"Ramsay and famous
Gied Forth and Tay a
Yarrow and Tweed to
monie a tune
Thro' Scotland rings,
While Irvine, Lugar,
Ayr, and Doon,
ON the 6th of May, Burns left Edinburgh, in
company with Mr. Robert Ainslie,(63)
son to Mr. Ainslie, of Berrywell, in Berwickshire, with the design of
perambulating the picturesque scenery of the southern border, and in
particular of visiting the localities celebrated by the old minstrels,
of whose works he was a passionate admirer, and of whom, by the way,
one of the last appears to have been all but a namesake of his own.(64)
(63) Now Clerk to the Signet. Among other changes " which fleeting
time procureth," this amiable gentleman, whose youthful gaiety made
him a chosen associate of Burns, is now chiefly known as the author
of an Essay on the Evidences of Christianity and some devotional
(64) Nicoll Burn, supposed to have lived towards the close of the
sixteenth century, and to have been among the last of the itinerant
minstrels. He is 'he author of Leader Haughs and Yarrow, a pathetic
ballad, in the last verse of which his own name and designation are
'' Sing Erlington and Cowden knowes, where Homes had ance commanding
And Drygrange, wi' the
milk white ewes, 'twixt Tweed and Leadei Standing.
The bird that flees
through Reedpath trees, and Gledswood banks, ilk morrow,
May chant and sing
sweet Leader Haughs, and bonny howms of Yarrow.
But minstrel Burn cannot assuage his grief while life endureth,
To see the changes of
this age, that fleeting time procureth,
For mony a place
stands in hard case, where blythe folk kend nae sorrow,
With Homes that dwelt
on Leader side, and Scotts that dwelt on Yarrow."
long before the time when those fields of Scottish romance were to be
made accessible to the curiosity of citizens by stage-coaches ; and
Burns and his friend performed their tour on horseback, the former
being mounted on a favourite mare whom he had named Jenny Geddes, in
honour of the zealous virago who threw her stool at the Dean of
Edinburgh's head on July 23rd, 1637, when the attempt was made to
introduce a Scottish Liturgy into the service of St. Giles's
;—the same trusty animal, whose merits have been recorded by Burns, in
a letter which must have been puzzling to most modern Scotsmen before
the days of Dr. Jamieson.(65)
(65) " My auld ga'd gleyde o' a meere has huchyalled up hill and
down brae, as teuch and birnie as a vera devil, wi' me. It's true
she's as poor 's a sangmaker, and as hard 's a kirk, and
lipper-laipers when she takes the gate, like a lady's gentlewoman in
a minuwae, or a hen on a het girdle; but she's a yauld poutherin
girran for a' that. When ance her ringbanes and spavies, her cruiks
and cramps, are fairly soupled, she beets to, beets to, and aye the
hindmost hour the lightest," etc., etc.—Letter to Mr. Nicoll,
Reliques, p. 28.
passed from Edinburgh to Berrywell, the residence of Mr. Ainslie's
family, and visited successively Dunse, Cold-stream, Kelso, Fleurs,
and the ruins of Roxburgh Castle, where a holly bush still marks the
spot on which James II. of Scotland was killed by the bursting of a
cannon ; Jedburgh—where he admired the " charming romantic situation
of the town, with gardens and orchards intermingled among the houses
of a once magnificent cathedral (abbey) " ; and was struck (as in the
other towns of the same district) with the appearance of " old rude
grandeur " and the idleness of decay ; Melrose, " that far-famed
glorious ruin," Selkirk, Ettrick, and the Braes of Yarrow. Having
spent three weeks in this district, of which it has been justly said
that " every field has its battle, and every rivulet its songs," Burns
passed the Border, and visited Alnwick, Warkworth, Morpeth, Newcastle,
Hexham, Wardrue, and Carlisle. He then turned northwards, and rode by
Annan and Dumfries to Dalswinton, where he examined Mr. Miller's
property, and was so much pleased with the soil, and the terms on
which the landlord was willing to grant him a lease, that he resolved
to return again in the course of the summer.
Dr. Currie has published some extracts from
the journal which Burns kept during this excursion ; but they are
mostly very trivial. He was struck with the superiority of soil,
climate, and cultivation in Berwick and Roxburgh shires, as compared
with his native county, and not a little surprised when he dined at a
Farmers' Club at Kelso, with the
apparent wealth of that order of men. " All gentlemen, talking of high
matters— each of them keeps a hunter from £30 to, £50 value, and
attends the Fox-hunting Club in the county." The farms in the west of
Scotland are, to this day, very small for the most part, and the
farmers little distinguished from their labourers in their modes of
life : the contrast was doubtless stronger forty years ago between
them and their brethren of the Lothians and the Merse.
magistrates of Jedburgh presented Burns with the freedom of their town
; he was unprepared for the compliment, and, jealous of obligations,
stepped out of the room, and made an effort (of course an ineffectual
one) to pay beforehand the landlord's bill for the " riddle of
claret," which is usually presented on such occasions in a Scotch
Mr. R. Chambers's Notes.
visited, in the course of his tour, Sir James Hall, of Dunglas, author
of the well-known Essay on Gothic Architecture, etc. ; Sir
Alexander and Lady Harriet Don (daughter to his patron, Lord Glencairn)
at Newton-Don ; Mr. Brydone, the author of Travels in Sicily;
the amiable and learned Dr. Somerville of Jedburgh, the historian of
Queen Anne, etc. ; and, as usual, recorded in his journal his
impressions as to their manners and characters. His reception was
everywhere most flattering.
no verses, as far as is known, during this tour, except a humorous
epistle to his bookseller, Creech, dated Selkirk, May 13th. In this he
makes complimentary allusions to some of the men of letters who were
used to meet at breakfast in Creech's apartments in those days—whence
the name of Creech's levee; and touches, too briefly, on some
of the scenery he had visited.
