Burns in Petticoats [Susannah Hawkins]
In 1769 Robert Hawkins died at Castlebank, Hoddam, Dumfriesshire, aged 73. His son, John Hawkins, a blacksmith, married Christina Carruthers. Among their children were John, Henrietta, Susannah, Benjamin and Elizabeth .
Benjamin also became a blacksmith. He married Margaret Forrest and they had thirteen children: Christian, John, Mary, Elizabeth, William, Robert, Elizabeth, Benjamin, Martha, James and John, John and Samuel. The 1851 census shows the family at Relief, Hoddam, where Robert had joined his father as an apprentice. William was a blacksmith in the neighbouring parish of Dalton, while Mary was a farm servant in Hutton parish. Martha, aged 14, was a house servant to William Bell at Sinclairburn, Hoddam. Christian was a dairy maid in the household of Dr Archibald Arnott at Kirkconnell Hall, Ecclefechan.
Their aunt, Susannah Hawkins, worked as a cowherd or dairymaid at Gillenbie. But Susannah had other ambitions. Following in the footsteps of Janet Little (1759-1813) "the Scotch Milkmaid", a poetess from the same parish, Susannah wrote poetry. She persuaded the editor of the Dumfries & Galloway Courier, John McDiarmid, to publish some of her poems, the first edition appearing in 1829. When employed as a domestic servant by Francis Halliday, the schoolmaster in Mouswald, she received lessons from him in grammar and composition. Following the lessons, she reportedly exclaimed "I've got tae be a gran' grammarer noo!"
Susannah travelled the country from Glasgow to Lancashire and Yorkshire, selling her poems with such persuasion that a Manchester patron commented that two forces a Dumfriesian in England could not escape were "death and Susy Hawkins." Throughout Annandale she became known as "Burns in Petticoats."
Susannah, like Janet Little, had important patrons such as Lady Jane Johnstone Douglas, Mr Oswald of Auchencruive and two Dowager Marchionesses of Queensberry. In total she published about nine volumes of poems in English and in Scottish dialect, most of them re-prints of earlier editions. She may also have collected poems. A young divinity student, later a renowned missionary, the Rev Robert Murray McCheyne, wrote ten poems for her. She was a middle-aged woman at that time. In Volume V of her poems she responded to unkind criticism:
By 1845 Susannah had £30 in Annan Savings Bank -- a considerable sum. The ledger shows her address at that time as Sinclairburn. Sir FW Johnstone of Westerhall granted her land at Relief, Hoddam, close to her brother's home and there she built a cottage. Until a few days before her death she was still travelling, making her living from the sale of her poems. The local press reported in long obituaries in 1868 that a fall from her bed had precipitated her death.
Would Susannah have been impressed to know that in death she would lie near the imposing fenced-in monument to the Bells of Sinclairburn; or indeed close to the renowned Thomas Carlyle? Would she be surprised to know that in the 21st century, a professor in America would publish an article on her poems for the whole world to read on the Internet? Somehow, I don't think so. When Susannah visited Robert Burns' statue in Ayr, she walked round it, exclaiming "Hech, sirs, an' this is what they dae wi' us when we are deid!"