Sunday, 5 July 2009

Robert Burns and the Royal Dumfries Volunteers

We have a "guest author" on the blog for this post. The following article was written by group member Paul Goodwin for our attendance at the Family History Fair at Dumfries last week. I thought it worth posting here to bring it to a wider audience.

Robert Burns was not only a poet and national icon but he was also a Private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers for the last year and a half of his life. Although brief, his service was dedicated and conscientious but strangely seems to have been ignored by many of his biographers.

In an atmosphere of fear of invasion from France, the Dumfries Volunteers were formed on 31st January 1795 when the inaugural meeting was held in the Dumfries Court House and attended by Robert Burns. At a meeting on 20th February Colonel de Peyster was elected Major Commandant of the Corps by the members. Mrs De Peyster then provided the corps with a flag and Colonel de Peyster commissioned 100 ‘Brown Bess’ muskets from Birmingham. On 21st March, Wellwood Maxwell (probably of Munches near Buittle) was made lieutenant to the second company, in which Burns served. Members agreed to provide their own uniform, serve without pay during the war with France and to have an area of operations not more than 5 miles outside of Dumfries. Burns hated war and would fight if his country were invaded, but for no other reason.

Burns was among 59 members who took the Oath of Allegiance and signed the Rules, Regulations and Bye-Laws on 28th March. The governing body of the corps was a committee consisting of all officers and eight members. The members served a three month term on the committee. Burns served on this committee for a term starting on 22nd August 1795.

His song "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat" (also known as ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’), appeared in the Dumfries Weekly Journal in April 1795.

Burns attended the meetings, the drill sessions, served on the committee and was never fined for absenteeism, drunkenness or insolence as many members, both officers and privates, were. Drills were held for two hours, twice a week and committee service involved supplying the corps with arms and other material. All this work was on top of his excise duties and, of course, his writing. This contrasts markedly with his ‘traditional’ image as a hard-drinking womanizer.

On Monday 25th July 1796, Burns's funeral was conducted with military ceremony. In addition to his own Dumfries Volunteers it included the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles. He was buried in the northeast corner of St. Michael's churchyard, a quarter of a mile from his home. His volunteer unifom hat and sword crowned the coffin. The Dumfries Volunteers acted as the pall bearers, the Cinque Port Cavalry band played the Dead March from Saul by Handel and the Angusshire Fencibles ended the procession with a guard that fired three volleys over the grave.

Strangely, while his writing was often not given the recognition it deserved during his lifetime, his much less known military service was honoured at his funeral.

Once the threat of invasion was past, the Royal Dumfries Volunteers were disbanded in 1802 after only seven years. Thankfully their minute book has survived.

Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?

(The Dumfries Volunteers)

By Robert Burns

Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?
Then let the louns beware, Sir!
There's wooden walls upon our seas,
And volunteers on shore, Sir!
The Nith shall run to Corsincon,
And Criffel sink in Solway,
Ere we permit a Foreign Foe
On British ground to rally!
We'll ne'er permit a Foreign Foe
On British ground to rally!

O let us not, like snarling curs,
In wrangling be divided,

Till, slap! come in an inco loun,
And wi' a rung decide it!
Be Britain still to Britain true,

Amang oursels united!
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!
No! never but by British hands
Shall British wrangs be righted!

The Kettle o' the Kirk and State,
Perhaps a clout may fail in't;
But deil a foreign tinkler loun
Shall ever ca'a nail in't.
Our father's blude the Kettle bought,
And wha wad dare to spoil it;
By Heav'ns! the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it!
By Heav'ns! the sacrilegious dog
Shall fuel be to boil it!

The wretch that would a tyrant own,
And the wretch, his true-born brother,
Who would set the Mob aboon the Throne,
May they be damn'd together!
Who will not sing "God save the King,"
Shall hang as high's the steeple;
But while we sing "God save the King,"
We'll ne'er forget The People!
But while we sing "God save the King,"
We'll ne'er forget The People!


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  2. Aye, but if you read Jenny Uglow's In These Times, you'll see that he was a somewhat unwilling volunteer! On his deathbed he pleaded with a friend, "John, don't let the aukward squad fire over me!"

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