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Robert Burns’ First Tour –The Border Country
5th May to 1st June 1786

A presentation made by Ron Ballantyne, the Secretary/Treasurer of the Halton Region Robert Burns Society.


On the recommendation of a possible distant relative of mine, John Ballantine, a businessman, banker and later provost of Ayr, Robert Burns set out for Edinburgh on 27th Nov 1786 to negotiate a second edition of his poetry.

With the successful publication, he was suddenly flush with money and since Scotland at large was essentially a closed book to him, he resolved to see something of the country.

In 1787 he set out on 3 separate tours, the Borders, the West Central, and the better known Highlands tour. There was also another motivation, in that Burns could also collect subscriptions due on orders for his new edition, adding money to his pocket.

Burns had befriended a young apprentice lawyer in Edinburgh, Robert Ainslie, who had many connections in the border country. He was a pleasant companion and they got on well together.

Alexander Nasmyth had painted Burns portrait for the cover of the Edinburgh edition and Burns had 3 dozen copies of the Buego engraving with him, to hand out. He was sure he would be noticed.
He kitted himself out with new clothes and purchased a mare for £4, which he named Jenny Geddes. 

The duo set out on the 5th May via Haddington to Ainslies home, Berrywell near Duns.

Burns was impressed by the character of Ainslie’s parents and charmed by his sister, Rachel.

The next day was Sunday. Burns went to church with the family and sat next to Rachel.

During the service she became quite upset at the sermon on sinners and could not find the referred text in her Bible. Burns took it from her and on the flyleaf wrote the following.

Fair maid, you needna take the hint
Nor idle texts pursue;
'Twas guilty sinners that he meant
Not angels such as you!

The following day the duo made a day trip to Coldstream and crossed the bridge into England.

This was the first time Rabbie had set foot on English soil. To Ainslie’s surprise Rab threw away his hat and, then knelt down with uplifted hands and seemingly in a fit of enthusiasm & with great drama, prayed for and blessed Scotland most solemnly, by reciting in loud, tones with deep devotion, the two concluding stanzas of `Cottar's Saturday Night'."

They then returned to Berrywells.

On the Tuesday they went south to Jedburgh and lodged 3 nights at the home of a Lawyer James Fair. Mrs Fair and her sister, Miss Lookup, were also there and seemed to be always squabbling but he described them as “tolerably fair”. However Miss Lookup decided to set her cap at Burns.

On the Wednesday Rabbie escaped by going out of town to a land auction, then he accepted an invitation to dine with a Captain Rutherford, who had fought in the American Wars and been captured by Indians. Burns reported being captivated by the Captain’s daughter.

On the Thursday he and Ainslie were invited to join a party on a walk in the country and a young Miss Isabella Lindsay caught Burns’ eye. He managed to take the girls arm and walk with her but Miss Lookup interjected to break them up, and conspicuously, Miss Lindsay was excluded from the dinner party that evening.   

Burns noted in his diary “that he came within a point & a half of being damnably in love----“.

The following day he had Breakfast with Isabella and walked with her in her garden, where he gave her a copy of his portrait engraving and exchanged gossip about Miss Lookup.

Later in the day Burns received the Freedom of the Burgh of Jedburgh.

In the evening he went to Kelso and dined at the Farmers Club, were a Gilbert Kerr invited the travellers to stay over with him at Stodrig house. Gilbert also offered to accompany Burns on his journey into England.

The following days were wet and the two travellers took short trips to visit Dryburgh Abbey and Melrose Abbey.

On the Monday it was still wet but the intrepid pair elected to leave and follow the Vale of Yarrow to Inverleithen, where they slept over in the Piccadilly Inn.

Tuesday was still wet and the pair made their way South via Galashiels and Ettrick (visiting Thomas the Rhymer country) then on to Selkirk .

On arriving there they went to Veich’s Forest Inn looking very bedraggled and wet.

The dining room was crowded but there were two chairs at a table with a small party. They asked the innkeeper if they could join the party. The man went in to Dr. Clarkson, the host, and made the request but when asked, “who the muddied pair were?” he replied that “one sounded like a gentleman but the other was a drover-looking chap”. The doctor dismissed the request, so Burns and Ainslie retired to their rooms. Burns then wrote a letter to his publisher William Creech enclosing the poem "Auld Reekie’s sair distrest".

The next day the doctor discovered that the celebrated Mr. Burns was in town. He was mortified and being a genuine admirer of Burns and owning a copy of his book, he went back to the Inn to meet him.

However Burns was in a “jaded mood” (Hung-over?) and a bit tired of being on show all the time, so he refused the request. The poor Dr Clarkson spent the rest of his life regretting his moment of hauteur.

The Duo then returned to Ainslie’s home at Duns.

When they arrived Burns received packages left for him by a Londoner, Symon Gray, who had retired to Duns. Gray wanted to know Burns honest opinion of his poetry. Burns replied in verse:-

Syimon Gray you are dull today.

A second parcel arrived, to which Burns responded with:-

Dullness, wit redoubted sway, has seized the wits of Symon Gray

Not to be deterred a third bulky parcel of poems arrived, to which Burns again responded:-

Dear Symon Gray, the other day,
When you sent me some rhyme,
I could not then just ascertain,
It’s worth for want of time.

But now today, good Master Gray,
I’ve read it o’er and o’er,
Tried all my skill, but find I’m still,
Just where I was before.

