Robert Burns and geology

Robert Burns

I was invited to give a talk on Robert Burns and geology to a meeting of the Geological Society in its day-long celebration of poetry and geology on 10th October.  Several friends have asked me for copies of the talk.

As I said in my introduction, I was delighted to be asked, but MacDiarmid and geology would have been easier, Burns and ornithology, or even Burns and botany. But I’ve trawled through all of the poems, all of the songs, all of the surviving letters, the journals, and two substantial biographies. The results may seem meagre, but I think they are significant.

Robert Burns and geology


Born 25th January, 1759, died 21st July, 1796, aged 37 years.

He was the eldest son of William Burnes, from Dunnottar in the Mearns, hence his occasional use of Doric words such as ‘loon’ in his poetry. That word was not then in use in Lowland Scots.

Mention Robert Burns and a number of things come to mind: poetry, love and sex, affairs, illegitimate children, Scotland, haggis, patriotism, drink, freemasonry, egalitarianism, nature, philosophy and religion might be some of them. Reading his poems you soon become aware of his knowledge of the natural world and the creatures that live in it. To a Mouse, and To a Mountain Daisy are fine examples of ‘nature poetry’ at its best, drawing on his love of living things to extract lessons for humanity

To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough


Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start  awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thraive
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to  big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-

Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’  me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I  canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


A very similar theme emerges in To A Mountain Daisy in 1786

To a Mountain Daisy, on turning one down with the plough in April 1786

Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow’r,
Thou bonie gem.

Alas! it’s no thy neebor sweet,
The bonie lark, companion meet!
Bending thee ‘mang the dewy weet!
Wi’ spreckl’d breast,
When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
The purpling east.

Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
Amid the storm,
Scarce rear’d above the Parent-earth
Thy tender form.

The flaunting flow’rs our gardens yield,
High shelt’ring woods and wa’s maun shield;
But thou, beneath the random bield
O’ clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field,
Unseen, alane.

There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawie bosom sun-ward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head
In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed,
And low thou lies!

Such is the fate of artless Maid,
Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade!
By love’s simplicity betray’d,
And guileless trust;
Till she, like thee, all soil’d, is laid
Low i’ the dust.

Such is the fate of simple Bard,
On life’s rough ocean luckless starr’d!
Unskilful he to note the card
Of prudent lore,
Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
And whelm him o’er’.

Such fate to suffering worth is giv’n,
Who long with wants and woes has striv’n,
By human pride or cunning driv’n,
To mis’rys brink,
Till, wrench’d of ev’ry stay but Heav’n,
He, ruin’d, sink!

Ev’n thou, who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine — no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s plough-share drives, elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
Shall be thy doom!

I had studied botany as well as geology, and I took part in the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s roadside verge survey of West Lothian in the late 1970s. At that time I drove a motor bike, so you could say it was high speed botanising. I remember once, on a road above Blackridge, spotting an unusual flower. I stopped, parked the bike by an open field gate, and walked back to check it out. A police car, coming the other way, stopped, and the policemen got out to look at my bike. I walked back to them. “This your bike?” “Yes” “What are you doing?” Now there I am, in my leathers, saying, “Looking for wildflowers.” I don’t think they believed me. It could have been worse. I could have told them the truth, which was that I’d just spotted a Mountain Pansy, but I thought better of it.

Back to Burns

Burns also loved to walk in the countryside, through woods, and by rivers, such as the River Ayr, the Devon, and the Afton Water.

The Banks O’ Doon

Third Version

Ye banks and braes o’ bonie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care!
Thou’ll break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn:
Thou minds me o’ departed joys,
Departed never to return.


Aft hae I rov’d by Bonie Doon,
To see the rose and woodbine twine:
And ilka bird sang o’ its Luve,
And fondly sae did I o’ mine;
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose,
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree!
And may fause Luver staw my rose,
But ah! he left the thorn wi’ me.

Sweet Afton


Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Thou stockdove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering Fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

In total he made three trips to the Scottish Highlands, the final one reaching as far as Findhorn, in the north-east. During his 1787 tour he ‘By Allan Stream’ while visiting the Roman fort at Braco. But although he clearly loves landscapes, you’d be hard pressed to find examples in his poetry of a knowledge of geology or geological processes, with one very important exception, which I’ll leave to the last.

He learned the basics of land surveying in Kirkoswald. In a letter to Dr John Moore written in 1775, he talks about learning mensuration , surveying and ‘dialling’ at age 17. Dialling is using a compass in surveying, including underground surveying.

There are a few brief mentions of geology in the poems and the Journals:

  • He mentions the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia, in one of his early works, My Father Was a Farmer and also in The Vision, of 1786.
  •  In his 1787 poem Death and Doctor Hornbrook, he mentions whin-rock, a quarryman’s term
  • In 1792 he visited Wanlockhead, and was taken into a mine level. He turned back, unable to stand the ‘damp and confined air’.

In November 1786 he borrowed a pony and set out for Edinburgh, where he had contacts through his poetry and through his freemasonry. He met James Hutton in Edinburgh, in early 1787, while staying with Professor Adam Ferguson, historian and philosopher. Hutton farmed at Slighhouses and at Nether Monynut in Berwickshire, and had written the unpublished – probably unpublishable – Elements of Agriculture, whose MS is in the NLS.

