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The Burns Encyclopedia
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The regional capital of Dumfries and Galloway, on the River Nith, was made a royal burgh by William the Lion in 1186. It was in the chapel of the Minorite Convent, which stood near the corner of the present Castle Street and Friar's Vennel, that the Bruce slew the Red Comyn in 1306. In the 13th Century Lady Devorgilla, wife of the founder of Balliol Collegee, built the first wooden bridge over the Nith. In 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, retreating from Derby, set up his headquarters for a night in the County Hotel. The room is still preserved. Dumfries, in the early 18th Century, considered itself to be a future rival port to Glasgow. 'Queen of the South', it called itself, though Burns called it, 'Maggie by the Banks o' the Nith'.

It was a busy bustling, thriving little town when Burns took up residence in it towards the end of 179. He had often visited it before, of course, his first visit being on 4th June 1787, when he was made a Burgess, according to a list of Honorary Burgesses kept by the Town Council. The Dumfries ticket disappeared for many years, but turned up at an exhibition in Edinburgh's Mucis Hall in 1859. It was sold at Sotheby's in 1904 for £55, and was later that year acquired by John Thomson, a private collector and owner of the Hole-i'-th'-Wa' Inn at Dumfries. According to Andrew McCallum in the Burns Chronicle for 1942, the text reads: 'At Dumfries the 4thday of June 1787 ; the said day Mr Robert Burns, Ayrshire was admitted Burgess of this Burgh with liberty to him to exerce and enjoy the whole immunities and privileges thereof as amply and freely as any other does, may or can enjoy. Who being present accepted the same, and gave his oath of Burgess-ship to his Majesty and the Burgh in common form.'

One of the 'immunities and privileges' was that children of Dumfries's Honorary Burgesses could be educated for ten marks Scots (14p) as against the eighty pounds Scots (£16 13s. 4d.) demanded for the children of other people. Burns successfully claimed this privilege for his sons in 1793.

Burns's first home in Dumfries, rented from Captain John Hamilton of Allershaw, was a three room and kitchen second floor flat in Wee Vennel, now Bank Street. John Syme had his office on the ground floor. On the top storey a blacksmith, George Haugh, lived. On 19th May 1793 the Burns family moved into the self contained house in Mill Street, now Burns Street, which is preserved as a museum. It, too, was rented — at £8 a year — from Captain Hamilton.

Burns seems to have entered fully into the life of the town. He had many friends and became a member of the Dumfries Volunteers. He described his own early days in Dumfries as: 'Hurry of business, grinding the faces of the publican and sinner on the merciless wheels of the Excise, making ballads, and then drinking and singing them; and, above all, correcting the press of two different publications.' The two publications were Johnson's Scots Museum and Thomson's Select Scottish Airs.

Mrs Burns later recalled her husband's domestic habits at Dumfries for John McDiarmid: 'Burns was not an early riser, excepting when he had anything particular to do in the way of his profession. Even tho' he had dined out, he never lay after nine o'clock. The family breakfasted at nine. If he lay long in bed awake he was always reading. At all meals he had a book beside him on the table. He did his work in the forenoon, and was seldom engaged professionally in the evening. Dined at two o'clock when he dined at home. Was fond of plain things and hated tarts, pies and puddings. When at home in the evening, he employed his time in writing and reading, with the children playing about him. Their prattle never disturbed him.'

And of life in the second Dumfries home, Robert Burns junior told Chambers that: '... the house in Mill Street was of a good order, such as were occupied at that time by the better class of burgesses; and his father and mother led a life that was comparatively genteel. They always had a maid servant, and sat in their parlour. That apartment, together with two bedrooms, was well furnished and carpeted; and when good company assembled, which was often the case, the hospitable board which they surrounded was of a patrician mahogany. There was much rough comfort in the house, not to have been found in those of ordinary citizens; for the poet received many presents of jam and country produce from the rural gentlefolk, besides occasional barrels of oysters from Hill, Cunningham, and other friends in town; so that he possibly was as much envied by some of his neighbours as he has since been pitied by the general body of his countrymen.'

Burns died in Dumfries on 21st July 1796. He was given a military funeral on 25th July, his body being carried to St Michael's Churchyard to the 'Dead March' from Handel's Saul. The whole town turned out to honour his memory, and the Volunteers fired a volley on his grave. 19 years later, Burns was reinterred in the Mansoleum built by public subscription, at a cost of about £1,500, to plans by T F Hunt.

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