Robert Burns and Jean Armour


On this day, 21st July, in the year 1796, the poet Robert Burns died in Dumfries. He was only 37. His wife, Jean, was heavily pregnant at the time. In fact she was in labour during his funeral.

A few years ago, I wrote the play Burns on the Solway about the final weeks of the poet's life for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue and its lunchtime A Play, A Pie and A Pint series. I wrote it with the encouragement of the late, great David MacLennan, which makes it a doubly bittersweet memorial day. I remember when I first had the idea for this play, some time before I actually wrote it. It was when all our kids were young and we went on an annual camping trip to Loch Ken, over the Ayrshire border in Galloway. Some years there were up to fifty of us - adults, kids and friends and usually several good natured dogs as well. One year, while husband and son were canoeing and sailing on the Loch, I took myself off to Brow Well on the Solway Coast, which is where the poet was sent by his doctors in a last ditch attempt to find a cure for an illness that looked increasingly likely to be terminal. As indeed, it was.

It was one of those fine but cloudy days, when the sky had a dazzling, glassy tint to it. It was June, as far as I remember, not July. The flowers the poet loved were still in bloom. The Brow Well was a sort of poor man's spa, with a chalybeate spring. 18th century invalids would drink the waters and would also be prescribed seabathing, a fashionable 'cure' of the time. I parked the car and wandered down towards the shores of the Solway Firth. This is a landscape of long horizontals, mud flats (people still go flounder trampling here) and I remember how it struck me that poor Rab would have had to walk for a very long way if he were to immerse himself up to his waist in water. It must have been a torment to him in his seriously debilitated state. And that was how I began the play, with the poet's voice.

And what happens next and what happens next is ... I walk to the sea. Here, at the Brow Well on the Solway, I come to the edge of the land and almost tumble over into a great mass of thrift, clumps of pink, fringing the shore like some wild garden. But it is already dying. I go struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to my waist. That’s what the doctors advise. Sometimes I can feel the flounders slithering away beneath my feet. My landlady here tells me that she would go flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. I tell her I should like to have seen her.The seawater does some good only in that it numbs the pain. And what happens next is ...

All those years ago, I sat there amid that wild garden, listening to oystercatchers calling and thinking about the poet and his wife. It seemed like a sad but peaceful place and in my mind's eye, it still does. Clare Waugh as Jean and Donald Pirie as Burns in that play gave wonderful performances, bringing these two characters vividly to life and - what's more - making me determined to write more about Jean in particular. Well, I've just learned that Creative Scotland has given me some money to help me research a brand new, full length historical novel about Jean Armour. 

Now, I'm gearing myself up to start and today seems as fitting a day as any other to put the pile of papers and books cluttering this room in some kind of order and ...

And what happens next is ... 



Comments

Susan Price said…
Congratulations! Looking forward to the as yet unwritten novel. It will be wonderful
Thank-you. I hope so but I don't have your confidence!