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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Paton, Elizabeth

During the winter of 1783-4, when Burns's father, William Burnes, lay dying at Lochlea, there was employed as a servant a girl who had a plain face but a good figure, Elizabeth Paton of Lairgieside. Burns's sister, Isabella, had heard of Elizabeth Paton as 'rude and uncultivated to a great degree... with a thorough (though unwomanly) contempt for every sort of refinement', though she loved Burns 'with heartfelt devotion'.

After the old man's death, in February 1784, Burns experienced a feeling of emancipation, one result of which was that he seduced Elizabeth Paton, who bore him his first illegitimate child on 22nd May 1785. Burns's mother, who liked Elizabeth Paton, wanted her son to marry the girl. Brother Gilbert more realistically counselled against such a marriage. The child, 'Dear-bought Bess', was also named Elizabeth and baptised when two days old.

 

The event produced three poems from Burns: some insignificant lines, when 'rough, rude ready-witted Rankine' twitted him over Miss Paton's condition, followed by the brilliant, but somewhat tasteless, outburst of sexual boastfulness of the 'Epistle to John Rankine'. in this poem, Burns describes his seduction in terms of the field. The 'poacher-court' got to hear of the 'paitrick hen' he had brought down with his 'gun', so he had to 'thole the blethers' and pay the fee. However, he is quite unrepentant; for, as soon as her 'clockin'-time is by' and the child is born, he promises himself further 'sportin' by and by' to get value for his guinea. When the child was actually born, however, Burns expressed, not pride in his sexual powers, but warm tenderness, in a Poet's welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter' (or, as Burns himself more pithily put it in one of his several versions, to 'his bastard wean'):

"Welcome! lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for
That I shall swear!...
Lord grant that thou may ay inherit
Thy rnither's person, grace, an' merit,
An' thy poor, worthless daddie's spirit,
Without his failins,
'Twill please me mair to see thee
Than stocket mailens...

Elizabeth Paton herself inspired no poems directly unless she was in the poet's mind when he wrote the wryly tender song 'The Rantin' Dog': or unless one counts the lines in Burns's first Commonplace Book dated September 1784:

"My Girl she's airy. she's buxom and gay
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite
She's always good natur'd, good humor d and free
She dances, she glances, she smiles with a glee;
Her eyes are the lightenings of joy and delight; Her slender neck, her handsome waist,
Her hair well buckl'd, her stays well lac'd,
Her taper white leg, with an et and a c.
For her a, b, c, d, and her c, u, n, t,
And Oh, for the joys of a long winter night."

But early in 1784, in the song 'O Tibbie, I hae seen the day', which Burns addressed to the less obliging Isabella Steven or Stein, daughter of a wealthy Tarbolton farmer, Burns told her:

"There lives a lass beside yon park,
I'd rather hae her in her sark.
Than you, wi' a' your thousan mark;
That gars you look sae high."

Elizabeth Paton's only other appearance in Burns's life was in 1786, when she made a claim on Burns, but accepted a settlement of twenty pounds which the poet paid out of the profits of the Kilmarnock Edition. She married a farm-servant.

The child of Elizabeth Paton and Burns, the poet's first illegitimate daughter, whom he called 'Dear Bought Bess', was born 22nd May 1785. She was baptised two days later. She lived at Mossgiel, under Burns's mother's care, until her father's death. She then returned to her own mother, who was by this time happily married to a farm servant called Andrew.

When Burns meditated flight to Jamaica he made over his heritable property to his brother, Gilbert Burns, to enable him to bring up the child as one of his own.

When she reached the age of twenty-one, she received two hundred pounds from the money raised for the support of Burns's family.

She married John Bishop, and died on 8th January 1817, one tradition alleges during childbirth.

See also Burns, Elizabeth.

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