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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 16


BALLOCHMYLE--THE BRAES--THELASS O’ BALLOCHMYLE--HER ACCOUNT OF MEETING WITH THE POET--BURNS’ SEAT--THE POET’S LETTER TO MISS ALEXANDER--APOLOGIES FOR HER SILENCE--THE BOWER --CAUGHT BY THE GAMEKEEPER--CATRINE--AN EXCURSION PARTY--THE RIVER AYR--BALLOCHMYLE BRIDGE--HAUGH--BARKSIMMING BRI--”MAN WAS MADE TO MOURN”--THE RAILWAY STATION--BACK TO KILMARNOCK.

BALLOCHMYLE, the seat of Colonel Claud Alexander M.P. for South Ayrshire, is situated on the Catrine Road, some mile and a half from Mauchline.  Although the scenery through which the road winds cannot be termed enchanting, it is at least pleasing, and I enjoyed it and the fragrance of the hay and flowers which the breeze bore from the uplands and wafted across the fields as I strolled on my way.  Groups of happy, brown-faced, bare-legged children, who seemingly were returning from school, were gathering posies of daisies and golden dandelions here and there along the wayside in the vicinity of the town, and it made my heart glad to watch them and listen to their innocent laughter as it waked the echoes and mingled with the music of the birds.  When I reached the entrance to the estate I found the gate fast, and it was not until I gave a few authorities raps with my stick that a maiden issued from an antique flower-embowered cot, which nestles beautifully beneath some old trees, to admit me. With many thanks for her courtesy, I passed along the fine drive which winds through dense masses of woods and shrub bery, and in due time arrived in front of the mansion.  All was quiet, and save the birds that flitted and chirruped in the trees or sought food on the lawn, no sign of life was to be witnessed.  Although surrounded by a scene of bewildering beauty, a sense of loneliness weighed me down, for as yet I was an unauthorized visitor.  To remedy this I set off in quest of my friend the keeper, and in my explorations stumbled into a secluded path in the shrubbery which leads down to the river Ayr.  The solitude was peculiarly impressive. There was a cloudless sunshine, but nothing was heard save  the murmuring of the current as it made its way among stones and pieces of rock impeding its progress. Steep banks and precipices, draped in most luxuriant natural wood, rose from the water edge in majestic loveliness, and cast long shadows on the ripples and smooth glassy spaces of the stream. Here the grass and herbage extended close to the brink, and trees bent over and laved the tips of their boughs in the current; there a wall of rock rose from the bed, which looked as if it had been hewn by rough, careless workmen, who in their haste had left many a shelf protruding.  On these, and in the intervening spaces, ferns and shrubs grew, and far up on the top of all, on the very brink of the chasm, trees clung to crag and tightly grasped pieces of rock with their knotty fingers. It is never-to-be-forgotten scene, and I am not at all surprised that the poetic fancy of Burns was roused by witnessing it.  Following the path, I entered the thicket, and in is intricate windings over the braes was soon lost among confused stems, bushes, branches, and clustering green leaves which had succeeded those which lay withered and dead on the verge of the rustic footway.  Several times I was nearly tripped up by moss-grown tree roots, and more than once startled by rabbits which my unexpected appearance had surprised while bask- ing in gleams of sunshine which fell on the green sward through openings in the trees.

Having threaded this narrow path for some considerable distance, I cam to a broader but not less romantic one, for the leafy canopy of interlaced branches continued, and the wild grandeur of the scene, if possible, became more fascinating. Having followed it a short distance, I reached a rustic bower or grotto of ornamental twig work and moss.  It was familiar object, and I at once knew that I had reached the spot where Burns unexpectedly met “The Lass o’ Ballochmyle,” who, as the reader is probably aware, was a Miss Wilhelmina Alexander, a sister of Mr Claud Alexander, a gentleman who had realized a fortune in India and purchased the estate from Sir John Whiteford, the friend of Burns, and the representative of a once powerful Ayrshire family.  The bard sung the departure of the kind gentleman in a set of plaintive verses, in which he makes his daughter Maria take farewell of the lovely braes.

“Through faded groves Maria sang,
Hersel’ in beauty’s bloom the while,
And aye the wildwood echoes rang,
Fareweel the braes o’ Ballochmyle.”

