LAST week I wrote about the death of Robert Burns which took place on July 21, 1796. His funeral took place four days later, and quite astonishingly in those days of no public transport, some 10,000 people lined the streets of Dumfries to pay their respects to the ploughman turned National Bard.

As a militia officer in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, Burns was entitled to military honours and a detachment of the Volunteers fired three volleys over his grave in the kirkyard of St Michael’s Church. This is the origin of Burns’ famous last words: “Don’t let the awkward squad fire over me.”

Prominent Dumfries citizen William Grierson described the events in his diary which is now preserved online by the Burns Federation.

“The firing party which consisted of 20 of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, of which Mr Burns was a member, in full uniform with crapes on the left arm, marched in front with their Arms reversed moving in a slow and solemn time to the Death March in Saul which was played by the Military Band belonging to the Cinque Ports Cavalry. Next to the firing party was the band. Then the bier and corpse supported by six of the volunteers who changed at intervals. The relations of the deceased and a number of respectable inhabitants of both Town and Country followed next then the remainder of the volunteers followed in rank and the procession closed with a guard of the Angusshire Fencibles.

“The great Bells of the Churches tolled at intervals during the time of the procession. When arrived at the Churchyard gate the funeral party formed two lines and leaned their heads on their firelocks pointed to the ground. Through this space the corpse was carried and borne forward to the grave. The party then drew up alongside of it and fired three vollies over the coffin when deposited in the earth, this closing a ceremony which on the whole presented a solemn grand and affecting spectacle and accorded with the general sorrow and regrate for the loss of a man whose like we can scarce see again.”

On the same day, Burns’s final child was born to his long-suffering wife Jean Armour. I told last week how the poet’s doctor and friend William Maxwell had recommended a “kill or cure” approach to try and save Burns’ life, and sadly the latter prevailed. The family were obviously the forgiving types as they named the new arrival Maxwell. Sadly the boy did not survive infancy, dying in 1799.

Grierson noted: “He has left a wife and five children in very indigent circumstances but I understand very liberal and extensive superscriptions are to be made for them, his wife was delivered of a child about an hour after he was removed from the house.”

As Grierson suggested, friends and admirers of Burns began to collect money for the family. Burns had left debts of about £30 and these were paid off. A committee was formed to promote the subscription for the writing of a biography of Burns, and we’ll see next week what happened with that task performed by Dr James Currie. In any case it earned Jean Armour and her family the sum of £1400 and Jean was able to live in comfort for the rest of her days. She died at the age of 69 in 1834 and by that time she had the comfort of knowing that her wayward husband was already acclaimed as a giant of literature.

The original grave of Burns was marked only with a plain headstone but Grierson and others always thought Burns should have a bigger monument. In her Life of Robert Burns, Catherine Carswell notes what happed in 1815, though the movement to build the Dumfries monument actually started two years earlier at the behest of Burns’s great friend John Syme. It was built by public subscription and among the subscribers were Sir Walter Scott and the Prince regent, later King George IV.

Carswell wrote: “Nineteen years afterwards, at the instance of Mr. William Grierson of Boatford, who wrote a graphic sketch of the poet’s interment (the enthusiastic father of

an equally enthusiastic and indefatigable son, Dr. Crierson of Thornhill, an eminent antiquarian,

and who has collected a great number of relics of Burns, some of which he has kindly furnished to us), a movement for a monument began; and when the present mausoleum was finished, the corpse of the poet was raised on the 16th September, 1815, and found in admirable preservation— the hair still abundant, the teeth firm and white;

but when a shell or case was inserted below the coffin, the head separated from the trunk, and the whole body, with the exception of the bones, crumbled into dust, which was carefully collected and placed in a new coffin, and laid beside his two boys, Maxwell and Francis Wallace, who were also buried there.”

She might have saved us the gory details, but Carswell was accurate in her description of the 25 ft tall white Mausoleum which I reckon to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Scotland.

“The mausoleum is an elegant Grecian temple, designed by Mr. T. F. Hunt of London (Thomas Frederick Hunt), adorned within by a mural sculpture by an Italian artist, Turnerelli, representing his own ideal of ‘Coila’ finding her Poet at the plough, and casting her inspiring mantle over him.”

Peter Turnerelli’s sculpture represents a scene from The Vision written by Burns in 1785 in which he imagines his Scottish poetic muse Coila inspiring him:

With musing - deep, astonish’d stare,

I view’d the heavenly-seeming Fair;

A whispering throb did witness bear

Of kindred sweet,

When with an elder sister’s air

She did me greet.

Next week in advance of the 225th anniversary of his death, I will examine the extraordinary legacy of Burns.