At Brow Well on the Solway - the last days of Robert Burns's life.

At Brow Well on the Solway, you walk to the very edge of the land and almost tumble into a mass of thrift, clumps of pink flowers fringing the shore, like some wild garden. They face the sea, looking outwards and when the wind blows through them, they tremble with a dry, feathery sound.

At all times of the year, the wind blows unhindered across these mudflats. There is nothing to stop it, down here, on the Solway. And the sky is dazzling: high and bright with the malicious glitter of a sun half hidden behind clouds. It is a place of endings, of dizzying infinities. A place where long horizontals constantly carry the eye outwards and beyond. Where these same long horizontals dull the urge to fly.

In June, when the thrift is still in bloom, it is as restful as it will ever be. There are wild roses in the hedgerows, white, pale and dark pink. There is a froth of bramble flowers with the promise of fruit to come. Oystercatchers and peewits patrol the mud. There are whaups, curlews, bubbling in the peaty wastes. And you can hear the laverock, the skylark, climbing higher and higher, to the very edges of sound and tumbling through the skies in an ecstasy of movement. Down there, in front of you, a burn meanders through the mud, fresh water meeting salt, while beyond that again is more mud and silver water, cloud shadows and the misty hills of another country. But it is still the loneliest sight you will ever see.

On the third day of July in the year 1796, Robert Burns left his home in Dumfries, left his wife Jean and his children, and travelled to Brow Well on the Solway. It was, essentially, a poor man’s spa. There was a chalybeate or mineral spring with a stone tank built to house it and not much else. One Doctor Maxwell had diagnosed a wholly fictional malady called Flying Gout, and advised the poet to drink the waters in an effort to alleviate his symptoms. He was thin, he was weak, he could barely eat and he was in constant pain. It is likely that a systemic infection from a tooth abscess had caused his chronic endocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) to become acute. It would quickly prove fatal.

He was very ill.
He stayed in a cottage close by the well. He ate a little thin porridge, and drank some porter with milk in it. When the porter bottle was empty, he told his landlady that the ‘muckle black deil’ had got into his wallet, and asked her if she would accept his personal seal as payment but she refused it and brought him the porter anyway.

In July, the thrift would have been dying. As well as instructing him to drink the foul tasting waters, the doctors had recommended that Robert should try sea-bathing. They were only following the fashion of the time. In the south of England there would have been snug bathing machines and separate beaches for men and women to indulge in the novelty of salt water against skin. One month’s bathing in January was believed to be more efficacious than six months in summer. But perhaps there was a sense of urgency in the poet’s case. No time to wait for winter.

He was, no doubt, in that state of desperation where you will try anything. He would have gone struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to his waist, because that’s what the doctors had advised. Did they know how shallow these waters were? How far he would have to walk? How bitter the struggle for desperate mind over failing flesh? His landlady would have gone flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. Did he feel the Solway flounders slithering away beneath his unsteady feet? It was his last chance of a cure and he was full of fear. Fear for his beloved Jean who was heavily pregnant. Fear of debt. Fear of death.

Nearby is the village of Ruthwell. In the church there is an Anglo Saxon cross. It is so tall that the floor has been dug out to make room for it. Because it was judged an idolatrous monument with its intricate carving, its runic inscriptions, which must have seemed suspiciously pagan, it was smashed into pieces on the orders of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. That was in 1664, but it lay where it fell for many years and the good folk of Ruthwell used the stone blocks as benches to sit upon, while they yawned their way through interminable sermons. 

The poet was invited to visit the manse at Ruthwell, but when the ladies there offered to pull a curtain across to shade his eyes from the sunlight, he asked them to leave it be. 'He will not shine long for me,' he said. 

The seawater would have done some good only in that it numbed the pain. It would have been his last chance. He had been a week at the salt water and wrote that he had secret fears that the business would be dangerous if not fatal. No flesh or fish could he swallow. Porridge and milk and porter were the only things he could taste. And how could he attempt horse-riding, which the doctors had also ordered, when he could not so much as drag himself up into the saddle?

‘God help my wife and children if I am taken from their head with Jean eight months gone’ he wrote. He sent letters to his father-in-law, James Armour, in Ayrshire, begging him to ask Jean’s mother come to Dumfries, but Mary Armour was visiting relatives in Fife and there was only silence from Mauchline. His correspondence reeks of desperation.

From the middle of the month, the tides were unsuitable for bathing, so he went home, borrowing a gig from a farmer named John Clark, in Locharwoods. When he got back to Dumfries, he was too weak to walk up the Mill Vennel, let alone climb the stairs to his bed. His young neighbour, Jessie Lewars, had to come out and 'oxter' him into the house.

Poor Burns had almost run his course. Still, he must struggle with the stream, 'till some chopping squall overset the silly vessel at last'. Love swells like the Solway but ebbs like the tide. Life too. 
He who always sang of rivers and streams, was coming, at last, to the sea. He died in Dumfries on 21st July 1796. Jean gave birth to his last child on the day of his funeral. 


If you want to read more about Robert Burns, but especially about his beloved Jean, look for my novel, The Jewel, all about the life of Jean Armour.





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