25th of January – Burns’ Night

St Juventinus and Maximinus, martyrs at Antioch, 363. St Apollo, abbot in Thebais, about 393. St Publius, abbot in Syria, 4th century. St Projectus (or St Prix), bishop of Clermont, martyr, 674. St Poppo, abbot of Stavello, 1048.

Born. – Robert Boyle, 1627, Lismore; Thomas Tanner, antiquary, 1674; Paul Whitehead, 1709; Robert Burns, 1759; James Hogg (the Ettrick Shepherd), poet, 1772; Daniel Maclise, artist, 1811, Cork
Died. – William Shield, dramatic composer, 1829.



Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, first saw the light on the 25th January 1759 in a small cottage by the wayside near the Bridge of Doon, two miles from Ayr. A wonderful destiny was that of the peasant’s babe born that day – a life of toil, imprudence, poverty, closed in early death, but to be followed by an afflatus of popular admiration and sympathy such as never before nor since attended a literary name in any country. The strains of Burns touch all hearts. He has put words together, as scarcely any writer ever did before him. His name has become a stenograph for a whole system of national feelings and predilections. Other poets, after death, have a tablet in Westminster Abbey, and occasional allusions in critical writings. But when the centenary of Burns’s birth arrives, it is celebrated in every town in the country; nay, wherever our language is spoken – alike in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony – there is a pouring out of grateful sentiment in honour of Burns.

It is amusing to learn that Burns, when just emerging from obscurity, jocularly anticipated that his birthday would come to be noted among other remarkable events. In a letter to his early patron. Gavin Hamilton, in 1786, he says: ‘For my own affairs, I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis, or John Bunyan; and you may expect henceforth to see my birthday inscribed among the wonderful events, in the Poor Robin and Aberdeen Almanacks, along with the Black Monday and the Battle of Bothwell-bridge.’


It is an affecting circumstance that Burns, dying in poverty, and unable to remunerate his medical attendant in the usual manner, asked the doctor’s acceptance of his pair of pistols as a memorial of their friendship. Dr Maxwell, who proved a generous friend to the poor bard’s surviving widow and children, retained these weapons till his death in 1834, after which they were preserved for some years by his sister. On her death, they were presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, in whose museum in Edinburgh they are now kept in an elegant coffer, but open to the inspection of the public.1


On St Paul’s day, 1503, there took place a marriage in the royal family, which has been attended with most important consequences to the welfare of the entire island. The Princess Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry VII., was then united at the manor of Richmond to King James IV. of Scotland, as represented by his proxy, Patrick Earl of Bothwell. It was foreseen by the English king that this union might lead to that of the two kingdoms, which had so long been at enmity with each other; and when some of his council objected, that in this event England would become a province of Scotland.

The young Queen of Scots was at this time only thirteen years and a quarter old; nevertheless, a learned Scotsman, Walter Ogilvy, who was present at the marriage, describes her as if she had already acquired all the graces, mental as well as bodily, of mature womanhood. She was ‘decens, urbana, sagax’. Beauty and modesty were united in her. She was of tall stature, had lively eyes, smooth arms, beautiful hands, golden hair, and a tongue enriched with various languages. Her complexion united the beauty of both the roses of her father and mother. Whether she walked or lay, stood or sat, or spoke, a grace attended her.


Posts were erected at the sheriff’s gate, and used for the display of proclamations. In Rowley’s play of A Woman Never Vexed, 1632, a character says:

‘If e’er I live to see thee sheriff of London, 
I’ll gild thy posts.’

A trace of this old custom is still to be found in Edinburgh, where it is a rule that a pair of guilded lamp-posts are always erected before the door of the Lord Provost.

1  At a sale of Dr Maxwell’s effects in Dumfries, several pairs of pistols of an ordinary make were disposed of – for the Doctor had been a weapon-fancier to some extent – and two of these sets have since been severally set forth as Burns’s pistols. One of them, which had been bought for the sum of fifteen and sixpence, fell into the hands of a modern bard, and was enshrined by him in an elegant case. See a curious paper on Burns’s Pistols, by the Right Rev. Bishop Gillis, of Edinburgh, 1859.
*  See HERE for Robert Burns and His Night.

