Elizabeth Paton

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Elizabeth Paton
Born 1760
Tarbolton, Scotland
Died 1817
Occupation Servant and then housewife

Elizabeth Paton or later Elizabeth Andrew of Lairgieside was the daughter of James Paton. Betsy was employed as a servant a girl at Lochlea Farm[1] during the winter of 1783–84,[2] but returned to her own home when the Burns family moved to Mossgiel Farm in March 1784.

Life and character[edit]

Following an affair she gave birth on 22 May 1785 to Robert Burns's first child, Elizabeth Paton Burns,[2] the "Dear-bought Bess", who was baptised when only two days old. She later married John Andrew, a ploughman and widower,[3] on 9 February 1788 in Tarbolton, Ayrshire, Scotland and had four children; she is said to have been a model housewife.[3] John remarried one Jean Lees in 1799, therefore Elizabeth must have died before that date.[4] In 1786, Elizabeth made a claim on Burns, but accepted a settlement of twenty pounds[2] which the poet paid out of the profits of the Kilmarnock Edition. She is said to have had a plain face but a good figure.

Isabella Begg, Burns's niece, had heard of Elizabeth Paton as "rude and uncultivated to a great degree... with a thorough (though unwomanly) contempt for every sort of refinement."'[5] In a letter to Robert Chambers she describes Elizabeth as "A well developed, plain-featured peasant girl, frank and independent .." and for these reason a favourite with Burns's mother. She goes on to say that had a "masculine understanding" and contempt for anything that savoured of culture.[5]

Loving Burns with heart-felt devotion[2][6] she continued to see him after the Burns family had moved to Mossgiel Farm and he returned these sentiments with more physical than spiritual devotions.[5] Isabella Begg stated that although Burns did not love her, "he never treated her unkindly."[6]

Elizabeth Paton Bishop, née Burns[edit]

The headstone of Elizabeth Bishop.

The child lived at Mossgiel Farm, under Burns's mother's care, until Robert Burns death. She then returned to her own mother, who was by this time happily married to John Andrew, a ploughman.[3] At the age of twenty-one, Elizabeth received two hundred pounds from the money raised for the support of Burns's family.[2]

She married John Bishop, factor to the Baillie of Polkemmet,[7] also recorded as an innkeeper, and had seven children. Elizabeth died on 8 January 1817, aged only 32,[3] possibly during childbirth.

When Burns contemplated emigration to Jamaica he made over his heritable property and the profits from the 'Kilmarnock Edition' of his poems to his brother, Gilbert Burns, to enable him to bring up Elizabeth as if she was one of his own.[8]

Association with Robert Burns[edit]

Full view of the Naysmith portrait of 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Having been seduced by Burns, Elizabeth gave birth on 22 May 1785 to his first illegitimate child.[2] Burns's mother, who was fond of Elizabeth, wanted her son to marry her, however brother Gilbert was against such a marriage. A fine of a guinea, paid into the parish poor-box was the penalty for this transgression[5] and he also had to do penance in church before the congregation.[9]

These circumstances resulted in Burns writing three poems:[2] some insignificant lines, when 'rough, rude ready-witted Rankine' twitted him over Miss Paton's condition, followed by the brilliant, but somewhat tasteless, outburst of sexual boastfulness of the 'Epistle to John Rankine' of Adamhill.[5] In this poem, Burns describes his seduction in terms of the field. The 'poacher-court' got to hear of the 'paitrick hen' he had brought down with his 'gun', so he had to 'thole the blethers' and pay the fee. However, he is quite unrepentant; for, as soon as her 'clockin'-time is by' and the child is born, he promises himself further 'sportin' by and by' to get value for his guinea.

When baby "bonnie Betty" was born Burns expressed fatherly tenderness, forgetting his earlier masculine posturing. In a Poet's welcome to his 'Love-begotten Daughter'[3] or alternatively 'his bastard wean' we find :

"Welcome! lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin' I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for
That I shall swear!...
Lord grant that thou may ay inherit
Thy mither's person, grace, an' merit,
An' thy poor, worthless daddie's spirit,
Without his failins,
Twill please me mair to see thee
Than stocket mailens...

No poems seem to have been inspired directly by Elizabeth Paton,[2] but she may have been in the poet's mind when he wrote the "The Rantin' Dog." A few lines in Burns's first Commonplace Book dated September 1784 relate to her.

In 1784, in the song "O Tibbie, I hae seen the day", which were addressed to Isabella Steven, the daughter of a Tarbolton farmer, Burns addresses her with:

"There lives a lass beside yon park,
I'd rather hae her in her sark.
Than you, wi' a' your thousan mark;
That gars you look sae high."

In this piece the poet may have been referring to Elizabeth as the "lass beside yon park" although he never confirms this.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hecht, Page 54
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Burns Encyclopedia Retrieved : 13 February 2012
  3. ^ a b c d e Hecht, Page 56
  4. ^ Mackay, Page 139
  5. ^ a b c d e Hecht, Page 55
  6. ^ a b Mackay, Page 137
  7. ^ Burns Encyclopedia Retrieved : 13 February 2012
  8. ^ Hecht, Pages 88–89
  9. ^ Annandale, Page 31
  10. ^ Mackay, Page 80
  • Annandale, Charles (1890). The Works of Robert Burns. Vol 1. Glasgow : Blackie & Son.
  • Hecht, Hans (1936). Robert Burns. London : William Hodge.
  • Mackay, James (2004). Burns. A Biography of Robert Burns. Darvel : Alloway Publishing. ISBN 0907526-85-3.