BURNS IN THE SCOTTISH BORDER
The Bard’s journey through the Borders began from Edinburgh on Saturday the 5th of May 1787, but before we leave the Capital City it may be of interest to know of some very important happenings that occurred which had some bearing on his tour. On the 21st of April the first Edinburgh edition of his works was published, and was an immediate success. He sold the copyright of his works to his publisher, William Creech, for the sum of £100. On the evening before he began his tour, Burns wrote a letter to the Earl of Glencairn, thanking him for his many kindnesses. The Earl was a great admirer of the works of the poet, and it was he who introduced Burns to many of the Edinburgh gentry. Another admirer of the Bard was Robert Ainslie, a law student in an Edinburgh office, a young man of carefree disposition, a man who liked the lassies, and if there was a glass of wine to be had, or a song to be sung, so much the better, a man who fitted very well into the character of the poet, and it was he who was to accompany Burns on part of his tour. Before leaving Edinburgh Burns bought himself a mare for a sum of over four pounds sterling, quite a considerable sum of money in those days, and he named her “Jenny Geddes”, after the lady who threw a stool at the Bishop of Edinburgh, when he tried to force the Scottish Church to accept the book of common prayer.Patrick Miller, who owned an estate in Dumfriesshire, had offered Burns the lease of a farm on his estate, and the poet intended to visit this farm sometime during his tour.So it was that on that Saturday morning, Burns left Edinburgh a very happy man, he was looking forward with glee to the many places he would visit where so much of Scotland’s history had been made. Elated by the enormous success of the first Edinburgh edition of his works, with money in his pocket and a companion suited to his needs, he set off on his first visit to the Scottish Borders.
The first destination of the two friends was the Market town of Duns, and the route that they followed was through Haddington, Gifford and Longformacus. It was about this time that Border towns such as Berwick, Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick were being linked to Edinburgh by post roads, and the whole area was much more heavily wooded than it is today, with the moorland encroaching on the poorly laid roads. During his tour Burns kept a notebook and at various times he would note something that interested him, or write his impression of someone he had met. Reading this notebook we find him saying that the Lammermuir hills were miserably dreary, but as he approaches Duns, he had a glorious view of the Merse. The Duns Burns Club recently erected a cairn near the spot where Burns stopped to admire the view, and that view would reveal to him the largest and richest tract of agricultural land in the whole of Scotland. Arriving at Berrywell, the home of Robert Ainslie’s father, Burns wrote some of his impressions of the family. Mr. Ainslie senior was a land steward on the estates of Lord Douglas in Berwickshire, and the poet observed that the household has a black servant, a most unusual thing in the Scotland of 1787. The daughter of the house, Rachel Ainslie, receives a little more attention than some of the others, she is an angel, slightly plump, handsome face, eyes of sweetness and humour, and the gentlest, most unaffected modesty. Burns spent that first Saturday night with the Ainslie family and some of their friends. On Sunday morning they all attended a service in the local parish church, where the Rev. Robert Bowmaker had chosen as his text for his sermon a severe denunciation of obstinate sinners and the poet, observing that Rachel Ainslie was having difficulty finding the text in her bible, wrote and passed to her the following note;
“Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
Nor idle text pursue,
‘Twas guilty sinners that he meant
Not angels such as you”.
Burns gives his impression of the Rev. R. Bowmaker in these words;
“He has strong lungs, pretty judicious remark, but unskilled in propriety, and altogether unconscious of his want of it.”