" Up wimpling stately
Tweed I've sped,
And Eden scenes on crystal Jed,
And Ettrick banks now
While tempests blaw."
returned to Mauchline on July 8th. It is pleasing to imagine the
delight with which he must have been received by his family after the
absence of six months, in which his fortunes and prospects had
undergone so wonderful a change. He left them comparatively unknown,
his tenderest feelings torn and wounded by the behaviour of the
Armours, and so miserably poor that he had been for some weeks obliged
to skulk from the sheriff's officers to avoid the payment of a paltry
debt. He returned, his poetical fame established, the whole country
ringing with his praises, from a capital in which he was known to have
formed the wonder and delight of the polite and the learned j if not
rich, yet with more money already than any of his kindred had ever
hoped to see him possess, and with prospects of future patronage and
permanent elevation in the scale of society which might have dazzled
steadier eyes than those of maternal and fraternal affection. The
prophet had at last honour in his own country. But the haughty spirit
that had preserved its balance in Edinburgh was not likely to lose it
at Mauchline ; and we have him writing from the auld clay biggin'
on July 18th in terms as strongly expressive as any that ever came
from his pen of that jealous pride which formed the groundwork of his
character; that dark suspiciousness of fortune which the subsequent
course of his history too well justified ; that nervous intolerance of
condescension and consummate scorn of meanness which attended him
through life, and made the study of his species, for which Nature had
given him such extraordinary qualifications, the source of more pain
than was ever counterbalanced by the exquisite capacity for enjoyment
with which he was also endowed. There are few of his letters in which
more of the dark places of his spirit come to light : " I never, my
friend, thought mankind capable of anything very generous ; but the
stateliness of the patricians of Edinburgh, and the servility of my
plebeian brethren (who, perhaps, formerly eyed me askance), since I
returned home, have nearly put me out of conceit altogether with my
species. I have bought a pocket-Milton, which I carry perpetually
about me, in order to study the sentiments, the dauntless magnanimity,
the intrepid unyielding independence, the desperate daring, and noble
defiance of hardship, in that great personage—Satan. . . . The many
ties of acquaintance and friendship I have, or think I have, in life,
I have felt along the lines, and, d—n them, they are almost all of
them of such frail texture that I am sure they would not stand the
breath of the least adverse breeze of fortune."
Among those who, having formerly " eyed him
askance," now appeared sufficiently ready to court his society, were
the family of Jean Armour. Burns's affection for this beautiful young
woman had outlived his resentment of her compliance with her father's
commands in the preceding summer; and from the time of this
reconciliation, it is probable he always looked forward to a permanent
union with the mother of his children.
least fancied himself to be busy with serious plans for his future
establishment, and was very naturally disposed to avail himself, as
far as he could, of the opportunities of travel and observation which
an interval of leisure, destined probably to be a short one, might
present. Moreover, in spite of his gloomy language, a specimen of
which has just been quoted, we are not to doubt that he derived much
pleasure from witnessing the extensive popularity of his writings, and
from the flattering homage he was sure to receive in his own person in
the various districts of his native country ; nor can any one wonder
that after the state of high excitement in which he had spent the
winter and spring, he, fond as he was of his family, and eager to make
them partakers in all his good fortune, should have, just at this
time, found himself incapable of sitting down contentedly for any
considerable period together in so humble and quiet a circle as that
appetite for wandering appears to have been only sharpened by his
Border excursion. After remaining a few days at home, he returned to
Edinburgh, and thence proceeded on another short tour, by way of
Stirling, to Inverary, and so back again, by Dumbarton and Glasgow, to
Mauchline. Of this second excursion no journal has been discovered;
nor do the extracts from his correspondence, printed by Dr. Currie,
appear to be worthy of much notice. In one he briefly describes the
West Highlands as a country "where savage streams tumble over savage
mountains, thinly overspread with savage flocks, which starvingly
support as savage inhabitants :" and in another he gives an account of
Jenny Geddes running a race after dinner with a Highlander's pony—of
his dancing and drinking till sunrise at a gentleman's house on Loch
Lomond, and of other similar matters. " I have as yet," says he, "
fixed on nothing with respect to the serious business of life. I am,
just as usual, a rhyming, mason-making, raking, aimless, idle fellow.
However, I shall somewhere have a farm soon."
course of this tour, Burns visited the mother and sisters of his
friend, Gavin Hamilton, then reeiding at Harvieston, in
Clackmannanshire, in the immediate neighbourhood of the magnificent
scenery of Castle Campbell and the \ale of Devon. He was especially
delighted with one of the young ladies, and, according to his usual
custom, celebrated her in a song in which, in opposition to his usual
custom, there is nothing but the respectfulness of admiration.
pleasant the banks of the clear winding Devon," etc.
Harviestonbank, also, the poet first became acquainted with Miss
Chalmers, afterwards Mrs. Hay, to whom one of the most interesting
series of his letters is addressed. Indeed, with the exception of his
letters to Mrs. Dunlop, there is, perhaps, no part of his
correspondence which may be quoted so uniformly to his honour.
on this expedition that, having been visited with a high flow of
Jacobite indignation while viewing the neglected palace at Stirling,
he was imprudent enough to write some verses bitterly vituperative of
the reigning family on the window of his inn. The verses were copied
and talked of; and although the next time Burns passed through
Stirling he himself broke the pane of glass containing them, they were
remembered years afterwards to his disadvantage and even danger. The
last couplet, alluding in the coarsest style to the melancholy state
of the good king's health at the time, was indeed an outrage of which
no political prejudice could have made a gentleman approve : but he,
in all probability, composed his verses after dinner; and surely what
Burns would fain have undone, others should not have been unwilling to
forget. In this case, too, the poetry " smells of the smith's shop,"
as well as the sentiment.
