Robert Burns Was a Secret Cheesemaker
Robert Burns, the great Scotsman who revolutionised Romantic poetry and whose memory we celebrate on Burns Night, had a sideline in cheesemaking on a farm near Dumfries.
Photo via Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften
Och aye tha noo ya beasties! It's a.k.a Burns Night, when bagpipers don kilts and lead a parade of haggis in honour of Robert Burns, the great Scotsman who revolutionised Romantic poetry by writing in Scots, not English.
Scots across the world sit down to feast on haggis, neeps, and tatties, honouring old Rabbie's memory by reciting his poetry.
But it turns out Burns wasn't just creative with words. When it came to food, he also had an entrepreneurial streak, with dabblings in both cheese and turnips.
Let me explain. You see, poetry then—as now—wasn't a guaranteed way to pay the bills. From his mid-teens, Burns worked with his dad William on his farm. In 1788, he married Jean Armour and rented a farm of his own at a place called Ellisland near Dumfries.
Around those parts, there were two things people farmed: oats and beef cattle. But land at Ellisland was stony and poorly drained so to make ends meet, Burns got a job as an excise officer.
"He didn't have time to devote to an agricultural farm," explains Ronald Cairns, chair of the Friends of Ellisland. "He was riding over 200 miles a week on horseback with his excise duties, and trying to manage the farm when he came home."
And of course, Burns also wanted to get some words down on the page. He managed to write about a third of all his poetry, including "Auld Lang Syne" and "Tam o' Shanter" (arguably his most famous works) while living at Ellisland.
So much to do, so little time.
But a gift from a friend gave the entrepreneurial Burns a clue for the perfect plan. Mrs Dunlop, an admirer of Burns' poetry, struck up a correspondence with him and in 1788, when he arrived at Ellisland, she sent him a gift of an Ayrshire cow.
"Burns was gifted one of these Ayrshire cows from Mrs Dunlop. Writing to her in 1788, he expressed gratitude on receiving it as a present from her husband, calling it 'the finest quey in Ayrshire,'" explains Ann Dorward from Dunlop Dairy in Ayrshire. She's been making Dunlop cheese in a similar style to that which Burns would have eaten since 1989.
He'd have been familiar with the breed, since his mother Agnes Broun made cheese from the milk of Ayrshire cows while they lived in Alloway, where Burns was born.
"Dunlop cheese dates back to the 1700s," says Dorward. "Presumably, his mother was one of the many who made Dunlop cheese."
And perhaps it was this cow that gave him the germ of an idea.
"He brought more dairy cattle down from Ayrshire. He was the first man to introduce dairy farming to Dumfries," says Cairns. "He did it so that he could leave his wife to look after and milk the cows—to churn butter and make cheese."
A canny man indeed, on both the creative and the delegatory fronts.
"In those days, the cheese from Ayrshire cows was a 'sweet milk' cheese, made from whole milk with a high fat content," explains Tricia Bey from Barwheys Dairy near Maybole in Ayrshire, a stone's throw from where Burns' mother grew up. "This so called 'Dunlop' cheese was eaten young, only a few months old."
Barwheys makes a similar kind of cheese now, meaning it's possible to taste what Burns would have been slicing onto his butties while composing his rhymes.
"We use traditional animal rennet, cut the curd by hand, stack it into blocks, bandage it in old fashioned cheesecloth, and leave it to mature," says Bey. "Our Dunlop cheese is a bit firmer but the flavours are the same as they would have been 200 years ago."
But Burns' ingenuity didn't stop with cheese. He had company on the innovation front. Miller, Burns' landlord was both a director of the Bank of England and an inventor.
"He was very interested in steam," says Cairns. "Miller invented the first steam-driven paddle boat. He sailed up to Sweden and visited the king, who presented him with a packet of seeds. He told him to take them back to Scotland because they would help his farmer to feed the cattle."
The seeds were for the Swedish turnip, also known as a swede. Miller's farmer was Robert Burns so "Burns was the first man to grow swedes in Scotland," concludes Cairns.
The swede is now a standard part of the traditional Burns Night supper—part of the neeps and tatties eaten alongside the haggis he immortalised in his poetry (Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!).
In the end, cheese proved to be too much hard work for the poet, with Burns and his family leaving Ellisland after only three years.
Burns himself died in 1796, aged 37. Many speculate over whether he'd have written plays as well as poetry if he'd lived longer. But honestly, I can't help wonder what other vegetables or cheese we might be eating had Burns' legacy as a great food entrepreneur continued too.