On this Day in Other Sources.


In the year 1350, Sir David Barclay [of Brechin], knight, was traitorously killed at Aberdeen, on [St. Timothy]‘s eve [25th of January], by John de St Michael and his accomplices, by the instigation (as was thought) of Sir William Douglas, then a prisoner in England, in revenge of his brother, John Douglas’, death, father to James Douglas of Dalkeith, whom the said Sir David Barclay caused [to] be killed at Howwood.

Historical Works, pp.104-124.


The 25th day of January this year, 1502, King James’ ambassadors finish the treaty of marriage, and solemnly marry the Lady Margaret of England, as the King’s procurators, in Paul’s church of London, which thereafter was solemnly published, with great joy and triumph at Paul’s cross this same day, to the great joy and contentment of King Henry [VII.] and the Lady his daughter.

Historical Works, pp.214-238.


In the administration of justice the magistrates appear to have shown considerable vigour, and if the constitutional liberty of the subject was sometimes invaded – as undoubtedly it occasionally was – the error was generally on the side of equity, and the act one of poetical justice. Some of the punishments awarded were certainly of the latter character. On one occasion “Richeart Herbertsoun fleschour” was brought before them “for the maist barbarus bangsterrie done be him against James Watsoun fleschour, and for stiking of the said James Watsouns grit dog.” The slain dog was represented as worth £2 sterling, and “maist necessar and profitable to him;” and James craved “to be fred of the said Richearts oppressioun, bost, and bangsterrie, in tyme cuming and to mak the said James satisfactioune and recompens for his said dog.” Richard having appeared and confessed, the punishment awarded was that he be “wardit qll monanday next and that day stockit at the croce, and the dog to be laid befoir him,” and thereafter to be put in sure ward till he find security to keep the peace.1

Old Glasgow, pp.215-237.

1  25th January, 1612.


‘Alloway’s auld haunted kirk,’ – a little roofless ruin, – long known only as marking the obscure resting-place of the rustic dead, is now an  object of veneration, and many an enthusiastic pilgrimage, on account of its having been chosen by Burns as the scene of the grotesque demon revelry, at once ludicrous and horrible, described with such graphic and tremendous power in his tale of Tam o’ Shanter, – for it would seem that imagination is not restricted in her flight here by the actual and real. It is situated on the east bank of the Doon, a little below the point where the road from Ayr to Maybole is carried across that river by the new bridge, and a quarter of a mile from the cottage on Doon side in which the peasant-bard was born on the 25th of January, 1759.

Scotland Illustrated, pp.48-51.


The words censored in the Caledonian Mercury’s printing of the following letter have been filled using the uncensored version in the ‘Scots Magazine’, January, 1762.

“We are desired, by several of our readers, to insert the following letters, on the subject of a Scots militia. 


   IT is matter of just surprise, that the people of Scotland, who are so jealous of what they call the point of national honour, should be so insensible to real indignities, and bear with so much indifference the most cutting and mortifying distinction, which can be made, to their prejudice. If the names of poverty and the itch, of dirt and barrenness of soil, are but mentioned by a drunken mechanic, we feel a wound that festers, and we fly in the face of him who pretends to touch our sores. But should we be informed, not in mere words and petulant sarcasms, not in the terms of jesting and raillery, but in the terms of law, and act of parliament, that we are an inferior class of men, not fit to be entrusted with the privilege of British subjects, not fit to maintain the honours of our country; this injurious calumny we could bear without a complaint, and submit to disgrace, as if we recognized the ground of it in our birth, or what is more probable, in our own base and dejected spirits.  

   Every body will understand that I point at the militia of England and the disarmed state of Scotland. The treaty of union, we are told, forbids the use of those names which of old served to distinguish the two nations: but may not our subsequent laws establish names of distinction more significant to future times, and less easily forgotten, than those of Scottish and English? the titles of Dependent and Lord, of Subdued Province and Governing People.  

