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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 22


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, jurascot@earthlink.net

22 Days - An Highland  Immortal Memory

            I recently received an email from a gentleman named Ian MacMillan who lives in Fernbank, Laide Wester Ross, Scotland. His wife, Jean, inherited a croft from her aunt and uncle, and the couple moved there three years ago following his early retirement. Ian has been a Burns’ enthusiast all his life, encouraged first by his father and then in school. He is well-known as a Burns Night speaker, and he says he is probably best known for his delivery of “To a Haggis”, “To a Louse”, and most recently “Holy Willie”. There had not been a Burns Supper in that part of Scotland for a long time, so he established the Wester Ross Burns Club, and they celebrated their fourth annual Burns Night Supper this year. Ian and two of his buddies created a one-hour program about Robert Burns’ 22 day tour of the central and northeast Highlands in 1787 when Burns was 28 years old. The program has played on three local radio stations covering two lochs, Wester Ross, Skye and Ayrshire on Burns Night.

            I hope this encourages some of you who are so inclined to send me your articles on Burns that you have either published or used as a speech before a Burns Club or other Scottish events. It is with pleasure that we have Ian’s program for our enjoyment. If you wish to contact him, his email address is Scampmacmil@aol.com.

22 DAYS – A HIGHLAND IMMORTAL MEMORY
By:  Ian MacMillan, November 2005

Ian MacMillan as Holy Willie
Ian MacMillan as Holy Willie

            It is the norm when paying tribute to our Bard to try, in some way, to cover his short span of 37 years and his incredible achievements over that time.

            I am not going to do that. I am going to concentrate on a period of just 22 days in his life. My three reasons are:

            (1)  During the 22 days, he offended the King; had a lord plant trees all over a glen; was inspired by visits to famous sites of Scottish events and heroes; decided to change from poems to songs; met up with his father’s family; dined with lords, ladies, bishops and professors – so a reasonably interesting three weeks.

            (2)  He traveled a huge distance over the central and northeast Highlands of Scotland. It is estimated that, including all the windings, the to and fro diversions on his tour, he covered some 600 miles in a coach taking notes for later works. An amazing distance considering that in those days it took him two days, including an overnight stop, to get from his Ayrshire home to Edinburgh. Back in the late 18th century, many roads were tolled, involving delays, and were very rough and unpaved. He wrote of this in his Epigram on Rough Roads:

I’m now arrived – thanks to the gods –
Thro’ pathways rough and muddy,
A certain sign that making roads
Is no this people’s study;
Altho’ I’m not wi’ Scripture cram’d
I’m sure the Bible says,
That heedless sinners shall be damn’d
Unless they mend their ways.

(3)     His tour was to the Highlands. As I prepared this tribute far north of the line the Roman’s ‘darnae’d’ cross, it seems most appropriate to concentrate on this one of his journeys in those far-off days.

The year is 1787. Rabbie is 28. He had arrived in Edinburgh just 11 months prior to a heroes welcome. Instead of emigrating to the sun-kissed Caribbean with gorgeous Highland Mary, he had decided to go to Edinburgh. That is a very difficult decision for any Glaswegian to understand! Fans of his Kilmarnock edition had persuaded him to compile a second, larger edition of his works. His local publisher would not fund this, to his own later lifelong regret, so off to the capital of Scotland.

Address to Edinburgh

Edina Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and tow’rs,
Where once beneath a Monarch’s feet,
Sat Legislation’s sovereign pow’rs!

            No doubt this kind of flattery helped in that he was lauded by the great, the good and by the ordinary people of that city. His new Second Edition was hugely popular. The list of subscribers ran to over 38 pages. They included some of the most important figures running the country, several of whom ordered over 20 copies. He was greeted hugely in lords’ chambers, ladies’ salons and to uproarious evenings in local taverns. He was proclaimed as ‘Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns’ by the Grand Master at a meeting of all of the Mason’s Grand Lodges of Scotland. He said it was all ‘enough to turn a poor poet’s head.’

            As anyone in business knows, artist or not, it is all very well producing great works, but it is a different matter getting paid for it. Burns was no exception. His publisher, Creech, was, to say the least, in no hurry to pay; in fact, it took six months before final accounts were settled.

            Rabbie decided he could afford the time to visit some famous people and places and to garner material and thoughts for future work. He planned out a Highland tour. I don’t know how much he was looking forward to it. On his only previous excursion north, he had been very offended in Inverary, the seat of the Clan Campbell. The innkeeper was so busy serving the Duke and his company of anglers that Rabbie, whom he failed to recognize, was turned away. His revenge was, of course, at once cut into a window pane.

