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The Life of Robert Burns
Burns the Youth


THUS for eighteen years had the life of the boy Burns sped away. Working in the harvest field like a Titanic slave, and spending his evenings after his own heart; his summer nights in wandering through the country by haunted stream or sounding ocean, a book often in his hand; his winter nights in devouring Stackhouse, Smollett, and Robertson; his Sabbaths in listening to Dr. Dalrymple, or some nearer Presbyterian oracle; and his private hours, by night or day, in thoughts too deep for tears, in communings with his own hungry heart, in conjectures on his future destiny, as yet unblest by any delightful "Vision," and in melancholy reflections on man and the world. He was little regarded by anybody, unless indeed by his father, who always saw in Robert the promise of an extraordinary man. He speaks of the cheerless gloom of a hermit, and the unceasing toil of a galley slave, as comprising his whole existence up to his sixteenth year. Yet, we doubt not, he was then often happy, happier than in after days, and that for two good reasons—first, he was young, and the basis of youth is Hope; and, secondly, he was virtuous, and the usual attendant of virtue is Peace.

One cause of his suflerings was their poor farm. Mount Oliphant resembled Rip Van Winkle’s farm; it was "the most pestilent piece of ground in the whole country," and Gilbert Burns tells us it continued unimproved and unimprovable, and notwithstanding the extraordinary rise in the value of land in Scotland about the time he wrote, let at 5 lower than the rent paid for it by his father thirty years before! The family laboured very hard, and fared very poorly—never for years tasting butcher’s meat, and working themselves without any servant. Robert began to feel those fits of deep depression which never altogether left him, and in the evenings was often afflicted with a dull headache, exchanged afterwards for a palpitation of the heart, and a threatening of fainting and suffocation in his bed in the nighttime, which made him sometimes arise and plunge himself into a tub of water which stood in the room.

At Whitsunday, 1777, the family left Mount Oliphant for Lochlea (pronounced Lochly), in the parish of Tarbolton. This farm lay on a rising ground to the north ol the Ayr, was bleak and uninteresting in aspect, but from some of its braes commanded a fine view of the Carrick hills on the left, and of Arran and the other islands of the Frith of Clyde on the right; of Ailsa Craig too, that "craggy ocean pyramid" which Keats has sung. Burns must, from this and many other points, have often seen these striking objects; but it is curious how seldom he alludes to them in his poems, only once, we think, to Ailsa—

"Meg was deaf as Ailsa Craig"

and never, so far as we remember, to the dark mass of mountains rising to the west, and known now to travellers from every part of the globe as the hills of Arran. How often must he have seen the sun going down in gold or blood behind these black battlements; Jove pausing ere he dipped his orb, so beautiful and large, in the sea beyond them, and his own beloved Venus trembling as it shone a bulb of light in the orange sky of evening above them! But of all this his poetry, so full of allusions to the simpler features of Ayrshire scenery—her "burn stealing under the lang yellow broom," her "milk-white thorn that scents the evening gale," her Doon with her "far-fetch’d floods," and her moors "red-brown wi’ heather bells "—is entirely silent. Nor do twenty lines in all his works attest any interest in or admiration of mountain scenery, and his verses on the "Fall of Foyers" and "Taymouth" are miserably poor, and like his Doon floods, "far-fetch’d." His contemporary, Cowper, yearned for mountains, but never expected to see them, unless he saw them in Heaven, and that to him, poor fellow, seemed a doubtful prospect; but Burns saw them every day from his plough, gave them his admiration doubtless, for he had a strong sense of the picturesque and sublime, but preferred to sing the "Braes of Ballochmyle" and the "Castle of Montgomery," nay, the "Mouse" running away from his ploughshare, and the "Daisy" crushed below it.