   We hear in every company, that the term of the English militia is expired; and that, because the enemies of that establishment dare not refuse what a generous and free-minded people consider as their right, and the privilege of their birth, we are told, that the law is to be renewed either to perpetuity or for another period. But we do not hear of any such project, to provide for the safety, or maintain the honour of this province; and, what is worse, we do not hear that any among ourselves are disposed to remonstrate on this unequal treatment, or that any instructions on the subject are given to the [representatives] of our people. Nor do we ever enquire how far those gentlemen are prepared or disposed to vindicate our rights, or whether they are gone, like our drovers, to sell their [votes], as the others do their cattle, without any other object than that of making their market, when one [minister] is to be crossed, or another to be supported.  

   But perhaps, at this distance from the feats of government, our countrymen are ignorant of the disgrace they incur in their own persons, and suffer to be entailed on their posterity. This may be the case with a majority of the people of Scotland. But what can we plead in excuse for our judges, our lawyers, and our clergy, who know so well the road to the seats of government, when places and preferments are in question, and who by their education should be qualified to understand, and by their duty to the public, which supports them, should be ready to vindicate the rights of their country? What can we plead in excuse for our landed gentry, on whose heads the shame and ignominy of this distinction must immediately fall? Are they too ignorant of what belongs to them as men and as gentlemen? If they are, it may likewise be necessary to inform them, that about seven years ago a law was enacted by the parliament of Great Britain, to enable the civil officers in every county of England, to arm a certain number of freemen for the defence of themselves and their country: that in consequence of this law such men have been embodied: the gentlemen and the mechanics have learned their respective duties of military command and obedience; they have learned to carry a formidable and menacing air to the enemies of their country, and that country has stood secure under their protection. whilst the bowels of our province have been torn out, and our people consumed, to furnish out a ruinous war on the continent.  

   Our neighbours keep their people at home to defend their country, to protect their families, to rear their children, and beget more, for the preservation of the state; whilst ours are dispersed like the leaves in autumn, never to be gathered again; and the tree from which they have fallen, is not only shattered at top, it is cut at the root, and we want hands to assist our women in tilling the ground, or in propagating the race of labourers among us.  

   The French, and now the Spaniards, will meet with Scotsmen to oppose them in every country but Scotland, and the limits of our province will be known without the help of geography. When the pirates, who may soon infest our coasts, have passed by a country well peopled with a thriving race of men and women, a country put in posture of defence by the vigour of its own inhabitants; when they have reached a shore, whose only inhabitants are women, smoke-dried, weather-beaten, and hagged with labour, which they are obliged to perform in the absence of their husbands, their brothers, and their sons; or a shore possessed by men defenceless, spiritless, more dejected than women; they have arrived in North-Britain: and the national distinction will appear to them more plainly in the haughty carriage they have left on one side, and the dejected look they meet with on the other, than even in the bones which stare through our skins, or the tone of voice with which we grate on the ears of our happier neighbours. This distinction must grow, whilst we suffer ourselves to sink in the principal article of national dignity, the courage and public spirits of our people; and Scotsmen hereafter, who, like so many scabby pedlars, shall travel into England, may be known by their mien, without betraying their tone, or the name of their country.  

   Though I live at a distance from the conversation of men who could teach me to express myself in a way which they are pleased to call Genteel, which is frequently but another term for frivolity, affectation and nonsense; and though I never got much instruction how to write papers of any kind, yet I can speak the truth, and could undertake to show this matter in so true and so strong a light, as would make every Scotsman ashamed to show his head in any country but his own, where perhaps he may soon grow so familiar with disgrace, as not to be ashamed of any thing.  

