This weeks fascinating object comes courtesy of the Writers Museum in Edinburgh. Yes, that’s right, it’s a sword once owned by the bard himself. He used this swordstick in the course of his duties as an exciseman.
Excise was a tax similar to V.A.T. but collected at the point of manufacture or import rather than at the point of sale. A wide range of goods was liable for it, mostly notably silk, tobacco and spirits. Burns as a gauger had to calculate and collect the tax due. Thus in addition to improving a run down farm he had to travel over 200 miles per week on horseback collecting excise duties and complete the necessary bookwork during his evenings. For this he received £50 per year plus £50 for every smuggler arrested and half of any goods seized.
Although he had two full-time jobs and his health was not good he found time to write many songs. The long hours on horseback allowed him to work over verses.
Fortunately in July 1790 he was transferred to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division which reduced his weekly mileage. He was good at his job and popular with his superiors. His standard of living on the farm was above average and he could employ farmworkers to help him with the improvements.