On 21 July 1796 Robert Burns died in Dumfries.
The humble ploughman’s son whose ability to capture the the defining spirit of 18th century Scotland through the medium of poetry and song carved a legacy which continues to shine bright two centuries on.
So how did Rabbie die? The popular theory goes that Burns died from rheumatism having been found by the roadside in the freezing, pouring rain after a heavy drinking session.
He wasn’t on his was back from a Pub, but a well, the Brow Well,a little tank that was used as a mineral spring in the Parish of Ruthwell, about 10 miles from Dumfries. Burns had been advised to go there by Dr. Maxwell to drink the foul tasting spring water in the hope that it would alleviate his symptoms. Part of this treatment involved wading neck deep into the cold waters of the Solway Firth. Just the job for someone suffering from a chronic heart complaint!
Burns’ reputation as a hard drinker would be hard to contest but the truth is that the poet had been seriously ill and for a long time, at least 5 years. Patrick Scott Hogg claimed in a book on the bard that he had been tended to by a doctor since as early as 1791 and that same year one had visited him five times in the one week.
By the time of his death Burns had made himself a wee bit unpopular amongst some of his peers for his lifestyle, we know he was a womaniser, but the rumour mongers also said he had VD, his political views were questioned by some, he was outspoken against slavery and had Jacobite sympathies, so there was no shortage of people back then to stick the knife in and claim it was Alcohol and sex that did for him.
Robert Burns died of Rheumatic Heart Disease, the symptoms strongly suggest he had terminal heart failure from bacterial endocarditis, as a complication of rheumatic fever. There is no evidence that Robert Burns suffered from either chronic alcoholism or venereal disease. There is a theory that he may have died a doctor’s martyr as a result of treatment with a mercury ointment
Burns’ funeral was on a grand scale and he was buried with full military honours and thousands lining the streets of Dumfries. At the graveside the firing squad fired three volleys as the dirt was shoveled into the grave. Sadly his brother Gilbert was the only member of his close family who attended the funeral (his wife Jean being in labour with her ninth child).
The pics are Burns by Scottish artist Alexander Naysmith and Robert Burns’ Funeral Procession by J Lamb.