   But what are we to do in this crisis? Address the throne; instruct our representatives; let our voice at least be heard throughout the island. If we are to be disgraced, let us show that we do not court ignominy and that we do not yet think that we deserve it. Let our representatives in the legislature bring the question of their country to a vote, that they may give some proof of their own zeal; and, if we are to be disgraced, that they may lodge the blame where it is due, even upon us, if, after a fair enquiry, we shall appear to deserve it: that is we owe our mortification to a want of confidence in the breast of our Sovereign, or to a want of inclination in our fellow-subjects of England, to share their privileges with us, we may spare no pains, by efforts of duty to the one, and vigorous appeals to the candor or the other, to remove those bars to our national union and happiness: but if we owe it to the folly and presumption of narrow-minded men, who pretend to lead factions in the state, that they may be made to stand forth, and we may know where to point our indignation and our scorn, and where the weight of an injured people should fall, when the follies or miscarriages, the errors or the crimes of such men, shall bring their  reputations, their honours, or their pretensions to power, in question with the public. 



   NEVER was there a nation upon earth, whose situation was more alarming, and more exasperating to a generous mind, than that of Scotland now it, and has been, since the militia bill was rejected. The warm and fertile imagination of Fletcher, chafed with opposition in the union parliament, and heated with zeal for his native country, figured many cases of violation and injury, that, in consequence of an union, might happen to the smaller state. But his imagination, bold and confined as it was, could not feign any thing like the reality, that we have beheld and suffered. 

   The people of England stand at this moment armed and disciplined to defend their country, rouzed and elevated with a consciousness of their own condition; while we crawl under them, disarmed, despirited, a defenceless prey, not to an enemy who comes with fleets and armies, but to a pirate, or privateer, who cruizes with a single vessel. Yet we do not seem to be in the least uneasy at our disgraceful, and deplorable condition. 

   If our ancestors had not been cast in a different mould from their descendants, la fierte Ecossoise, the Scottish pride, would not have been a proverb over all Europe, to the honour of our forefathers, and the reproach of their abject posterity.  

   Fain would I make some excuse for our luke-warmness, and find out some plausible reason to account for our tameness and submission, but I can think of none. Some people satisfy themselves with supposing that if the English militia is continued, the militia for Scotland will certainly follow. I am not sure whether it will or not: but sure I am, that it is the duty, the indispensible duty, of every member of a free state, to demand for himself and his countrymen the privileges of freedom.  

   We have been once refused, let us ask again, and repeat it for ever (till it is granted) our just request. The bill for the English militia was rejected more than once; but did the Advocates for it despond, despair, and submit? No; they persisted, they increased the vehemence and peremptoriness of their demand, till their adversaries durst no longer deny what was so boldly claimed. What hinders us from doing the same? Nothing but our own baseness.  

   ‘Tis said with a sneer in the metropolis of Great Britain, that the zeal of Scots for a militia is much abated, since the great proportion given to that country in the new levies. If that is the true reason of the present languor, the symptom is mortal, and there is an end of the public in this part of the island. Those very men, who, for the sake of commissions to their relations, now abandon the militia, will, from the same motive, their own interest, abandon, and betray every right, and privilege of their country.  

   But I do not incline to push this argument; it leads to horrible consequences, and raises spectres before their time.  

   I see despotism striding over Great Britain; he musters his Janisaries; their countenances are cruel; they rejoice in the work of vengeance, in bereaving the South of that liberty, which the North had lost.  

   There is another supposition made use of as a pretence for inactivity, and it is this: That the attempt is vain; that the English have conspired against us, and determined to keep this country in a state of inferiority and subjection. This is the excuse of the sluggard, who says to himself there is a lion in the way. We know very well by whose influence the Scottish militia bill was rejected; by the influence of those ministers, who so long, and so strenuously opposed the English militia, and tho’ forced to yield to the torrent of a free people, retained their inveterate animosity, and endeavoured to give a stab to the militia of England through the naked side of Scotland.  

   This is the matter of fact without a doubt, and if the fact was doubtful, it ought in reason and candor to be thus assumed; for it bears too hard on human nature to suppose, that the opinion of any man who gave a vote in that question, was determined by national prejudices, and that the heart of one Englishman was vile enough to take advantage of the superiority of his country in the legislature, and establish so cruel and unjust a distinction to the disadvantage of the Scots.  

