Robert Burns and his companion Robert Ainslie left Edinburgh on Saturday the 6th of May 1787, riding through Haddington, Gifford and Longformacus, to their destination, the home of Robert Ainslie’s family in Duns. Burns was warmly welcomed by the Ainslie family, and was soon on very good terms with them. Robert Ainslie senior was a land Steward on the estates of Lord Douglas in Berwickshire, and when Burns was leaving to go to England he presented the Bard with a copy of “The Letters of Junius” in testimony of the most sincere friendship and esteem. Mrs. Robert Ainslie; Burns describes her as “An excellent, sensible, cheerful, amiable old woman”. Miss Rachel Ainslie, Robert Ainslie’s sister, was born in Duns in 1768, she made quite an impression on Burns, who notes in his Journal that she is “ The amiable, the sensible, the sweet Miss Ainslie”. Rachel died unmarried when she was over sixty years of age, and she is buried in Duns Parish Churchyard. Robert Ainslie junior; the companion of Burns on part of his tour of the Borders. He was born at Duns on the 13th of January 1766. He was educated for the bar, and became a writer to the Signet in 1789. Burns met him in Edinburgh and they became very close friends. He is the hero of the Burns song “Robin Shure in Hairst”, one verse and the chorus of which will be sufficient to give the reader an idea of the them.
“I gaed up to Dunse,
To warp a wab o’ plaiden,
At his daddies’s yett,
Wha met me but Robin”.
“Robin shure in hairst,
I shure wi’ him,
Fient a heuk had I,
Yet I stack by him”.
Owing to his intimacy with the Bard, Robert was welcomed into the leading literary circles of Edinburgh, and Burns introduced him to Mrs Mc Lehose, (Clarinda). He is frequently mentioned in the correspondence connected with that interesting episode in the poet’s career. He became an Elder in the Church of Scotland and wrote two small religious works, “A father’s gift to his children” and “Reasons for the hope that is within us”. Sometime before he died on the 11th of April 1838, he presented Sir Walter Scott with a manuscript copy of “Tam O’ Shanter”, which he had received from the Bard. Robert Ainslie is buried in the churchyard of Saint Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh, and his tombstone is inscribed thus:-
“Sacred to the memory of Robert Ainslie, Writer to the signet, who was born at Berrywell near Dunse, on the 13th January, 1767, and died at Edinburgh on 11th April 1838, in the 72nd year of his age.
This memorial is erected by his disconsolate Widow, Isabella Munro, daughter of the late Rev. Robert Munro, Ullapool, Ross-shire”.
Robert is also named on the tombstone of the Ainslie family in the Churchyard at Duns, and that memorial is inscribed:-
To the memory of
ROBERT AINSLIE, of Darnchester, who died at Cairnbank on the 10th of April 1795,
KATHERINE WHITELAW, of Whitelaw in East Lothian, his spouse, who also died there on the 18th Dec. 1803.
RACHEL AINSLIE, their only Daughter, who also died at Cairnbank on the 14th November 1828.
SIR WHITELAW AINSLIE, who died at London on the 29th of April 1837, and is interred at King Edward, Aberdeenshire.
ROBERT AINSLIE, W.S. Who died at Edinburgh on 11th April 1838.
DOUGLAS AINSLIE, their youngest son, who died near Banff at Eden, Aberdeenshire 19th August 1850, aged 79, and is interred near to his brother Whitelaw, in the old Church of King Edward.
Douglas Ainslie (1771-1850), Robert Ainslie’s brother, succeeded his father as Lawyer and land Steward to Lord Douglas’s estates in Berwickshire, and made a considerable fortune. He later bought Cairnbank in Berwickshire, (the house on the opposite side of the road from Berrywell) , but died at Eden Bank, near Banff. In a letter dated 23rd July to Robert Ainslie, Burns asked after “That strapping chield”, your brother Douglas. On the Saturday night of his arrival at Berrywell, Burns met William Dudgeon (1753-1813). William was a poet of local reputation, whose song “Up among yon cliffy rocks”, enjoyed a great deal of local popularity. He was born at Tyningham, East Lothian in 1753, and had a large farm near Duns. He worked as a farmer all of his life, and died at Newmains, Whitekirk, in 1813.
On Sunday the 7th of May Burns attended Church with the Ainslie family and the preacher was the Rev. Dr. Robert Bowmaker, who was ordained to the Parish of Duns in 1769. The text chosen by the minister for that morning’s sermon was on obstinate sinners, and Burns, noticing that Rachel Ainslie was having difficulty finding the text in her Bible, quickly wrote a note and passed it to her :-
The note said:-
“ Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
Nor idle text pursue;
‘Twas guilty sinners that he meant,
Not angels such as you”.
Legend has it that this church dates back to Norman times, but the Church that Burns knew was demolished in 1790. The present building was restored in 1880. During his stay at Berrywell Burns received several unsolicited parcels of poems from a local rhymer named “Simon Gray”. Simon invited Burns to make some comment on his verses, hoping that the Bard would make some flattering remarks.
Burns made his first reply very short:-
“Simon Gray, you’re dull today”
Simon persisted and Burns wrote a second time,
“Dullness, with redoubted sway, has seized the wits of Simon Gray”.
Simon was still unabashed, so Burns wrote for the third time:-
“Dear Simon Gray, the other day, when you sent me some rhyme,
I could not then just ascertain it’s worth, for want of time.
But now today, good Mr. Gray, I’ve read it o’er and o’er,
Tried all my skill, but find I’m still, just where I was before,
We auld wives’ minions gie our opinions, solicited or no;
Then of its fau’ts my honest thoughts, I’ll give and here I go.
Such damn’d bombast no time that’s past, will show or time to come
So Simon dear, your song I’ll tear, and with it wipe my bum”.
Wm. Cruickshank M.A. was born in Duns and was trained by his uncle and namesake, William Cruickshank, a famous schoolmaster at Duns. In 1770 he was appointed Rector of the High school of the Canongate at Duns. Burns and he became close friends and the poet resided with him at No 2 (afterwards No 30) St. James Square, which is now part of the Register House in Princes Street. William Cruickshanks had only one daughter, Jenny, and at 12 years old was a great favourite of the Bard. During the Bard’s stay with her father Jenny played Burns’s songs on her harpsichord, and sang them to him while he adjusted them to the music, which resulted in the perfect marriage of words and music. Burns acknowledged his indebtedness to her in:-
“A rosebud by my early walk” and “Beautious rosebud, young and gay”.
Jenny became the wife of James Henderson, a writer in Jedburgh, and when she died in 1835, she was buried in Jedburgh Abbey.
William Cruikshank died in 1795 and is buried in the Old Calton Burying ground in Edinburgh. On his death Burns wrote this:-
Epitaph for Mr. W. Cruikshank
“Honest Will to heaven is gane,
An’ mony shall lament him,
His faults they all in Latin lay,
In English nane e’er kent them.”
REV JAMES GRAY, M.A. (1770-1830)
James Gray was born at Duns and received part of his education under William Cruikshank. Though apprenticed to his father as a shoemaker or leather merchant, Gray followed literary pursuits in his leisure time, and in 1794 he became Rector of the Grammar school of Dumfries. The sons of Robert Burns were his pupils there, and he became intimately acquainted with the poet. James Gray wrote a vindication of the character of Robert Burns and sent it to Alexander Peterkin, and he published Gray’s letter in his edition of Burns works in 1815.
The Rev. Gray’s second wife was Miss Mary Peacock, “The dear female friend of Clarinda”.
The Rev. James Gray died at Rhiy in India in 1830. .