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Eminent Women: Jean Armour Burns

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - January 24, 2014

Elizabeth Thomas Morse did the temple work for Jean Armour Burns and Emily Lamb, Lady Cowper and Palmerston. Here is the biography of Jean Armour Burns, just in time for Robbie Burns Day this Sunday, January 25. Lady Palmerston’s biography will come at some later time. See here for a description of the Eminent Women project and links to the biographies.

Jean_Armour's_Statue,_DumfriesWikipedia2

The charming young Jean Armour, one of the “Belles of Mauchline,” was crossing the village green when she saw a newcomer to town. The young man had earlier been heard to say that he was looking for a lass who would love him as much as his dog did, and he said later that Jean asked him if he had found his lass.

There may or may not have been a signed contract of marriage, but when Jean’s respectable family found that she was pregnant, they sent her away to Paisley keep her from the good-for-nothing, poverty-stricken young poet, Robert Burns.

The separation did not keep the two apart. They had twins. Then another set of twins. Jean was living in poverty when Burns finally married her. Burns, who corresponded extensively and in great detail about his life, wrote to a friend, “I am so enamoured with a certain girl’s prolific twin-bearing merit, that I have given her a legal title to the best blood in my body; and so farewell Rakery!”

Jean had nine children. Her son Maxwell was born on the day of her husband’s funeral. Only three of Jean’s children survived her.1 Her life was not easy, but she was a generous, accommodating, religious woman. After Robert’s death, she took in one of her husband’s illegitimate children, and was said to have written to the mother, “Our Robbie should have had twa wives.”2

Jean inspired fourteen of Burns’s poems including “I hae a wife of my ain” and “Of a’ the Airts the Wind can Blaw”:

Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best:

There’s wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
But day and night my fancys’ flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair:
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bonie flower that springs,
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There’s not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o’ my Jean.

After her husband’s early death, Jean’s destitute circumstances attracted the sympathies of the people of Scotland and a charitable fund was established to help support her and her children. She lived as a widow for almost forty years and is buried next to her beloved husband in Dumfries, Scotland.

 

Notes

  1. For extensive genealogical information on the family, see the website Burness Genealogy and Family History. For extensive information on Burns’ life and poetry, see the website Burns Country. []
  2. Half a dozen would have been more like it. []


2 Comments »

  1. Very interesting, Amy. Links to some original documents featuring Jean and Mr. Burns are found on the National Archives of Scotland’s website.

    Comment by Alison — January 26, 2014 @ 9:47 am

  2. Thanks for the link, Alison!

    I had, of course, read plenty of Burns’ poems, but never a biography, so looking at his life through the lens of his wife’s experience was quite a surprise. And since his life has been so thoroughly researched, it’s been a good introduction into Scottish records.

    Comment by Amy T — January 26, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

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