Auld acquaintance

Robert Burns found his friendship with Writer to the Signet Robert Ainslie to be "almost necessary to my existence". ROBERT PIRRIE WS reveals how the Scottish bard and the Edinburgh lawyer formed an enduring friendship as their remarkably candid correspondence bears witness.

“Such a friend as you is an invaluable treasure… I have set you down as the staff of my old age, when the whole list of my friends will, after a decent share of pity, have forgot me": Robert Burns to Robert Ainslie WS, 23 July 1787.

Robert Burns is that rarest of historical figures: a literary genius who is also a popular hero. Regularly voted the greatest Scot who has ever lived, the son of an Ayrshire farmer achieved an unprecedented level of fame in his 37 years. His tragically early death in 1796 saw that reputation grow to legendary proportions: there are statues, memorials and organisations dedicated to Burns all over the world. His work has never been out of print and he is the only poet in the world whose birthday, 25 January, is marked annually both at home and abroad. A different but equally potent celebrity evolved due to some of the more colourful aspects of the Scottish bard's private persona: the inveterate womanising, the drinking, the iconoclastic views on politics and religion. Burns lived during a period when his youthful contemporaries scented revolution in the air: unlike them, he died before respectable middle age and the new nineteenth century diluted such early preoccupations.

One of the most important friendships of Burns' adult life was with the Writer to the Signet Robert Ainslie. The two first met in Edinburgh in early 1787 when Ainslie was 21 and Burns was 28. The young poet was already famous, thanks to the publication of his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). This volume had been printed on the advice of another lawyer, Gavin Hamilton, as a means for the impoverished amateur to fund a proposed emigration to Jamaica with his pregnant companion Jean Armour. The edition was a spectacular success and the entire print run sold out within a month. Rather than emigrating, Burns decided instead to go to Edinburgh where he was feted by the capital's society figures. A star-struck 16 year old named Walter Scott – law student and son of a Writer to the Signet – observed Burns at one such literary salon and recorded (later in life, when a famous novelist himself) the impression the “country farmer” had made:

“His person was strong and robust, his manners rustic not clownish: there was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone I think, indicated the poetical temperament. It was large and of a dark cast and glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

This was the handsome and charismatic figure that Robert Ainslie WS first met. Ainslie was apprenticed to the offices of Samuel Mitchelson WS in Edinburgh, and (in the words of James A Mackay, editor of The Complete Letters of Robert Burns) “his happy-go-lucky outlook and his devotion to wine, women and song rapidly endeared him to Burns”. The two young men embarked on a tour of the Borders in May 1787 and were made “Royal Arch Masons” together at the local masonic lodge in Eyemouth. Following this, Burns took to mischievously beginning his letters to Ainslie “brother Arch”. Despite his amusement over their new found respectability, ironically Burns' status as a mason would prove an important bulwark in the lean years that lay ahead. However, in his early letters to Ainslie, Burns appears as an exuberant and incorrigible figure: some of the most celebrated and ribald passages in Burns' correspondence were written to Ainslie.

Burns himself articulated beautifully why Ainslie was his closest confidant, writing in July 1787: “I have not a friend upon earth, besides yourself, to whom I can talk nonsense without forfeiting some degree of his esteem”. He would often include risqué poetry in his letters, satirise respectable personages, and mock the language and hypocrisies of the institutions of the day (the Church of Scotland being a favourite and apparently inexhaustible target). Yet Burns was never shy of also expressing his deeper emotions: 

“You will think it romantic when I tell you that I find the idea of your friendship almost necessary to my existence. You assume a proper length of face in my bitter hours of blue-devilish, and you laugh fully up to my highest wishes at my good things. I don't know if on the whole you are one of the first fellows in God's world but you are so to me.” (RB to RA, 25 November 1787.)

Burns took care to note his friend's admission as Writer to the Signet on 9 July 1789: “I do not know if passing 'a Writer to the Signet' be a trial of scientific merit”, he quipped. In November that year, Burns wrote, “'Tis much to be a great character as a lawyer, but beyond comparison more to be a great character as a man. That you may be both the one and the other is the earnest wish, and that you will be both is the firm persuasion of, your faithful friend, RB”. 