   The times are altered since that bill was rejected. Those ministers have less power than they had then, and the generous Prince who now fills the throne is a declared friend of militia, and an avowed enemy to all distinctions among his people.  

   We ourselves, my countrymen, are now called upon by the most urgent necessity to stand forth for the honour, and for the safety of our country. A Spanish war is unexpectedly added to all those wars we were before engaged in; the peace which was longed for is vanished; and he must possess wisdom more than human, who can foresee a period to the commotions of Europe. Is it not then full time that Scotland, bleeding at every vein, and exhausted with supplying the carnage of war in every quarter of the world, should be permitted to arm in her own defence a few of her people that yet remain.  

   Have you forgot how Thurot sweeped your coasts, and terrified your defenceless cities? Are you better provided for resistance now? Can the English militia march from their own country in time to save yours from the insults of an enemy? For this is the hope and confidence of some among us; we are safe, say they, under the protection of the English militia, and we ought to be thankful to the people of England, for taking upon them the expence and trouble of defending us. Surely there are some things that men would chuse to take the trouble of doing for themselves: Yet it is difficult to determine the pitch of baseness, to which human nature can descend.  

   There lived in the Orkneys, not many years ago, a petty tyrant, who had so effectually subdued, and crushed the souls of his tenants, that he used to visit their houses, as the Grand Turk does the apartments of his Seraglio. Once it happened, that an unfortunate man coming into his own house, found the Knight in bed with his wife. The miserable husband pulled off his bonnet, and thanked his Honour for taking the trouble of doing his work for him.  

   If this country remains long without a militia, the time may come, that the officers, nay the soldiers of a victorious enemy, may domineer over us in this manner, and the husbands and the fathers be compelled to suffer the violation of their wives and daughters, without daring to mutter resentment; I say, the fathers and the husbands, for there will no young men be left in this unhappy country. The young and the brave will fly from the region of servitude and shame, and carry to other countries that personal spirit and valour which cannot act nor exist in a land of slaves denied the use of arms.”  

Caledonian Mercury, Monday 25th January, 1762.

– Treaty of Union Articles, 1750-1800.


2284. The Life of James McKaen. Third Edition. 1797.

James McKaen, a shoemaker in Glasgow, was executed at the Cross on 25th January, 1797, for the murder of the Lanark carrier.

Memorial Catalogue, Gallery 1.

caledonianmercury thursday26january1797 britishnewspaperarchivejpg
Caledonian Mercury‘ (26th January, 1797), Edinburgh, p.3.


The leading article of the [Scotsman’s] first number appeared on the 25th of January, 1817, and was from the pen of Charles Maclaren, who, during Mr. Ritchie’s absence on the continent, found a valuable coadjutor in Mr. John Ramsay McCulloch, afterwards the eminent statist and economist, who temporarily assumed the office of responsible editor of the infant journal…

At this time the paper consisted of eight pages, less than half the size of the present page, and the price was 10d. – 6d. for the paper and 4d. of stamp duty. From the latest news columns of the number for 25th of January, some idea, says Mr. Bremner, of the time occupied in the transmission of intelligence in 1817 may be gleaned; the latest from London was the 22nd; from Paris, January 15th; and from New York, December 15th.

Old and Edinburgh, pp.282-290.

scotsman 25january1817 frontpage
Scotsman‘ (25th of January, 1817), Edinburgh, p.1.


   “… [Dr Hunter] next dealt at some length with the interests of Scotland in this great question, and contended that the logic of events compelled us to make up our minds for Scottish Home Rule. If Scottish and Imperial interests clashed, they must decide which was most important. At the Treaty of Union Scottish interests and Scottish nationality were fairly well secured, and it was believed that England, in all honour and good faith, would sacredly observe the conditions of the Union. If, now, we substituted Home Rule, we should only be securing the basis on which the treaty was consummated.”  

– Scotsman, Tuesday 25th January, 1887.

– Treaty of Union Articles, 1875-1900.

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