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Wilson's Border Tales
Trees and Burns


Woods, natural woods, are most beautiful. To wander all day long among bushes, hazels, oaks, thorns, of every hue, and fruit—the haw, crab, and sloe—is most delightful. To lose one’s self, as it were, at every turn, and to be arrested by some new feature, ever and anon as you thread your mazy course through the pathless wood, is a pleasure, the recollection of which still haunts and sweetens my dreams of early being—

"In life’s morning march
When my bosom was young."

I don’t like forests—they are too stiff and stately—they are like a tea-and-turn-out party—sombre, silent, and affected. They have not the easy negligence, the elegant simplicity, the "simplex munditiis" of woods. They are always on their high-horses, and darken whilst they look down upon and despise the underwood. I had rather associate with a conclave of high churchmen or consulting doctors, as with a regular, well-planted, and well-fenced plantation. Here man has played the tailor with nature; and, in cutting down her skirts, has deprived her of all that is graceful in drapery and folding. He has made a Bond Street exquisite of the subject. But, far and beyond all other inanimate objects, I have always been in love with single, individual, separate trees. You cannot be truly—as the song has it—in love with many fair dames at one and the same time; I can never, on that account, bear to hear the song sung, which begins thus—

"I’m in love with twenty,
I’m in love with twenty,
And I adore as many more—
There’s nothing like a plenty."

I absolutely quarrelled with an old friend for his frequent singing of this abominable and heretical song, and am scarcely reconciled to him to this hour, though he has long ago limited his love to one object—he has been married these thirty years. In the same spirit, and on the same principle, I affirm, that no child, boy, girl, man, or woman, can be truly in love with two trees at one and the same time. Oh! I remember well the old ash tree that occupied the corner of our kail-yard. There the same pyet built yearly her nest, and brought out and up her young. To be sure I tithed them occasionally. She taught her off-spring to imitate speaking most abominably, but still the old lady and gentleman returned to their tree and their branch, and even to the same cleft of the branch, annually; and my spirit rejoiced within me, as I lifted up mine eyes and beheld the black and white tail of the dam, as she sat, from morn to night, upon her beautifully-spotted, black and white eggs. There, underneath that very tree, I did sit and construct my first paper kite; there did I play, from morn to night, with the cat and her kitten; there did I shelter myself from the shower, and from the meridian heat; there did I repeat my morning and evening prayer, (short, it is true, but pithy—it was the Lord’s Prayer, with an additional petition in behalf of my only surviving parent, my mother;) there did I count my slain on returning from fishing expeditions; and there, my dear departed friend and cousin, did you and I consociate, eve after eve, in true and holy affection. Alas! the cold earth has closed over one of the kindest hearts and clearest heads I ever had occasion to know anything about; but God’s will be done. We all hasten to the same place, however different our courses. Peace, my dear companion, to thy manes! We shall meet I hope, anon. In the meantime, I was speaking of the old ash tree at Auldwa’s, which I have taken the liberty to transplant to Dunsyett. But our common friend, and the friend of many past generations, is now laid prostrate (as I am informed) with the earth. How is the mighty fallen, and the lofty laid low, and the strong one broken and smashed in his strength! The storm, the dreadful, unexampled storm, which lately swept over our island with a whirlwind’s impetuosity and a hurricane’s strength, has bent the gallant mast, and sunk the noble ship, and buried its thousands and thousands of fathers, and brothers, and husbands, and wives, and daughters in the deep sea. It has uptorn forests, scattered woods to the heavens, and (inter alia) has stooped from its altitudes to lay my old and dear companion prostrate. How many tempests, my poor uprooted friend, hast thou not braved!—nay, when the fire of heaven split and splintered the adjoining oak and ash, thou didst escape unhurt. The awful tempest of winter 1794-5, deprived thee, indeed, of a branch or two; but thou wert still in the manhood of thy being when the west wind blew as "twad blawn its last" — and M’Diarmid’s newspaper is enriched with thy remains.

My next associate of the tree species, was the "Castle Beech." Oh, what a tree it was, and still (I humbly hope) is!—for the hand of man is not yet formed in the womb which will dare to cut it down; and it stands mighty in its individual girth, awful in its spread, and sheltered in its position. This tree is the chronicler of my school days at Wallacehall: on the smooth and ample bark of that tree are imprinted or obliterated recollections of a fearful nature. Oh! who dares to take a peep into the charnel house of fifty years? There they are, playing it hard and happy, at dools, toosty, or England and Scotland.

"Alas! regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come—
No cares beyond to-day!"

But let forty years, with Juggernaut wheels, crash and creak over us, and where are the happy hearts and merry voices? The sea will answer; for she has had her full share. The river, the bloody river Nith, will and must answer; for in its deceitful waters was lost my old and kind class-fellow and companion, Richard Reid. The west must give up its dead, and the east answer to my call. Where am I? My dear school-fellows, where are you? Why do’nt you answer? Alas? at sixty, I can scarcely count six contemporaries who still breathe with me the breath of heaven, and rejoice in a protracted though misimproved existence. But the old beech, my kind friend Mr. Watt of the Castle informs me, is still standing, though almost by miracle, for his branches are so long and numerous that he groaned, and creaked, and swung most dreadfully under the tempest’s shock. But it would not do; even the prince of the aerial powers was foiled at last, and was compelled to desist for his unhallowed attempt. The Castle Beech has weathered the storm; and there are hearts in every land which will rejoice in the information which I now convey.

