A Scandal and a Debt

His days at this time were spent stamping leather, guaging malt vats, noting the manufacture of candles and granting licenses for the transport of spirits. Usually dressed in a "decent suit of dark clothes" he had a distinguished head with large dark brown eyes and a high forehead. His features were a little coarse and he had a slight stoop but at nearly 1.8m (5' 10") in height he must have cut a good figure in town.

Photograph of Burns' Chair in Burns House
Burns chair in Burns House

At Christmas 1793 he dined at Friars Carse with the Riddells. After dinner the men discussed the legendary Rape of the Sabine Women by the Romans. They decided to act out the scene to the women. The inebriated Burns acted out his part with Maria Riddell as his ‘victim’. He so offended her with his behaviour that he was asked to leave. The next day Burns tried to apologise but this was not accepted. The loss of this friendship was a great blow to him.

Rape of the Sabine Women
Rape of the Sabine Women by Nicholas Poussin

Britain and France were now at war. The chief consequence of this for Burns was that there was less trade and his excise income was reduced. In May 1794 Patrick Miller’s son offered him a job as a journalist in London but Burns refused as he saw his future firmly in the Excise and he still had strong doubts about earning a living from his pen. Just before Christmas of that year his superior, Findlater took ill and Burns was appointed acting Supervisor for Dumfries. This put Burns on the ‘collector’s list’ and made him eligible for promotion. He wrote that he looked forward to the life of "literary leisure" that the sinecure of Collector could one day give him.

Drawing of Broughton House, Kirkcudbright
Broughton House, Kirkcudbright

In the new year, however, he fell behind with his rent and wrote to his landlord Captain John Hamilton:-"It is needless to attempt an apology for my remissness to you in money matters: my conduct is beyond all excuse. - Literally, Sir, I had it not. - The distressful state of Commerce at this town, had this year taken from my otherwise scanty income no less than 20£. - That part of my Salary depended upon the Imports, & they are no more, for one year. - I enclose you three guineas: and shall soon settle all with you."

Photograph of New Abbey
New Abbey

The Captain, a friend, made light of the debt, asking Burns why he was avoiding him and inviting him to his house.

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