Dugald Stewart has pronounced Burns's epigrams to be, of all his
writings, the least worthy of his talents. Those which he composed in
the course of this tour, on being refused admittance to see the
iron-works at Carron, and on finding himself ill-served at the inn at
Inverary, in consequence of the Dukeof Argyle's having a large party
at the Castle, form no exceptions to the rule. He had never, we may
suppose, met with the famous recipe of the Jelly-bag Club; and was
addicted to beginning with the point.
young ladies of Harvieston were, according to Dr. Currie, surprised
with the calm manner in which Burns contemplated their fine scenery on
Devon-water, and the doctor enters into a little dissertation on the
subject, showing that a man of Burns's lively imagination might
probably have formed anticipations which the realities of the prospect
might rather disappoint. This is possible enough; but I suppose few
will take it for granted that Burns surveyed any scenes, either of
beauty or of grandeur, without emotion, merely because he did not
choose to be ecstatic for the benefit of a company of young ladies. He
was indeed very impatient of interruption on such occasions. I have
heard that, riding one dark night near Carron, his companion teased
him with noisy exclamations of delight and wonder whenever an opening
in the wood permitted them to see the magnificent
glare of the furnaces. " Look, Burns! Good Heavens! look! look! what a
glorious sight!"—" Sir," said Burns, clapping spurs to Jenny Geddes, "
I would not look! look! at your bidding if it were the mouth of
spent the month of July at Mossgiel, and Mr. Dugald Stewart, in a
letter to Currie, gives some recollections of him as he then appeared.
Notwithstanding the various reports I heard during the preceding
winter of Burns's pre dilection for convivial and not very select
society, I should have concluded in favour of his habits of sobriety
from all of him that ever fell under my own observation. He told me,
indeed, himself that the weakness of his stomach was such as to
deprive him entirely of any merit in his temperance. I was, however,
somewhat alarmed about the effect of his now comparatively sedentary
and luxurious life, when he confessed to me, the first night he spent
in my house after his winter's campaign in town, that he had been much
disturbed when in bed by a palpitation at his heart which, he said,
was a complaint to which he had of late become subject.
" In the
course of the same season I was led by curiosity to attend for an hour
or two a Masonic Lodge in Mauchline, where Burns presided. He had
occasion to make some short unpremeditated compliments to different
individuals, from whom he had no right to expect a visit, and
everything he said was happily conceived and forcibly as well as
fluently expressed. His manner of speaking in public had evidently the
marks of some practice in extempore elocution."(67)
(67) It was at this time, I believe, that Burns indited a lively
copy of verses, which have never yet been printed, and which I find
introduced with the following memorandum, in a small collection of
MSS., sent by the poet to Lady H. Don. " Mr. Chalmers, a gentleman
in Ayrshire, a particular friend of mine, asked me to write a
poetical epistle to a young lady, his Dulcinea. I had seen her, but
was scarcely acquainted with her, and wrote as follows:
"Wi' braw new branks
in mickle pride,
And eke a braw new brechan,
My Pegasus I'm got
" Whiles owre a bush
wi' downward crush,
The doited beastie stammers ;
Then up he gets, and off he sets,
For sake o' Willie Chalmers.
I doubt na, lass,
that weel-kenned name
May cost a pair o' blushes ;
I am nae stranger to
Nor his warm-urged wishes.
Your bonnie face sae
mild and sweet
His honest heart enamours,
And faith ye'll no
be lost a whit,
Tho' waired on Willie Chalmers.
Auld Truth hersel'
might swear ye're fair,
And Honour safely back her,
And Modesty assume your air,
And ne'er a ane mistak' her :
And sic twa love-inspiring een,
Might fire even holy Palmers ;
Nae wonder then they've fatal been
To honest Willie Chalmers.
I doubt na Fortune
may you shore
Some mim-mou'd pouthered priestie,
Fu' lifted up wi'
And band upon his breastie;
But oh ! what signifies to you
His lexicons and grammars ;
The feeling heart's the royal blue,
And that's wi' Willie Chalmers.
Some gapin' glowrin'
May warsle for your favour; May claw
his lug, and straik his beard,
And host up some palaver.
My bonny maid,
before ye wed
Sic clumsy-witted hammers,
Seek Heaven for
help, and barefit skelp
Awa' wi' Willie Chalmers.
Forgive the Bard !
my fond regard
For ane that shares my bosom,
Inspires my muse to gie 'm his dues,
For de'il a hair I roose him.
May powers aboon
unite you soon,
And fructify your amours,—
And every year come
in mair dear
To you and Willie Chalmers."
In August Burns revisited Stirlingshire
in company with Dr. Adair of Harrowgate, and remained ten days at
Harvieston. He was received with particular kindness at Ochtertyre, on
the Teith, by Mr. Ramsay (a friend of Blackloek), whose beautiful
retreat he enthusiastically admired. His host was among the last of
that old Scottish line of Latinists which began with Buchanan, and, I
fear, may be said to have ended with Gregory. Mr. Ramsay, among other
eccentricities, had sprinkled the walls of his house with Latin
inscriptions, some of them highly elegant ; and these particularly
interested Burns, who asked and obtained copies and translations of
them. This amiable man (whose manners and residence were not, I take
it, out of the novelist's recollection when he painted Monk-barns) was
deeply read in Scottish antiquities, and the author of some learned
essays on the elder poetry of his country. His conversation must have
delighted any man of talents; and Burns and he were mutually charmed
with each other. Ramsay advised him strongly to turn his attention to
the romantic drama, and proposed the Gentle Shepherd as a
model: he also urged him to write Scottish Georgics, observing
that Thomson had by no means exhausted that field. He appears to have
relished both hints. " But," says Mr. R., " to have executed either
plan, steadiness and abstraction from company were wanting."
