Lurking in storage at Rozelle House Galleries in Alloway, close to the cottage where Robert Burns was born, is a portrait of the poet’s wife, Jean Armour. It is dated 1832, just two years before Jean’s death in her sixties, but is clearly of a much younger woman. A pleasant and slightly plump lady gazes out at us with candid, intelligent eyes, her face framed by dark, curly hair. She appears much prettier than in two better-known portraits painted when age and suffering had marked her. Did the artist, John Moir, sketch Jean in early middle age on one of her visits to Edinburgh? At any rate, this is the only reasonably youthful portrait of the wife of Scotland’s national poet in existence.
Like Jean herself, the portrait is seldom given much prominence. Jean Armour has long been ignored or underrated — not so much by Burns himself but by many of those who followed him. Burns was lionised by the Edinburgh aristocracy and literati after publication of his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1786, and early commentators seem to have believed that in marrying Jean, the daughter of a reasonably prosperous stonemason, he had somehow married beneath him. The nineteenth-century Burns biographer George Gilfillan described Jean as ‘rather more than an average specimen of a Scottish maiden of the middle rank of life, although, we have heard, counted a little glaikit [stupid] by the matronage and female critics of her neighbourhood.’
By the time Catherine Carswell published her groundbreaking fictional account of the life of Robert Burns in 1930, the poet’s wife was receiving very short shrift. Carswell asserted that ‘Jean’s scholarship was confined to signing her own name with difficulty’ (which was untrue) and went on to say that ‘Jean had been willing with the homely and hearty willingness of a young heifer’.
Yet Jean was a young woman who had driven the poet so demented with frustrated passion that he had described himself as ‘nine parts and nine tenths, out of ten, stark staring mad.’ Marriage, in eighteenth-century Scotland, was remarkably easy. You simply agreed to be married, with or without witnesses, and this is what Robert and Jean did. But the Armours disapproved of the dangerously rakish poet and banished a pregnant Jean to Paisley, hoping that she would forget him. She didn’t. Burns wrote to a friend, David Brice, to say: ‘Never man lov’d, or rather ador’d, a woman more than I did her, and to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, tho’ I won’t tell her so if I were to see her which I don’t want to do.’
The poet succeeded in putting her out of his mind for long enough to court a young Campbeltown dairymaid popularly known as Highland Mary, although her real name was Margaret Campbell. This was swiftly followed by a liaison with Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose in Edinburgh, conducted mainly by overheated letters between the poet’s pastoral alter ego, Sylvander, and Nancy’s Clarinda, with occasional meetings in Nancy’s apartment in Potterrow. Nancy was married, but she was separated from her husband, who reputedly had treated her badly. Although these affairs inspired original songs of great beauty and poignancy, Mary died of typhus and Nancy was too pious and too cautious to take the relationship to its natural conclusion. Burns’s ‘foolish hankering fondness’ for Jean, as he put it in a letter to a friend, persisted.
Poor Jean, dismissed as the bovine, illiterate and sexually uninspiring girl-next-door, while Robert had more exotic ladies to pursue. I had been intrigued by Burns, the man and his work, since my family moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve years old. We read his work at school, but our teachers were interested in the poems about mice and mountain daisies. It was always the songs that drew me — a body of work that could be bawdy, funny, satirical and angry by turns. When I did a postgraduate Masters in Folk Life Studies, a course run by Scots folklorist Stewart Sanderson, I learned how popular songs had been part of folk culture for hundreds of years until print and mass literacy began to pin the songs to the page like so many butterflies.
It struck me then just how insightful Robert Burns had been in gathering, reworking and conserving traditional lowland Scots songs. His approach was intelligent but sensitive, unassuming where he needed to be, adding his own magic where he could, and all the while fighting the temptation to gentrify what was still, for him, very much a living tradition, one of which he had an intimate personal knowledge.
It was years later, when I began to focus more closely on Jean Armour, that at least one of the reasons behind Robert’s enduring affection for her became clear. While Robert could just about carry a tune, Jean was a beautiful singer. She had, according to her admiring husband, the ‘finest wood-note wild’ in the country. John Blane, who worked on the Burns’ family farm at Mossgiel and attended a singing school in the nearby town of Mauchline with Jean, was full of praise for her voice. She had, moreover, a great store of old songs and ballads that she had inherited from her mother and grandmother, an intimate knowledge that she shared with Robert, who had absorbed something very similar during his formative years. It must have been a point of contact, a shared enthusiasm.
One of the most engaging features of the love songs and the downright bawdy songs is that they are so often written from a female perspective. Robert didn’t always practise what he preached in terms of faithfulness but he certainly wrote some of his most affecting and amusing songs from the lassies’ point of view: songs about love and loss, about suffering as well as happiness, about physical passion; songs too about the kind of lovemaking that will please a lady.
Some of the songs must have originated with Jean. This is borne out by Burns’s own fascinating notes. For example, in a letter to the Edinburgh music publisher, George Thomson, for whom the poet was collecting and reworking popular songs, he amends the last line of the chorus of ‘O, Whistle an’ I’ll Come To Ye, My Lad’ to ‘Thy Jeanie will venture wi’ ye, my lad’ saying that ‘a fair one, herself the heroine of the song, insists on the amendment, and dispute her commands if you dare!’ Moreover, Jean knew the old tunes. She could try out verses for her husband.
It is clear that Burns considered Jean to be in some sense his muse. But quietly courageous wives are seldom celebrated. Too many commentators seem to despise any relationship that involves a measure of domesticity. Perhaps they prefer their heroines to have died for love: self-immolation, poisoning, jumping under a train, all these are impressive finales. Then the woman in question can be mourned and revered all at the same time. The greatest sin a woman can commit is to live cheerfully and contentedly. This may go some way towards explaining the relentless focus on Highland Mary (tragically dead) and Nancy McLehose (tragically forsaken) at the expense of Jean, who survived her husband by many years and brought up his children — including one by Ann Park, the barmaid at the Globe Inn in Dumfries, with whom Robert had a brief affair.
As for me, the more I have found out about Jean, the more I’ve grown to love her. There is a kindliness about her that shines through all her actions. There’s a wicked sense of fun and a deeply attractive physicality too. Jean was no fool. No victim. Certainly no heifer. She coped with her impulsive, talented, serially unfaithful but endearing husband even if she didn’t always like him very much. When she remarked drily, ‘oor Rab should hae had twa [two] wives’ she spoke the truth. The remark is typical of an Ayrshire lass: full of a sort of deadpan humour even in the most trying situations. When Robert, early in their acquaintance, described Jean and the other fashionable young women of the town as the eponymous ‘Belles of Mauchline’, he called his future wife ‘the jewel […] o’ them a’.’ I suspect he was more perceptive than even he realised.