Robert Burns came to Irvine to learn the craft of flax dressing, aged 22. Flax dressing was the process of turning untreated flax into flax fibres that could then be spun and turned into cloth.
Robert arrived in Irvine sometime after 4 of July 1781. He started work in the heckling shed in the Glasgow Vennel with his partner Alexander Peacock. Robert described him as, "a scoundrel of the first water who made money by the mystery of thieving".
Flax dressing turned out to be a failed venture for Robert. The dull and dusty workplace did nothing for his ill health or bouts of depression. His brother Gilbert Burns wrote, "neither agreeing with his health or inclination", in reference to Robert working in the heckling shop.
That Hogmanay the heckling shop was burned down by a candle being toppled over by his partner's wife during the festivities. This left Robert penniless and he left Irvine three months later.
In Irvine, where Burns himself said that he "learned something of town life", he became friends with two individuals who encouraged his inclination to be a poet. One was Captain Richard Brown ("the only man I ever saw who was a greater fool than myself when woman was the presiding star"), who encouraged him "to endeavour at the character of a Poet". The other was bookseller William Templeton, in whose shop Robert read the periodicals and books of the day and in whose chair (now in the 'Wellwood' Burns Museum) he would sit to chat with the bookseller.
Robert Burns arrived in Irvine as an apprentice flax-dresser and left as an apprentice poet. For him, to quote one biographer, 'Irvine was a wonderfully educative place'.
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