" I have
been in the company of many men of genius," writes Mr. Ramsay, " some
of them poets ; but I never witnessed such flashes of intellectual
brightness as from him, the impulse of the moment, sparks of celestial
fire. I never was more delighted, therefore, than with his company two
days tête-à-tête. In a
mixed company I should have made little of him ; for, to use a
gamester's phrase, he did not know when to play oft0 and when to play
on. When I asked him whether the Edinburgh literati had mended
his poems by their criticisms,—' Sir,' said he, ' those gentlemen
remind me of some spinsters in my country, who spin their thread so
fine, that it is neither fit for weft nor woof.'"
Clackmannan Tower the poet's Jacobitism procured him a hearty welcome
from the ancient lady of the place, who gloried in considering herself
as a lineal descendant of Robert Bruce. She bestowed on Burns what
knighthood the touch of the hero's sword could confer; delighted him
by giving as her toast after dinner, Hoohi uncos
(68)—Away, strangers ! —and when he would
have kissed her hand at parting, insisted on a warmer salute, saying,
" What ails thee at my lips, Robin ?" At Dunfermline the poet betrayed
deep emotion, Dr. Adair tells us, on seeing the grave of the Bruce ;
but passing to another mood on entering the adjoining church, he
mounted the pulpit and addressed his companions, who had at his desire
ascended the cutty-stool, in a parody of the rebuke
which he had himself undergone some time before at Mauchline.
A shepherd's cry when strange sheep mingle in the flock.
Dunfermline he crossed the Frith of Forth to Edinburgh, and forthwith
set out with his friend Nicoll on a more extensive tour than he had as
yet undertaken or was ever again to undertake. Some fragments of his
journal have recently been discovered, and are now in my hands ; so
that I may hope to add some interesting particulars to the account of
Dr. Currie. The travellers hired a post-chaise for their
expedition—the high-school master being, probably, no very skilful
25th, 1787.—This day," says Burns, "I leave Edinburgh for a tour, in
company with my good friend, Mr. Nicoll, whose originality of humour
promises me much entertainment.—Linlithgow—A fertile improved
country is West Lothian. The more elegance and luxury among the
farmers I always observe, in equal proportion, the rudeness and
stupidity of the peasantry. This remark I have made all over the
Lothians, Merse, Roxburgh, etc. ; and for this, among other reasons, I
think that a man of romantic taste, ' a man of feeling,' will be
better pleased with the poverty, but intelligent minds, of the
peasantry of Ayrshire—(peasantry they are all below the justice of
peace)—than the opulence of a club of Merse farmers, when he, at the
same time, considers the Vandalism of their plough-folks, etc. I carry
this idea so far that an unenclosed, unimproved country is to me
actually more agreeable as a prospect than a country cultivated like a
hardly to be expected that Robert Burns should have estimated the
wealth of nations entirely on the principles of a political economist.
Linlithgow he says : " The town carries the appearance
of rude, decayed, idle grandeur—charmingly retired situation— the old
Royal Palace a tolerably fine, but melancholy ruin—sweetly situated by
the brink of a loch. Shown the room where the beautiful injured Mary
Queen of Scots was born. A pretty good old Gothic church—the infamous
stool of repentance, in the old Romish way, on a lofty situation. What
a poor pimping business is a Presbyterian place of worship ! Dirty,
narrow, and squalid, stuck in a corner of old Popish grandeur, such as
Linlithgow, and much more, Melrose ! Ceremony and show, if judiciously
thrown in, are absolutely necessary for the bulk of mankind, both in
religious and civil matters."
Bannockburn he writes as follows : " Here no Scot can pass
uninterested. I fancy to myself that I see my gallant countrymen
coming over the hill and down upon the plunderers of their country,
the murderers of their fathers, noble revenge and just hate glowing in
every vein, striding more and more eagerly as they approach the
oppressive, insulting, bloodthirsty foe. I see them meet in glorious
triumphant congratulation on the victorious field, exulting in their
heroic royal leader and rescued liberty and independence."
(69) In the last words
of Burns's note above quoted he perhaps glances at a beautiful trait
of old Barbour, where he describes Bruce's soldiers as crowding
round him at the conclusion of one of his hard-fought days, with as
much curiosity as if they had never seen his person before.
"Sic words spak they
And for his hie
Ferleyit and yernit
him for to see,
That with him ay was
wont to be."
have the germ of Burns's famous Ode on the Battle of Bannockburn.
Taymouth, the journal merely has, " described in rhyme." This
alludes to the "verses written with a pencil over the mantelpiece of
the parlour in the inn at Kenmore," some of which are among his best
English heroics :
" Poetic ardours in my
Lone wandering by the hermit's mossy cell; The
sweeping theatre of hanging woods ; The incessant
roar of headlong-tumbling floods. Here Poesy
might wake her heaven-taught lyre, And look
through Nature with creative fire ;
" Here, to the wrongs
of Fate half reconciled,
steps might wander wild ;
And Disappointment, in
these lonely bounds,
Find balm to sooth her
bitter wrankling wounds.
Here heart-struck Grief
might heavenward stretch her scan,
And injured Worth
forget and pardon man."
