Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Burns the Exciseman

Today is Burns' Day, when our National Bard's birthday will be celebrated all over Scotland, and in some other parts of the world, with a Burns' Supper. Besides the haggis, neeps and tatties meal, the haggis is usually marched in to the sound of bagpipes, and most of the men wear the kilt.

Robert Burns is world famous as a farmer and poet of the people, yet a large part of his adventurous life was spent as a very respectable government Exciseman, or ‘rascally gager’, as Burns himself called them. Here's a little bit about his life as a gager.

When the crops failed on his farm, Ellisland, in Dumfriesshire before his 29th birthday, Burns became disillusioned with farming and looked for another source of income. Having little experience of other types of work, apart from a short time as a Flax Dresser, he contacted some influential friends in the hope of gaining their patronage in his change of career. One such man was the Earl of Glencairn, to whom Burns wrote a hopeful, pleading letter in the January of 1788, outlining his desire to be an Exciseman.

Burns was subsequently added to the roll of Excisemen in September 1789. It was a hard and often dangerous job. Covering ten parishes in his first area, Burns rode extensively, writing that he was “condemned to gallop at least 200 miles every week.” From his letters recorded in the Life and Works of Burns by James Currie, Burns later complained: “My fingers are so worn to the bone in holding the noses of his Majesty’s liege subjects to the grindstone of Excise that I am totally unfit for wielding a pen in any generous subject.”

The danger was real in a period when smuggling was rife, with huge profits on items such as beer, cider, brandy, tea and coffee, and Excisemen were sometimes beaten or killed. They made surprise visits to traders to check books for accurate accounts and to make sure the correct tax was applied on whisky. It certainly wasn't one of the most popular jobs.

While Burns carried out the day job, he continued writing his poems. The fact he was an Exciseman himself did not prevent him writing the song, The Deil’s Awa wi’ the Exciseman’. This illustrates Burns’ empathy with the people in their wish to be rid of these government men, so they could continue drinking their purloined goods.

Robert Burns remained at his station working from Mill Street until his death on 21st July 1796, still a serving officer of the Excise.



Teresa Ashby said...

What an interesting post! I can well imagine what an unpopular and difficult job it was! x

Rita Bay said...

Great info, Romy. Thank you for sharing. Rita Bay

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for visiting, Teresa - there were lots of illicit whisky stills!

You're welcome, Rita - thanks for coming over!

Melanie said...

I forgot he worked as an Exciseman. Shame on me. And we can never forget his poem - Nine Inch Will Please a Lady. LOL!

Michael Malone said...

An interesting and timely post, Rosemary. A fascinating man, wasn't he?

And I'm wondering how to pronounce "gager".

Rosemary Gemmell said...

I don't think he enjoyed that job much, Melanie, but it paid his way!

Thanks for commenting, Michael. Fascinating indeed. I think it rhymes with 'wager'.