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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 22


ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCHYARD--THE ERECTION OF THE MAUSOLEUM--THE DISINTERMENT OF THE POET’S REMAINS--PHRENOLOGICAL DESCRIPTION OF HIS CRANIUM--THE EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL APPEARANCE OF THE MAUSOLEUM--INSCRIPTIONS--A GRANDSON OF THE POET--BURN’S CONNECTION WITH THE DUMFRIES LIBRARY--CONCLUDING REMARKS. 

Strolling along Burns Street, I soon arrived at the gate of St. Michael’s churchyard, and finding it open passed along the gravelled walk to view the church, a neat structure with handsome spire some 130 feet high.  The churchyard, although barely three acres in extent, is estimated to contain over 3000 monumental stones of one description and another.  Many are beautiful specimens of the sculptor’s art, and not a few are interesting on account of their antique appearance and inscriptions.  Amongst the latter are three weather-worn slabs to the memory of three stubborn Nithsdale Covenanters, who suffered death rather than submit to the tyranny and injustice so prevalent in their day.  All honour to the Dumfries folks for erecting a more enduring memorial to their memory, and also for commemorating the 420 victims of cholera, who perished during its reign in Dumfries in 1832.  In meditative mood, I strolled towards the east corner of the churchyard to view the spot that holds the Poet’s dust, for

“Such graves as his are pilgrim shrines--
Shrines to no code or creed confined--
The Delphian vales, the Palestines,
The Meccas of the mind.”

At a public meeting held at Dumfries on the 6th of Jany., 1814, it was determined that “a Mausoleum ought to be reared over the grave of Burns.”  A committee being formed, subscriptions were solicited, and in a brief space sufficient funds were obtained to carry out the proposition.  The foundation stone was laid with Masonic honours on the 5th of June, 1815, and the building completed the year following.  The remains of Burns were originally interred in an out-of the-way place at the north corner of the churchyard which remained undistinguished until his widow covered the grave with a plain slab bearing an unambitious inscription.

The Mausoleum being erected in a conspicuous part of the churchyard, it was decided to exhume the bodies of the Poet and his two sons, and place them in the vault in its interior.  For this purpose a company of gentlemen proceeded to the lowly grave “before the sun had risen, and mad so good use of their time that the imposing ceremony was well-nigh completed before the public had time to assemble, or in fact were aware of the important duty in which the others had been engaged.  On opening the grave, the coffins of the boys were found in a tolerably entire state, placed in shells, and conveyed the vault with the greatest of care.  As a report had been spread that the principal coffin was mad of oak, a hope was entertained that it would be possible to transport it from the north to the east corner of St. Michael’s without opening it or disturbing the sacred deposit it contained.  but his hope proved fallacious.  On testing the coffin, it was found to be composed of the ordinary materials, and ready to yield to the slightest pressure; and the lid removed, a spectacle was unfolded which, considering the fame of the mighty dead, has rarely been witnessed by a human being.  There were the remains of the great poet, to all appearance nearly entire, the features of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death: the lordly forehead, arched and high, the scalp still covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white.  The scene was so imposing that most of the men stood bare and uncovered--as the late Dr. Gregory did at the exhumation of the remains of the illustrious hero of Bannockburn--and at the same time felt their frames thrilling with some indefinable emotion, as they gazed upon the ashes of him whose fame is as wide as the world itself.  But the effect was momentary, for when they proceeded to insert a shell or case below the coffin, the head separated from the trunk, and the whole body, with the exception of the bones, crumbled into dust.”* The remains being carefully placed in a new coffin, it was deposited in the vault and closed in.  This took place on the 19th of September, 1815.  Nineteen years afterwards it was again opened to receive the remains of the poet’s widow, and on the occasion it was resolved to raise the skull of the bard and submit it to a chronological examination.  The consent of the nearest relative being obtained, a company of gentlemen entered the vault at midnight; but the following by Mr. Archibald Blacklock, surgeon, one of the party, will sufficiently describe the proceedings.  He says:--”The cranial bones were perfect in every respect, if we except a little erosion of their external table, and firmly head together by their sutures; even the delicate bones of the orbits, with the trifling exception of the os unguis in the left, were sound and uninjured by death and the grave.  The superior maxillary bones still retained the four most posterior teeth on each side, including the dentes sapientiae, and all without spot or blemish; the incisores, cuspidate, &c., had in all probability recently dropped from the jaw, for the alveoli were but little decayed.  The bones of the face and palate were also sound.  Some small portions of the black hair, with a very few grey hairs intermixed, were observed while detaching some extraneous matter from the ociput.  Indeed, nothing could exceed the high state of preservation in which we found the bones of the cranium, or offer a fairer opportunity of supplying what has so long been desiderated by phrenologists--a correct model of our immortal poet’s head; and in order to accomplish this in the most accurate and satisfactory manner, every particle of sand, or other foreign body, was carefully washed off, and the plaster of Paris applied with all the tact and accuracy of an experienced artist.  The cast is admirably taken, and cannot fail to prove highly interesting to phrenologists and others.  Having completed our intention the skull, securely enclosed in a leaden case, was again committed to the earth precisely where we found it.”

