Tonight all over the world, Robert (Rabbie) Burns will be remembered - presumably, virtually, in these uncertain times - indeed, Royal Highland Fusiliers veterans, led by the Inverness Branch, held their own very successful Burn's Night on Saturday!
Of course, not only was Rabbie a poet and national icon, but he was also a Private in The Royal Dumfries Volunteers for the last eighteen months of his life. Although brief, his service was dedicated, conscientious and should be remembered along with his other achievements.
The Dumfries Volunteers were formed on 31 January 1795 and Robert attended the inaugural meeting held in the Dumfries Court House. This was at a time when the fear of invasion from France was rife and many volunteer regiments were raised around the United Kingdom to protect local communities.
At a meeting on 20 February, Colonel de Peyster was elected Major Commandant of the Corps by the members. Mrs De Peyster then provided the corps with a flag and Colonel de Peyster commissioned 100 ‘Brown Bess’ muskets from Birmingham.
On 21 March, Wellwood Maxwell (probably of Munches near Buittle) was made lieutenant to the second company, in which Burns served. Members agreed to provide their own uniform, serve without pay during the war with France and to have an area of operations not more than 5 miles outside of Dumfries.
Robert was among 59 members who took the Oath of Allegiance and signed the Rules, Regulations and Bye-Laws on 28 March. The governing body of the corps was a committee consisting of all officers and eight members.
Robert's song "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat" (also known as ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’), appeared in the Dumfries Weekly Journal during April 1795.
Burns attended the meetings, the drill sessions, served on the committee and was never fined for absenteeism, drunkenness or insolence as were many members, both officers and privates.
Drills were held for two hours, twice a week and committee service involved supplying the corps with arms and other material. All this work was on top of his excise duties and, of course, his writing. This contrasts markedly with his ‘traditional’ image as a hard-drinking womanizer.
On 25 July 1796, Robert's funeral was conducted with military ceremony. In addition to his own Dumfries Volunteers it included the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angus-shire Fencibles. He was buried in the northeast corner of St. Michael's churchyard, a quarter of a mile from his home. His volunteer unifom hat and sword crowned the coffin. The Dumfries Volunteers acted as the pall bearers, the Cinque Port Cavalry band played the Dead March from Saul by Handel and the Angus-shire Fencibles ended the procession with a guard that fired three volleys over the grave.
Once the threat of invasion was past, the Royal Dumfries Volunteers were disbanded in 1802 after only seven years.
More famously, Robert also wrote "The Soldier's Return"; but it is strange how so few of his biographers barely mention what was clearly an important part of the last days of his life.
So, let us raise a wee glass tonight to Rabbie and remember an element of his life that is often forgotten!