“Ainslie”, James A Mackay observes, “was one of the very few people with whom Burns never felt constrained to strike some kind of a pose, and consequently the letters are extremely candid and self-revealing”. Mackay notes the uncanny sympathy that existed between the two men, particularly Ainslie's “knack of matching Burns' moods in all their ups and downs”. Burns' mercurial and sensitive character is evident throughout his letters to Ainslie. It was the young Writer to the Signet that Burns trusted during some of the greatest crises of his life: his tortuous relationship with Jean, who he eventually married, the anguished affair with Agnes McLehose, which inspired some of his greatest poems, and the May Cameron problem, one of a number of young women Burns got “in trouble” during his life. Some of the most famous – and infamous – letters Burns ever wrote were written to Ainslie. Had Ainslie, as an older man, destroyed these personal documents, many of Burns' most unguarded feelings about sex, love, marriage and family would have been lost forever.

The May Cameron episode illustrates the level of trust between the two young men. Cameron was a servant girl in Edinburgh who fell pregnant following a brief affair with Burns in 1788. “I am very sorry for it”, Burns wrote to Ainslie, “but what is done is done”. Now finding herself jobless and destitute Cameron wrote a pitiful letter to Burns begging for help. Burns turned to Ainslie, asking him to call on the girl and give her “ten or twelve shillings – You may perhaps not like the business, but I just tax your friendship thus far. Call for God's sake, lest the poor soul be starving”. Ainslie complied with Burns' request, but Cameron later served a writ of meditatio fuga. This action, used against a debtor contemplating flight from the country, was quickly settled, probably because May miscarried.

The Agnes McLehose relationship was the most serious extra-marital affair of Burns' life and inspired some of his most celebrated work, including “Ae Fond Kiss”. Burns introduced Ainslie to her and when Burns left Edinburgh for Dumfries Ainslie acted as her confidant and later, legal adviser. He also carried messages between the two, and Burns referred to her as “Clarinda” in letters to Ainslie (his private nickname for her): “I got a letter from Clarinda yesterday and she tells me she has got no letter of mine but one. Tell her that I wrote to her from Glasgow, from Kilmarnock, from Mauchline and yesterday from Cumnock.” (RB to RA 3 March 1788.)

In 1789 Burns, married finally to Jean Armour and with a growing family, gave up farming and became an exciseman to ensure a more reliable income. “Fifty pounds a year for life, & a provision for widows and orphans”, he wrote to Ainslie in November, “is, you will allow, no bad settlement for a Poet”. Ainslie too had become a family man – Burns wrote joyously to him in 1787: “Welcome Sir, to the Society, the venerable society of FATHERS!!!”. However, his responsibilities took a heavy toll on Burns and his emotional health began to mirror his always fragile physical state, which was caused by a rheumatic heart condition. In 1793 he wrote sadly to Ainslie, “I am damnably out of humour, my dear Ainslie & that is the reason why I take up the pen to you: 'tis the nearest way (probatum est) to recover my spirits again.” As the decade progressed, friends noticed Burns began to age prematurely and to suffer increasingly from depressive episodes – “blue-devils” as he called them. He died at home in Dumfries on the morning of 21 July 1796.

Ainslie became a pillar of respectability in later life, an elder of the Church of Scotland and the author of pious religious works. As was not unusual in the nineteenth century, he suffered a severe reversal of financial fortune, resulting in him being sequestrated (made bankrupt) on 12 March 1821. This was subsequently discharged on 28 July of the same year. He agreed that the letters Burns had written to him could be published despite the sometimes scandalous content. Ainslie died in 1838, aged 72. It is intriguing to speculate what might have been his reflections when hearing in his later life – as he undoubtedly must often have – the words of one of Burns' most famous works, Auld Lang Syne, and its hymn to enduring friendship: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot/And never brought to min'”. Perhaps he remembered what Burns had written to him long ago, in the year they first met:

“It rejoices my heart to have met with such a fellow as you”.

With thanks to Joan Docherty for drawing attention to the Burns-Ainslie correspondence.