The cast having been transmitted to the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, Mr Geo. Combe drew up an elaborate paper on the development of the Poet’s brain.  It concludes with the following remarks: “No phrenologist can look upon this head and consider the circumstances in which Burns was placed without vivid feelings of regret.  Burns must have walked the earth with a consciousness of great superiority over his associates in the station in which he was placed, of powers calculated for far higher sphere than that which he was able to reach, and of passions which he could with difficulty restrain and which it was fatal to indulge.  If he had been placed from infancy in the higher ranks of life, liberally educated, and employed in pursuits corresponding to his powers, the inferior portion of his nature would have lost its energy, while his better qualities would have assumed a decided and permanent superiority.”  Notwithstanding this criticism,

“Burns--though brief the race he ran,
Through rough and dark the path he trod-
Lived-died-in form and soul a man,
The image of his God.

“Through care, and pain, and want, and woe,
With wounds that only death can heal,
Tortures the poor alone can know,
The proud alone can feel--

“He kept his honesty and truth,
His independent tongue and pen,
And moved, in manhood as in youth,
Pride of his fellow-men. 

“Strong sense, deep feeling, passions strong,
A hate of tyrant and of knave,
A love of right, a scorn of wrong,
Of coward and of slave: 

“A kind, true heart, a spirit high,
That could not fear and would not bow,
Were written in his manly eye
And on his manly brow.” 

The Mausoleum closely resembles a Grecian temple, being formed of pillars supporting a dome-surmounted cornice.  On the whole, the building is graceful and worthy of the object to which it is devoted, but is effect is much marred by the sheets of rough glass necessarily inserted between the pillars to protect the interior from the weather.

While mutely surveying the surroundings, an old man, possessed of much official importance and overwhelming politeness, appeared on the scene, key in hand, and, in response to my desire, opened the door, and led the way into “the lone--the last abode of Burns.”  Uncovered, I stood on the threshold, and with feelings which cannot be described surveyed the interior.  In front was a piece of sculpture representing Burns at the plough and the genius Coila--an ungainly female figure hanging in a ridiculous manner from a slate slab on the back wall-throwing her mantle of inspiration over him.  Although the statuary embodies one of the Poet’s conceptions it is not of a high class order, and from it I turned to the plain tombstone which marked his first resting place, for to it and other objects the EXHIBITOR drew my attention with a hilarious volubility which ill-accorded with the sanctity of the place.  Beside this relic of domestic affection there are three marble tablets bearing the following inscriptions:--

I.

IN MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS, WHO DIED 21ST JULY, 1796, IN THE 37TH YEAR OF HIS AGE, AND MAXWELL BURNS, WHO DIED 25TH NOVEMBER, 1799, AGED TWO YEARS AND NINE MONTHS.  FRANCIS WALLACE BURNS, WHO DIED JULY, 1803, AGED 14 YEARS--HIS SONS.  THE REMAINS OF BURNS REMOVED INTO THE VAULT BELOW, 19TH SEPTEMBER, 1815, AND HIS SONS ALSO.  THE REMAINS OF JEAN ARMOUR, RELICT OF THE POET, BORN 1765; DIED, 26TH MARCH, 1834.  AND ROBERT, HIS ELDEST SON, WHO DIED 14TH MAY, 1857, AGED 70 YEARS.”

II.

“THIS TABLES IS ERECTED BY LIEUT.-COLONEL NICHOL BURNS, E.E.C.S., TO THE MEMORY OF HIS WIFE, CATHERINE ADELAIDE CRONE, WHO DIED AT CALLUDHEE IN THE EAST INDIES, ON THE 29TH JUE, 1841.  COLONEL WM NICHOL BURNS, BORN AT ELLISLAND, 9TH APRIL, 1791, DIED AT CHELTENHAM, 21ST FEBRUARY, 1872.  THIS REMAINS REST IN THE VAULT BENEATH THIS TABLE.”

III.

“THIS TABLET IS ERECTED BY MAJOR JAMES GLENCAIRN BURNS, E.I.C.S., TO THE MEMORY OF SARAH ROBINSON, HIS WIFE, WHO DIED AT NEEMUCH, EAST INDIES, 7TH NOV., 1821, AGED 24.  JEAN ISABELLA, HIS DAUGHTER, DIED AT SEA, 5TH OF JUNE, 1823, AGED 4 YEARS AND 5 MONTHS.  ROBERT SHAW, HIS SON, DIED IN NEEMUCH, 11TH DEC., 1821, AGED 18 MONTHS.  MARY BECKETT, HIS WIFE, DIED AT GRAVESEND, KENT, 13TH NOVEMBER, 1844, AGED 52. LIEUT.-COL. JAMES G. BURNS, BORN AT DUMFRIES, 12TH AUGUST, 1794, DIED AT CHELTENHAM, 18TH NOVEMBER, 1865.  HIS REMAINS REST IN THE VAULT BENEATH THIS TABLET.”

