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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 1


Wear we not graven on our hearts
The name of Robert Burns!
American Poet.

The degrees shorten as we proceed from the higher to the lower latitudes—the years seem to shorten in a much greater ratio as we pass onward through life. We are almost disposed to question whether the brief period of storms and foul weather that floats over us with such dream-like rapidity, and the transient season of flowers and sunshine that seems almost too short for enjoyment, be at all identical with the long summers and still longer winters of our boyhood, when day after day and week after week stretched away in dim perspective, till lost in the obscurity of an almost inconceivable distance. Young as I was, I had already passed the period of life when we wonder how it is that the years should be described as short and fleeting; and it seemed as if I had stood but yesterday beside the deathbed of the unfortunate Ferguson, though the flowers of four summers and the snows of four winters had now been shed over his grave.

My prospects in life had begun to brighten. I served in the capacity of mate in a large West India trader, the master of which, an elderly man of considerable wealth, was on the eve of quitting the sea; and the owners had already determined that I should succeed him in the charge. But fate had ordered it otherwise. Our seas were infested at this period by American privateers—prime sailors and strongly armed; and when homeward bound from Jamaica with a valuable cargo, we were attacked and captured when within a days sailing of Ireland, by one of the most formidable of the class. Vain as resistance might have been deemed—for the force of the American was altogether overpowering—and though our master, poor old man! and three of the crew, had fallen by the first broadside, we had yet stood stiffly by our guns, and were only overmastered, when, after falling foul of the enemy, we were boarded by a party of thrice our strength and number. The Americans, irritbated by our resistance, proved, on this occasion, no generous enemies; we were stripped and heavily ironed, and two days after, were set ashore on the wild coast of Connaught, without a single change of dress, or a single sixpence to bear us by the way.

I was sitting, on the following night, beside the turf fire of a hospitable Irish peasant, when a seafaring man, whom I had sailed with about two years before, entered the cabin. The meeting was equally unexpected on either side. My acquaintance was the master of a smuggling lugger then on the coast; and on acquainting him with the details of my disaster, and the state of destitution to which it had reduced me, he kindly proposed that I should accompany him on his voyage to the west coast of Scotland, for which he was then on the eve of sailing. "You will run some little risk," he said, "as the companion of a man who has now been thrice outlawed for firing on his Majesty’s flag; but I know your proud heart will prefer the danger of bad company at its worst to the alternative of begging your way home" He judged rightly. Before daybreak, we had lost sight of land, and in four days more, we could discern the precipitous shores of Carrick stretching in a dark line along the horizon, and the hills of the interior rising thin and blue behind, like a volume of clouds. A considerable part of our cargo, which consisted mostly of tea and spirits, was consigned to an Aye trader, who had several agents in the remote parish of Kirkoswald, which at this period afforded more facilities for carrying on the contraband trade than any on the western coast of Scotland; and, in a rocky bay of the parish, we proposed unlading on the following night. It was necessary, however, that the several agents, who were yet ignorant of our arrival, should be prepared to meet with us; and, on volunteering my service for the purpose, I was landed near the ruins of the ancient castle of Turnberry, once the seat of Robert the Bruce.

I had accomplished my object; it was evening, and a party of countrymen were sauntering among the cliffs, waiting for nightfall and the appearance of the lugger. There are splendid caverns on the coast of Kirkoswald; and, to while away the time, I had descended to the shore by a broken and precipitous path, with a view of exploring what are termed the Caves of Colzean, by far the finest in this part of Scotland. The evening was of great beauty: the sea spread out from the cliffs to the far horizon, like the sea of gold and crystal described by the Prophet; and its warm orange hues so harmonized with those of the sky, that, passing over the dimly-defined line of demarcation, the whole upper and nether expanse seemed but one glorious firmament, with the dark Ailsa, like a thunder-cloud, sleeping in the midst. The sun was hastening to his setting, and threw his strong red light on the wall of rock which, loftier and more imposing than the walls of even the mighty Babylon, stretched onward along the beach, headland after headland, till the last sank abruptly in the far distance, and only the wide ocean stretched beyond. I passed along the insulated piles of cliff that rise thick along the basis of the precipices—now in sunshine, now in shadow—till I reached the opening of one of the largest caves. The roof rose more than fifty feet over my head—a broad stream of light, that seemed redder and more fiery from the surrounding gloom, slanted inwards, and, as I paused in the opening, my shadow, lengthened and dark, fell athwart the floor—a slim and narrow bar of black—till lost in the gloom of the inner recess. There was a wild and uncommon beauty in the scene that powerfully affected the imagination; and I stood admiring it in that delicious dreamy mood in which one can forget all but the present enjoyment, when I was roused to a recollection of the business of the evening by the sound of a footfall echoing from within. It seemed approaching by a sort of cross passage in the rock, and, in a moment after, a young man, one of the country people whom I had left among the cliffs above, stood before me. He wore a broad Lowland bonnet, and his plain homely suit of coarse russet seemed to bespeak him a peasant of perhaps the poorest class; but, as he emerged from the gloom, and the red light fell full on his countenance, I saw an indescribable something in the expression that in an instant awakened my curiosity. He was rather above the middle size, of a frame the most muscular and compact I have almost ever seen, and there was a blended mixture of elasticity and firmness in his tread that to one accustomed, as I had been, to estimate the physical capabilities of men, gave evidence of a union of immense personal strength with great activity. My first idea regarding the stranger—and I know not how it should have struck me— was that of a very powerful frame animated by a double portion of vitality. The red light shone full on his face, and gave a ruddy tinge to the complexion, which I afterwards found it wanted—for he was naturally of a darker hue than common; but there was no mistaking the expression of the large flashing eyes, the features that seemed so thoroughly cast in the mould of thought, and of the broad, full, perpendicular forehead. Such, at least, was the impression on my mind, that I addressed him with more of the courtesy which my earlier pursuits had rendered familiar to me than of the bluntness of my adopted profession. "This sweet evening," I said, "is by far too fine for our lugger; I question whether, in these calms, we need expect her before midnight; but ‘tis well, since wait we must, that ‘tis in a place where the hours may pass so agreeably." The stranger good-humouredly acquiesced in the remark, and we sat down together on the dry, waterworn pebbles, mixed with fragments of broken shells and minute pieces of wreck, that strewed the opening of the cave.

