Gilbert Burns (1760 – 1827), the younger sibling of the renowned poet Robert Burns, was born in Alloway. He entered marital union with Jean Breckenridge in 1791, becoming a father to six sons and five daughters. His passing occurred in 1827, reaching the age of 66, and he was laid to rest in Bolton, East Lothian, Scotland.
Gilbert’s written contributions significantly enrich our understanding of his celebrated brother’s life. Regarded as an intellectual equal by Robert, Gilbert held the position of a trusted confidant and a steadfast companion.
Of particular value are Gilbert’s accounts of Robert’s health during his formative years at Mount Oliphant. These accounts shed light on Robert’s struggles with frequent headaches, palpitations, faintness, and sensations of suffocation.
Gilbert recalls Robert’s shy and awkward disposition around women during his youth; a trait that transformed as he entered adulthood. He pursued female companionship with great enthusiasm and frequently found himself enamoured with members of the opposite sex. Gilbert also attests that he never witnessed his brother inebriated during their seven-year residence at Lochlea. Another noteworthy revelation by Gilbert is that until the age of 23, Robert treated women with respect, keen on maintaining an image of eligibility. His time in Irvine was partly motivated by his quest for a wife and a settled life.
It was Gilbert who introduced David Sillar (1760-1830) to Robert and the Burns family, with David subsequently becoming a close friend of Robert’s and the inaugural vice-president of the Irvine Burns Club.
Gilbert reflects on Robert’s time in Irvine, noting that the influence of more liberal-minded acquaintances led him to challenge the strict moral boundaries that had governed his conduct until then. Robert himself acknowledged that Richard Brown’s perspectives on illicit love had a negative impact on him.
During a period of family turmoil caused by Robert’s affair and the birth of Elizabeth Paton Burns, Gilbert sided with his sisters in advising Robert against marrying Elizabeth Paton.
Gilbert played a role in enhancing John Currie’s The Works of Robert Burns (eighth edition) in 1820. For his contributions, he received £250, stipulated on the condition that he wouldn’t comment on the accuracy of the author’s portrayal of his brother. In 1784, Gilbert encouraged Robert to publish his poetry and provided constructive feedback on his poem “Epistle to Davie.” Gilbert believed he was the first to plant the idea in Robert’s mind that he could become a published poet. He also secured seventy subscribers for Robert’s collection of poems, primarily in the Scottish dialect.
Financially strained during the challenging days at Mossgiel, Gilbert borrowed or received around £300. These debts were repaid after Robert Burns’ death, using the earnings from Gilbert’s contributions to Burns’ biographers. A significant portion of this money went towards clearing gambling debts accrued by Robert’s nephew.
After relocating from Mossgiel in 1788, Gilbert had limited contact with his brother. Nevertheless, he did attend Robert’s funeral in Dumfries, standing as the sole close relative present.
Following Burns’ demise, Gilbert corresponded with Robert Ainslie, a Scottish lawyer, and one of Robert’s long-term friends from his Edinburgh days; expressing concerns about the potential danger to the reputation of both the author and his friends arising from the publication of private and confidential letters. He was apprehensive about the antiquarian and author Robert Hartley Cromek, who had obtained many of Burns’ letters, and asked Ainslie to engage with Cromek during his time in London.
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