborious rural district — 'Dumfries first itinerary' — which often involved riding 200 miles a week. He certainly stood by Burns when, in December 1792, the poet's radical opinions and utterances led someone to denounce him to the Excise Board as unpatriotic. The usual routine enquiry in such cases was ordered and Burns drove himself frantic with worry and fright over the threat to his livelihood. Corbet came to Dumfries to conduct the inquiry, along with Mitchell and Findlater; but Findlater testified that Burns was 'exact, vigilant, and sober, that, in fact, he was one of the best officers in the district'.

No stain on Burns's character was put on record, but Corbet probably gave him some friendly, plain-spoken advice, making it clear that 'whatever might be Men or Measures', it was for the poet 'to be silent and obedient'.

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