Robert Burns: Rampant Robbie
Our national hero was famous for two things: poetry and womanising. But would he have been as good a poet if he’d laid off the ladies? Hannah Adcock examines the life of this Scottish Casanova and asks: was Robbie Burns a sex addict?
Seducer, sex machine, womaniser, charmer, bragger and a bit of a bastard. Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns, was a loose-limbed man with one hell of a sex drive. His love life reads like something from a daytime TV show. There are illegitimate children, outdoor sex romps, irregular marriages and enraged elders wagging their fingers and crying ‘shame’.
It’s a pity Burns had to live in a time before birth control and the sexual revolution. He’d have had a grand time as a Russell Brand figure, amusing himself with one-night stands and short-term relationships. As it was, in the late-18th century, sex was about making children. A quick roll in the hay could mean a lifetime of responsibility, something Burns first learnt in 1785 when the family servant became pregnant. Plain-faced, but bouncy, she was not really marriage material. You get the feeling 26-year-old Burns would have slept with anything wearing a skirt, provided it showed enough willing.
A portrait of the pick-up artist as a young man
After the success of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1786, Burns cut a romantic figure in Edinburgh, although the society ladies kept him at arm’s length. He seduced where he could; cue the arrival of at least two bastard children, one by a barmaid, Meg Cameron, and another by Edinburgh girl, Jenny Clow. He also carried out a passionate although perhaps unconsummated relationship with ‘Clarinda’ (aka Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose, a married, but separated woman), for whom he wrote ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.
When Burns eventually came to marry, it quickly turned into a fiasco. He’d met and slept with a local Mauchline girl, Jean Armour, and she’d become pregnant in the spring of 1786. Burns loved her enough that he had promised marriage (the details are a bit complicated), but her parents told Burns, ‘no way’. They preferred her to remain a single mother than be married to him. His reputation must have been pretty dreadful.
Not one to repine by swearing chastity for ever more, even if he was genuinely upset, Burns got involved with ‘Highland Mary’. He may even have been two-timing Jean and Mary. Who knows? Anyway, he seems to have promised Mary marriage too, thinking, or rather hoping, he was no longer promised to Jean. Burns may have thought to make a dash for a new life in the Caribbean with Mary, but she died, possibly in childbirth.
The poet ended up marrying Jean in 1788, some months after an unedifying incident in which he and she ‘had relations’ while she was heavily pregnant. He made her promise not to claim him as husband and boasted about it afterwards to his friend, Robert Ainslie: ‘I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones.’ Previously, he had described first sleeping with her to a friend by a military metaphor: ‘I had found means to slip a choice detachment into the very citadel.’
Burns, along with most of his mates, had a fondness for the bawdy. He wrote a number of sexed-up poems and collected an impressive number of bawdy ballads and indecent songs. A pirated edition of The Merry Muses of Caledonia came out in 1800, which included many of Burns’ poems (such as ‘Nine Inches Will Please a Lady’ and ‘The Fornicator’). He is thought to have collected and edited nearly all the rest.
During his relatively short life, Burns fathered at least 14 children, more than half of them illegitimately. To his credit, he was a fond father and wrote a tender and defiant poem ‘Welcome to a Bastart Wean,’ to his first love child. To his discredit, he cheated on his wife with the Dumfries barmaid Ann Park, who became pregnant at around the same time as Burns’ wife. Jean took in the bastard child commenting that, ‘Oor Rab should hae had twa wives.’ What a woman. At the point when you’d expect her to take a frying pan to his head, she was all charity and grace. Or perhaps that was after the frying pan – you’ve got to hope so.
Burns, unrepentant, wrote a love song to Ann that concludes, ‘She is the sunshine o my e’e/ To live but her I canna/ Had I on earth but wishes three,/ The first should be my Anna.’ He managed to live without her though.
The Michael Douglas of Romantic Scotland
Robert Burns could fit the description of what people now term sexual addiction because he was driven by his rampant sexuality and addicted to sexual relationships, advising his brother William to, ‘try for intimacy as soon as you feel the first symptoms of the passion: that is not only best, as making the most of the little entertainment which the sport-abilities of distant addresses always gives, but is the best preservative for one’s peace.’
Sex therapist, Shelagh Neil, trying to be dispassionate, says, 'Burns could well fit into the modern definition of a sex addict. While it is a hotly debated term, with some people insisting it doesn't exist, the addictive characteristics are similar to well documented aspects of substance abuse. Such behaviour is often a subconscious desire to obliterate the pain of life. But Burns' poems, which I have grown up with, rejoice in life – and love. So the passionate part of my adolescent self is not prepared to knock him off his haystack. I’ll keep those adolescent fantasies warm and continue to wear my red rose tinted specs!’
This is a common attitude. For centuries Burns’ sex life has been denied. The Victorians grabbed hold of ‘Highland Mary,’ and tried to turn her into his ‘true love’ (ie the one he didn’t sleep with), somehow managing not to mention that she probably slept with him and got pregnant.
Putting Burns in the closet
‘Mariolaters’ (pushers of the Mary myth) were an influential bunch and they weren’t the only ones. Literary man, John Gibson Lockhart, wrote a much praised Life of Robert Burns which handily skipped over the more lurid part of Burn’s life. ‘Those damned middle-class Lockharts grew lilies of the valley up their arses to hear them talk,’ raged DH Lawrence, a keen fan of sex scenes.
A storm of protest erupted after the publication of Catherine Carswell’s rather more frank Life of Robert Burns in 1930. She was accused of gratuitous muck-raking (like a celebrity journalist today, fingering Lindsay Lohan’s knicker drawer). More scarily, Carswell was sent a bullet through the post from a correspondent who signed himself ‘Holy Willie’. The parallel with the attack on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is notable, even if the part of enraged Islamic fundamentalists was being played out by fundamentalist Burns fans who wanted Scotland’s hero to keep smelling of roses (or lilies).
Burns’ sex life was clearly a serious matter. He was a Scottish hero who wrote swooningly romantic poetry, like the famous ‘A Red, Red Rose’. Why spoil a perfectly good PR story by suggesting he enjoyed all kinds of sexual shenanigans, some of them romantic, some of them pretty seedy?
Today, with Jerry Springer and Big Brother as household names, we’ve got a pretty high tolerance for sexual adventuring, even if critics still can’t quite decide what to make of Burns and all his women. Should they slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Good on you,’ or insist, rather sweetly, he was always in love with the girl who was his current partner?
Some critics doggedly suggest Burns could never have written such great poetry if he hadn’t had such a riotous sex life, which is an interesting argument, not least because it means that we should probably be giving Scotland’s best young poets grants to go and get laid.