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Robert Burns (1759-96) and his brief career in ‘lint’

Robert Burns sketch

Robert Burns, by Samuel Cousins, 1830, after Alexander Nasmyth, 1787 (image credit: Yale Center for British Art)

Robert Burns (1759-96) is famed for his poetry, but did you know that the author of works like ‘To a mouse’ (1785) or ‘Address to a Haggis’ (1786) had a brief spell in Scotland’s linen industry before finding his calling as a poet? Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Burns worked on his father’s farm at Mount Oliphant and then Lochlie, Tarbolton. He and his brother, Gilbert (1760-1827), had an entrepreneurial spirit and, encouraged by government grants, they rented some of their father’s land to grow their own flax, or ‘lint’ as it was known in the Scots language.

Pulling flax - photo
Pulling flax, c. 1940s, a form of work that Robert Burns no doubt carried out frequently in his youth (A. G. Searle Collection, ILC&LM)

Intrigued by the industry and hoping for better career prospects, Robert moved to the town of Irvine in 1781 aged 22 to begin an apprenticeship in flax dressing – the process of removing the brittle outer part of the flax stems from the fibres inside. This was often a dangerous job due to the risk of hand injuries and respiratory problems from the dusty air. Burns did not particularly enjoy town life or the work, and a fire on Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve that destroyed his mentor’s premises sealed the end of Burns’ ideas as a flax dresser on 1 January 1782.

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