But the "Three Brethren," the friends and companions of my more mature years, are now no more. They have fallen with those Cedars of Lebanon, the mighty monarchs of Arbigland—they have perished, and in their fate have nearly involved that of their intelligent and benovelent proprietor. But my heart reverts to Collestoun, and to the banks of the blue and silver Nith, and to the "Three Brethren." The pages of the intelligent Times (county newspaper), are wet with the tears of lamentation. But the Times knows not—it could not and it cannot know—the one-half that honest Allan Cunningham and I know about these remarkable trees. Their traditional history is this:—

Prior to the discovery of Virginia, and of the consequent tobacco trade, by means of which Glasgow, from being a comparatively insignificant town, became a large and a prosperous mercantile city, and whilst Manchester in England was almost equally obscure and unimportant, there was no properly constructed highway through Dumfriesshire, betwixt these two mercantile depots. There was indeed, along the banks of the Nith, the trace of the old Roman road; but this was obscure, in many places obliterated, and, in all, narrow, and unaccommodating to wheel carriages. Indeed, the road in many cases was impracticable unless to horses; and these too in some places were in danger of disappearing in moses and quagmires. In this state of things, to talk of or think of inns, or public-houses of accommodation, was out of the question. Where there is no demand, there can be no supply—that is a clear ease; yet still, a certain overland intercourse was carried on, betwixt these two great national marts, Glasgow and Manchester; and a merchant from the one city was in the habit of mounting a strong nag, and meeting with a merchant from the other city, at what was deemed the half-way point—at the place, namely, where a large tree, with three outspread and sheltering branches, not only marked the spot of tryst, but afforded partial shade and shelter. (The reason why these branches were afterwards denominated the "Three Brethren," will form the subject of a future communication.) Well, by previous arrangement and appointments the Glasgow and the Manchester merchants met and trangacted business under this tree, and then retraced their steps homewards; and this continued for many years to be the nearest and the most commonly frequented line of communication between Glasgow and Manchester. It was in this way, originally, that the benevolent founder of the free school of Closeburn, Mr. Wallace, a native of that parish, and a Glasgow merchant, carried on this extensive business with Manchester. Many a time has the worthy founder of the most celebrated institution in the south of Scotland (with which the name of Mundell will be associated till latest ages), been seen sitting upon a stone rolled to the root of this immense tree and transacting business with a Manchester merchant, similarly placed with himself. In process of time, the international intercourse increased—post-chaises succeeded to strong saddle horses, the roads were improved, and an inn, or house of accommodation, became absolutely necessary. It was on this occasion, that the once famous, though now comparatively obscure inn, called of late years Brownhill, arose—an inn resorted to by travellers of all ranks, in preference to any which even Dumfries in former times could afford—an inn, celebrated as the frequent resort of Robert Burns, who used to hold high carousal here, with its former convivial landlord, Mr. Bacon, in whose house, and on one of the panes of glass in the window were originally written those well-known lines of Burns, beginning—

"Curs’d be the man, the veriest wretch in life,
The crouching vassal to the tyrant wife,
Who has no will but by her high permission—
Who has not sixpence but in her possession. . .
I’d charm her with the magic of a switch," &c.

As I happen to know the particular circumstances which accompanied the writing of these lines, I shall conclude this chapter on trees, by relating them.

Burns lived at this time at Ellisland, about two miles lower down the vale than the "Three Brethren," and about three miles from Brownhill. Much of his duty as a guager lay about the village of Brownhill. Now, Brownyhill was a very convenient half-way house betwixt Thornhill and his home at Ellisland; and, accordingly, Burns’ little stout pony (which I remember well, though I forget the name), would seldom pass Brownhill. One day, whilst a boy at the free school of Wallacehall, I chanced to be lingering about the stable door at Brownhill, when Burns alighted from his pony, wet and weary, and, giving the beast a flap on the hinder extremity, exclaimed —"There! make you comfortable for the night, in the best way you ca—and so will the poor guager!" Burns looked at me very closely but I was unknown to him at that time, ( though I knew him personally afterwards;) and, muttering, "One of Mundell’s," passed on. What follows is from undoubted authority; namely, one of the party of three, who enjoyed this very merry evening. Bacon and Burns had their bowl of punch a-piece, as well as my friend, and were in high talk and song; but Mrs. Bacon, who did not partake of the festivity, and who, in fact, was the support of the house, refused to produce the materials for the fourth bowl. High words arose betwixt her and her husband; who, as well as Burns and my friend, had by this time given indications of their having

"A wee drap in their e’e;"

and Mrs. Bacon hid the keys and went to bed. Ere Burns went to repose, (or next morning,) he inscribed, with his ready wit, and equally ready diamond, the lines mentioned, on the window pane.


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