ROBERT BURNS & ROTARY
Alexander Fintlater, Like so many other men and women, is remembered today, not so much for what they achieved in their life-time, but because of their association with Robert Burns. It is unfortunate that progress often destroys even (“The best laid schemes”) and the M8 motorway through Glasgow has removed the graves of many worthy men and women, and the grave of Alexander Findlater was one of them. The stone now rests in the Lynn Cemetery and is inscribed as follows
TO THE MEMORY OF
SUPERVISOR OF EXCISE AT DUMFRIES
COLLECTOR OF EXCISE AT GLASGOW
THE FRIEND OF ROBERT BURNS IN LIFE
HIS VINDICATOR AFTER DEATH
ERECTED BY SANDYFORD BURNS CLUB
In 1994, when Sandy Blair, Jeweller of Kelso, asked me to propose the toast to “ The Immortal Memory” of Robert Burns at the 1995 annual Dinner of the Kelso branch of Rotary, I decided to find out if there were any connections, however remote, between the Bard and Rotary Owing to a double booking of speakers, I did not speak at this function, but the following notes gathered at that time, may be of interest to members of Rotary. Many years ago I wrote a small pamphlet with the title “Some connections between Robert Burns and the City of Glasgow”, and in that booklet I wrote an article on Alexander Findlater, Collector of Excise, and supervisor of Robert Burns. After many hours of researching books on the life of Burns, and reading articles written by many and varied authors, I was eventually able to piece together this tale, which links this friend of Robert Burns, with the beginnings of Rotary in the British Isles. The idea of Rotary was first conceived in the United States of America, and was introduced to Great Britain on Wednesday the 22nd of February 1911. Nine men from the City of Dublin met together to form the first Rotary club in Great Britain, namely, “The Rotary Club of Dublin”. One of the founder members of this first Rotary Club was a gentleman named William Findlater. In an article written by Mr. Clark Hunter and published in the “Burns Chronicle”, it is told that Mr. Hunter received a wine list from Messrs. Alex. Findlater and Co. Ltd. Grocers, Dublin, on which there was a painting of Alexander Findlater, below which were the words, Alexander Findlater, born August 1754, died December 1839, Collector of Excise and friend and supervisor of the poet, Robert Burns. At first sight says Mr. Hunter, it would seem that Alexander Findlater, the friend and defender of the character of Robert Burns, was a founder member of this firm, but after some queries the Chairman of the firm, Mr. G. D. Findlater, gave the following story. Alexander Findlater, the friend of Robert Burns, had a brother named John, born on 10th of May 1758. John’s son, Alexander, the founder of the firm of Alexander Findlater and Co. Ltd. was born on 9th of March 1797. He had a brother John, born on 3rd of May 1802, and his son John was my Grand-father, William Findlater (of Rotary) was my father. Mr. Findlater went on to state that he had several photographs of Burns letters, (never published) in the firms offices, and he gave Mr. Hunter a photocopy of an unpublished letter from Robert Burns to Alexander Findlater, the original of which is preserved in The National Library of Ireland in Dublin.
Mr. Findlater, Ellisland, 28th of October, 1789.
I believe I mentioned something to you yesternight of the character that Mr. Corbet told me you had given of me to our Edin. folks, but my conscience accuses me that I did not make the proper acknowledgements to you for your goodness. Most sincerely and gratefully do I thank you sir, for this uncommon instance of kindness and friendship. I mean not by this as if I would propitiate your future inspection of my conduct- no sir, I trust to act, and I shall act, so as to defy scrutiny; but I send this as a sheer tribute of gratitude to a gentleman whose goodness has laid me under very great obligations, and for whose character as a gentleman I have the highest esteem. It may very probably never be in my power to repay, but it is equally out of my power to forget the obligations you have laid on,
Sir, your deeply indebted & very humble serv..
On being questioned on how this letter came into the possession of the “ National Library of Ireland”, the then director was unable to answer, but Mr. G. D. Findlater was able to inform Mr. Hunter that the letter had been presented by a “Caroline Findlater”. The letter is inscribed on the address side, “Caroline O. Findlater, 27th 0f July, 1833.
In another “Burns Chronicle” we find another article giving the following information.
“ Findlater’s second marriage was to Catherine Anderson” but the place and date of the wedding cannot be traced. There were three children of this union, Charles, Caroline and Jane. Caroline was married in 1841 to James Eddington, a Glasgow Merchant. She perished at sea less than two years later, while on board the “Pegasus” off Holy Island. Her husband died less than a year later. Since Alexander Findlater had only one daughter Helen, by his first marriage, it is almost certain that Caroline Findlater, who died at sea in 1843, was the lady whose name is inscribed on the letter. Mr. G. D. Findlater was able to tell that another branch of his family still has the copy of “Thomson’s original Scottish Airs”, which were exhibited at the Glasgow Burns Centenary exhibition in 1896.
It bears the following inscription,
To Mr. Findlater.
A pledge of rooted friendship, well watered
with many a bottle of good wine.
Alexander Findlater, the friend of Robert Burns, died in 1839 and was buried in the North and South Woodside burial ground in the City of Glasgow. This Gentleman was not only a close friend of the Poet, but also one of the few who spoke out defending the character of the Bard when others were trying to denigrate his name. He was in the home of our Poet on the night of the 20th of July 1796, and we know that Robert Burns passed away on the next day. In a letter to Alexander Peterkin ( The editor of the Kelso Chronicle) Alexander Linklater says:- “My connection with Robert Burns commenced immediately after his admission into the excise, and continued to the hour of his death. Permit me to add, I have seen Burns in all his various phases, in his convivial moments, in his sober moods, and in the bosom of his family, indeed I have seen more of him than any other individual had occasion to see, and I have never beheld anything like the gross enormities with which he is now charged” Alexander Findlater was born in 1754 and had a distinguished career in the Excise, being admitted in 1774, appointed examiner in 1790, supervisor at Dumfries 1791, and collector at Glasgow in 1811.For 84 years the grave of this friend of Robert Burns lay unmarked until in 1923 the “Sandyford Burns Club” of Glasgow took it upon themselves to erect a granite stone over the grave, a fitting tribute to a man who, when so many people were belittling the Bard, spoke out in his favour, and unlike the many, he spoke from personal experience. Attending the stone-laying ceremony were two descendants of Alexander Findlater, his great-grand nephews Dr. Alexander Findlater, Edgware, Middlesex, and Mr. William Findlater, Dublin.