Glenlyon we have this memorandum : " Druid's temple, three circles of
stones, the outermost sunk ; the second has thirteen stones remaining
; the innermost eight ; two large detached ones like a gate to the
south-east—say prayers in it."
notes on Dunkeld and Blair of Athole are as follows : " Dunkeld—Breakfast
with Dr. Stuart—Neil Gow plays ; a short, stout-bailt, Highland
figure, with his greyish hair shed on his honest social brow—an
interesting face, marking strong sense, kind openheartedness, mixed
with unmistrusting simplicity —visit his house—Margaret Gow.—Friday—ride
up Tummel river to Blair. Fascally, a beautiful romantic nest—wild
grandeur of the pass of Killikrankie—visit the gallant Lord Dundee's
stone.(70) Blair—sup with the
Duchess—easy and happy, from the manners of that family—confirmed in
my good opinion of my friend Walker.—Saturday—visit the scenes
round Blair— fine, but spoilt with bad taste."
It is not true that this stone marks the spot where Dundee received
Professor Walker, who, as we have seen, formed Burns's acquaintance in
Edinburgh through Blacklock, was at this period tutor in the family of
Athole, and he gives the following particulars of the poet's reception
at the seat of his noble patron : " I had often, like others,
experienced the pleasures which arise from the sublime or elegant
landscape, but I never saw those feelings so intense as in Burns. When
we reached a rustic hut on the river Tilt, where it is overhung by a
woody precipice, from which there is a noble waterfall, he threw
himself on the heathy seat, and gave himself up to a tender,
abstracted, and voluptuous enthusiasm of imagination. It was with much
difficulty I prevailed on him to quit this spot, and to be introduced
in proper time to supper.
seemed at once to perceive and to appreciate what was due to the
company and to himself, and never to forget a proper respect for the
separate species of dignity belonging to each. He did not arrogate
conversation ; but when led into it, he spoke with ease, propriety,
and manliness. He tried to exert his abilities, because he knew it was
ability alone gave him a title to be there. The Duke's fine young
family attracted much of his admiration ; he drank their healths as
honest men and bonny lasses, an idea which was much applauded by
the company, and with which he has very felicitously closed his poem.
day I took a ride with him through some of the most remarkable parts
of that neighbourhood, and was highly gratified by his conversation.
As a specimen of his happiness of conception and strength of
expression, I will mention a remark which he made on his
fellow-traveller, who was walking at the time a few paces before us.
He was a man of a robust, but clumsy, person ; and while Burns was
expressing to me the value he entertained for him, on account of his
vigorous talents, although they were clouded at times by coarseness of
manners, ' in short,' he added, ' his mind is like his body, he has a
confounded strong in-knee'd sort of a soul.'
attention was paid to Burns both before and after the Duke's return,
of which he was perfectly sensible, without being vain ; and at his
departure I recommended to him, as the most appropriate return he
could make, to write some descriptive verses on any of the scenes with
which he had been so much delighted. After leaving Blair, he, by the
Duke's advice, visited the Falls of Bruar, and in a few days I
received a letter from Inverness with the verses enclosed."
(71) The Banks of the Bruar, whose naked condition called forth "
the humble petition " to which Mr. Walker thus refers, have since
those days been well cared for, and the river in its present state
could have no pretext for the prayer:
" Let lofty firs, and ashes cool, my lowly banks o'erspread,
And view, deep-bending in the pool, their shadows' watery bed ;
Let fragrant birks, in woodbines drest, my craggy cliffs adorn,
And for the little songster's nest, the close-embowering thorn."
Blair, Burns first met with Mr. Graham of Fintray, a gentleman to
whose kindness he was afterwards indebted on more than one important
occasion ; and Mr. Walker expresses great regret that he did not
remain a day or two more, in which case he must have been introduced
to Mr. Dundas, afterwards Viscount Melville, who was then Treasurer of
the Navy, and had the chief management of the affairs of Scotland.
This eminent statesman was, though little addicted to literature, a
warm lover of his own country, and in general of whatever redounded to
her honour ; he was, moreover, very especially qualified to appreciate
Burns as a companion ; and had such an introduction taken place, he
might not improbably have been induced to bestow that consideration on
the claims of the poet which, in the absence of any personal
acquaintance, Burns's works ought to have received at his hands.
From Blair, Burns passed " many miles
through a wild country, among cliffs grey with eternal snows, and
gloomy savage glens, till he crossed Spey ; and went down the stream
through Strathspey (so famous in Scottish music), Badenoch, etc., to
Grant Castle, where he spent half a day with Sir James Grant ; crossed
the country to Fort George, but called by the way at Cawdor, the
ancient seat of Macbeth, where he saw the identical bed in which,
tradition says, King Duncan was murdered ; lastly, from Fort
George to Inverness." (72)
Letter to Gilbert Burns, Edinburgh, December 17th, 1787.
Inverness, Burns went along the Murray Frith to Fochabers, taking
Culloden Muir and Brodie-house in his way.(73)
" Cross Spey to Fochabers—fine palace, worthy of the noble, the
polite, and generous proprietor.—The Duke makes me happier than ever
great man did ; noble, princely, yet mild, condescending and
affable—gay and kind. The Duchess charming, witty, kind, and
sensible—God bless them."