These lovely braes were a favourite resort of the poet when residing in the farm of Mossgiel.  One July evening, when walking on them, he somewhat suddenly met Miss Alexander.  The lady’s account of the interview--if inter- view it can be called--is that he encountered the poet, whom she describes as “a plain-looking man,” musing with his shoulder against one of the trees, and that the evening being far advanced and the grounds forbidden to strangers, she was startled, but recovering herself, passed on and thought no more of the matter.  Burns, however, was impressed with the glimpse he got of the beauty, and according to the tradition of the district, remained and composed the song in which her charms are celebrated.  The place where he is said to have sat and strung the lovely lyric is only a few paces from the grotto.  It is situated at the extreme end of a narrow neck of land, jutting out into the ravine through which the river flows, and is in every way a lovely situation for poet or painter to muse in.  A few old trees cluster together, and by their interlaced branches form a kind of bower over “the seat,” while down below the river joins in chorus with the song of the birds.  When I stood there, I did so with a deep sense of enjoyment to the soft buzzing of the insects around and of the myriads of blue-bells which dyed the dell as they kept nodding in the balmy breeze that swayed their fragile stems.  All around was life--fresh, delightful, enjoyable life --and as I stood motionless,

“The merry, young rabbits came leaping
Over the crest of the hill,
Where the clover and corn lay sleeping
Under the sunlight still.”

Some months after the incident, Burns wrote the lady, and in a very beautiful letter asked permission to publish the song he had composed in her honour.  He says:--”I had roved out, as chance directed, in the favourite haunts of my muse on the banks of the Ayr, to view nature in all the gaiety of the vernal year. The evening sun was flaming over the distant western hills; not a breath stirred the crimson opening blossom, or the verdant spreading leaf.  It was a golden moment for a poetic heart.  I listened to the feathered warblers pouring their harmony on every hand, with a congenial, kindred regard, and frequently turned out of my path lest I should disturb their little songs, or frighten them to another station.  ‘Surely,’ said I to myself, ‘he must be a wretch indeed, who, regardless of your harmonious endeavours to please him, can eye your elusive flights to discover your secret recesses, and to rob you of all the property nature gives you--your dearest comforts, your helpless nestlings.’  Even the hoary hawthorn twig that shot across the way, what heart at such time but must have been interested in its welfare, and wished it preserved from the rudely browsing cattle or the withering eastern blast?  Such was the scene, and such was the hour, when , in a corner of my prospect, I spied one of the fairest pieces of nature’s workmanship that ever crowned a poetic landscape or met a poet’s eye; those visionary bards excepted who hold commerce with aerial beings!  Had Calumny and Villainy taken my walk, they had at that moment sworn eternal peace with such an object. What an hour of inspiration for a poet!  It would have raised plain, dull, historic prose into metaphor and measure.”

To this letter--of which the above is a portion--the bard received no reply.  Dr. Currie says:--”Her modesty might prevent her from perceiving that the muse of Tibullus breathed in this nameless poet, and that her beauty was awakening strains destined to immortality on the banks of the Ayr.  It may be conceived also that, supposing the verse duly appreciated, delicacy might find it possible to express its acknowledegments.” Chambers, on the other hand, says:-- “The apology now presented by the family for Miss Alex- ander’s conduct is, that she unfortunately fell amongst those who entertained an unfavorable opinion of his character. Feeling it to be necessary to decline yielding to his request, she thought that that resolution would be intimated most deli- cately towards him, as well as in the manner most agree- able to herself, by simply allowing the letter to remain unanswered.  It is easy to enter into the feelings of a sensible woman of thirty in adopting this course, and even to make some allowance for others not acknowledged, which might cause her to shrink from the acquaintance of a humble tenant of her brother (for Mossgiel now belonged to Mr. Alexander) who, in the exercise of an assumed poetic privilege, dared to imagine her as his mistress.  However this might be, Miss Alexander and her kindred leaned afterwards to think the woods of Ballochmyle classic, and herself immortal through the genius of Burns.  On a question occurring many years after as to the disposal of the original manuscript of the song, Miss Alexander said that there could be no dispute on that point: ‘wherever she went it must go.’”  Miss Alexander died unmarried in 1843, in the eighty-ninth year of her age.

The rustic bower, erected in commemoration of the abrupt meeting, is a neat circular erection with an open front.  It contains a row of seats and an oaken board, on which the following is inscribed in fac simile of the poet’s hand- writing:--

“’Twas even, the dewy fields were green,
On every blade the pearls hang,
The zephyr wantoned round the bean,
And bore its fragrant sweets alang:
In every glen the mavis sang,
All Nature listening seemed the while,
Except where greenwood echoes rang
Amang the braes o’ Ballochmyle.

