Maria Riddel, originally a Miss Woodley, at this time wife of Walter Riddel, younger brother of Captain Riddel of Glenriddel (at a house called for the time Woodley Pack, and before and afterwards known as Goldielea). Mrs. Riddel, still under twenty, was a beauty and a poetess. She and her husband welcomed Burns to their house, where there was a fine library, but where Mr. Riddel appears to have encouraged excessive drinking.
The strong political animosities excited by the French revolution were now beginning to show themselves, and Burns incurred the suspicion of the governing party. He had previously passed for a Jacobite, and by his epigram at Stirling (which also insults George III, then suffering his first publicly known attack of insanity), and by some passages in his poems, provoked an indignation which seems strange at a period when Jacobitism was little more than a fanciful sentiment. Burns, it is clear, had none of the political principles generally connected with the name. His Jacobitism was composed of patriotic Scotch sentiment, a romantic feeling for the exiled Stuarts, common in the anti-Calvinistic classes of Scotch society, and a pretty hearty contempt for the reigning family. But his strongest political sentiment, so far as he was at all a politician, might be rather called republican. It was the proud sentiment of personal independence and contempt for social distinctions, so strongly marked in his behaviour and writings from first to last, and which he afterwards embodied, with his astonishing power of condensed utterance, in the famous lines, ‘For a' that and a' that’ (January 1795). This tendency led him to sympathise with the hopes of the revolutionary party then shared by so many ardent young men in England.
On 27 Feb. 1792 Burns was despatched to watch an armed smuggler, who had got into shallow water in the Solway Firth. He was left on guard while his superior officers went to Dumfries for some dragoons. While waiting he composed the spirited song, ‘The Deil's awa' wi' the Exciseman,’ and on the arrival of the soldiers led them to the assault, and was the first to board the ship. Lockhart first tells this story, which has been substantiated by W. Train (Blackie's Burns, i. ccxliii). The ship was condemned and her stores sold. Burns bought her guns, four carronades, for 3l., and sent them as a present to the French legislative body (Chambers, iii. 22). (The convention was not in existence till September, and war was not declared till January 1793.) The suspicion which such conduct might suggest seems to have increased soon after, and in December 1792 Burns wrote a painful letter to Mr. Graham of Fintry, stating that an inquiry had been ordered into his political conduct, declaring that he was afraid of dismissal, owing to the ‘dark insinuations of hellish groundless envy,’ avowing his attachment to the British constitution, and saying that he was unnerved by the thoughts of his family. From a letter written 13 April 1793 to Mr. Erskine of Mar, who had heard that Burns was actually dismissed, and had offered to head a subscription for him, it appears that the dismissal had only been prevented by Graham's interest. Burns speaks eloquently and indignantly of the possible injury to his fame, and declares that he will preserve his independence. He had been told that his business was ‘to act, not to think,’ and though not dismissed, his prospects of promotion seemed to be blasted. Although his superior, Alexander Findlater, thought that he had exaggerated, it is plain that he was deeply stung by the rebuff, and was no doubt placed in a humiliating position. A reprimand for some trifling neglect of duty seems to be confused with this political rebuff. Burns belonged to a small club with John Syme, a distributor of stamps, who afterwards helped Currie in preparing a memoir, Maxwell, a physician, and others. They appear to have held secret meetings, and Burns produced political squibs, the ‘Tree of Liberty’ (first published in the people's edition of 1840), and others suppressed for the time. He joined the volunteers formed in 1795, and wrote a spirited invasion song in order to show his loyalty. He was, however, nearly forced into a duel for giving an ambiguous toast, ‘May our success in the war be equal to the justice of our cause!’ A toast to Washington as a greater man than Pitt also gave offence, to Burns's annoyance. Miss Benson, afterwards Mrs. Basil Montagu, met him at this time at a ball, and tells of the disgust which he expressed for the ‘epauletted puppies’ who surrounded her. Lockhart tells a story from a Mr. M'Culloch who saw Burns in the summer of 1794, when he was generally avoided by the respectable attendants at a county ball, and quoted Lady Grizel Baillie's verses, ‘His bonnet stood ance fu' fair on his brow.’ Scott, in his review of Cromek's ‘Reliques’ in the ‘Quarterly,’ told a story on the authority of Syme, according to which Burns, in a paroxysm of shame, first drew a sword upon his friend, and then dashed himself on the floor; but the story apparently refers to a mere bit of mock-heroics (see Peterkin's Review, &c.) There were other causes than political suspicions for Burns's decline in public favour. He so far surmounted this, in fact, that he appears to have