(73) " Thursday, Came over Culloden Muir—reflections on the field of
battle—breakfast at Kilraick—old Mrs. Rose—sterling sense, warm
heart, strong passion, honest pride—all to an uncommon degree—a true
chieftain's wife—daughter of Clephane—Mrs. Rose, jun., a little
milder than the mother, perhaps owing to her being younger—two young
ladies—Miss Rose sung two Gaelic songs—beautiful and lovely —Miss
Sophy Brodie, not very beautiful, but most agreeable and
amiable—both of them the gentlest, mildest, sweetest creatures on
earth, and happiness be with them ! Brodie-house to lie—Mr. B. truly
polite, but not quite the Highland cordiality.—Friday, Cross the
Findhorn to Tirres—famous stone at Forres—Mr. Brodie tells me the
muir where Shakespeare lays Maobeth's witch-meeting is still
haunted— that the country folks won't pass by night.—Elgin—venerable
ruins of the abbey, a grander effect at first glance than Melrose,
but nothing near so beautiful."—MS. Journal.
who had been much noticed by this noble family when in Edinburgh,
happened to present himself at Gordon Castle just at the dinner hour,
and, being invited to take a place at the table, did so, without for a
moment adverting to the circumstance that his travelling companion had
been left alone at the inn in the adjacent village. On remembering
this soon after dinner, he begged to be allowed to rejoin his friend ;
and the Duke of Gordon, who now for the first time learned that he was
not journeying alone, immediately proposed to send an invitation to
Mr. Nicoll to come to the Castle. His Grace's messenger found the
haughty schoolmaster striding up and down before the inn-door in a
state of high wrath and indignation at what he considered Burns's
neglect, and no apologies could soften his mood. He had already
ordered horses, and the poet, finding that he must choose between the
ducal circle and his irritable associate, at once left Gordon Castle,
and repaired to the inn; whence Nicoll and he, in silence and mutual
displeasure, pursued their journey along the coast of the Moray Frith.
This incident may serve to suggest some of the annoyances to which
persons moving, like our poet, on the debateable land between two
different ranks of society, must ever be subjected. To play the lion
under such circumstances must be difficult at best, but a delicate
business indeed when the jackals are presumptuous. This pedant could
not stomach the superior success of his friend—and yet, alas for poor
human nature ! he certainly was one of the most enthusiastic of his
admirers, and one of the most affectionate of all his intimates. The
abridgment of Burns's visit at Gordon Castle " was not only," says Mr.
Walker, " a mortifying disappointment, but in all probability a
serious misfortune, as a longer stay among persons of such influence
might have begot a permanent intimacy, and, on their parts, an active
concern for his future advancement."
days after leaving Fochabers, Burns transmitted to Gordon Castle his
acknowledgment of the hospitality he had received, in the stanzas :
" Streams that glide on
Never bound by winter's chains," etc
Duchess, on hearing them read, said she supposed they were Dr.
Beattie's, and on learning whose they really were, expressed her wish
that Burns had celebrated Gordon Castle in his own dialect. The verses
are among the poorest of his productions.
his journey along the coast, the poet visited successively Nairn,
Forres, Aberdeen, and Stonehive, where one of his relations, James
Burnes, writer in Montrose, met him by appointment, and conducted him
into the circle of his paternal kindred, among whom he spent two or
three days. When William Burnes, his father, abandoned his native
district, never to revisit it, he, as he used to tell his children,
took a sorrowful farewell of his brother on the summit of the last
hill from which the roof of their lowly home could be descried, and
the old man ever after kept up an affectionate correspondence with his
family. It fell to the poet's lot, as we have seen, to communicate his
father's last illness and death to the Kincardine-shire kindred; and
of his subsequent correspondence with Mr. James Burnes, some specimens
have already been given by the favour of his son. Burns now formed a
personal acquaintance with these good people; and in a letter to his
brother Gilbert, we find him describing them in terms which show the
lively interest he took in all their concerns.(74)
"The rest of my stages," says he, "are not worth rehearsing; warm as I
was from Ossian's country, where I had seen his grave, what cared I
for fishing-towns and fertile carses ! "
General Correspondence, No. 32.
He arrived once more in Edinburgh on
September 16th, having travelled about six hundred miles in
two-and-twenty days— greatly extended his acquaintance with his own
country, and visited some of its most classical scenery—observed
something of Highland manners, which must have been as interesting as
they were novel to him—and strengthened considerably among the sturdy
Jacobites of the North those political opinions which he at this
few poems composed during this Highland tour, I have already mentioned
two or three. While standing by the Fall of Fyers, near Loch Ness, he
wrote with his pencil the vigorous couplets:
the healthy hills and rugged woods,
roaring Fyers pours his mossy floods," etc.
Sir William Murray's of Ochtertyre, he celebrated Miss Murray of
Lintrose, commonly called " The Flower of Sutherland," in the song:
" Blythe, blythe, and
merry was she,
Blythe was she but and ben," etc.
verses On Scaring some Wildfowl on Loch Turit(75)
were composed while under the same roof. These last, except, perhaps,
Bruar Water, are the best that he added to his collection
during the wanderings of the summer. But in Burns's subsequent
productions, we find many traces of the delight with which he had
contemplated Nature in these alpine regions.
