Recollections of Burns - Chapter
Corbies an’ Clergy are a shot right
kittle.—Brigs of Ayr.
The years passed, and I was
again a dweller on the sea; but the ill fortune which had hitherto tracked
me like a bloodhound, seemed at length as if tired in the pursuit, and I
was now a master of a West India trader, and had begun to lay the
foundation of that competency which has secured to my declining years the
quiet and comfort which, for the latter part of my life, it has been my
happiness to enjoy. My vessel had arrived at Liverpool in the latter part
of the year 1784, and I had taken coach for Irvine, to visit my mother,
whom I had not seen for several years. There was a change of passengers at
every stage; but I saw little in any of them to interest me, till within
about a score of miles of my destination, when I met with an old
respectable townsman, a friend of my father’s. There was but another
passenger in the coach, a north country gentleman from the West Indies. I
had many questions to ask mytownsman, and many to
answer—and the time passed lightly away.
"Can you tell me ought of
the Burnses of Lochlea?" I inquired, after learning that my mother and my
other relatives were well. "I met with a young man Robert above five years
ago, and have often since asked myself what special end Providence could
have in view in making such a man."
"I was acquainted with old
William Burns," said my companion; "when he was gardener at Delholm, an’
got intimate wi’ his son Robert, when he lived wi’ us at Irvine, a
twalmonth syne. The faither died shortly ago, sairly straitened in his
means, I’m fear’d, an’ no very square wi’ the laird—an’ ill wad he hae
liked that, for an honester man never breathed. Robert, puir chield, is no
very easy either."
"In his circumstances?" I
"Ay, an’ waur:—he gat
entangled wi’ the Kirk, on an unlucky sculduddery business, an’ has been
writing bitter, wicked ballads on a’ the guid ministers in the country
ever syne. I’m vexed it’s on them he suld hae fallen; an’ yet they hae
been to blame too."
"Robert Burns so entangled,
so occupied!" I exclaimed; "you grieve and astonish me."
"We are puir creatures,
Matthew," said the old man; "strength an’ weakness are often next door
neighbours in the best o’ us; nay, what is our vera strength taen on the
ae side, may be our vera weakness taen on the ither. Never was there a
stancher, firmer fallow than Robert Burns; an’ now that he has taen a
wrang step, puir chield, that vera stanchness seems just a weak want o’
ability to yield. He has planted his foot where it lighted by mishanter,
an’ a the guid an’ ill in Scotland wadna budge him frae the spot."
"Dear me! that so powerful
a mind should be so frivolously engaged! Making ballads, you say?—with
"Ah, Matthew, lad, when the
strong man puts out his strength," said my companion, "there’s naething
frivolous in the matter, be his object what it may. Robert’s ballads are
far, far aboon the best things ever seen in Scotland afore, we auld folk
dinna ken whether maist to blame or praise them, but they keep the young
people laughing frae the ae nuik o’ the shire till the ither."
"But how," I inquired,
"have the better clergy rendered themselves obnoxious to Burns? The laws
he has violated, if I rightly understand you, are indeed severe, and
somewhat questionable in their tendencies; and even good men often press
them too far."
"And in the case of
Robert," said the old man, "our clergy have been strict to the very
letter. They’re guid men an’ faithfu ministers; but ane o’ them, at least,
an’ he a leader, has a harsh, ill temper, an’ mistakes sometimes the
corruption o’ the auld man in him for the proper zeal o’ the new ane. Nor
is there any o’ the ithers wha kent what they had to deal wi’ when Robert
cam afore them. They saw but a proud, thrawart ploughman, that stood
uncow’ring under the glunsh o’ a hail session; an’ so they opened on him
the artillery o’ the kirk, to bear down his pride. Wha could hae tauld
them that they were but frushing their straw an’ rotten wood against the
iron scales o’ Leviathan? An’ now that they hae dune their maist, the
record o’ Robert’s mishanter is lying in whity-brown ink yonder in a page
o’ the session-buik, while the ballads hae sunk deep deep intil the very
mind o’ the country, and may live there for hunders and hunders o’ years."