William Burness took his farm at Lochlea, of one hundred and twenty acres, at twenty shillings an acre, which Robert Chambers thinks a high rent for these days. Nevertheless, matters at first rather prospered here with the Burns family. They stood, as the Highlanders phrase it, "shouther to shouther," and worked efficiently and well together — a family of poverty and "industrious peace." At this time a rather important event took place in the poet’s history. His mother, originally from Craigeston, in the parish of Kirkoswald, had a brother living at the farm of Ballochneil, about a mile from the village of Kirkoswald—Samuel Brown by name, at once a farm labourer, fisherman, and dealer in wool. Bums resided with his uncle in a farm house which he occupied along with his brother-in-law, Niven, the farmer, his own wife being dead; and walked every morning to the village school at Kirkoswald. The coast of Carrick, near this, is the commencement of a long line of sea margin, extending by various reaches and windings from Ayr to Girvan, and thence to Stranraer, and thence to Wigton, and thence to that romantic region below Creetowp, called usually Guy Mannering’s country. Carrick, though far away from this, may be said to begin the waving line which, after many bendings, culminates in one of the most interesting spots in all the south of Scotland, both in itself and its associations. One rugged band then united all this tract of sea coast. It was, from Kirkoswald to Kirkcudbright, the haunt of a smuggling population; the Isle of Man forming a midway station between it and France, Ostend, and Gottenburg. We must not judge, however, of the Kirkoswald smuggler by Vanbeest Brown, senior, or Dirk Hatteraick. He was half smuggler, half farmer, jolly, kindly, though somewhat rude and riotous. Burns’ uncle, Brown, belonged apparently to this type. The coast extends for many miles, and is backed by bare though green hills or uplands, surmounted at one place by the point on which formerly stood the Castle of Turnberry, famous in the history of Robert the Bruce, where the hero of Bannockburn "shook his Carrick spear." The village of Kirkoswald stands a mile or two inwards, in a sequestered nook. It was altogether a spot admirably adapted for the training of a young poet, and the four months spent by Bums here form one of the most pleasing and pregnant episodes in his early history. It is true, he tells us, that he learned "now to fill his glass and to mix without fear in a drunken squabble," which, by the way, shows that he had been habitually temperate before. But he here got acquainted with wild men and wild usages, saw wild scenery, bathed his young system and his soul, too, in the salt breath of the ocean and met the first rough model of his inimitable "Tam o’ Shanter." This was one (of whom more afterwards) Douglas Graham, whose farm of Shanter (its steading is now down, and its identity is somewhat indistinct, the farm having been divided into two) lay on a slope near the site of Turnberry Castle, and who was a good decent man to be a habitual smuggler and occasionally a hard drinker, and whose wife, Helen MacTaggart, was as fearful and superstitious as the Kate of the poem.

Hugh Rogers, who taught Burns mensuration and geometry, was an eminent teacher, and distinguished also as a land-surveyor—narrow, however, in his views; and this led him into certain disputes with his distinguished pupil, in which, as might have been expected, the Dominic came off second best. Unluckily, on one occasion, Rogers committed himself to a public discussion before his school, about the comparative value to society of a general and a merchant, with Burns, and was completely discomfited, to his own confusion, the satisfaction of his opponent, and the uproarious delight of the scholars. Burns’ great associate at the time was John Niven, afterwards of Kilbride, a very successful man in business, and ultimately a land proprietor. On one occasion they treated their teacher to a jug of ale in an inn kept by two gentlewomen, Jean and Ann Kennedy, the former of whom figures in "Tam o’ Shanter" as Kirkton Jean—

"Thon drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday."

Their house was a respectable one of its sort, and called usually "The Ladies’ or Leddies’ House." Niven hailed from Maybole, and when he returned there from school on the Saturdays, these precious breathing times to scholars, Burns accompanied him, and their talk to and fro was of an elevating and inspiring character. First in his studies, first in debate with his teacher, first in his talk with his school companions, Burns was not first in manly exercises, such as putting the stone, wrestling, and leaping, although in these, too, he excelled. But here Niven was his Evil Genius, and always triumphed. Burns found his revenge, however, in drawing his successful rival into an argument about some speculative point, in which he generally regained his laurels.