Whoe’er he be who sojourns here,
I pity much his case.
Unless he comes to wait upon
The lord, their God, 'His Grace'.
There’s naething here but Highland pride,
And Highland scab and hunger,
If providence ha’ sent me here,
Was surly in an anger.

            He also had to part with his faithful old mare, Jenny Geddes. His travelling companion, Willie Nichol, was no horseman and insisted they share the cost of a coach and driver. Burns noted sadly, “Jenny Geddes goes home to Ayrshire with, as my mother used to say, her finger in her moo’.”

            We don’t know why Burns decided to select such a companion. Willie Nichol was a master at Edinburgh High School, a Latin scholar, and a student of literature. He also was a very prickly fellow, as we shall see later. They set out from Edina on the 24th August on a tour which in present terms would be over to Stirling, then north up the A9 to Inverness. Then across the A96 east to Aberdeen via Buckie, and back down the east coast visiting Rabbie’s father’s relations on the way back to the capital.

            Their first stop was to see Carron Ironworks. The porter would not open the gates, as it was a Sunday. So he wrote on a window of the Carron Inn the following poem with his diamond stylus, a present from the Earl of Glencairn:

We cam na here to view your works,
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, les we gang to hell,
It may be nae surprise…

            Then on to Bannockburn. Burn’s diary entry said tersely, “Come to Bannockburn, shown the hole where glorious Bruce set up his Standard.”

            This event was believed to be one of the inspirations which led to ‘Scots, Wha Hae’, Bruce’s address to his army before Bannockburn. Then onwards to Stirling where Burns was inspired by a visit to the castle and the view over to the ruined ancient hall where the Scottish kings used to hold their Parliaments. That night in James Wingate’s Inn (now the Golden Lion Hotel), Rabbie’s romantic attachment to Jacobism soared as the level in the glasses plummeted. As was his wont, he scratched the following imprudent lines onto a window pane about the house of Hanover:

‘An idiot race to honour lost
Who know them best despise them most.’

            Burns later returned and destroyed his work but too late as it had already been gleefully reported in the newspapers as further evidence of his lack of loyalty to the Crown. Next to Crieff, then Dunkeld. There he met Neil Gow, the famous Scottish fiddler. They talked songs all day. The old man was taken aback at the extent of Burn’s musical knowledge and of Scottish songs. We think that from here on Burns became increasingly more interested in writing songs rather than poems.

            Next he travelled on to Blair Castle where he had been invited to stay and dine with the Duchess. Burns was made most welcome by the Duke of Atholl, the Duchess and her two stunning sisters. We can admire the beauty of one of them, Mrs. Graham, whose famous portrait by Gainsborough hangs in our National Gallery. The girls hugely enjoyed his company, and no doubt his flattery, so they tried to persuade him to lengthen his stay. But his companion, envious at the attention given to Rabbie rather than himself, would have none of it. The girls even sent a servant to try to bribe the coachman to loosen a horseshoe, but he proved to be an incorruptible Scot.

            This was Burns’ first experience of Willie’s jealousy and irascibility which was to plague the rest of their tour. Burns said later, “It was like travelling with a loaded blunderbuss at full cock.”

            The Duke persuaded Rabbie to make a diversion, as he travelled north the next day to visit the Falls of Bruar some six miles on, where the stream coming down from the mountains passes through a rocky gorge to join the River Garry. Rabbie did so, and finding the falls entirely bare of woods, wrote some lines entitled The Humble Petition of Bruar Water in which he makes the stream entreat the Duke to clothe its naked banks with trees. The then Duke, an artist, complied willingly, and planted out woods around the waterfall which you can see to this day. If you visit the House of Bruar, a signpost takes you on a walk through these woods to the waterfall.

            Next they stayed overnight in Dalwhinnie where a commemorative plaque has recently been placed in the local inn. They then battled through snow, said to be 17 feet deep, to Aviemore. This was in early September, and we complain about the weather! Mind you, it might have saved the skiing industry!

            He travelled on to Inverness where he stayed overnight in the Ettles Hotel, Old Bridge St., Inverness, now the Town House, and dined in Kingsmill House. He visited the battlefield at Drumossie Moor which, just 21 years on from Culloden, must have been a very poignant and troublesome place for a poet, especially one with some Jacobite sympathies, even if they were just romantic. He summed up his own feelings in The Lovely Lass o’ Inverness:

The lovely lass o’ Inverness
Nae joy nor pleasure can she see;
For e’en to morn she cries, ‘Alas’
And aye the saut tears blin’s her e’e.

