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Should Burns have been a vet?
  1. N. C. Craig Sharp, BVMS, PhD, DSc, FIBiol, FBASES, FPEAUK, MRCVS
  1. Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, Brunel University, London UB8 3PH
  1. e-mail: c.sharp90{at}

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IN Edinburgh, Robert Burns was referred to as a ‘Ploughman Poet’, who ‘stood manfully at his plough, sickle and flail’, and he called himself a ‘ploughman, bred at a plough-tail’. His philosophy of the time was expressed in his song ‘My Father was a Farmer’:

So I must toil, and sweat, and moil, and

labour to sustain me, O.

To plough and sow, to reap and mow, my

father bred me early, O.

For one, he said, to labour bred, was a match

for Fortune fairly, O.

But, although he was very skilled in ploughing, he was not a ‘ploughman’ as such at the time he was writing many of his greatest poems, as he had become, with his brother Gilbert, a tenant farmer of the Ayrshire farm Mossgiel from 1784. During his 1787 tours of the Borders and the Highlands, in which he met many farmers and landowners, he took great interest in the state and methodology of farming and animal husbandry. In October of that year, he wrote to landowner Patrick Miller: ‘Sir, I would wish to explain my idea of being your Tennant – I want to be a farmer in a small farm, about a plough-gang, in a pleasant country, under the auspices of a good landlord – I have no foolish notion of being a Tennant on easier terms than another’ (Burns 1787).

A plough-gang or plough-gate of land, or ‘as much as could employ four horses, allowing half of it to be ploughed’, was then a common-sized farm. In a second letter to Patrick Miller, in March 1788, discussing the farm at Ellisland, which he ultimately leased from Miller, Burns wrote: ‘the farm is so worn out … that four horses which I will need this summer for driving lime and materials …

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