And now he fell in love in a characteristic fashion. The original school at Kirkoswald was destroyed, and for it was substituted a room opposite the churchyard. Behind this room, on a high slope, was a succession of "kail-yards" attached to various cottages. Across this unromantic locality there shot a vision of female beauty, which quite dazzled the eye of Burns. He had gone out to take the altitude of the sun—fit employment for a young poet! But a star came between him and old Sol. Sines and cosines, quadrants and parallaxes, were alike confounded and put to flight when Peggy Thomson, daughter of a neighbouring cottager, came out to the garden, according to one of his biographers, not to gather flowers, but to cut down a cabbage for the family dinner! This, he says, completely overset his trigonometry. .Amor sin cit omnia became his motto. To see Peggy, to steal out and court Peggy, and ultimately to vent his feelings on Peggy in song, was henceforth his care till he left Kirkoswald. He renewed his acquaintance with her temporarily afterwards; but her image left little permanent effect on his mind.

Chambers tells the following anecdote about Burns when he resided at Kirkoswald —One day, as he was walking slowly along the street of the village in a manner customary to him, with his eyes bent upon the ground, he was met by the Misses Biggar, the daughters of the pastor of the parish. He would have passed without noticing them, if one of the young ladies had not called him by name. She then rallied him on his inattention to the fair sex, in preferring to look to the inanimate ground, instead of seizing the opportunity afforded him of indulging in the most invaluable privilege of man—that of beholding and conversing with the ladies. "Madam," said he, "it is a natural and right thing for man to contemplate the ground from which he was taken, and for woman to look upon and observe man from whom she was taken." This, adds Chambers, was a conceit; but it was the conceit of no "vulgar boy." It was not, however, original with Burns. A respected correspondent, John Cuthbertson, Esq., formerly the able English master of the High School, Dundee, now residing near Troon, Ayrshire, writes us as follows:—" There was an edition of L’Estrange’s ‘Ruins of Quevedo’ published in Glasgow in 1753. It is coarsely printed on coarse paper, and must have been sold for a price not exceeding sixpence. At page 24 a young woman is represented as saying to a duenna who had admonished her, ‘Let the men look downwards toward the clay of which they are made; but man was our original, and it well becomes us to keep our eyes upon the matter from which we came.’" He adds, "If Burns had got the idea from Quevedo, he must have read at least one book more than the list given by Chambers contains, and I believe be had perused dozens more. Bums, if he ever used the words, which I doubt, might have got them from this Glasgow translation."

He returned home from this visit, he tells us, very considerably improved. Some think that it was at this period that he composed his song, "I Dreamed I Lay where Flowers were Springing," some of the lines in which bear a resemblance to Mrs. Cockburn’s "Flowers of the Forest." Chambers says that his lines on " Peggy Thomson were not written till he renewed his acquaintance with her, years after he had seen her at Kirkoswald. Bums tells us that, while in Carrick, he read Thomson’s and Shenstone’s works for the first time. Even the languid sentimentalism of Shenstone found some reflection in his inflammable bosom, as his "Vision" proves; but how much more must he have sympathized with the solemn grandeur, the difficult swell, like that of a labouring sea, the natural piety, the genuine enthusiasm, the sudden and savage dash of some of the pictorial touches, like the style of Salvatot Rosa, and what he calls the "landscape glow" of the great author of the "Seasons," on the crowning of whose bust he was afterwards to indite a poem! He commenced, immediately after leaving Carrick, a habit of letter writing, which led by and by, through much practice, to excellence; his correspondence being, if not his highest, yet one of his distinct and undeniable claims to enduring fame. He began by studying and imitating the letters of the "Wits of Queen Anne," a collection of which he had procured; but soon (as Wordsworth says of the Sonnet) in his hands "the thing became a trumpet," and some of Bums’ letters are among the most eloquent ever penned. Once engaged in letter-writing, he found it a fascination. "Though he had not three farthings’ worth of business in the world, every post brought him as many letters as if he had been a broad plodding son of daybook and ledger." He read also at this time "Tristram Shandy" and the "Man of Feeling" with special delight—the one for its riotous oddity, wild humour, and touches of Shakspearean tenderness; the other for its delicate vein of pathos and charming style. Often, too, he took up the lyre, and swept the chords with energy; but his full mastery over it was not yet attained.