We auld Wives’ minions gie our opinions,
Solicited or no’,
Then, of it’s fau’ts my honest thoughts,
I’ll give – and here they go.

Such damn’d bombast no time that’s past,
Will show, or time to come,
So Symon, dear, your song I’ll tear,
And with it wipe my bum!

There was no further word from Symon Gray.

After a two day rest the intrepid pair took off to see Berwick. While there they met Lord Errol who conducted them on a tour around the town and sailed them round the harbour.

They then travelled North and lodged with a Mr Greive at Eyemouth.

The following day, Saturday 19th the two travellers were inducted as Arch Masons of St. Ebbs Lodge.

On the Sunday Ainslie had to return to Edinburgh and Burns made his way to Peasbridge where he lodged with a George Sherriff, according to Burns “a crashing bore, talkative and conceited”.

George was called away suddenly on some business, leaving Burns alone with his sister Nancy.

Things must have been getting “hot”, for Burns records that “George returned just in time”.

When Burns was saddling up to head to Dunbar after a morning tour of the Deane of Dunglass with Sir James Hall, he was astonished to find Nancy all set to accompany him. He later described the situation in a letter to Ainslie.

Next day, "well powdered, hair curled, in her fine cream-coloured riding clothes mounted on an old dun cart horse that had once been fat, a broken old side-saddle without cupper, stirrup or girth, a bridle that in former times had had buckles and a crooked, meandering hazel stick which might have borne place with credit in a scrubbed besom", it had been her intention that they would ride as far as Dunbar, and that she would introduce him to relatives on the way. I pretended a fire-haste and rode so hard she was almost shaken to pieces on old Jolly, and, to my great joy, she found it convenient to stop at an uncle's house by the way. I refused to call with her, and so we quarrelled and parted.

Flirtation with pretty women, as Burns often declared, “was just his kind of sport”, but every now and then it backfired. It was a game played in a social context and it was expected, on both sides, that it end with the end of the evening. Few of the ladies were as deter­mined as Nancy Sherriff. Once he had escaped, he made his way through 'the most glorious corn country I ever saw' till he reached Dunbar.

Burns dined with the Provost in Dunbar then returned South to Dunglass for the night, probably at the home of Sir James.

The next morning he had breakfast at Skateraw Farm and stayed till the next morning when he returned to the Ainslie’s at Duns. His traveling companion on the road south was the Excise man from Dunbar Charles Lorimer. Burns was not impressed with the company.

When he arrived at the Ainslie’s he discovered the only person there was Rachel. They dined together and there was no flirtation. His best friend’s sister was ‘off limits”. He greatly admired Rachel as a person and it appears  they were to remain good friends. It seems Burns was here able to be himself with a woman, for the first time since maturity.

Burns left the next day Thursday 24th and met up with Gilbert Kerr at Coldstream. They crossed into England and made their way to a friend of Kerr’s, Mr. Hood, who lived in Wooler, where they planned to stop the night.

That night Burns was stricken with a severe fever and was apparently badly shaken by the experience, confessing to visions of dying there. They were obliged to wait over and then Mr Hood said if they waited till the Sunday he would join them.

On Sunday they set out southwards and visited Alnwick Castle, the duke of Northumberland’s residence. They then stopped over in the town.

On Monday they continued South to Morpeth, where the party again stopped over. The short journey legs were possibly occasioned by the two companions doing business on the way. Burns was not particularly enamoured by their company, finding them rather serious and humourless farmers.

The next morning they made their way to Newcastle and met up with a Scotsman named Chattox, who Burns found very agreeable and who dined & supped with them.

The story is told that during dinner with Mr Chattox, Burns was rather surprised to see the meat served before the soup. Chattox explained with a laugh that there was a Northumbrian maxim, which states that in these parts 'we must eat beef before we sup the broth, lest the hungry Scots make an inroad and snatch it'!

He only stayed one night in Newcastle.

In the morning of Wednesday 30th they made their way to Longton via Hexham. There was a hiring day in progress in the town and Burns companions completed their business there. They had Lunch with him and took their leave. Burns then joined the road South to Carlisle and booked in at the Malt Shovel Inn. That was by far the longest one-day leg of the tour, a good 60 miles.

Burns then met with a local printer, Mr Mitchell, and was shown around his calico printing works. He was then shown around the town and taken to dinner by Mr. Mitchell.

On his return to the Malt Shovel Inn Burns, who was a “bit worse for wear’ was told that his mare Jenny Geddes had been impounded for wandering onto Corporation property and grazing illegally. He would have to report to the town hall and pay a fine to the Mayor.

In the morning Burns did so and attached the following lines to the payment.

Was e’r poet befitted,
The maister drunk, the horse committed.
Puir harmless beast! tak’ ye nae care,
Thou’lt be a horse when he’s nae mair.

Burns was recognized and the charge was dropped. {Wish parking fines got that treatment nowadays?}

This was now the 1st of June. Burns composed a long letter to William Nichol, The only one he ever wrote in broad Scots. He then set out for Dumfries and that was the beginning of another tour.

It is somewhat perplexing to me, who has travelled the Newcastle to Longton road often, that he makes no mention of Hadrian’s Wall, which the road follows. He either was not aware of that Roman history in Britain, or his traveling companions were uncompromising about sightseeing on that day.


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