Burns arrived at Ellisland on 11th June 1788. He was then 29 years of age.

Drawing of Ellisland Farm Photograph of Fields at Tynron
Elisland Farm Fields at Tynron

The farm was so neglected that it did not even have a farmhouse and he had to live in a hut at nearby Isle Tower until one was built. The farm had been worked on the old ‘run-rig’ system which meant that the land was divided into narrow strips which were used for permanent crops. These were raised in the middle and drainage was mostly by surface run-off between the rigs. This gave the landscape a corrugated appearance. There were no hedges so animals often strayed into the crops causing much damage. Grazing land was shared between farms and the fields generally carried more stock than they could support. Winter feed was always in short supply as there was little hay and no root crops such as turnip.

Burns could take comfort, however, in the knowledge that even if the farm was to fail he would soon have a job in the Excise to fall back upon. His wife, Jean Armour, and their infant son Robert moved down from Mauchline in December to join him.

Photograph of Grazing Land Drawing of Tollbooth Museum
Grazing Land Sanquhar Tolbooth Museum

After many problems with the builders they moved into the new house in May 1789. Their second son Francis was born in August, and a month later Burns began his excise duties. Excise was a tax similar to V.A.T. but collected at the point of manufacture or import rather than at the point of sale. A wide range of goods was liable for it, mostly notably silk, tobacco and spirits. Burns as a guager had to calculate and collect the tax due. Thus in addition to improving a run down farm he had to travel over 200 miles per week on horseback collecting excise duties and complete the necessary bookwork during his evenings. For this he received £50 per year plus £50 for every smuggler arrested and half of any goods seized.

Although he had two full-time jobs and his health was not good he found time to write many songs. The long hours on horseback allowed him to work over verses. He began to collaborate with James Johnson, an engraver who was producing an anthology of Scottish songs called the ‘Scots Musical Museum’. The second volume, virtually edited by Burns was published in 1788 and contained 40 of his own songs. The third volume which appeared in the following year had 50 more. He was also a prolific letter writer. Burns must have been a man of considerable energies.

Photograph of Farmland Photograph of Sheepfold
Lower Nithsdale Sheepfold, Queensberry Hills

Fortunately in July 1790 he was transferred to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division which reduced his weekly mileage. He was good at his job and popular with his superiors. His standard of living on the farm was above average and he could employ farmworkers to help him with the improvements.

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