(75) " Why, ye tenants of the lake,
For me your wat'ry haunts forsake," etc.
once more visited his family at Mossgiel, and Mr. Millar at Dalswinton,
ere the winter set in; and on more leisurely examination of that
gentleman's estate, we find him writing as if he had all but decided
to become his tenant on the farm of Elliesland. It was not, however,
until he had for the third time visited Dumfriesshire, in March, 1788,
that a bargain was actually concluded.
than half of the intervening months were spent in Edinburgh, where
Burns found, or fancied, that his presence was necessary for the
satisfactory completion of his affairs with the booksellers. It seems
to be clear enough that one great object was the society of his jovial
intimates in the capital. Nor was he without the amusement of a little
romance to fill up what vacant hours they left him. He formed, about
this time, his acquaintance with a lady, distinguished, I believe, for
taste and talents, as well as for personal beauty, and the purity of
whose character was always above suspicion—the same to whom he
addressed the song:
Clarinda, mistress of my soul," etc.
and a series of prose
epistles which have been separately published, and which, if they
present more instances of bombastic language and fulsome sentiment
than could be produced from all his writings besides, contain also, it
must be acknowledged, passages of deep and noble feeling which no one
but Burns could have penned. One sentence, as strongly illustrative of
the poet's character, I may venture to transcribe: "People of nice
sensibility and generous minds have a certain intrinsic dignity which
fires at being trifled with, or lowered, or even too closely
(76) It is proper to - note that the Letters to Clarinda were
printed by one who had no right to do so, and that the Court of
Session granted an interdict against their circulation.
At this time the publication called
Johnsons Museum of Scottish Song was going on in Edinburgh, and
the editor appears to have early prevailed on Burns to give him some
assistance in the arrangement of his materials. Though Green Grows
the Rashes is the only song, entirely his, which appears in the
first volume, published in 1787, many of the old ballads included in
that volume bear traces of his hand; but in the second volume, which
appeared in March, 1788, we find no fewer than five songs by Burns;
two that have been already mentioned— Clarinda, and How
pleasant the Banks of the clear winding Devon; and three far
better than them—viz. Theniel Menzies' bonny Mary;—that grand
" Farewell, ye dungeons
dark and strong,
The wretch's destiny,
Macpherson's time will
not be long
yonder gallows tree ; "
both of which performances
bespeak the recent impressions of his Highland visit ;—and, lastly,
Whistle and I'll come to you, my Lad. Burns had been, from his
youth upwards, an enthusiastic lover of the old minstrelsy and music
of his country ; but he now studied both subjects with far better
opportunities and appliances than he could have commanded previously ;
and it is from this time that we must date his ambition to transmit
his own poetry to posterity, in eternal association with those
exquisite airs which had hitherto, in far too many instances, been
married to verses that did not deserve to be immortal. It is well
known, that from this time Burns composed very few pieces but songs ;
and whether we ought or ought not to regret that such was the case,
must depend on the estimate we make of his songs as compared with his
other poems ; a point on which critics are to this hour divided, and
on which their descendants are not very likely to agree. Mr. Walker,
who is one of those that lament Burns's comparative dereliction of the
species of composition which he most cultivate! in the early days of
his inspiration, suggests very sensibly, that if he had not taken to
song-writing, he would probably have written little or nothing amidst
the various temptations to company and dissipation which now and hence
forth surrounded him—to say nothing of the active duties of life in
which he was at length about to be engaged.
was present, on December 31st, at a dinner to celebrate the birthday
of the unfortunate Charles Edward Stuart, and produced on the occasion
an ode, part of which Dr. Currie has preserved. The specimen will not
induce any regret that the remainder of the piece has been suppressed.
It appears to be a mouthing rhapsody—far, far different indeed from
The Chevalier's Lament, which the poet composed some months
afterwards, with probably the tithe of the effort, while riding alone
" through a tract of melancholy muirs between Galloway and Ayrshire,
it being Sunday."(77)
General Correspondence, No. 46.
For six weeks of the time that Burns
spent this winter in Edinburgh he was confined to his room, in
consequence of an overturn in a hackney coach. " Here I am," he
writes, " under the care of a surgeon, with a bruised limb extended on
a cushion, and the tints of my mind vying with the livid horrors
preceding a midnight thunderstorm. A drunken coachman was the cause of
the first and incomparably the lightest evil ; misfortune, bodily
constitution, hell, and myself have formed a quadruple alliance to
guarantee the other. I have taken tooth and nail to the Bible, and
have got through the five books of Moses and half way in Joshua. It is
really a glorious book. I sent for my bookbinder to-day, and ordered
him to get an 8vo Bible in sheets, the best paper and print in town,
and bind it with all the elegance of his craft."
Reliques, p. 43.
another letter, which opens gaily enough, we find him reverting to the
same prevailing darkness of mood. " I can't say I am altogether at my
ease when I see anywhere in my path that meagre, squalid, famine-faced
spectre Poverty attended, as he always is, by iron-fisted Oppression
and leering Contempt. But I have sturdily withstood his buffetings
many a hard-laboured day, and still my motto is, I DARE. My worst
enemy is moi-meme. There are just two creatures that I would envy— a
horse in his wild state traversing the forests of Asia, or an oyster
on some of the desert shores of Europe. The one has not a wish without
enjoyment ; the other has neither wish nor fear."(79)
Reliques, p. 44.
specimen of this magnificent hypochondriacism may be sufficient : "
These have been six horrible weeks. Anguish and low spirits have made
me unfit to read, write, or think. I have a hundred times wished that
one could resign life as an officer does a commission ; for I would
not take in any poor ignorant wretch by selling out. Lately, I was a
sixpenny private, and, God knows, a miserable soldier enough : now I
march to the campaign a starving cadet, a little more conspicuously
wretched. I am ashamed of all this ; for, though I do not want bravery
for the warfare of life, I could wish, like some other soldiers, to
have as much fortitude or cunning as to dissemble or conceal my
Letter to Mrs. Dunlop, January 2rst, 1783.
impossible to doubt that Burns had, in fact, lingered in Edinburgh in
the hope that, to use a vague but sufficiently expressive phrase,
something would be done for him. He visited and revisited a
farm,—talked and wrote scholarly and wisely about " having a fortune
at the plough-tail," and so forth ; but all the while nourished, and
assuredly it would have been most strange if he had not, the fond
dream that the admiration of his country would ere long present itself
in some solid and tangible shape. His illness and confinement gave him
leisure to concentrate his imagination on the darker side of his
prospects ; and the letters which we have quoted may teach those who
envy the powers and the fame of genius to pause for a moment over the
annals of literature, and think what superior capabilities of misery
have been, in the great majority of cases, interwoven with the
possession of those very talents from which all but their possessors
derive unmingled gratification.
