The Robert Burns Connection

Robert Burns 

The Jamaican voyage Burns never took


ROBERT Burns had everything needed to become an icon in his native Scotland. He was working class and had to overcome grinding poverty before finding success. He was also, to put it mildly, a bit of a lad - part incorrigible womaniser, part dashing romantic - and to lift his spirits he liked a good drink. He then died tragically young. Scots celebrate him as their national Bard because most can, in some way, identify with him.

Yet what few people realise is that, before he found fame, Scotland very nearly lost Burns - to Jamaica. It was a mighty close thing and had certain events at the most crucial point in his life turned out differently, Burns would have been gone.

It is difficult to imagine the literary and cultural life of Scotland without Burns: No Tam o’ Shanter, no Auld Lang Syne, no Man’s A Man For A’ That, no Burns Suppers. The country would have been bereft of all this - and much, much more - if Burns had, as planned, boarded the two-masted brigantine Nancy at Greenock and sailed to the West Indies to make his fortune.

It was to be no flight of fancy on the part of Burns. He had put down nine guineas deposit and secured steerage passage on the Nancy. Moreover he had a job to go to in Jamaica, as a bookkeeper on an estate in the town of Port Antonio, owned by one of his friends, Dr Patrick Douglas.  Burns had negotiated a three-year contract at a wage of £30 a year. He firmly believed he would never see his native land again. In late August 1786 a melancholy Burns wrote:

"Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!
My peace with these, my love with those.
The bursting tears my heart declare—
Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!"

The roots of his misery and woe were fairly obvious to his large circle of friends in Ayrshire. For a start he was penniless, the farm at Mossgiel, near Mauchline, which he and his brother Gilbert owned was so unproductive that the two men were earning only seven pounds a year each.

His various romantic liaisons were also becoming increasingly complicated. Burns had already fathered one child, Bess, in 1785, the result of an affair with family servant Elizabeth Paton. In early 1786 he discovered that his new sweetheart and wife-to-be Jean Armour, was also pregnant. The news was received very badly by Jean’s father, "Old Armour", as Burns called him. He fiercely opposed the idea of an impoverished farmer marrying his daughter and pursued Burns through the courts for maintenance.

Burns found solace the only way he knew how - with another woman, Mary Campbell or "Highland Mary". She was from Dunoon and Burns became so infatuated with her that, in May that year, the two lovers pledged themselves to each other by standing on either side of the River Ayr and exchanging bibles. Burns resolved that when he sailed for Jamaica, Mary would sail with him. He needed only the £20 to purchase tickets for them both.

What took place between August and October 1786 changed the face of Scottish culture and of world literature. Burns was persuaded to publish a book of his poetry to raise money for the trip. The Nancy, due to leave Greenock on 10 August with freight and passengers bound for the Jamaican port of Savannah-la-Mar, was delayed until 5 September.

Then, on 3 September, Jean Armour gave birth to twins, Jean and Robert. This delighted him as did the news that the 612 copies of his book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, were selling like hot cakes thanks in no small measure to a glittering review in the Edinburgh press by the Rev Dr Thomas Blacklock, an influential figure in the literary world. The Kilmarnock Edition, as the book became known, had elevated him to celebrity status.

In October came news that Mary Campbell, while waiting at a relative’s house in Greenock, had contracted a fever and died.

It was enough to make him abandon all plans of sailing to Jamaica. With his new-found wealth and status he headed, instead, for Edinburgh. The rest, as they say, is history.


Robert Burns wrote of James, the second Earl of Douglas and Mar, the hero of Otterburn:

" One Douglas lives in Home's immortal page,
But Douglases were heroes every age."

See also: 
  Douglases with Burns connections
  Burns and slavery


Robert Burns, Scotland's bard, who was so close...Robert Burns Find out just how close Scotland came to losing the poet to Jamaica, and the role played by Patrick Douglas

Seven Daughters of Eve Almost all people of native European descent, wherever they may live throughout the world, can trace their ancestry back to one of seven women, hence, the Seven Daughters of Eve.

ScotaPharoah's daughter - Queen of Scots. A new book, Scota, Egyptian Queen of the Scots, by Ralph Ellis, claims to prove that this origin myth was no made-up story but the actual recording of an Egyptian exodus that did indeed conclude in Scotland.

 Robert the Bruce. The 700th anniversary of his coronation was celebrated on 24th March 2006.

Rogues and vagabonds. Not all Douglases have been goody goodies - read about horse theives, and others.
Slaves and slavers. Slaves and tales of daring-do, as the Douglases hunt down the slave traders.

The Douglas Heart. A heart features on many Douglas family coats of arms, cests etc, including the one at the top of this page.

DNA for women. The scientists at Oxford Ancestors can trace ancient maternal ancestry by testing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed down from mother to child and changes little over time. (There may be other suppliers)

DNA Lineage testing by DNA. A research project seeks volunteers to help prove Douglas connections

Research legends and myths.  Many families have cherished myths and stories about their immigration to America or other pivotal events and people. We show you how to determine which family legends are true or false.


If you have any questions or comments about the information on this site, please contact us . We look forward to hearing from you.

If you wish to stimulate debate, challenge the content or respond to requests for help, then our Forum, may be the place to do it.



Back to top


The content of this website is a collection of materials gathered from a variety of sources, some of it unedited.

The webmaster does not intend to claim authorship, but gives credit to the originators for their work.

As work progresses, some of the content may be re-written and presented in a unique format, to which we would then be able to claim ownership.

Discussion and contributions from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

Contact Us

Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024