"You seem to contrast, in
this business," I said, "our better with what you must deem our inferior
clergy. You mean, do you not, the Higher and Lower parties in our Church?
How are they getting on now?"
"Never worse," replied the
old man; "an,’ oh, it’s surely ill when the ministers o’ peace become the
very leaders o’ contention! But let the blame rest in the right place.
Peace is surely a blessing frae Heaven—no a guid wark demanded frae man;
an’ when it grows our duty to be in war, it’s an ill thing to be in peace.
Our Evangelicals are stan’in, puir folk, whar their faithers stood; an’ if
they maun either fight or be beaten frae their post, why, it’s just their
duty to fight. But the Moderates are rinnin mad a’ thegither amang us:
signing our auld Confession, just that they may get intil the Kirk to
preach against it; paring the New Testament doun to the vera standard o’
heathen Plawto; and sinking ae doctrine after anither, till they leave
ahint naething but Deism that might scunner an infidel. Deed, Matthew, if
there comena a change among them, an’ that sune, they’ll swamp the puir
Kirk a’ thegither. The cauld morality that never made ony ane mair moral,
taks nae haud o’ the people: an’ patronage, as meikle’s they roose it,
winna keep up either kirk or manse o’ itsel. Sorry I am, sin’ Robert has
entered on the quarrel at a’, it suld hae been on the wrang side."
"One of my chief
objections," I said, "to the religion of the Moderate party is, that it is
of no use."
"A gey serious ane,"
rejoined the old man; "but maybe there’s a waur still. I’m unco vexed for
Robert, baith on his worthy faither’s account and his ain. He’s a fearsome
fellow when ance angered, but an honest, warm-hearted chield for a’ that;
an’ there’s mair sense in yon big head o’ his than in ony ither twa in the
"Can you tell me aught,"
said the north country gentleman, addressing my companion, "of Mr R-----,
the chapel minister in K-----? I was once one of his pupils in the far
north; but I have heard nothing of him since he left Cromarty."
"Why," rejoined the old
man, "he’s just the man that, mair nor a’ the rest, has borne the brunt o’
Robert’s fearsome waggery. Did ye ken him in Cromarty, say ye?"
"He was parish schoolmaster
there," said the gentleman "for twelve years; and for six of these I
attended his school. I cannot help respecting him; but no one ever loved
him. Never surely was there a man at once so unequivocally honest and so
"You must have found him a
rigid disciplinarian," I said.
"He was the most so," he
replied, "from the days of Dionysius, at least, that ever taught a school.
I remember there was a poor fisher boy among us named Skinner, who as is
customary in Scottish schools, as you must know blew the horn for
gathering the scholars, and kept the catalogue and the key; and who, in
return, was educated by the master, and received some little gratuity from
the scholars besides. On one occasion, the key dropped out of his pocket;
and, when school-time came, the irascible dominie had to burst open the
door with his foot. He raged at the boy with a fury so insane, and beat
him so unmercifully, that the other boys, gathering heart in the extremity
of the case, had to rise en masse and tear him out of his hands.
But the curious part of the story is yet to come: Skinner has been a
fisherman for the last twelve years; but never has he been seen
disengaged, for a moment, from that time to this, without mechanically
thrusting his hand into the key pocket."
Our companion furnished us with two
or three other anecdotes of Mr R—. He told us of a lady who was so
overcome by sudden terror on unexpectedly seeing him, many years after she
had quitted his school, in one of the pulpits of the south, that she
fainted away; and of another of his scholars, named M’Glashan, a robust,
daring fellow of six feet, who, when returning to Cromarty from some of
the colonies, solaced himself by the way with thoughts of the hearty
drubbing with which he was to clear off all his old scores with the
"Ere his return, however,"
continued the gentleman, "Mr R—had quitted the parish; and, had it chanced
otherwise, it is questionable whether M’Glashan, with all his strength and
courage, would have gained anything in an encounter with one of the
boldest and most powerful men in the country."
Such were some of the
chance glimpses which I gained, at this time, of by far the most powerful
of opponents of Burns. He was a good, conscientious man; but unfortunate
in a harsh, violent temper, and in sometimes mistaking, as my old townsman
remarked, the dictates of that temper for those of duty.
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