The Bard’s companion, Robert Ainslie, was born at Berrywell, and became a writer to the signet in 1789. He was introduced to Burns in Edinburgh, and they became very close friends. Burns introduced him to Mrs. Maclehose (Clarinda), a Glasgow girl then residing in Edinburgh, and he is the hero of the song, “Robin shure in Hairst”. When the two Roberts awoke the next morning they made their way to Coldstream, a town previously known as Lennel, which is joined to England by a five arched bridge, On the Scottish side of that bridge there is a marriage house, much the same as there is at Gretna.Looking at the notes written by the Bard we find him saying, “Glorious Tweed, fine bridge, dine with Mr. Foreman, tea at Lennel house with Mr. and Mrs. Brydon, sleep at Coldstream.” After many years of research we are still unable to say with any certainty where the poet slept at Coldstream, but my guess is that he slept at Lennel House. A long time after Robert Burns first set foot in England, Robert Ainslie wrote a letter to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, dated the 20th of April 1834. He relates a story of how Burns, on stepping into England, doffed his blue bonnet, and kneeling down on the turf at the roadside, invoked a blessing on Scotland, using the words from his “Cotters Saturday Night”, “O Scotia my dear my native soil” A nice little story, but some Burnsians, including me, find it just a little difficult to accept. The next morning finds the travellers making their way to Kelso to breakfast, and Burns notes that Kelso has a fine situation, a fine bridge and enchanting views. Here the poet was introduced to Mr. Robert Scott, of the Bank of Scotland, and to Mr. David Mcdowall of Caverton Mill, with whom he dines. Burns notes that his host sells his sheep …ewe and lamb together at two guineas a piece. On this visit to Kelso the Bard visited Floors Castle, and saw the Holly bush that marks the spot where a bursting canon killed James the Second, King of Scots. After remarking that farms in Roxburghshire and Berwickshire are on a large scale compared to Ayrshire, Burns rode up the rivers Teviot and Jed, to sleep at Jedburgh. The poet spent three days at Jedburgh, and his host was Mr. James Fair, a lawyer who owned the Langlee Estate, and was an agent for the British Linen Bank. The house he lived in was one of the chief houses in the Burgh, and the marble jambs and carved woodwork around the fireplace were relics of sixteenth century grandeur. After breakfast with Mr. Fair the party walked through the town, and the Bard noticed the magnificence of the Abbey. It is in this Abbey that Jenny Cruikshanks is buried and it was to her that Burns wrote that lovely song,
“A rosebud by my early walk”
During this walk the poet visited an auction of crops, and was introduced “to a polite soldier like gentleman”, Captain John Rutherford, and dined with this gentleman at his estate of Mossburnford.“ Returning to Jedburgh the Bard visited Love Lane and Blackburn,two fairyscenes, and was later introduced to the local Minister, the Rev. Thomas Sommerville, who was sadly addicted to punning. The next morning Burns rode over the hills to visit Wauchope House, the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Scott. This lady was a niece of Mrs. Alison Cockburn, who wrote the “Flowers of the Forest”, and she had written an epistle to Burns in Edinburgh, saying how much she admired his works, but doubting they were the work of a ploughman. Burns was intrigued by her rhyming letter and wrote his “Reply to the guidwife of Wauchope House”, one of his finest pieces. In his reply he tells her of the time when he was only fifteen years old and working as the chief labourer on his father’s farm at Lochlea, and how even at that young age he had a burning desire to extol Scotland and the Scottish people.
“Even then, a wish, I mind its power,
A wish that to my latest hour,
Shall strongly heave my breast,
That I for poor auld Scotland’s sake
Some usefu’ plan or book could make,
Or sing a sang at least.”
In 1985 the Hawick Burns Club erected a memorial cairn on the site of the now demolished Wauchope House, and gather there on the second Sunday of July each year, to commemorate the visit Robert Burns made to their district.
Next morning we find the Bard having breakfast with Mr.Sommerville and Miss Lindsay, and later that day he went with a party to visit Esther Easton, a remarkable woman for reciting poetry, and one who could repeat by heart, Pope’s Homer from end to end. The Miss Lindsay that Burns speaks of was a daughter of a Jedburgh doctor, and at the time of Burns’s visit he occupied the house associated with Mary, Queen of Scots. The grounds of that house must have been more extensive than they are today, for the Burns party to go walking in the grounds.
The next note in the journal is brief, it says, “was waited on by the Magistrates, and presented with the freedom of the burgh”. Burns says very little about this high honour, and the local records show that he did not sign the Burgess roll.
Until 1939 his Burgess ticket was thought to be lost, but in that year it was put up for sale. At that time Jedburgh was unable to raise the money to buy it back, but it was returned to Jedburgh in 1971.
The ticket records that:-
“On the 11th of May 1787, Robert Burns Esqu. was entered and received into the liberties of this burgh, and made a free Burgess and guild brother of the same, who gave his oath with all ceremonies used and wont. Whereupon he required acts of court and protested for an extract of the same under the common seal of the burgh”.