Descending the steps of the Mausoleum, I handed the exhibitor the customary fee, and thoughtfully passed out of the churchyard.  Opposite is a curious old building erected and endowed by two brothers name Moorhead for the purpose of providing homes for aged natives of the burgh in reduced circumstances.  Amongst the inmates is a son of Robert Burns, the eldest son of our national poet.  He was a schoolmaster in Dumfries for thirty-five years, but owing to the infirmities of age and the changes which the new Education Act brought about, his circumstances have become so reduced that he is forced to avail himself of this charity.  I had the pleasure of conversing with him, and found him to be not only intelligent but proud that the blood of Burns flows in his veins.

Farther along the street is another old building adjoining the Mechanics’ Institute.  In it there is a library established by the citizens in 1792, of which Burns was an honorary member.  A minute in its records states that on the 5th March, 1793, “the committee, by a great majority, resolved to offer to Mr Burns a share in the library, free of any admission money [10s 6d] and the quarterly contributions [2s 6d] to this date, out of respect and esteem for his abilities as a literary man; and they directed the secretary to make this know to Mr Burns as soon as possible, that the application which they understood he was about to make in the ordinary may might be anticipated.”

This is a pleasing testimony of the esteem in which Burns was held, and says much for his conduct as a member of society.

Reciprocating this kindness, Burns presented four books to the library, namely--”Humphry Clinker,” “Julia de Roubingne,” “Knox’s History of the Reformation,” and “Delolme on the British Constitution.”  On the back of the frontispiece of the last-named volume he wrote--” Mr. Burns presents this book to the Library--until they find a better. --R.B.”  This seems to have been penned on the spur of the moment, but Burns was soon alive to the indiscretion committed, and called at an early hour in the morning after the presentation upon the custodian of the books, and asked to be shown “Delolme,” stating as a reason that he feared he had written something on it “which might bring him into trouble.” When handed the volume, he looked at what he had written, and then carefully pasted the fly-leaf to the back of the frontispiece in such a way as completely to conceal the writing.  The volume is still to the fore, and anyone holding the frontispiece up to the light can red the seditious passage without difficulty.  In this library there is still another book bearing the handwriting of Burns.  It is the thirteenth volume of Sinclair’s “Statistical Account of Scotland.”  In a notice to the martyred Covenanters of the parish of Balmaghie, an inscription on a tombstone to the memory of a worthy buried in the churchyard is given.  Burns appears to have been impressed with the force of its simple but expressive language, for the following verse appears on the margin of the page, penciled in his striking handwriting:--

“The Solemn League and Covenant
Now brings a smile, now brings a tear;
But sacred Freedom, too, was theirs--
If thou’rt a slave indulge thy sneer.”

Dumfries and its neighbourhood possess many attractions to the rambler and tourist besides memorials of Robert Burns, but it is these which specially engage the visitor’s attention and induce thousands to visit the ancient burgh annually.  Few towns are planted in a more lovely situation, and in none can a holiday be spent to greater advantage, there being so many places of interest within easy access.  To the south-east is the romantic little village of Glencaple, where the foam-crested billows of the Solway may be seen flowing with race-horse speed; and also at no great distance from it the magnificent ruins of Carlaverock Castle, the supposed Ellangowan of Scott’s “Guy Mannering.”  In Carlaverock Churchyard, too, rests “Old Mortality,” the enthusiastic amateur sculptor who wandered the length and breadth of Scotland renewing the lettering on the grave-stones of the Covenanters.  Messrs A. & C. Black, of Edinburgh, the publishers of the Waverly Novels, have erected a neat monument to this memory.  Then there is Cromlongan Castle, once the residence of the Earls of Mansfield, with Ruthwell Cross near by, which is considered the most important Runic monument in Britain; and also Sweetheart Abbey, a fine ruin, near which one could linger a whole summer day.  Everywhere round Dumfries the country is replete with natural beauty and historic interest; but my task is accomplished, I have followed the footsteps of Burns from the place of his birth to the scene of his death and burial, so it only remains to be stated that after visiting the Dock Park, the Observatory, and other places within easy reach, I sought the railway station, and was soon on my way to Kilmarnock.

Reader, adieu! and in taking leave of the subject and of each other, let us exclaim with Thomas Campbell:--

“Farewell, high chief of Scottish song!
That couldst alternately impart
Wisdom and rapture in they page,
And branch each vice with satire strong;
Whose lines are mottoes of the heart,
Whose truths electrify the sage.

“Farewell! and ne’er may envy dare
To wring one baleful poison-drop
From the crush’d laurels of thy bust;
But while the lark sings sweet in air,
Still may the grateful pilgrim stop
To bless the spot that holds thy dust!”

FINISH

DUNLOP & DRENNAN, PRINTERS AND PUBLISHERS, KILMARNOCK


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