MS: 'The Five Carlins'

Robert Burns, Author 
Object Number:


In this poem Burns personifies the five Dumfriesshire Boroughs as five women, each giving their opinion as to whom should be their Parliamentary representative at Westminster.

In this first page Burns sets out the background to his poem and the aim of the five Carlins, which is to send a representative to Westminster who might bring honour and wealth to the constituency. We are introduced to Maggie (Dumfries) and Marjorie (Lochmaben), together with an outline of their personal qualities.

In this second page Burns continues to introduce the rest of the Boroughs, Annan, Kirkudbright, and Sanquhar. He tells how there was some competition from the men of worth in the district to be the M.P. but it became a choice between two so the five Carlins would need to fix a date to meet and settle the choice.

The third page expands on the pretensions and promises of the incumbent Sir James Johnston. He would be powerful, outspoken and gregarious. The poem then turns to the challenger Captain Patrick Miller, the son of Burns's landlord, who spoke modestly. He would not promise wealth or power nor make great speeches, but he had an honest and loyal disposition. How would they choose? Would they follow the dictates of their superiors or follow their consciences?

The fourth page sees the prim and proper Carlin from Nith (Dumfries) say she would send the Captain, as she did not think much of George III. The Annan Carlin would send the rival Sir James on the basis that he had been tried and tested while the attractions of far off London might turn the head of fools, meaning the young Captain.

In the fifth page the Sanquhar Carlin says she does not care much about George III or his son. She will vote for the stronger contestant as the courtiers do their own will whether it is right or wrong.

In this sixth page the Loch Maben Carlin, down to earth, with a good Scots heart, says she will send to London the one who she sees doing his best at home. Burns finishes by saying that however the election turns out every man, King or commoner, should watch out for himself.

In the election of 1789, the candidates for the 5 boroughs (Dumfries, Lochmaben, Annan, Kirkudbright, Sanquhar) were Sir James Johnston of Westerhall (Tory) and Captain Patrick Miller of Dalswinton (Whig). Though Whig by nature, Burns disliked young Miller, and heartily detested the Duke of Queensborough, his patron. Gradually he swung to the Tory side during the election campaign, but the seat was won by Miller.

This particular manuscript is part of the Afton Manuscript collection. This collection of thirteen poems was presented by Robert to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair in 1791.

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