Over many years I have had the pleasure of taking visiting Burnsians to the graveside of James Thomson, in Well-o-gate Cemetery in Hawick, and told them the following story.
James Thomson was born in the little Roxburghshire village of Bowden in the year 1827. In these early 1800s it was common practice for young boys to attend the village school during the winter months, while the summer months were spent earning much needed money to keep body and soul together. The way that the young James Thomson spent his summers was to herd the kye over the Eildon hills, and as he oft times said, he carried a rather tattered copy of the Kilmarnock edition of Burns’s works, which gave a barren brain a slight touch of poetic fancy. At the age of sixteen James Thomson was apprenticed to a Selkirk cabinet-maker and wood-turner, and some years later he came to live in the town of Hawick. That touch of poetic fancy spoken of by James Thomson would find some inspiration when Hawick celebrated the centenary of the Bard’s birth in 1859. On that day the town of Hawick closed its mills, shops, and every other place of work so that the townsfolk could take part in the joviality’s of the day. Bands of all kinds played throughout the day, marching through the streets where the populace had gathered. On the evening of the celebrations of the Bard’s birth many dinners were held in the various halls of the town. The largest of these was held in the Commercial Hotel, Buccleuch Street, where some 400 persons attended, and many more were disappointed by not gaining admission. Among the speakers at this dinner were a number of well known townsmen, including a young school teacher, James A.H.Murray, later to be knighted in recognition of his compilation of the New Oxford English Dictionary. At another dinner held in the Tower Hotel, the Rev. Henry Scott Riddell of Teviotdale, the author of that stirring song, “Scotland Yet”, proposed the “Immortal Memory”. The success of these local celebrations stimulated interest in the life and works of Robert Burns, coming at a time when throughout Scotland working men were seeking intellectual improvement by instituting Historical and Debating Societies. About 1860 a Hawick Literary Society was formed, and one of the speakers at one of its early meetings was James Thomson, known locally for his poetical leanings. On the 20th of February 1862 a special meeting was called, where a committee was set up to look into the feasibility of instituting a Burns Club, and among those on this committee was the local Historian, Robert Murray, and taking a leading part was James Thomson. Unfortunately this attempt to establish a Burns club in Hawick suffered the fate of several other attempts, but James Thomson and a few others of like mind never gave up their desire to honour the Bard in Hawick. In 1878 over thirty men gathered in Graham’s public house to celebrate the poet’s birthday, with Thomson taking the chair and also proposing the “Immortal Memory” From this gathering a new attempt was made to form the Hawick Burns Club, with James Thomson being elected President and Thomas Caldwell as Secretary. The newly formed Hawick Burns club held their first meeting to celebrate the birth of Robert Burns in January 1879, and the dinner proved to an occasion of more than passing interest, for during that evening a new song was sung by Thomas Strathearn, a song whose words were written by chairman James Thomson and set to the music of Mr, Booth, a song that has gained world-wide renown and is sung whenever Burnsians meet, that song, "The Star O'’Robbie Burns", is a wonderful tribute to our Bard, and a credit to the man we have come here to honour. James Thomson was a man who shunned the lime-light, and after four years as President he resigned that position, but he continued to serve the club as a member of the Executive Committee, and was a regular speaker at both his own club and many others to which he was invited. James Thomson lived to see the outcome of his early efforts to establish a Burns club in Hawick come to fruition, and the populace of his adopted town revere his name. Every year during civic week many hundreds of spectators sing his Border songs,”The Auld Mid Raw”, “The Border Queen” and “Up Wi’ The Banner”with gusto, and all over the world wherever Burns lovers meet, James Thomson’s “Star O’ Robbie Burns” pays tribute to the man who inspired him “to give his barren brain a slight touch of poetic fancy” James Thomson died a bachelor on the 21st of December 1888 in the Hawick Cottage Hospital, and this memorial stone was erected by the brethren of St. James Masonic Lodge Number 424, as a mark of respect to their much talented and honoured Bard.