On the same day that he received the freedom of Jedburgh he left the town with some melancholy, and proceeded to Kelso. The Bard’s notebook records that in Kelso he “dined with the farmer’s club, all gentlemen, each has a hunter valued at 30 to 50 guineas, to go fox hunting. Go out with Mr. Ker, a clever handsome widower who has some fine children, everything in Mr. Ker’s most excellent, he offers to accompany me in my English tour. Burns stayed that night in Mr. Ker’s Stodrig farm. Next day, which was the 12th of May, Burns dined with Sir Alexander Don at his home at Newton Don, and present at this meal was Lady Don, who was the sister of the Earl of Glencairn, the Patron of Robert Burns. It was a very wet day and that night the Bard once again slept at Stodrig farm. On Sunday morning the two travellers set out for Melrose, and Burns notes his visit to Dryburgh, “a fine old ruined Abbey… rain still very heavy, cross Leader river and come up Tweed to Melrose. Dine there and visit far famed glorious ruin, come up Ettrick to Selkirk, the whole area both Tweed and Ettrick remarkably stony.” Burns stayed one night in Selkirk, lodging in the “Old Forest Inn”. He wrote one letter from Selkirk to his Edinburgh publisher, William Creech, and while the building has now been demolished, a plaque marks its site. The Bard left Selkirk on the morning of Monday the 14th of May, and his notes record that he rode over to “Inverleithing”, a famous shaw, and in the vicinity of the palace of Traquair, where having dined, and drank some Galloway whey, I remain here till tomorrow. Saw Elibanks and Elibraes on the other side of the Tweed. The diary goes on to Tuesday and says that he drank tea yesternight at Pirn with Mr Horsburgh. Breakfasted today with Mr. Ballantine of Hollowlee, and almost abruptly he writes, “ Dine at a country Inn kept by a Miller in Earlstone, the birthplace and residence of the celebrated Thomas A. Rhymer, saw the ruins of his castle, Come to Berrywell”. On Wednesday Burns dined with the farmer’s club at Duns, and the good company included the Rev. Andrew Smith, a famous punster, and Mr. Meikle, the inventor of the threshing Mill. Burns stayed at Berrywell that night and next morning after breakfast he walked into Duns to see a famous knife made by a Cutler there, and the knife was to be presented to an Italian Prince.
“A pleasant ride with my friend Mr. Robert Ainslie, and his sister to Mr. Thomson’s, a man who has newly commenced farmer, and has married a Miss Patty Grieve, formerly a flame of Mr. Robert Ainslie’s.Company; Miss Jacky Grieve, an amiable sister of Mrs. Thomson’s, and Mr. Hood, an honest, worthy facetious farmer in the neighbourhood.” On the next day Burns and Ainslie rode to Berwick, and his journal says, “ an idle town, rudely picturesque. Dine with Mr. Clunzie, merchant, come up a bold shore, and over a wild country, to Eyemouth, sup and sleep at Mr Grieve’s”.
The next entry in the journal is brief, considering the importance of what happened that day, the entry, says;
“Saturday, spend the day at Mr. Grieve’s—made a Royal Arch Mason at St. Abb’s Lodge. Mr. William Grieve, the oldest brother, a joyous, warm-hearted, jolly fellow- takes a hearty glass, and sings a good song. Mr Robert, his brother, and partner in trade, a good fellow, but says little. Take a sail after dinner. Fishing of all kinds pays tithes at Eyemouth.”. Sunday morning finds our Bard and Robert Ainslie accompanied by a Mr. Robinson of Ednam, setting out for Dunbar, “passing the famous Abbey of Coldingham and Pease Bridge, call at Mr Sheriff’s where Mr. Ainslie and I dine. Mr. Sheriff a talkative conceited idiot, I talk of love to Nancy Sheriff.” Sir James Hall of Dunglass, having heard that Burns was in the neighbourhood, came to Mr. Sheriff’s to breakfast, and took the Bard to see the fine scenery on the stream of Dunglass. “Dunglass, the most romantic sweet place I ever saw.” It was at this time of the tour that Robert Ainslie left the Bard, as he had to return to his work in Edinburgh. The Bard’s notes continue- “Miss Nancy Sheriff will accompany me to Dunbar, by way of making a parade of me as a sweetheart of her among her relations,” but the Bard had other ideas. Nancy Sheriff was mounted on an old carthorse and Burns rode like the devil and almost shook her to pieces, and he eventually got rid of her by refusing to visit an uncle of hers. “Passed through the most glorious corn country I ever saw, via Cockburnspath, Innerwick, Barns Ness, till I reach Dunbar, a neat little town. Dine with Provost Fall, an eminent merchant, and a most respectful character. Mrs. Fall, a genius in painting and very clever in fine arts and sciences. Call with Mr. Robinson, whom I find to be a worthy much respected man, very modest and with a warm social heart, and with him I call on Miss Clarke, a maiden, in the Scotch phrase, “Guid enough, but no brent new”, a clever woman, with tolerable pretensions to remark and wit, while time had blown the blushing bud of bashful modesty into the full bosomed flower of easy confidence. She wanted to see what sort of raree show an author was, and to let him know that though Dunbar was but a little town, yet it was not destitute of people of parts. Breakfast next morning at Skateraw, Mr. Lee, a farmer of great note, and an excellent hospitable fellow. Mr. Lee detains me till next morning. Company at dinner, my Rev. acquaintance Dr. Bowmaker, a Reverend, rattling, drunken old fellow, two sea lieutenants, a Mr. D. Lee cousin of the landlords, Mr, Clarke, a brother of the aforementioned Miss Clarke, a much cleverer fellow, whose appearance is a little ungainly.
