High tech unveils wife of Scotland's Robert Burns

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - The first-ever image of Robert Burns”s wife “Bonnie Jean” Armour, showing her as a young woman when she married Scotland’s national poet in 1788, has been created by U.S. computer technology as used by the FBI.

A computer-created artistic impression shows the first-ever image of Robert Burns' wife "Bonnie Jean" Armour in this undated handout received October 20, 2008. REUTERS/David Purdie/

Burns wrote that Bonnie Jean was “the lassie I lo’e best” despite his philandering across Scotland. She bore him four children out of wedlock, and five more during their sadly brief marriage before Burns himself died in 1796 aged only 37.

“There’s not a bonnie flower that springs,

By fountain, shaw, or green;

There’s not a bonnie bird that sings,

But minds me o’my Jean.”

But what did the Ayrshire stonemason’s daughter look like who inspired Burns as a young woman?

The two paintings that exist show her in advancing years before her death in 1834, while there is also a silhouette drawing of her by a French artist in 1810 in Dumfries where he was being held as a prisoner-of-war during the Napoleonic conflict.

David Purdie, a retired medical professor and Burns expert, told Reuters an extensive search in the Scottish National Archives and abroad had turned up no image of the young Jean.

He was spurred on in his search by next year’s 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

“Because she was in effect a missing person, I did what one should always do when faced with a missing person: I called the police,” Purdie said.

“A friend in the Lothian and Borders police told me that it was possible to age an image by a certain number of years but it was more difficult to make a regression of an old person to the appearance when in youth.

“So this trail took me to the United States to a company called who operate on behalf of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies in the States.”

Phojoe, based in Clarkston, Michigan, agreed to take the images of the two oil paintings and the silhouette, integrate them into a software programme and regress her to the age of 23 in the year she married Burns.

“And that they did,” Purdie said. “It was frighteningly accurate.”

The company has tested its programme on hundreds of images it held of people aged 20 and again aged 60. The program turned out to be highly accurate in regressing 60-year-olds to what they had looked like when they were 20.

And the image of Jean Armour? She does not come across as a great beauty, but she displays considerable strength of character and shrewdness, Purdie says.

“I don’t think she’s a classic beauty, but I think she’s comely and she’s handsome, and that is very much in accord with the observations of those who knew her in life,” Purdie said.

One of Scotland’s leading artists, Gordon Mitchell, has agreed to do a portrait of her from the computer image, which Purdie hopes may one day complement the iconic portrait of Burns himself painted in 1787 hanging in Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

Editing by Paul Casciato