"Was there ever a lovelier evening!" he exclaimed "the waters above the firmament seem all of a piece with the waters below. And never surely was there a scene of wilder beauty. Only look inwards, and see how the stream of red light seems bounded by the extreme darkness, like a river by its banks, and how the reflection of the ripple goes waving in golden curls along the roof!"

"I have been admiring the scene for the last half hour," I said; "Shakspeare speaks of a music that cannot be heard, and I have not yet seen a place where one might better learn to comment on the passage."

Both the thought and the phrase seemed new to him.

"A music that cannot be heard?" he repeated; and then, after a momentary pause, "you allude to the fact," he continued, "that sweet music, and forms such as these, of silent beauty and grandeur, awaken in the mind emotions of nearly the same class. There is something truly exquisite in the concert of tonight."

I muttered a simple assent.

"See," he continued, "how finely these insulated piles of rock that rise in so many combinations of form along the beach, break and diversify the red light, and how the glossy leaves of the ivy glisten in the hollows of the precipices above! And then, how the sea spreads away to the far horizon, a glorious pavement of crimson and gold!—and how the dark Ailsa rises in the midst, like the little cloud seen by the Prophet! The mind seems to enlarge, the heart to expand, in the contemplation of so much of beauty and grandeur. The soul asserts its due supremacy. And, oh! ‘tis surely well that we can escape from those little cares of life which fetter down our thoughts, our hopes, our wishes, to the wants and the enjoyments of our animal existence; and that, amid the grand and the sublime of nature, we may learn from the spirit within us that we are better than the beasts that perish!"

I looked up to the animated countenance and flashing eyes of my companion, and wondered what sort of a peasant it was I had met with. "Wild and beautiful as the scene is," I said, "you will find, even among those who arrogate to themselves the praise of wisdom and learning, men who regard such scenes as mere errors of nature. Burnet would have told you that a Dutch landscape, without hill, rock, or valley, must be the perfection of beauty, seeing that Paradise itself could have furnished nothing better."

"I hold Milton as higher authority on the subject," said my companion, "than all the philosophers who ever wrote. Beauty, in a tame unvaried flat, where a man would know his country only by the milestones! A very Dutch Paradise, truly!"

"But would not some of your companions above," I asked, "deem the scene as much an error of nature as Burnet himself? They could pass over these stubborn rocks neither plough nor harrow."

"True," he replied—"there is a species of small wisdom in the world that often constitutes the extremest of its folly; a wisdom that would change the entire nature of good, had it but the power, by vainly endeavouring to render that good universal. It would convert the entire earth into one vast corn field, and then find that it had ruined the species by its improvement."

"We of Scotland can hardly be ruined in that way for an age to come," I said. "But I am not sure that I understand you. Alter the very nature of good in the attempt to render it universal! How?"

"I daresay you have seen a graduated scale," said my companion, "exhibiting the various powers of the different musical instruments, and observed how some of limited scope cross only a few of the divisions, and how others stretch nearly from side to side. ‘Tis but a poor truism, perhaps, to say that similar differences in scope and power obtain among men—that there are minds who could not join in the concert of to-night—who could see neither beauty nor grandeur amid these wild cliffs and caverns, or in that glorious expanse of sea and sky; and that, on the other hand, there are minds so finely modulated—minds that sweep so broadly across the scale of nature, that there is no object, however minute, no breath of feeling, however faint, but what it awakens their sweet vibrations—the snow-flake falling in the stream, the daisy of the field, the conies of the rock, the hysop of the wall. Now, the vast and various frame of nature is adapted not to the lesser but to the larger mind. It spreads on and around us in all its rich and magnificent variety, and finds the full portraiture of its Proteus-like beauty in the mirror of genius alone. Evident, however, as this may seem, we find a sort of levelling principle in the inferior order of minds, and which, in fact, constitutes one of their grand characteristics—a principle that would fain abridge the scale to their own narrow capabilities—that would cut down the vastness of nature to suit the littleness of their own conceptions and desires, and convert it into one tame, uniform, mediocre good, which would be good but to themselves alone, and ultimately not even that."

