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The Burns Encyclopedia
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'Rosamond', Seizure of

When, in February 1792, Burns was promoted to the Dumfries Third or Port Division, which could be covered entirely on foot, his Excise income was, as he told his 'Dearest Friend' Maria Riddell:

'Cash paid, Seventy pounds a year: and this I hold until I am appointed Supervisor.... My Perquisites I hope to make worth 15 or 20 £ more. So rejoice with them that do Rejoice.'

Not long after this promotion, together with a colleague, John Lewars, Burns featured in a dramatic incident which was first of all over-written by Lockhart, and then written off by Snyder.

In the Edinburgh Evening Courant of Thursday, 8th March, there appeared an announcement stating that on the previous Wednesday:

'the revenue officer for Dumfries, assisted by a strong party of the 3rd regiment of dragoons, seized a fine large smuggling vessel at Sarkfoot.... Upon the officers and the military proceeding towards the vessel, which they did in a martial and determined manner, over a broad space of deep water, the smugglers had the audacity to fire upon them from their swivel guns, loaded with grape shot; but the vessel (owing to her construction) lay in such a situation as prevented their having a direction with effect.'

This, without a doubt, was the brig Rosamond, and one of those who advanced in a 'martial and determined manner upon her rebellious crew was Robert Burns.

Amongst the other Revenue Officers who took part was one Walter Crawford, a riding officer at Dumfries. He, it seems, first discovered what was afoot, and attempted to seize the Rosamond with a small party he had collected for another purpose. Being unsuccessful, he despatched John Lewars to Dumfries to:

'bring Twenty four more Dragoons, while I went to Ecclefechan for the party there with which I patroled the roads till the arrivall of Mr Lewars with the additional force from Dumfries.'

Crawford's account was given in the Burns Chronicle, 1934, in an article 'Burns and the Rosamond' by H. W. Meikle. The essentials of Crawford's story are quoted here, with his highly erratic spelling slightly modernised in the interests of intelligibility

'... We approached with... Dragoons in all forty four fully accoutered and on horse-back. The vessel having fallen down the Solway Firth about a mile from where she was yesterday, and being about a mile within sea mark, most of which space being covered with water and a very heavy current running between us and the vessel, we deemed it impossible to get at her, either on foot or on horseback, so we agreed to search the coast for boats in which to board her. But the country people, guessing our design, got the start of us and staved every boat on the Coast before we could reach them; the vessel in the mean time keeping up a fire of grape shot and musquetry, we resolved as [a] last resource to attempt the passage on foot, as the quick sands made the ridding on

horseback dangerous, or rather impossible.

'We drew up the Military in three divisions, determined to approach and attac[k] bet if the s[tlream was foardable, one part fore and aft, and the third on her broadside, the first party being commanded by Quarter Master Manly, the second by my self, and the third by Mr Burns.

'Our orders to the Military were to reserve their fire till within eight yards of the vessel, then to pour a volley and board her with sword and pistol. The vessel kept on firing, tho without any damage to us, as from the situation of the ship, they could not bring their great guns to bear on us, we in the mean time wading breast high, and in justice to the party under my command I must say with great alacrity; by the time we were within one hundred yeards of the vessel, the crew gave up the cause, got over [the] side towards England, which shore was for a long, long way dry sand. As I still supposed that there were only country people they were putting ashore, and that the crew was keeping under cover to make a more vigorous immediate resistance, we marched up as first concerted, but found the vessel completely evacuated both of crew and every moveable on board, expect as per inventory, the smugglers as their last instance of vengen[cle having poured a six-pounder Carronade through her broadside. She proved to be the Rosamond of Plymouth, Alexander Patty Master, and about one hundred tons burthern, schooner r[igged].'

The 'Inventory of the Rosamond and Furniture' is apparently in John Lewars's hand, and contains, besides a list of fifty-three items, a draft press advertisement announcing the sale of the ship and its Contents by public roup in the Coffee House, Dumfries, on 19th April. This interval between capture and sale was made necessary because the ship had to be repaired. A note in Burns's hand tells us that two carpenters were employed for eleven days and four seamen for nine days at a cost of £8 18s. and she was then refloated. The sale realised £166 16s. 6d. As the total expenses amounted to £45 15s. 4d. the profit was therefore £121 1s. 2d. part at least of which would presumably have been divided among the Excise Officers.

These papers form part of a bundle of documents relating to the Rosamond given to Joseph Train, antiquary and Supervisor of Excise at Castle Douglas, by John Lewars's widow. In 1825, Train passed the documents to Sir Walter Scott, and Scott showed them to Lockhart, who made use of them to concoct his fanciful account of the whole business, including the absurd tale about Burns's composing 'The De'il's awa', while waiting for Lewars to arrive with his reinforcements! The Train manuscripts came to light in the early 1930s, when the Abbotsford collection was being catalogued by the National Library of Scotland.

Unfortunately, one piece of evidence which Train claimed to have included in the bundle did not come to light, and has not since been traced. This was the document 'detailing the circumstances of Burns having purchased the four carronades at the sale'.

Lockhart avers that Burns paid £4 for these carronades, and the tradition is that he despatched them as a gift to the French Convention to show his sympathy with their cause. According to Train, Sir Walter Scott tried unsuccessfully to trace the receipt of the guns in France, and thereafter 'applied to the Custom House authorities, who, after a considerable search, found that they had been seized at the port of Dover, as stated by Mr Lewars in his memorandum'.

Further researches have failed to enlarge upon Sir Walter's information, though in view of the proven accuracy of the rest of Train's claim, it would be rash to suppose that the carronades were never despatched.

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