“On arrival at Berrywell Burns found Miss Ainslie, the amiable, the sensible, the good humoured, the sweet Miss Ainslie all alone, heavenly powers who know the weaknesses of human hearts, support mine, what happiness must I see only to remind me that I cannot enjoy it. Lammermuir hills from East Lothian to Duns very wild. Dine with the farmers club in Kelso, Sir John Hume and Mr. Lumsden there but nothing worth remembering when the following circumstance is considered. I walk into Duns before dinner and out to Berrywell in the evening with Miss Ainslie-how well bred-how frank -how good she is-I could grasp her with rapture on a bed of straw- and rise with contentment to the most sweltering drudgery of stiffening labour. “The journal states that on the next day, Thursday 24th of May, Mr Ker and he set out to dine with Mr. Hood on their way to England. Burns was taken extremely ill with strong feverish symptoms, and took a servant of Mr. Hood’s to watch over him that night bodings of death. “I am determined to live for the future in such a manner as not to be scared at the approach of death. I am sure I could meet him with indifference but for “The something beyond the grave. Mr. Hood agrees to accompany me to England if we wait till Sunday.” The Bard must have recovered his strength during that night because on the Friday we find him going with Mr. Hood to see a roup of an unfortunate farmer’s stock, rigid economy and decent industry “do preserve me from being the principle dramatis persona in such a scene of horror. Meet my good old friend Mr. Ainslie, who calls on Mr. Hood in the evening to take farewell of my Bardship. This day I feel myself warm with sentiments of gratitude to the great preserver of men who has kindly restored me to health and strength once more. A pleasant walk with my young friend Douglas Ainslie, a sweet modest, clever young fellow. Ride out with Mr. Hood on Saturday the 26th of May to see the curiosities at Mr. Swinton’s, his landlord, fine collection of Persian and other oriental paintings and Boydell’s prints—etc.”
On Sunday the Bard ‘s notes say ”Cross Tweed and traverse the moors via Wooler, through a wild country till I reach Alnwick. Alnwick Castle, a seat of the Duke of Northumberland, furnished in a most princely manner, a Mr. Wilkin, an agent of his Grace’s, shows us the house and polices, Mr. Wilkin a discreet, sensible, ingenious man.”Burns slept that night in Alnwick. “Monday 28th May, Come, still through byways to Warkworth where we dine, hermitage and old Castle, Warkworth situated very picturesque with Coquet Island, a small rocky spot, the seat of an old monastery, facing it a little in the sea; and the small but romantic river Coquet running through it. Sleep at Morpeth, a pleasant little town, and on next day to Newcastle. Meet a very agreeable sensible fellow, a Mr. Chattox, a Scotchman, who shows us a great many civilities and who dines and sups with us. Wednesday 30th May left Newcastle early in the morning and rode over a fine country to Hexham to breakfast, from Hexham to Wardrue, the celebrated Spa, where we slept. On Thursday the three friends came to Longtown to dine and it was here that Mr Hood and Mr. Kerr leave the Bard. Burns notes that it is a hiring day in Longtown, and says that he is uncommonly happy to see so many young folk enjoying life On Friday 1st of June I meet my good friend Mr Mitchell and walk with him round the town and its environs, and through his printing works &c. four or five hundred people employed many of them women and children. Dine with Mr Mitchell and leave Carlisle come by the coast to Annan”. From Annan Burns journeyed to Dumfries and thence through Sanquhar to Mauchline in Ayrshire where his tour ended on the 8th of June.