Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happy 250th Birthday Robert Burns! (1759-1796)

Robert Burns Mausoleum

Situated in St Michael's Kirkyard, is the impressive Greek Revival Mausoleum in which Burns, his widow Jean and five of their family lie. Burns was originally buried in a modest grave in a corner just to the left of the Mausoleum and it was not until 1815 (20 years after his death.) that his remains were moved to this more fitting location. He shares the kirkyard with many of his friends, colleagues and contacts.

Inside the beautifully proportioned Greek Revival temple is a lovely marble sculpture that portrays the Genius of Coila (Kyle) finding her favourite son at the plough and casting her mantle over him. Over fifty designs were submitted to the Mausoleum Committee and that of Thomas Hunt of London accepted. The foundation stone was laid with due Masonic ceremonial by William Miller, son of Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Burns's friend and landlord at Ellisland, who died in 1815 and, in addition to the usual deposit of coins and papers, there was laid in the stone a bottle containing a grandiloquent inscription in Latin, in which Robert Burns is described as 'incomparably the first Scottish Poet of his age.' The Mausoleum was completed in 1817, when Turnerelli's sculpture was erected.

The engraving below was done 100 years after his death and published in the Illustrated London News

Burns died of rheumatic fever in Dumfries on 21 July 1796. After the funeral of Scotland's National Bard, Robert Burns, was laid to rest in the north-east corner of the cemetery, St Michael's Parish Church Kirkyaird, Dumfries. A spot chosen by the poet himself. He wrote of his choice - 'When I am laid in my grave I wish to be stretched to my full length, that I may occupy every inch of ground I have a right to.'

Upon the evening of Sunday, 24th July 1796, his remains were conveyed from his house in Mill Vennel to the Town Hall in Dumfries. On the following day his body was borne in procession, with military honours, and the Volunteer's Band playing 'Dead March of Saul' as they advanced to St Michael's Churchyard. The chief persons of the town and neighbourhood took part in the procession and the streets of Dumfries were lined by the Fencibles Infantry of Angus-shire and the Cavalry of the Cinque Ports, then quartered in the town. The funeral arranged by the poet's friend, John Syme, was attended according to Allan Cunningham by a multitude amounting to ten to twelve thousand. We can only but agree with Allan Cunningham when he wrote - "I could, indeed, have wished the military part of the procession away. The scarlet and gold in the banners displayed - the measured step, and the military array - with the sounds of martial music, had no share in increasing the solemnity of the burial scene; and had no connextion with the poet."

Over the grave a sharp volley of farewell shot cracked out, while at the house in Mill Vennel, his widow, Jean Armour, lay in labour with her ninth child, a son whom she named Maxwell, after the doctor whose unfortunate advice had hastened her husband's death.

There was an immediate talk of raising a subscription for a suitable monument, but as time dragged on Jean suspected that it naught but talk and covered the grave, at her own expense, with a plain tombstone, inscribed simply with the name and age of the poet. In 1813, however, a public meeting was held in Dumfries, with General Dunlop, son of Burns' friend and patroness, Mistress Frances Dunlop, in the chair; a subscription list was opened and contributions flowed in from all quarters. The present costly doric mausoleum was erected in the most elevated site of the cemetery, there was not enough room where the poet lay in the south-east, and there the remains of Robert Burns were solemnly transferred on 5th June 1815. Buried alongside the poet were his sons, Maxwell, who died in 1799 (aged 2 years 9 months) and Francis Wallace who died in 1803 (aged 14). His widow, Jean Armour, who died at Dumfries on 26th March 1834 was interred in the Mausoleum on 1st April 1834.

The Mausoleum still attracts thousands of visitors every year, and if you are visiting the churchyard, take the opportunity of seeing Burns' chosen burial spot and visiting the graves of many people associated with our National Bard. During the tourist season you can also take advantage of a conducted tour of St Michael's Parish Church carried out by members of the congregation. A Christian Church has stood on the spot for over 1300 years and amongst the many points of interest inside the present Church is a brass plaque marking the site of the pew occupied by Robert Burns. His widow, Jean Armour, continued to occupy the pew regularly for the next thirty-eight years until her death.

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