“With careless step I onward strayed,
My heart rejoiced in Nature’s joy,
When, musing in a lonely glade,
A maiden fair I chanced to spy:
Her look was like the morning’s eye,
Her air like Nature’s vernal smile;
Perfection whispered passing by,
Behold the lass o’ Ballochmyle!” 

After sitting in the bower listening to the music of the woods and holding communion with my thoughts, I rose to depart, but had not taken many steps when I was confronted by a man with a double-barreled gun under his arm. “Hp,” said, “what are you doing here?”  A glance was sufficient to show that I stood face to face with the vigilant head keeper, and that a prompt answer was absolutely necessary.  This I made, and drew his attention to the fact that we had met before.  In an instant he was at my service, and proffered to assist me in any way.

Being now an authorised visitor, I took leave of my friend after some pleasant conversation, and commenced the journey to Mauchline railway station.  As I moved forward I had an excellent view of the wooded precipitous bank of the Ayr, and of the village of Catrine--a circumstance which brought to min the fact that it was there that Professor Dugald Stewart, the expositor of the Scottish system of metaphysics, had his residence, and that it was at his table Burns “dinner’d wi’ a lord.”  The professor narrates that the manners of the poet on the occasion were “simple, manly, and independent; strongly expressive of conscious genius and worth, but without anything that indicated forwardness, arrogance, or vanity.”

The small but startling incidents of the route added a sort of piquancy to the enjoyment of the scene.  At one time I startled a partridge, at another a blackbird, which flew with a sudden flutter and a wild cry from a thicket where its nest was hid.  The rustling grass, and fern fronds, too, bespoke the sudden flight of rabbits--indeed, numbers of them hurried off in timorous haste at my approach, while almost unconsciously muttering--

“Tell me, fellow-creatures, why
At my presence thus you fly?
Why disturb your social joys,
Parent, filial, kindred ties?
Common friend to you and me,
Nature’s gifts to all are free.”

A sudden turn in this secluded walk brought me to a neat foot-bridge which spans a broad macadamized road.  Here I paused and listened to a party of homeward-bound excursionists who mad the wildwood echoes ring, as the stentorian voices they bade a heart-fond adieu to the lovely scenes they were leaving behind.  The words of their song were peculiarly appropriate, and, as the sound of their voices became faint by distance, the following snatch smote my ear:--

‘But here, alas! for me nae mair
Shall birdie charm, or floweret smile;
Fareweel the bonnie banks of Ayr,
Fareweel, fareweel! sweet Ballochmyle!”

Upon crossing the bridge I found myself on the verge of the rive and near to a vast wall of red sandstone towering from its channel.  The scene is most imposing, but why the stream is thus imbedded I am unable to say--possibly the rock has been rent asunder by some great convulsion, or (though very doubtful) the water has worn a passage for itself.  Upon descending some steps cut in the rock, I came upon an angler straying along the brink of the water casting and trailing his line in hopes to catch a trout, but, although he tried every artifice, the finny tribe remained shy, and he disappointed.  However, it was not for want of fish, for several rose farther down the stream in a dark, deep pool to snap at unwary flies hovering near the glassy surface.

Keeping in the shade of the massive rocks which rise from the river bed, I soon reached the stupendous erection called Ballochmyle Bridge.  It makes a gigantic sweep across the ravine through which the Ayr flows, and rises to a height of 184 feet above its channel.  It has an imposing appearance, and eclipses everything of the kind in Great Britain in point of magnitude and elegance.  Its foundation stone was laid with Masonic honours on the 10th of September, 1846, and the structure was completed in the month of August, 1848. Near it is the celebrated quarry from which the beautiful red sandstone is procured that makes buildings throughout Ayshire so conspicuous.  The stone is worked to a great depth, but its bottom has not been reached, and the supply appears to be as inexhaustible as it was when operations first began.

Beyond the bridge a beautiful path winds along the foot of the verdant precipices and steep descents which line the river bank.  Holding along it, I soon reached “the never-failing brook” which propels the wheel of “the busy mill,” and entered Haugh, a very small village consisting of a group of cottages, an agricultural implement maker’s shop, a woollen and a curling stone factory.