Burns's distresses, however, were to be yet
farther aggravated. While still under the hands of his surgeon, he
received intelligence from Mauchline that his intimacy with Jean
Armour had once more exposed her to the reproaches of her family. The
father sternly and at once turned her out of doors ; and Burns, unable
to walk across his room, had to write to his friends in Mauchline to
procure shelter for his children and for her whom he considered as—all
but his wife. In a letter to Mrs. Dunlop, written on hearing of this
new misfortune, he says, "I wish I were dead, but I'm no like to
die. I fear I am something like— undone : but I hope for the best.
You must not desert me. Your friendship I think I can count on, though
I should date my letters from a marching regiment. Early in life, and
all my life, I reckoned on a recruiting drum as my forlorn hope.
Seriously, though, life at present presents me with but a melancholy
path But my limb will soon be sound, and I shall struggle on." (81)
Reliques, p. 48.
to have been now that Burns at last screwed up his courage to
solicit the active interference in his behalf of the Earl of Glencairn.
The letter is a brief one. Burns could ill endure this novel attitude,
and he rushed at once to his request. " I wish," says he, " to get
into the Excise. I am told your lordship will easily procure me the
grant from the commissioners ; and your lordship's patronage and
kindness, which have already rescued me from obscurity, wretchedness,
and exile, embolden me to ask that interest. You have likewise put it
in my power to save the little tie of home that sheltered an aged
mother, two brothers, and three sisters from destruction. There, my
lord, you have bound me over to the highest gratitude. My heart sinks
within me at the idea of applying to any other of The Great who have
honoured me with their countenance. I am ill qualified to dog the
heels of greatness with the impertinence of solicitation, and tremble
nearly as much at the thought of the cold promise as of the cold
General Correspondence, No. 40.
be hard to think that this letter was coldly or negligently received ;
on the contrary, we know that Burns's gratitude to Lord Glencairn
lasted as long as his life. But the Excise appointment which he
coveted was not procured by any exertion of this noble patron's
influence. Mr. Alexander Wood, surgeon (still affectionately
remembered in Scotland as "kind old Sandy Wood"), happening to hear
Burns, while his patient, mention the object of his wishes, went
immediately, without dropping any hint of his intention, and
communicated the state of the poet's case to Mr. Graham, of Fintry,
one of the commissioners of Excise, who had met Burns at the Duke of
Athole's in the autumn, and who immediately had the poet's name put on
" I have
chosen this, my dear friend" (thus wrote Burns to Mrs. Dunlop), "
after mature deliberation. The question is not at what door of
Fortune's palace shall we enter in ? but what doors does she open to
us ? I was not likely to get anything to do. I wanted un but, which is
a dangerous, an unhappy situation. I got this without any hanging on
or mortifying solicitation. It is immediate bread, and, though poor in
comparison of the last eighteen months of my existence, 'tis luxury in
comparison of all my preceding life. Besides, the commissioners are
some qf them my acquaintances, and all of them my firm friends."
Reliques, p. 50.
seems to have kept up an angry correspondence, during his confinement,
with his bookseller, Mr. Creech, whom he also abuses very heartily in
his letters to his friends in Ayrshire. The publisher's accounts,
however, when they were at last made up, must have given the impatient
author a very agreeable surprise ; for in his letter above quoted to
Lord Glencairn, we find him expressing his hopes that the gross
profits of his book might amount to " better than £200," whereas, on
the day of settling- with Mr. Creech, he found himself in possession
of £500, if not of £600.(84)
Mr. Nicoll, the most intimate friend Burns had at this time, writes to
Mr. John Lewars, Excise officer at Dumfries, immediately on hearing
of the poet's death: "He certainly told me that he received £600 for
the first Edinburgh edition, and £100 afterwards for the copyright."
(MS. in my possession.) Dr. Currie states the gross product of
Creech's edition at £500, and Burns himself, in one of his printed
letters, at £400 only. Nicoll hints, in the letter already referred
to, that Burns had contracted debts while in Edinburgh which he
might not wish to avow on all occasions ; and if we are to believe
this, and, as is probable, the expense of printing the subscription
edition, should, moreover, be deducted from the £700 stated by Mr.
Nicoll—the apparent contradictions in these stories may be pretty
nearly reconciled. —There appears to be reason for thinking that
Creech subsequently paid more than £100 for the copyright. If he did
not, how came Burns to realise, as Currie states it at the end of
his Memoir, " nearly £900 in all by his poems" ?
supply came truly in the hour of need ; and it seems to have elevated
his spirits greatly, and given him for the time a new stock of
confidence ; for he now resumed immediately his purpose of taking Mr.
Miller's farm, retaining his Excise commission in his pocket as a
dernier ressort, to be made use of only should some reverse of
fortune come upon him. His first act, however, was to relieve his
brother from his difficulties by advancing £180, or £200, to assist
him in the management of Mossgiel. " I give myself no airs on this,"
he generously says in a letter to Dr. Moore, " for it was mere
selfishness on my part. I was conscious that the wrong scale of the
balance was pretty heavily charged, and I thought that the throwing a
little filial piety and fraternal affection into the scale in my
favour might help to smooth matters at the grand reckoning."(85)
(85) General Correspondance, No. 66.