His career at Lochlea was for some years uneventful. The Burns family was all that time a virtuous household, though exceeding poor; hard-wrought, but contented; singularly self-contained, and mingling little with their neighbours; distinguished by a certain superiority of manners and refinement of taste, and sure to be found, all of them at meal times reading while consuming their victuals. Such families were once not uncommon in Scotland, and even still, in hamlets among the hills or in lonely country-sides, a few may be found. We fancy a kind of hauteur and reserve in their manners, as of a family dwelling alone and not reckoned among the common herd; and this certainly characterized Robert Burns himself. He was as proud as Lucifer, or rather (to imitate a witticism of De Quincey) Lucifer was as proud as Burns.

Up to his visit to Irvine in his twenty-third year, Bums seems to have been one of the brightest, funniest, happiest, and most virtuous of young men. Gilbert went with him to the peat-moss, and he seemed to set it on fire by the quick, lightning-like play of his raillery and thickcoming fancies. His audience then was rather few than fit, consisting of some farm servants engaged at their laborious employment of delving, wheeling, and stacking peats under a burning summer sun; but soon their sides were sorer than their limbs, and more wearied, while the peasant youth was darting up from among the bags the flashes of his eye and the coruscations of his wit and genius. An old man near Catrine used often to tell our excellent friend, Dr. Hamilton MacGill, foreign secretary to the United Presbyterian Church, that he remembered a string of carts going to a quarry for lime, all of them abandoned by their drivers, who had gathered round the cart of Burns, who, by shooting round shafts of fun, was exciting screams and shouts of laughter, while some of the weaker recipients, we venture to say, were rolling helpless on the ground. It was, we think, the same man who, when a boy, saw Robert and Gilbert digging a lint hole. "What are you doing there" said he. "Making a grave for the Deil," replied Robert. " Catch him first," cried the boy, on which the poet exploded in convulsions of laughter. The mention of the Deil always tickled rather than terrified the author of the ‘‘ Address."

The other members of the family of Lochlea were not destitute of literary aspirations. Agnes, while milking the cows with her two sisters, would repeat the old Scottish songs she had picked up—the "Flowers of the Forest" (in the first form of that plaintive ditty), "Sir James the Rose," and some of the versions of the Psalms, specially the 145th in our Scottish collection. Gilbert Burns was a man of reading, and, for the time, of cultivated understanding, although that exuberance of spirits attributed to him in early days by Murdoch seems to have departed and gone over to his elder brother, who at this time of his life was of a most joyous and indulgent temper. Gilbert was in the harvest field a sullen, stern task-master; but when he spoke harshly to any of his young labourers, Robert would take their part, and cry, "Oh, man, ye’re no for young folk." Nor can we wonder though the author of "The Winter Night" should think with pity on those "poor dumb mouths," the "owrie cattle,’ the robin red-breast, friend and bewildered guest of man, the "silly sheep" and "ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing;" and never did poet, unless we except William Cowper or Professor Wilson, exhibit more sympathy, whether in his song or in himself, with "the creation made subject to vanity, and groaning and travailing in pain together until now." And it is hinted that the crushed and trampled ones knew their benefactor—knew the man who, in the "Twa Dogs," had sounded their very souls (if souls they have), had gauged their sufferings, and had shared in their gladness, when, at the sight of "the innocent wee things" in the cottage at play—

"They for joy had barkit wi them."

It was altogether a happy home that of Lochlea. Poverty might be looking in at the window, but had not yet entered the house. The excellent father was yet strong to labour, as well as wise to advise. And the hot passions of the eldest son, which were to form such an element of disturbance to himself and his friends, still slumbered like morning clouds, which look calm and bright till—

"Slowly charged with thunder they convey
Terror to earth and tempest to the air."

And it is to the period of his life now at hand that we would specially apply the lines of Wordsworth—

"Of him that walked in glory and in joy,
Behind his plough upon the mountain side."

In our next Chapter we will look at him as developed into the Ploughman Poet. But although advancing to this stage he got more fame, we suspect his pleasures were hardly so pure and simple as they had been in Lochlea. The cause of this will presently appear.


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