Robert Burns first visited Kelso on Tuesday the 8th of May 1787, and his second visit took place on Friday 11th of May that same year. On his first visit he met Mr. Robert Scott, who was appointed as Kelso agent for the Royal Bank in 1774, and was formally employed as agent to the Duke of Buccleuch. In the notes he made during his tour of the Borders, Burns observed that “Kelso has a charming situation, enchanting views, and a fine bridge.” The bridge that Burns speaks of was washed away by the great flood of the 26th of October 1797, and was replaced by Rennie’s five arch bridge between 1800 and 1803. On this same day he visited Floors Castle, where he saw the Holly bush that marks the spot where a bursting canon killed James the second, King of Scots.
Burns speaks of the Abbey as a “small old religious ruin, and a fine old garden planted by the religious”, and he notes in his journal that “the climate and soil of Berwickshire and Roxburghshire are superior to Ayrshire”.
He notes “the bad roads”, but praises “The great improvements in turnip and sheep husbandry”.
Robert Ainslie was a friend of Mr. David Mcdowall of Caverton Mill, and they both dined at the Mcdowall home. Burns notes that:-
“David sold his ewe and lamb together, at two guineas a piece, and that they wash their sheep before shearing, getting 7 or 8 pounds of washen wool in a fleece, low markets, consequently low rents, fine lands not above 16 shillings a Scots acre, magnificence of farmers and farm houses”.
The Mcdowall family had been farmers in the district of Kalewater since the late 1500s.
The Farmer’s Club invited Burns to dine with them, and the Bard notes that “They are all gentlemen, each with a hunter for foxhunting, and valued at between 30 and 50 guineas a piece” A ccording to the Royal Commission on the ancient Monuments of Scotland, a Mr. John Chatto built a house in Roxburgh Street in 1666. The entrance to this building was in Jamieson’s Entry, and this house is assumed to have become “The King’s Head Hotel”. Clow Furnishings replaced it in 1956 and “More’s Stores now occupies this building. This hostelry could well have been the venue that the Farmer’s Club used, but so also could the Queen’s Head, or the Spread Eagle, or the Cross Keys, and I do not know of any written record or minute of the Farmer’s Club of 1787 which could prove where they dined with Robert Burns. Mr. Gilbert Kerr, a member of the Farmer’s Club, invited Burns to go for a walk and Burns notes that “He is the most gentlemanly, clever fellow, a widower with fine children.” Mr. Kerr invited Burns to stay that night at his farm of “Stodrig” and Burns found everything at Mr. Kerr’s excellent. Mr. Kerr offered to accompany Burns on his English tour. The next morning, May 12th was a very wet one, and Burns was invited to dine at Newton Don by Sir Alexander Don and his lady, Henrietta Don, was present at the meal. She was the elder daughter of the thirteenth Earl of Glencairn, and sister to Earl James, the Patron of Robert Burns. She was in receipt of a parcel of Burns’s self styled “Don Manuscripts”, now in the library of the Edinburgh University. Alexander Peterkin was the Editor of the “Kelso Chronicle” in 1883, and among other works he published was an edition of Robert Ferguson’s poems, and a reprint of Currie’s “Life of Burns” When it was the fashionable thing to denigrate the character of Robert Burns, Alexander Peterkin spoke up in defence of the Bard.
In 1787 the Grammar School of Kelso was situated on the left hand side of the ruins of Kelso Abbey.
Baillie George Jordon conducted Robert Burns on a tour of this school. This was the school where Walter Scott received some of his education.
When Robert Burns was living at Ellisland farm, near Dumfries, he was introduced to Captain Francis Grose, who was the author of “The Antiquities of England and Wales” Captain Grose was gathering material for his new book “The Antiquities of Scotland” and Burns suggested to him that if he would print a sketch of “Alloway Kirkyard”, where the Bard’s father is buried, then he, Burns, would give him a tale of the folklore of Ayrshire to accompany that sketch. The result of this transaction was the composition of “Tam o’ Shanter” which first appeared in “The Edinburgh Magazine” for March 1791, a month before it appeared in “The Antiquities of Scotland”. Burns wrote two poems and one epigram to Captain Grose, and one of these poems “On the late Captain Grose’s peregrinations through Scotland” was first published in the “Kelso Chronicle”, on May the 4th 1789. Captain Grose was a very stout man and his bed would require to be very well built to bear his weight. Burns made fun of his bulk in his epigram when he says----
“ The devil got notice that Grose was a-dying,
So whip! At the summons old Satan came flying;
But when he approach’d where poor Francis lay moaning
And saw each bedpost with its burden a-groaning,
Astonish’d, confounded, cried Satan, “By God
I’ll want ‘im, ere I take such a damnable load”.
Anyone who visits Kelso and looks towards the village of Ednam will see on Ednam Hill a plinth, and that plinth is a memorial to James Thomson, the author of that stirring, patriotic Anthem, “Rule Britannia”. James Thomson was born at the manse of Ednam in 1700, and was educated at Jedburgh. David Stewart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan was born in 1742. He delighted to pose as a Patron of Literature, and it was he who caused the mighty statue of Sir William Wallace, to be erected in the area of Dryburgh. He arranged for a celebration of James Thomson’s birthday at Ednam Hill and among the invited guests was Robert Burns, who, because the ceremony was taking place too near harvest time, wrote his apologies. However, the ceremony turned out to be a fiasco, the bust of Thomson, which was to be crowned at the height of the ceremony, was smashed in a drunken frolic before its erection, and the Earl had to be content with laying a wreath of bay leaves on a volume of Thomson’s poems. When Burns sent his letter of apology to the Earl, he enclosed a poem dedicated to Thomson, called “Address to the shade of Thomson”, and some time later he presented the Earl with a copy of “Scots Wha Hae”.
“ADDRESS TO THE SHADE OF THOMSON”
While virgin spring, by Eden’s flood
Unfolds her tender mantle green,
Or pranks the sod in frolic mood
Or tunes Eolian strains between;
While Summer with a matron grace
Retreats to Dryburgh’s cooling shade,
Yet oft, delighted, stops to trace
The progress of the spiky blade;
While Autumn, benefactor kind
By Tweed erects his aged head,
And sees, with self-approving mind
Each creature on his bounty fed;
While maniac Winter rages o’er
The hills whence classic Yarrow flows,
Rousing the turbid torrent’s roar
Or sweeping, wild, a waste of snows;
So long, sweet poet of the year
Shall bloom that wreath thou well has won;
While Scotia, with exulting tear
Proclaims that Thomson was her son.
A bust of James Thomson has a place of honour in the “Poet’s corner” of Westminster Abbey.
The pilasters which separate the different clustered pillars which support the vaulted roof of the Gothic Temple in Scott’s monument in Edinburgh, are crowned with finely ornamented capitals, containing the likenesses of sixteen Scottish poets, and one of these poets is “James Thomson of Ednam.”