Excerpted from Should Auld Acquaintance: Discovering the Woman Behind Robert Burns by Melanie Murray, available now.
It’s Race Week when men flock to Mauchline to race their horses from the Cross, up the steep road to Mossgiel and back. That night at Ronald’s ballroom next to the Black Horse Inn, it may have been Ian MacLauchlan—the best fiddler in the west of Scotland—playing for a penny a reel. He has the place hopping. In red tartan trews, fiddle tucked under his whiskered chin, he glides his bow over the strings as feet stomp and hands clap.
My father was a fiddler fine
My minnie she made manki-o,
An I’m myself, a thumpin quean
Wha danc’d the Reel o’ Stumpie-o.
On their toes, arms at their hips, across their chests, they skip and whirl. Even the stoutest matrons hop and spin around the room. Jean links arms with her partner, Robert Wilson. They’ve been walking out together for many months; though no promises have been made, she knows they’re forthcoming. Robin—as they call him—is leaving the next day for his apprenticeship as a weaver in the town of Paisley, thirty miles north. Once he’s shown that his prospects are sound, Jean is sure he’ll win her father’s approval.
A man, with a dog, prances into the middle of their set. A russet plaid draped over his white linen shirt in an unusual way; dark, wavy hair tied back at the nape of his neck with a black band of ribbon, two locks curling around his sideburns. He’s the only man in the parish to wear his hair like that. And the way he dances is different too. He leaps to the measure of the reel, looping and flinging with high-stepping abandon, his face glowing, brown eyes snapping. All the while, the black-and-white collie follows close at his heels.
Jean knows he’s the new tenant at Gavin Hamilton’s farm. She’s watched him swaggering down the village roads, a widebrimmed hat edging his thick black eyebrows, always a book tucked under his arm. Poet Burns has already given the gossips plenty to wag their tongues about. They say he writes scandalous verses; that he fathered a bastard wean with Lizzie Paton, his family’s servant girl, and was rebuked in the Tarbolton kirk as a fornicator. And, they say, he has no intentions of marrying Lizzie. His family thinks her too coarse, though they themselves are barely scratching out a living on their farm at Mossgiel.
A wide grin on his face, he twirls in front of Jean, arms waving above his head. But the collie trips up his fancy footwork. “Swith awa’, Luath,” he says, lightly booting the dog’s curling tail. “Wish I could find a lass who’d love me as well as my dog,” he chuckles.
“If you do,” Jean says, “then I hope you’ll be treating her better than your dog.”
He laughs and grabs the next lass opening her arms to him.