On his return from Edinburgh in February 1788, he resumed his relationship with Jean Armour and took a lease on Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire, settling there in June. He also trained as a gauger or exciseman in case farming continued to be unsuccessful. He was appointed to duties in Customs and Excise in 1789 and eventually gave up the farm in 1791. Meanwhile, in November 1790, he had written "Tam O' Shanter". About this time he was offered and declined an appointment in London on the staff of The Star newspaper, and refused to become a candidate for a newly created Chair of Agriculture in the University of Edinburgh, although influential friends offered to support his claims.
After giving up his farm, he removed to Dumfries. It was at this time that, being requested to write lyrics for The Melodies of Scotland, he responded by contributing over 100 songs. He made major contributions to George Thomson's A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice as well as to James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. Arguably his claim to immortality chiefly rests on these volumes, which placed him in the front rank of lyric poets. Burns described how he had to master singing the tune before he composed the words:
|My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed—which is generally the most difficult part of the business—I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes.|
Burns also worked to collect and preserve Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising, expanding, and adapting them. One of the better known of these collections is The Merry Muses of Caledonia (the title is not Burns's), a collection of bawdy lyrics that were popular in the music halls of Scotland as late as the 20th century. Many of Burns's most famous poems are songs with the music based upon older traditional songs. For example, "Auld Lang Syne" is set to the traditional tune "Can Ye Labour Lea", "A Red, Red Rose" is set to the tune of "Major Graham" and "The Battle of Sherramuir" is set to the "Cameronian Rant".
Failing health and death
Burns's worldly prospects were perhaps better than they had ever been; but he had become soured, and moreover he had alienated many of his best friends by too freely expressing sympathy with the French Revolution and the then unpopular advocates of reform at home. His political views also came to the notice of his employers and in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the Crown, Burns joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers in March 1795. As his health began to give way, he began to age prematurely and fell into fits of despondency. The habits of intemperance (alleged mainly by temperance activist James Currie) are said to have aggravated his long-standing possible rheumatic heart condition. His death followed a dental extraction in winter 1795.
On the morning of 21 July 1796, Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37. The funeral took place on Monday 25 July 1796, the day that his son Maxwell was born. He was at first buried in the far corner of St. Michael's Churchyard in Dumfries; a simple "slab of freestone" was erected as his gravestone by Jean Armour, which some felt insulting to his memory. His body was eventually moved to its final location in the same cemetery, the Burns Mausoleum, in September 1817. The body of his widow Jean Armour was buried with his in 1834.
Armour had taken steps to secure his personal property, partly by liquidating two promissory notes amounting to fifteen pounds sterling (about 1,100 pounds at 2009 prices). The family went to the Court of Session in 1798 with a plan to support his surviving children by publishing a four-volume edition of his complete works and a biography written by Dr. James Currie. Subscriptions were raised to meet the initial cost of publication, which was in the hands of Thomas Cadell and William Davies in London and William Creech, bookseller in Edinburgh. Hogg records that fund-raising for Burns's family was embarrassingly slow, and it took several years to accumulate significant funds through the efforts of John Syme and Alexander Cunningham.
Burns was posthumously given the freedom of the town of Dumfries. Hogg records that Burns was given the freedom of the Burgh of Dumfries on 4 June 1787, 9 years before his death, and was also made an Honorary Burgess of Dumfries.
Through his twelve children, Burns has over 600 living descendants as of 2012.