History

Ode to Burns: Keats’ 1818 tour of Scotland

In the bicentenary year of his death, we chart the Scottish tour that proved revelatory for that most English of poets, John Keats

Words: Margaret Brecknell

Two hundred years ago this year, the poet, John Keats, died in Rome, where he had gone to convalesce after contracting tuberculosis. Aged just 25, Keats left behind an impressive collection of work, made even more remarkable by the fact that he only took the decision to concentrate on his writing three years before his death. A trip he made to Scotland in the summer of 1818 played an important part in this decision-making process.

Accompanied by his friend, Charles Armitage Brown, the poet set off from London in mid-June of that year on a walking tour of northern England and Scotland. The events surrounding the expedition are pleasingly well-documented. Keats wrote a series of detailed letters to family and friends, while his companion kept a journal.

Having taken the coach from Carlisle to Dumfries, in southwest Scotland, the pair arrived on the afternoon of 1 July 1818. They immediately went to visit Robert Burns’ grave in St Michael’s Churchyard before dinner. Keats declared in a letter to his brother, Tom, that the tomb was “not very much to my taste, though on a scale large enough to show they wanted to honour him”.

From Dumfries the two travellers made their way west to Portpatrick, where they took the ferry to Ireland, but were back on Scottish soil within two days.

They then continued their journey northwards towards Ayr, arriving at Burns’ cottage in Alloway on 11 July. Keats had intended the visit to the birthplace of one of his literary idols to be a highlight of the tour but he was underwhelmed.

Burns Cottage in Alloway, the birthplace of Scotland’s national bard. Credit: Kenny Lam/VisitScotland

While under Burns’ roof, he attempted to write a celebratory poem in honour of the occasion, but later confessed to a friend that the lines he produced were “so bad I cannot transcribe them”. The whisky that the pair drank to Burns’ memory may well have contributed to what Charles Brown later memorably described as “the annihilation of his poetic power”. However, Keats’ main issue appears to have been with the garrulous old caretaker who showed them round. He was, asserted Keats, “a mahogany faced old Jackass” who talked so much that “his gab hindered my sublimity”.

Keats did find much to admire in the surrounding countryside, describing the approach to Ayr as “extremely fine”. He had come to Scotland intent on finding beautiful landscapes to enjoy, remarking in one letter that he had embarked on his northern adventure in the belief that “it would give me more experience, use me to more hardship, identify finer scenes, load me with grander mountains and strengthen more my reach in Poetry, than would stopping at home among books”.

Credit: Michael A Hill

The poet’s expectation of experiencing “hardship”, whilst ostensibly being on an extended holiday, may appear odd, but the truth is that this was no casual walking trip. Keats and Brown were determined to take advantage of the early daylight to be enjoyed on July mornings, often rising from their beds at 4am and walking for several hours before even stopping for breakfast.

They were not equipped with the detailed maps and guidebooks that travellers take for granted today. On the morning of 17 July this meant that their breakfast was particularly delayed. Keats records that: “We were up at 4 this morning and have walked to breakfast 15 miles through two tremendous Glens – at the end of the first there is a place called Rest And Be Thankful which we took for an inn – it was nothing but a stone and so we were cheated into 5 more miles to breakfast”.

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the July/August 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 18th June.

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