Yesterday's Magazette

15 – The Ghost of Robert Burns

Ghostly photo taken at the gravesite of poet Robert Burns.

The Ghost of Robert Burns

By Carrillee Collins Burke

The day after poet Robert Burns died, he was suddenly more important to Scottish literary scholars than when he was living. At his funeral, a man was heard to say, “Who do you think will be our poet now?”

Burns was a rowdy, drinking womanizer who had many illegitimate children. Although he wrote many love poems to his wife, Jean Armour, it was said that he never told her he loved her. His love interest seemed to go to the many women in his poems, such as Mary Morrison, Meg, Lissie, and women from the streets and  pubs.

He was a self-centered, cocky man who never became a success with anything, even though he was well-educated. He took sides in political issues, but it was usually the wrong side to benefit him. Most of his poems were written to get even with the clergy or some politician or about the farmer, laborer, or the common man.

He was not liked well. But upon his death, the whole of Scotland agreed to make him a hero — a poet to be forever loved. After his death, a yearly celebration was set in force by the Burns and St. Andrews Societies. As near as possible to his January 25th birthday, Scots from all over the world would honor him with a party and partake of the Haggis.

The English never warmed up to the idea that Burns was special. Scots felt otherwise. To the average Scot, he is Shakespeare, Mozart, and Einstein all rolled into one.

I myself never realized the reverence of the mere mention of his name until I visited Scotland and made a grave mistake. I called him Bobbie and was quickly corrected by a little humped-back man, wrinkled with age, wearing round wire-rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose. My friends and I were having a drink in a pub when he overheard my comment. He chastised me in a not so friendly tone saying I could call Mr. Burns Robert, Robbin, Rob, Rab, and even Rabbie. But under no circumstances should I call him Bobbie.

I grew up knowing of Burns’ poems and songs from my grandmother who read his poems to me, including John Barleycorn she read like a fairy tale. She sang me to sleep with Afton Waters: Flow gently, sweet  Afton, among thy green braes. I imagined our family farm with green braes (hills) and our creek as Afton.

I always dreamed of visiting Scotland, the land of my ancestors. Finally, in 1984, I was able to do so with three friends. When we journeyed to Burns country, I made a comment that I would not go home until I purchased an early edition of a Robert Burns poem book and tasted Haggis. My friends were beginning to think they might have to leave me there when the first week had passed and I had not located a printed copy. But then we visited Dumfries where Burns had lived and died and my luck soon changed. We hurried through a museum in an early Burns home and I went alone to the family church nearby.

I spent a few minutes sitting in Robert Burns’ very own pew, fingering an l8th century song book and running my fingers along the worn and darkened wood of the seat as I tried to absorb his spirit.

Talking to him I said I wanted one of his books but had not been able to find one. I asked if he would help me. The silence was so thick in this old building where I was the lone visitor one could imagine all sorts of ghost from the past.

Finally I joined my friends in the cemetery at Burns’ tomb. We took several snapshots of his grave and the statue of Burns above it. Later, in town when my photos were developed, one shot was different from my friend’s photos taken of the same scene and at the same time. Mine had a bright, odd shaped light coming out of the brown marble grave slab. It appeared as a design of fire.

We nervously laughed about the strange glow, knowing it could not be a reflection because it had been a very dreary, dark day with a drizzling rain. I was thinking a very chilling thought after the photo developer assured me it was not a defect in the negative. I felt a chill again when in the very next bookstore I entered, two days and a town away, I walked to the back of the store as if I was directed to do so and straight to a shelf where there was a second edition Robert Burns Poem and Song Book displayed. It was printed in 1868 in Edinburgh, leather bound and gold trimmed.

I was thrilled and again realized how important Burns was to his country when the old gentleman who owned the shop stood guard over his young sales girl to make sure she did the right thing for me and my book. Another book I purchased was dropped into a brown paper bag while the Robert Burns book was wrapped in gift paper and tied with blue ribbon. When I showed the strange snapshot to the old man he was unconcerned, saying it was only “Robbie’s spirit” connecting with me.

Today, the book sets with honor on a bookshelf in my house. After several reprints no one has been able to explain the light coming from Burns’ grave except the old bookstore owner.
I came home without tasting Haggis. After hearing the ingredients, I was happy it was out of season.

I really don’t care if he was rowdy and wrote poetry to lassies in the pubs. He was and is special to Scotland and its people, including me. So I believe the streak of light in my photo was his spirit, pulling my heart strings and whispering in my ear:

And here’s a hand, my trusty fiere,
and gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right guid willie-waught,
For auld lang syne!

*From the book, Country Girl, by Carrillee Collins Burke, available on

Vol. 37 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2010


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