Finding nothing here worth a sentence, I enquired my way to Barkskimming Bridge, and was directed to a small roadway at the end of the village.  Out of it, according to instructions, I entered a stile road or beaten track which winds through a couple of fields.  Cattle were browsing in them.  At my approach they lifted their heads and looked at me with long and wary observation; but being satisfied that my mission was peace, they again bent their heads and began to crop the pasture.

At the termination of the carpet-like path, I found myself in the highway between Mauchline and Stair, and close at the old bridge of Barskimming, a spacious structure of one arch which spans the Ayr a little below the confluence of the Lugar.  Its situation is peculiarly romantic and pleasing. Immediately above it, on the south side of the stream, Bar- skimming Mill nestles beneath the shade of an immense wall of sandstone, which appears to have been hewn by the hand of man to make room for the diminutive structure.  Below, a curve conceals the river from sight, but beyond it, it flows through a perfect chasm of towering rocks which are decked and crowned by the most luxuriant vegetation.  Over this wildly romantic gulf, a bridge connects the lands of Barskimming and gives access to the princely mansion, which nestles in the beautifully laid off grounds of the estate.

While leaning on the parapet of the bridge enjoying the scenery, I accosted a passing wayfarer, and asked to be shown the holm where Burns composed, “Man was mad to Mourn.” “Man it’s no here,” said he, “its on the Doon.”  “Na, na, John,” said a middle-sized, pleasant-featured old woman who was standing near with a bundle of faggots in her apron, “you are wrong, far, it was no such thing, but it was owre in that holm there, where my key are, that the poet made ‘Man was made to Mourn.”  Often have I heard my old father speak about if; he knew Burns and them all, but they are all gone.” “And what were the circumstances?” said I, for I must confess that I was somewhat fascinated with her tragic manner and fluent language.  “Well, young man,” she continued, “I will tell you, for I love to speak about the Burns. That is my house at the end of the brig there.  Well, in Burn’s time, a man lived in it o’ the name o’ Kemp, wha had a daughter ca’d Kate--Kate Kemp.  Well, you know, Burns had an e’e to Kate, and came from Mauchline ae afternoon to see her, but it so happened that the coo was lost and she had gone to look for’t.  Well, you see, the poet made up his mind to go and look for them baith, but he had gotten no farther than the other side of the brig there when he met the miller. ‘Well, Miller, what are you doing her? said he.  ‘Deed,’ said the miller, ‘I was gaunt to speer that question at you.’ ‘Well, then,’ said Burns, ‘I was doon to see Kate Kemp, but she and the coo’s lost.’  Weel, ye ken, they cracket awa’, but Burns began to get fidgety an’ left the miller like a knotless thread, an’ gaed awa doon the holm there.  But the next time they met he said, ‘Miller, I owe you an apology for leaving you so suddenly when we last met.’  ‘Oh, there’s nae need o’ that!’ said the miller, ‘for I suppose something was rennin’ in your head.’ ‘You are right,’ said Burns, ‘and here it is;’ an’ sae wi’ that he read ‘Man was made to mourn.’  Yes, John, that is the Holm where Burns made ‘Man was made to mourn,’ I can assure you.”  John heard here statement, intimated his surprise, and moved off, and left the old lady and I to ourselves.  She informed me that she had spent the whole of her life in the locality, and entertained me with many reminiscences of her early years.  “In the days of Burns,” she said, “aye, and in my day to,” she added with a sigh, “all round by the holm there was covered with beautiful trees in which the craws biggit their nests, but they are all down; and a beautiful oak that stood’ yont the road a bit, which was admired by everybody, and was drawn by many an artist, is down too.  My heart bled to see the noble monarch lying low--but it was not so in the days of Lord Glenlee.  No, he would not allow a tree on the estate to be touched, and when one at the big house was blown down, he said ‘if a ten pound not will put it up I will gladly pay down the money.’”  After enjoying a hearty draught of milk in this intelligent lady’s dairy--which, by the by, is cut out of the solid rock--I reluctantly bade her good-bye and pushed on to Mauchline, for train time was nigh, and my step was not so elastic as it was in the morning.  The scenery on the road be- tween Barkskimming bridge and Mauchline is romantic enough, but it is tame, tame, when compared with the wooden slopes of Ballochmyle.  When I reached Mauchline station the train was due.  It is needless to add that Kilmarncok was speedily and safely reached.


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