IN the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh there is what I consider to be the saddest literary exhibit in Scotland. The display is of three letters written late in life by Robert Burns. Each succeeding letter shows the deterioration in the National Bard’s handwriting as his health worsened. I defy any sentient Scot or lover of literature to read them and fail to be affected by the poet’s plight.

It was 225 years ago today that Burns set out on what would prove to be his final journey. In a desperate attempt to prolong his life, the poet set off from his home in Dumfries to the Brow Well, a spring just west of the village of Ruthwell that is now in Dumfries and Galloway.

The well’s waters were stained reddish brown by the high concentration of iron salts that had leached into the spring, and people came from far and wide to drink the water, believing it to cure many illnesses. The nearby Brow Inn did good business from the cure seekers, but has long since been demolished.

Burns had been told to go there by his doctor and friend, William Maxwell, who also prescribed swimming in the cold waters of the Solway Firth. Maxwell became close to Burns when both moved to Dumfries, mostly because they were both firm believers in the ideals of the French Revolution – Maxwell had been in France and joined the National Guard in time to command the detachment that led King Louis XVI to the guillotine.

As his long-term physician, Maxwell knew that Burns was troubled by rheumatism, and there’s no doubt he was consulted on numerous occasions by Burns who had become increasingly anxious about his health over the previous five years. At times the Bard was quite despondent, as can be charted in the many letters he continued to write until his final days.

This time Maxwell diagnosed Burns as suffering from “flying gout”, the symptoms of which are similar to those of rheumatic fever. Interestingly, Burns had suffered from what he had called “a most severe rheumatic fever” the previous winter, and at one point feared for his life.

Yet he recovered, only to become ill again. Maxwell was convinced that the poet needed rest and care in the countryside. There were no internal examinations in those days, or else Maxwell would have seen that Burns was actually suffering from endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the heart. It is still a sometimes fatal disease even today, but is quite rare and is usually quickly treated with antibiotics given via drip in hospital.

Flying Gout was a common diagnosis in those days, and Maxwell gave the advice that was considered proper in 1796. Off went Burns to the Brow Well and his dip in the Solway – we can now see that was a “kill or cure” approach.

The “cure” failed, and Burns returned to Dumfries to be cared for by his heavily pregnant wife Jean Armour who also had charge of their four remaining children. Maxwell attended him often and was there when Burns’s condition worsened quickly and terribly.

Word spread quickly that Burns had returned from the Brow Well even more ill, and Maxwell was stopped everywhere by the people of Dumfries who were anxious about the man they considered their national treasure.

Maxwell memorably described Burns’s dying days: “A tremor pervaded his frame; his tongue, though often refreshed, became parched; and his mind, when not roused by conversation, sunk into delirium. On the second and third day after his return from the Brow, the fever increased and his strength diminished.

“On the fourth day, when his attendant, James Maclure held a cordial to his lips, he swallowed it eagerly – rose almost wholly up – spread out his hands – sprang forward nigh the whole length of the bed – fell on his face and expired. He was 37 years and seven months old, and of a form and strength which promised long life.”

Arguments about what killed Burns began almost immediately. In the Life and Works of Robert Burns, his biographer Robert Chambers, tells the wholly apocryphal tale of how Burns contracted his fatal disease.

“Early in the month of January, when his health was in the course of improvement, Burns tarried to a late hour at a jovial party in the Globe Tavern. Before returning home, he unluckily remained for some time in the open air, and, overpowered by the effects of the liquor he had drunk, fell asleep. In these circumstances, and in the peculiar condition to which a severe medicine had reduced his constitution, a fatal chill penetrated his bones; he reached home with the seeds of a rheumatic fever already in possession of his weakened frame.”

Absolute and utter tosh. For a start, the Globe is just a few hundred yards from Burns’s house, and his friends all knew he was sick and would not have left him to walk home alone – that’s if he even visited the pub Sir James Crichton-Browne in Burns from a New Point of View, concluded: “Burns’s death was not an accidental event, but the natural consequence of a long series of events that had preceded it... Burns died of endocarditis, a disease of the substance and lining membrane of the heart, with the origination of which alcohol had nothing to do, though it is possible that an injudicious use of alcohol may have hastened its progress. It was rheumatism that was the undoing of Burns. It attacked him in early years, damaged his heart, embittered his life, and cut short his career.”

That verdict will do for me.

The 225th anniversary of Burns’s death will take place on July 21. Over the next two weeks before that anniversary, I will try to show just why Robert Burns is so important to our nation and the world.