Burns took his farming seriously; he studied agriculture and was an ‘improver’, as was Hutton. It’s natural to assume the two men would have discussed the subject. Indeed such was his knowledge of farming that Burns was proposed by his friends for the first Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University, but he refused to let his name be put forward. But he had a mind open to new ideas, new thoughts, and it’s not fanciful to suggest he might well have listened to Hutton’s geological ideas, and possibly thought about his conversation with Hutton in the years to come. The concepts of cycles of mountain building and erosion would have stimulated the natural philosopher in him.

It’s intriguing to note that in his Border tour of 1787 he walked along the banks of the Jed, near Jedburgh, and in his Highland tour later the same year he visited the falls on the Tilt, both Hutton localities. Why did he visit these places? Was he going to see the evidence for Hutton’s ideas for himself? It’s so tempting to speculate, but we can’t know. His Borders tour in Spring 1787 had a number of objectives, one of which was to collect songs for Johnston’s Scots Musical Museum. However, near Coldingham, as recorded in his very sketchy ‘Journal’, which is little more than a list of places and people, he met and dined with Sir James Hall of Dunglass, a geologist, an improver, a friend of Hutton and one who had accompanied him , with John Playfair, in the boat trip which resulted in the discovery of Siccar Point and its significance.

So when I read his lines in his 1794 song, My luve is like a red, red rose – ‘till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, an’ the rocks melt wi’ the sun, I consider: Who else in late 18th century Scotland could have expressed these concepts? Only James Hutton and his circle of friends.

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

I have another personal aside here. I left BGS in 1988 to become Chief Librarian of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In 1995 I had a letter from a graphic design company. They had been commissioned to produce a set of postage stamps for the commemoration of the 1996 bicentenary of Burns’ death. Which rose, they asked, was Burns writing about in the poem? They wanted to get it right. Well, it wasn’t the red rose you see in gardens today. The parents of these roses were introduced from China a couple of years after Burns died. Other wild roses can be red, but they are rare in Scotland, so it’s unlikely he would have been familiar with them. An Ayrshire farmer would be more likely to have come across Rosa canina, the Dog Rose, in the hedgerows. But that’s a pink rose, you say. And so it is. ‘My love is like a pink, pink rose’ doesn’t sound right. Then I recalled that when the Dog Rose is ‘newly sprung’ its buds are red. So after two hundred years, I shared Burns’ exact vision, I knew what he was seeing in his mind as he wrote – he was writing about the rose buds, as was the illustrious Scots Makar Gavin Douglas in 1513:

The roys knoppys, tutand furth thar hed,
Gan chyp, and kyth thar vermel lippys red.

I can’t help bringing geology into my own poems. Some years ago I published a pamphlet with the title Mementoliths. Each poem was triggered by a memory inspired by a rock I’ve collected, or a geological feature I’ve seen. The pamphlet’s out of print now, but available in a Kindle edition from Amazon.

I will close with a reading of my poem, Siccar Point, published in my book Sushi & Chips in 2006. As far as I know it’s the only poem which contains unconformities.

Siccar Point, photo Colin Will


Siccar Point

Down step after step,
many of them stretching over-long,
red earth punctuates the tussocks,
places where other boots
sought purchase and a brief stance
on this steep green staircase.

I use these uncut treads,
braced by finger grip
on taut wire, between barbs.

I’m halfway down the cliff
when the first primroses peep,
a pale contrast to celandine’s sulphur.

At the base is where
time was first found;
well, maybe not the second,
the lazy minute, absorbing hour,
or orbital year, but deep time,
the time it takes ‘till a’ the seas gang dry’.

And this is where it happened,
where the curious Doctor dipped
into thought so new it had no name.

Given: Oceans beget waves,
waves beget beaches, and, maybe,
beaches beget sandstones, and, I guess,
sandstones form mountains under heat

and pressure from below,
and water wears down hills, and then…

The gap, which was as long as he could think
and as many times doubled as two centuries
of discovery needs, the gap closes
with a rush of water-worn stones and mud,
and then…


That sludge too turns to rock, over ages,
sitting prettily on the upturned edges
of a slaty stack, and then…


Our friend sees it all exposed, not knowing
the size of time, but guessing it vaster,
endless, ‘no vestige of a beginning,
no prospect of an end’.

This is the place he sketched,
the angle between strata as near ninety
as makes no difference, the time between
beyond any human counting, but now
a thing to be measured. Hutton’s Unconformity,
far off the beaten track, and not signposted,
but known in places he would never see.

I touch the planed remains of folded mountains
formed from dried ocean’s ooze, a docked strip
overlain by flash floods from a desert Scotland.
I try to remember
Silurian-Devonian timescales,
but it doesn’t matter; I recognise
a Hutton-sized hiatus
when I see it.


Colin Will



About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to Robert Burns and geology

  1. BarbaraS says:

    That’s a really interesting talk you gave there. I like the insight you’ve given along the way, as well as your own interesting asides – the thought of you on a motorbike looking for a wildflower is one that should put in a poem!

  2. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks Barbara. It was a privilege to be asked to speak at the meeting. It’s the first time the Geol Soc have had a poetry and geology day, and It was very popular. Around 150 were in the audience.

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