The Life of Burns

by John Gibson Lockhart



"Ramsay and famous Fergusson,

Gied Forth and Tay a lift aboon;

Yarrow and Tweed to monie a tune
                       Thro' Scotland rings,

While Irvine, Lugar, Ayr, and Doon,

                       Naebody sings."

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 tracts.

(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 introduced.

'' 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."

This was 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.

Burns 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.

The 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 burgh.(66)


(66) Mr. R. Chambers's Notes.


The poet 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. 

He wrote 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 roaring red,
While tempests blaw."

Burns 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.

Burns at 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 of Mossgiel.

His 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."

In the 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.

" How pleasant the banks of the clear winding Devon," etc.

At 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.

It was 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.

Mr. 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.

The 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 hell!"

Burns 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 astride,

   And up Parnassus pechin;

" 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 your fame,
   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' Hebrew lore,
   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' countra laird,
   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.'"

At 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.


(68) A shepherd's cry when strange sheep mingle in the flock.


From 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 equestrian.

"August 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 garden."

It was hardly to be expected that Robert Burns should have estimated the wealth of nations entirely on the principles of a political economist.

Of 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."

At 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)

(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 of king;

And for his hie undertaking

Ferleyit and yernit him for to see,

That with him ay was wont to be."

Here we have the germ of Burns's famous Ode on the Battle of Bannockburn.

At 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 bosom swell,
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,

Misfortune's lighten'd 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."

Of 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."

His 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."


(70) It is not true that this stone marks the spot where Dundee received his death-wound.


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.

" He 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.

"Next 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.'

" Much 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)


(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."

At 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)


(72) Letter to Gilbert Burns, Edinburgh, December 17th, 1787.


From 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.

Burns, 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."

A few days after leaving Fochabers, Burns transmitted to Gordon Castle his acknowledgment of the hospitality he had received, in the stanzas :

" Streams that glide on orient plains,
Never bound by winter's chains," etc

The 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.

Pursuing 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 ! "


(74) 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 period avowed.

Of the 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:

"Among the healthy hills and rugged woods,

The roaring Fyers pours his mossy floods," etc.

When at 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.

And the 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.

The poet 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.

More 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 approached.(76)

(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 lyric:

" Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong,
    The wretch's destiny,

Macpherson's time will not be long

    On 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.

Burns 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)


(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." (78)


(78) Reliques, p. 43.


In 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)


(79) Reliques, p. 44.


One more 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 cowardice." (80)


(80) Letter to Mrs. Dunlop, January 2rst, 1783.


It seems 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)


(81) Reliques, p. 48.


It seems 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 denial." (82)


(82) General Correspondence, No. 40.


It would 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 the roll.

" 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." (83)


 (83) Reliques, p. 50.


Our poet 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)

(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" ?

This 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.



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