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This prized set of pistols belonged to Robert Burns, Scotland's national Bard. But why would the poor and struggling poet have needed such handsome weapons?

Robert Burns' pistols fact file

Date

Late 18th century

Made from

Wood, metal

Made by

Blair

Made in

Birmingham, but stamped London

Museum reference

H.LH 24-25

On display

Scotland Transformed, Level 3, National Museum of Scotland

Did you know?

Burns' famous poem 'Auld Lang Syne' is traditionally sung on Hogmanay, or New Year's Eve.

Who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns, 1759 - 1796. Poet. By Alexander Naysmith (1758 - 1840). © National Galleries Scotland.

Above: Robert Burns, 1759 - 1796. Poet. By Alexander Naysmith (1758 - 1840). © National Galleries Scotland.

Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) is acknowledged around the world as a poet and songwriter of extraordinary impact.

Stereocard depicting Robert Burns Birthplace Cottage, Alloway, Ayr. From the Howarth-Loomes collection at the National Museum of Scotland.

Who was Robert Burns?

He was born into a farming family in Alloway, near Ayr, and was introduced to popular Scottish tales and ballads in childhood. A tenant farmer, often struggling, he still found time to write and in 1786 he published his first collection of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, which became known as the 'Kilmarnock edition'. This included one of his most famous poems, 'To a mouse'.

The best-laid schemes o' Mice an' Men Gang aft agley
- Robert Burns, 'To a mouse', 1758

The book was immediately successful, and Burns set off for Edinburgh, where he found himself lionised by society.

Engraving, mounted on card, entitled 'The inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of the Lodge Canongate Kilwinning Edinburgh 1787', by Charles Ewart from the painting by Stewart Watson.

Above: Engraving, mounted on card, entitled 'The inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of the Lodge Canongate Kilwinning Edinburgh 1787', by Charles Ewart from the painting by Stewart Watson.

In 1787 he met James Johnson, who shared his passion for traditional music. Burns became the driving force behind Johnsons' Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803), a six-volume collection of Scottish music and verse to which Burns contributed around 200 songs.

Burns had a profound interest in traditional Scottish folk music. He purchased this chanter made from sheep's bone in the Braes of Atholl in Perthshire. He had been searching for a chanter like this for many years and wrote to a friend that it ‘is exactly as shepherds were wont to use in the country’.

Above: Burns had a profound interest in traditional Scottish folk music. He purchased this chanter made from sheep's bone in the Braes of Atholl in Perthshire. He had been searching for a chanter like this for many years and wrote to a friend that it ‘is exactly as shepherds were wont to use in the country’.

The following year, he returned to Dumfries, where he took a lease on a farm.

Why did Burns need these pistols?

In 1791, due to the state of his finances, Burns became an officer of the government Department of Excise while still working at Ellisland Farm. Working for the Excise collecting taxes was dangerous, and in 1788 Burns received a pair of pistols from Blair of London.

Above: Double-barrelled flintlock pistols owned by Robert Burns.

The poet's radical opinions caused trouble with his employers. Burns shared many of the views of the political reformers and had a rather ambiguous attitude to being a government employee, as his poem 'The Deil's awa wi' the Exciseman' suggests.

The deil cam fiddlin' thro' the town, And danc'd awa wi' th' Exciseman, And ilka wife cries, "Auld Mahoun, I wish you luck o' the prize, man."
- Robert Burns, 'The Deil's awa wi' the Exciseman', 1792

How do we know the pistols belonged to Burns?

These defensive tools do more than half mankind do. They do honour to their maker. And I trust that with me they shall have the fate of a miser's gold, to be aft admired but never used.
- Robert Burns in a letter to Blair, 1788

It takes some detective work to determine whether these double-barrelled flintlock pistols are in fact the ones for which Burns wrote to thank Blair. Burns reputedly gave the pistols on his deathbed to his physician William Maxwell. Maxwell in turn gave them to the Roman Catholic Bishop James Gillis, who later presented them to the Museum. When in 1859 an anonymous author claimed that Burns' pistols were in his family's permission, Bishop Gillis realised that he had donated the wrong pistols, searched Maxwell's effects and rectified his mistake.

So are these the right ones? They are certainly weapons of good quality. The Museum's pistols were made in Birmingham, not London. Blair did have a foundry in Birmingham, but his guns were often stamped 'London' to show their quality was acceptable to the London market. And Burns' letter of thanks to Blair was addressed to St Paul's Square, Birmingham. This all suggests that the Museum's pistols are very much the genuine article.

The pistols are stamped 'London' but were made in Birmingham

Above: The pistols are stamped 'London' but were made in Birmingham.

Burns' legacy

Burns died in Dumfries at the age of just 37. But although he never left Scotland in his short lifetime, his influence is still felt around the world. His poetry has been translated into over 25 languages and his unique voice, combining lyricism, cynicism, satire, comedy and political comment, has had a lasting, if sometimes sentimentalised, appeal. Statues and monuments dedicated to him can be found in America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and France, as well, of course, in Scotland.

Black Wedgwood bust of Robert Burns, sculptured by E.W. Wyon, 1848–49.

Above: Black Wedgwood bust of Robert Burns, sculptured by E.W. Wyon, 1848–49.

On the date of his birth, 25 January, Scots and Burns fans around the globe celebrate his legacy on Burns Night, with poetry readings, a haggis dinner and toasts to his memory.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne!
- Robert Burns, 'Auld Lang Syne', 1788

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