Burns - the Revolutionary

In February 1792 Burns was one of a party of Excise officers and Dragoons who seized the brig ‘Rosamund’ which was attempting to smuggle goods at Sarkfoot near Gretna. As the party approached, the smugglers opened fire with grape shot. Fortunately the ship was so high in the water that her big guns could not be used. Reinforcements were called and a boarding party, including Burns, waded chest deep in the strong tide towards the vessel. At the last moment the crew ceased their fire and escaped across the sands to England. The vessel and its contents were confiscated and sold by public auction on the 19th April at the Coffee House, Dumfries. As a democrat Burns was an open supporter of the Revolution then taking place in France and the tradition is that he purchased four carronades, a kind of small cannon, and sent them as a gift to the Revolutionaries. This was a dangerous act as Britain and France were on the brink of war.

Stake Nets at Powfoot
Stake Nets at Powfoot

His behaviour caused further concern when on the 30th October 1792 he apparently joined in a chorus of ‘Ca Ira’ the song of the French Revolutionaries, after a gala performance of ‘As You Like It’ at the newly opened Theatre Royal. This was another dangerous act for a government officer.

Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Street, Dumfries
Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Street, Dumfries

Someone denounced him to the Excise Board as disloyal and he had to defend himself to Graham of Fintry. He denied that he had joined in and said that although he had been in the Pit when the song started he himself had never "opened his lips." He added that he was attached to the British Constitution "next after my God." He was allowed to keep his job but was told to be "silent and obedient."

Theatre Royal admission medallion
Theatre Royal admission medallion

Nevertheless, 1792 was a good year for him. The Royal Company of Archers made him an honorary member in April and in November Jean gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. His song writing was prolific and included ‘The Deils Awa Wi’ the Exciseman’, ‘Duncan Gray’ and ‘The Lea Rig’.


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