Drumossie Moor, Drumossie day,
A waefu’ day it was to me!
For there I lost my father dear,
My father dear and brethren three!

Their wining sheet the bloody clay,
Their graves are growing green to see;
And by them lies the dearest lad
That ever blest a woman’s e’e!

Now wae to thee thou cruel Lord,
A bloody man I trow thou be;
For monie a heart thou has made sair,
That ne’er did wrong to thine or thee!

            Next it was off to Fochabers where they visited Castle Gordon. The vivacious Countess was a leading figure in Edinburgh society. She and Rabbie had got on extremely well, and she had been very keen to entertain him. After a few glasses of wine, Burns was asked to dine with the company. He claimed that he’d forgotten all about the fact that he had a travelling companion (I wonder if this was not deliberate.). The Duke instantly offered to send a servant to invite Nichol to join the company but Burns, knowing that this would create even more offence, set off to invite him himself. It was to no avail. Willie, by now furious at being slighted again as he saw it, was pacing up and down furiously, berating the poor coachman. Nothing could prevail on him, so Rabbie, with much regret, had to turn his back on his exalted friends in Castle Gordon where he had promised himself a few pleasant days. He was as taken with the Duchess as she with him so, by way of an apology, he sent her poems, including On the Duchess of Gordon’s Reel Dancing:

She kiltit up her kirtle weel
To show her bonie cutes sae sma’
And walloped about the reel,
The lightest leaper o’ them a’!

While some, like slav’ring doited stots
Stoit’ring out thro’ the midden dub,
Fankit their heels amang their coats
And gart the floor their backsides sub;

Gordon, the great, the gay, the gallant,
Skip’t like a maukin owre a dyke:
Deil tak me, since I was a callant,
Gif e’er my een beheld the like!

            The coach took them to Duff House in Banff. Their guide, George Imlach, a local schoolboy, was asked if he had heard of Rabbie. He replied, “Oh aye, we hae his book at hame.” He was then asked to name his favourite Burns poem. He replied at once, “The Two Dugs and Death and Doctor Hornbrook, although I like The Cottars Saturday Night best because it made me greet when my faither had me read it tae my mither.”

            At this, Rabbie, who hadn’t spoken, put his hand on the boy’s shoulder saying, “Weel my callant, I don’t wonder at your greeting at reading the poem; it made me greet mair than aince when I wis writin’ it at my faither’s fireside.”

            That gives us just some idea of the popularity of the Bard’s work. That a schoolboy in Banff, so far north from Ayrshire, should be so familiar with his work, just 14 months after his Kilmarnock edition was published. Years later, George was still recounting the tale of this meeting.

            Next it was on to stay in the New Inn in Castle Street, Aberdeen. Here Burns met a whole crowd of notables, including Prof. Thomas Gordon and Bishop Thomas Skinner. The latter was the son of the author of Tullochgorrum which Rabbie proclaimed to be the best Scottish song ever. He later corresponded with the father, and from records we know he asked him if he would “assist with a collection of auld songs I’m making on these journeys for posterity.”

Dunnotar Castle, just south of Stonehaven
Dunnotar Castle, just south of Stonehaven

            Then it was onto Stonehaven for a few days with cousin and aunts on his father’s side. Rabbie was eager to learn all he could about his paternal history. How, following the Jacobites’ march north through their lands on the way to Culloden, his father and his brothers had to leave their farm at Clochnahill near Dunnotar. Next stop to meet his cousin in Montrose. Here, one of his father’s brothers had begun a dynasty of lawyers named the Burness clan. Then, finally, back to be rowed across the Forth to Queensferry and returned to Edinburgh on the 16th September. I would have thought he must have been exhausted. To have covered such a long distance by coach in these times, with all these stops and experiences, also with such a frustrating companion.

marker at graves of Robert Burns' ancestors
Marker at graves of Robert Burns' ancestors

            He may have started off on his Highland tour offended at a duke, but perhaps his enjoyment of the hospitality he experienced throughout this long tour and his feelings about these 22 days is better represented by the following lines:

Epigram on Parting with a Kind Host in the Highlands

When death’s dark stream I ferry o’er,
A time that surely shall come,
In Heaven itself I’ll ask no more
Than just a highland welcome!

 

References

  • Burns by Principal Shairp, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1909

  • On the Trail of Rabbie Burns by John Cairney, Luath Press Ltd., 2000

  • The Complete Poems and Songs of Rabbie Burns, Geddes and Grosset, 2000

  • Burns Chronicles published by The Robert Burns World Federation Ltd.


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