"I think I can now understand you," I said: you describe a sort of swinish wisdom that would convert the world into one vast sty. For my own part, I have travelled far enough to know the value of a blue hill, and would not willingly lose so much as one of these landmarks of our mother land, by which kindly hearts in distant countries love to remember it."

"I daresay we are getting fanciful," rejoined my companion; "but certainly, in man’s schemes of improvement, both physical and moral, there is commonly a littleness and want of adaptation to the general good that almost always defeats his aims. He sees and understands but a minute portion—it is always some partial good he would introduce; and thus he but destroys the just proportions of a nicely regulated system of things by exaggerating one of the parts. I passed, of late, through a richly cultivated district of country, in which the agricultural improver had done his utmost. Never were there finer fields, more convenient steadings, crops of richer promise, a better regulated system of production. Corn and cattle had mightily improved; but what had man, the lord of the soil, become? Is not the body better than food, and life than raiment? If that decline for which all other things exist, it surely matters little that all these other things prosper. And here though the corn, the cattle, the fields, the steadings had improved, man had sunk. There were but two classes in the district: a few cold-hearted speculators, who united what is worst in the character of the landed proprietor and the merchant—these were your gentlemen farmers; and a class of degraded helots, little superior to the cattle they tended—these were your farm servants. And for two such extreme classes—necessary result of such a state of things—had this unfortunate, though high-minded peasantry—the true boast and true riches of their country."

"I have, I think, observed something like what you describe," I said.

"I give," he replied, "but one instance of a thousand. But mark how the sun’s lower disc has just reached the line of the horizon, and how the long level rule of light stretches to the very innermost recess of the cave! It darkens as the orb sinks. And see how the gauze-like shadows creep on from the sea, film after film!—and now they have reached the ivy that mantles round the castle of The Bruce. Are you acquainted with Barbour?"

"Well," I said; "a spirited, fine old fellow, who loved his country and did much for it. I could once repeat all his chosen passages. Do you remember how he describes King Robert’s encounter with the English knight?"

My companion sat up erect, and clenching his fist, began repeating the passage, with a power and animation that seemed to double its inherent energy and force.

"Glorious old Barbour!" ejaculated he, when he had finished the description; "many a heart has beat all the higher when the bale-fires were blazing, through the tutor-age of thy noble verses! Blind Harry, too—what has not his country owed to him!"

"Ah, they have long since been banished from our popular literature," I said; "and yet Blind Harry’s ‘Wallace,’ as Hailes tells us, was at one time the very Bible of the Scotch. But love of country seems to be getting old-fashioned among us, and we have become philosophic enough to set up for citizens of the world."

"All cold pretence," rejoined my companion; "an effect of that small wisdom we have just been decrying, Cosmopolitism, as we are accustomed to define it, can be no virtue of the present age, nor yet of the next, nor perhaps for centuries to come. Even when it shall have attained to its best, and when it may be most safely indulged in, it is according to the nature of man, that, instead of running counter to the love of country, it should exist as but a wider diffusion of the feeling, and form, as it were, a wider circle round it. It is absurdity itself to oppose the love of our country to that of our race."

"Do I rightly understand you?" I said. "You look forward to a time when the patriot may safely expand into the citizen of the world; but, in the present age, he would do well, you think, to confine his energies within the inner circle of country."

"Decidedly," he rejoined; "man should love his species at all times, but it is ill with him, if, in times like the present, he loves not his country more. The spirit of war and aggression is yet abroad—there are laws to be established, rights to be defended, invaders to be repulsed, tyrants to be deposed. And who but the patriot is equal to these things? We are not yet done with the Bruces, the Wallaces, the Tells, the Washingtons—yes, the Washingtons, whether they fight for or against us—we are not yet done with them. The cosmopolite is but a puny abortion—a birth ere the natural time, that at once endangers the life and betrays the weakness of the country that bears him. Would that he were sleeping in his elements till his proper time! But we are getting ashamed of our country, of our language, our manners, our music, our literature; nor shall we have enough of the old spirit left us to assert our liberties or fight our battles. Oh, for some Barbour or Blind Harry of the present day, to make us, once more, proud of our country!"

I quoted the famous saying of Fletcher of Salton—"Allow me to make the songs of a country, and I will allow you to make its laws."

"But here," I said, "is our lugger stealing round Turnberry Head. We shall soon part, perhaps for ever, and I would fain know with whom I have spent an hour so agreeably, and have some name to remember him by. My own name is Matthew Lindsay; I am a native of Irvine."

"And I," said the young man, rising and cordially grasping the proffered hand, "am a native of Ayr; my name is Robert Burns."


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