On this day in 1786 twenty-seven-year-old Robert Burns served his third and last public penance for having “ante-nuptial fornication” with his eventual wife, Jean Armour. Burns had privately acknowledged his behavior and legally bound himself to Jean by giving an oral and written promise of marriage, but her parents would have none of it. They destroyed his note and had their daughter write one of her own to the church fathers, admitting pregnancy and naming Burns. The “fornication police,” as Burns called them, were empowered to impose both a fine and a public rebuke, although in his case Burns was allowed to stand in his usual pew rather than sit on the penitential stool — or, again in Burns parlance, “the Creepie Chair.”
Burns’s compliance with this public humiliation was not based on contrition. The penance released him from marriage, and left him free to pursue his new plan of sailing for Jamaica, where he hoped to manage a sugar plantation. Although bitter at being judged an unworthy mate by Jean (more precisely, by her parents), he had no intention of being a dead-beat father: he would provide for his “bastard wean” with his only asset, the proceeds from the just-published Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. When the book became an overnight success, and when both Jean and the new twins proved to have greater claims on his heart than expected, the Jamaica plan was abandoned.
Not so Burns’s interest in other women, and his contempt for the Presbyterian snooping. Many of his more outrageous slaps at the local laity were kept out of the first edition of Poems, but a measure of payback was achieved with the inclusion of “The Holy Fair.” Such summery evangelical events were meant for devotion, but many attended in search of other opportunities, some of “The lads an’ lasses, blythely bent / To mind baith saul an’ body”:
…There’s some are fou* o’ love divine; [full]
There’s some are fou o’ brandy;
An’ mony jobs that day begin,
May end in houghmagandie*…. [sexual fun]