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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Smith, James (1765-c. 1823)

The son of a Mauchline merchant who was killed in an accident when the boy was ten years old. Smith was brother to one of 'the Mauchline belles', Jean. He was strictly brought up by a step-father, a Mr Lamie, but revolted against his upbringing when a youth. Snyder describes Richmond, Smith and Burns as 'forming a happy triumvirate in village revelry', which, in view of the fact that two of them were responsible for putting local unmarried girls in the family way, is perhaps something of an understatement. See 'Court of Equity'.

Smith had a draper's shop in Mauchline, almost opposite Nanse Tinnock's, but he later went into partnership with a Linlithgow calico-printer. When this business failed, Smith emigrated to St Louis, Jamaica, and died there at an early age. (Cromek speaks of him as being dead in 1808.)

Burns favoured Smith with a number of letters revealing his unguarded thoughts on sex and marriage. When the poet was distracted on the supposed desertion of Jean, it was through Smith, in a letter tentatively dated by Ferguson 1st August 1786, that Burns indicated he would meet her: 'So help me Heaven in my hour of need.' It was to Smith, too, that, on 30th June the following year, Burns gloated on his skill as a seducer: 'I am an old hawk at the sport, and wrote her such a cool, deliberate, prudent reply, as brought my bird from her aerial towerings, pop, down at my foot, like Corporal Trim's hat.'

It was also to Smith, in a letter of 28th April 1788, that Burns first announced unequivocally that he had married Jean: 'There is, you must know, a certain clean-limbed, handsome, bewitching young hussy of your acquaintance, to whom I have lately and privately given a matrimonial title to my corpus.... I intend to present Mrs Burns with a printed shawl, in article of which I daresay you have variety: 'tis my first present to her since 1 have irrevocably called her mine...'

Smith was also the recipient of the 'Epistle to James Smith' in which Burns calls him: 'the slee'st, pawkie thief, That e'er attempted stealth or rief'. It is in this poem that Burns works up to his glorious denunciation of hypocritical, censorious, and cold-blooded people in the powerful closing stanzas, beginning:

"O ye douce folk that live by rule,
Grave, tideless - blooded, calm an' cool
Compar'd wi' you - O fool! fool! Fool!
How much unlike!
Your hearts are just a standing pool,
Your lives, a dyke!..."
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Complete Burns Songs

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