“A hundred years are gane and mair, yet brighter grows its beams”
I have little doubt that when my listeners left James Thomson’s grave side they would have gone home knowing that James Thomson had died a bachelor, and like me would have assumed that bachelor-hood meant that he left no offspring, and like me they would have been wrong. It is strange how I came to meet James Thompson, the great, great, grandson of the illustrious James Thomson of “The Star O’ Robbie Burns “ fame. My very good friend Jenny Rafferty of Kilbirnie in Ayrshire, (who shares my admiration of Robert Burns), wrote to me about July 1999, and informed me that she had met a gentleman whom she had known over a long number of years, and in conversation told him that I sometimes spoke of his namesake in Hawick, and to her surprise he informed her that he was the great, great grandson of that James Thomson from Hawick. I asked Jenny if it could be arranged for me to meet James Thompson and within a short period my wife and I spent a few days with Jenny and on the Saturday night James Thompson came to visit us. I was delighted to listen to James Thompson tell me his story, and from the paper work which James gave me on that night, and later from more paper work that he sent on to me, I now relate his story. As a young boy James’s mother had told him that there was a family connection between her father and the man who wrote the song “The Star O’ Robbie Burns”. Unfortunately there was no documentary evidence to support her story, and it was not until James decided to compile a family tree in 1963, that the story began to unfold. At this time James was employed in the Registrar’s office in Kilbirnie, and was familiar with the procedure of extracting information from the appropriate registers. He had no idea at this time that a James Thomson had written the words of “The Star O’ Robbie Burns”, and it was only when he was reading an article in the “Scots Magazine” of January 1983, which told of James Booth, who wrote the music for the “Star”, that he discovered that James Thomson had been responsible for the words. Knowing that his maternal grand-father had resided in Hawick, James wrote to the Registrar in that town asking for details of the Thomson family, and the subsequent correspondence confirmed that his grand-father had been born at No. 12, Ladylaw Street, Wilton, Hawick, on the 11th of September 1881, and that his parents (James’s great grand parents ), were John Thomson and Mary Turnbull, who were married in Hawick on the 10th of September 1880. In the marriage register John Thomson’s parentage is given as James Thomson, wood trimmer, reputed father and Mary Scott or Riddell, widow. Shortly after James received this information he changed jobs, and his researches were temporarily suspended. In 1996 he retired from work, and having more time on his hands he again went in search of his ancestors. In New Register House in Edinburgh, his researches found that his great, grandfather, John Thomson, had been born at No. 2 Silver Street, Hawick, on the 14th of December, 1856. He was registered as John Robert Thomson Scott or Riddell, parents shown as James Thomson, wood trimmer, reputed father and Mary Scott or Riddell, widow of William Riddell, and by the time he came to be married he was known as John Thomson. Although James now knew that the author of “The Star O’ Robbie Burns “ was a James Thomson, he did not associate him with the James Thomson, reputed father of his great grand-father. The information that James had gathered on the Thomson family history was collated and he sent copies of the story to interested relatives. James thought, and I think he would not be alone in assuming, that a bachelor death usually meant a dead end. However a cousin, to whom James had sent the family history that he had compiled, sent him a copy of a letter he had received from the Selkirk library, regarding the poet James Thomson, Author of “The Star O’ Robbie Burns”. This letter showed that this man had been a wood trimmer, the same occupation as James’s great, grand-father’s reputed father. Suddenly James’s mothers story began to make sense, and James returned to Edinburgh and traced James Thomson’s birth to the 4th of July 1827, his father being Robert Thomson, a sawyer to trade, and a native of St. Boswells, and his mother being Helen Wilkie, a native of Bowden. It is surely no co-incidence that when he was born, James’s great grand-father was given the middle names Robert Thomson, the name of James Thomson’s father, When James Thomson died in 1888, the death register records him as single, ( see copy overleaf), but the death was registered by John Thomson, given as son of the deceased, and as James Thomson would have been well known in the town of Hawick, we can only assume that the registrar would have known that James Thomson was indeed the son of James Thomson, and the registrar would never have permitted any false information to appear in the death certificate. James Thompson, whose story this is, now lives in Dalry, Ayrshire, and he owns a copy of his illustrious great, great grand-father’s book of poems, which contains a photograph, and this photograph bears a striking resemblance to James’s late mother’s brother, David. I now know that the story that I related at the grave side of James Thomson is true, but the evidence given by James Thompson of Dalry, in Ayrshire tells us never to assume that a bachelor, even one of the 1880s, does not leave offspring to carry on the line.
THE THOMSON LINEAGE
ROBERT THOMSON BORN 1798 OR 1799 AT St. BOSWELLS
GREAT, GREAT, GREAT, GRAND-FATHER TO JAMES THOMPSON OF DALRY.
JAMES THOMSON BORN 4th JULY 1827 AT BOWDEN
AUTHOR OF “THE STAR O’ ROBBIE BURNS”
GREAT, GREAT, GRAND-FATHER TO JAMES THOMPSON OF DALRY
JOHN ROBERT THOMSON SCOTT OR RIDDELL, LATER KNOWN AS JOHN THOMSON BORN 1856 AT HAWICK GREAT, GRAND-FATHER TO JAMES THOMPSON OF DALRY
JOHN THOMSON BORN 1881 AT HAWICK
GRAND-FATHER TO JAMES THOMPSON OF DALRY
AGNES THOMSON BORN 1909 AT KILWINNING
MOTHER OF JAMES THOMPSON OF DALRY MARRIED A GENTLEMAN NAMED THOMPSON, HENCE THE “P” IN THE THOMSON NAME.
THE STAR O’ ROBBIE BURNS
There is a star whose beaming ray
Is shed on ev’ry clime;
It shines by night, it shines by day
And ne’er grows dim wi’ time.
It rose upon the banks o’ Ayr,
It shone on Doon’s clear stream,
A hundred years are gane and mair,
Yet brighter grows its beam.
Let kings and courtiers rise and fa’
This world has mony turns,
But brightly beams aboon them a’
The star o’ Robbie Burns.
Though he was but a ploughman lad,
And wore the hodden grey,
Auld Scotland’s sweetest Bards are bred
Aneath a roof o’ strae.
To sweep the strings o’ Scotia’s lyre,
It needs nae classic lore;
It’s mither wit an’ native fire
That warms the bosom’s core.
Let kings, etc.
On fame’s emblazon’d page enshrined
His name is foremost now,
And mony a costly wreath’s been twin’d
To grace his honest brow.
And Scotland’s heart expands wi’ joy
Whene’er the day returns
That gave the world its peasant boy-
Immortal Robbie Burns.
Let kings etc.
MOCK UP OF DEATH CERTIFICATE SHOWING SON PRESENT