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Anecdotal stories about Robert Burns


During the celebration of the Burns Centenary in Edinburgh in 1859, a "tea banquet" was held in the Corn Exchange. At it appeared Mr William Glover, a centenarian, and formerly a carrier, who was personally associated with the poet when both were young men. The hale old man related the circumstances of several interviews he had had with Burns, and among others he told how, on one occasion, being storm-stayed at Dumfries in the severe winter of 1795, he was treated to share of half-a-mutchkin of whisky in his landlady’s by Burns. He described the poet as a “weel-made man, with dark hair and chestnut eyes,” and said, " he was not talkative; but of coorse he had nae business to converse wi1 me: he just signed my permits, and my business was done wi' him.”


Bums was kind to such helpless creatures as were weak in mind, and who sauntered harmlessly about. A poor half-mad creature—the Madge Wildfire, it is said, of Scott—always found a mouthful ready for her at the bard’s fireside; nor was he unkind to a crazy and tippling prodigal named Quin.

“Jamie,” said the poet one day, as he gave him a penny, “you should pray to be turned from the evil of your ways; you are ready now to melt that penny into whisky.”

“Turn!” said Jamie, who was a wit in his way; “I wish some ane would turn me into the worm o’ Will Hyslop’s whisky-still, that the drink might dribble through me for ever.”

“Weel said, Jamie,” answered the poet, “you shall have a glass of whisky once a week for that, if ye’ll come sober for’t.”

A friend railied Burns for indulging such creatures.

You don’t understand the matter,” Said he; “they are poets: they have the madness of the muse, and all they want is the inspiration—a mere trifle!”


An English gentleman visiting the widow of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, at Dumfries, was exceedingly anxious to obtain some relic of the bard, as he called it; that is, some scrap of his handwriting, or any other little object which could be considered a memorial of the deceased. Mrs Burns replied to all his entreaties, that she had already given away everything of that kind that was remarkable, or that she could think of parting with; that, indeed, she had no relic to give him. Still the visitant insisted, and still Mrs Burns declared her inability to satisfy him. At length, pushed by his good-humoured entreaties to an extremity, she as good-humoureth said, “Well, sir, unless you take myself, I really can think of no other relic (relict) of him that it is in my power to give or yours to receive.” Of course this closed the argument.


One day, in the winter of 1786-7, Lord Jeffrey, when a boy, was standing on the High Street of Edinburgh, staring at a man whose appearance struck him; a person standing at a shop door tapped him on the shoulder, and said—

"Ay, laddie! ye may weel look at that man! That's Robert Burns.” Jeffrey never saw Burns again.


One Sunday morning, some time before Burns commenced author, when he and his brother Gilbert were going to the parish church of Tarbolton, they got into company with an old man, a Moravian, travelling to Ayr. It was at the time when the dispute between the Old and New Light Burghers was making a great noise in the country; and Burns and the old man, entering into conversation, differed in their opinions about it, the old man defending the principles of the Old Light, and Burns those of the New Light. The disputants at length grew very warm in the debate, and Burns, finding that with all his eloquence he could make nothing of his antagonist, became a little acrimonious, and tauntingly exclaimed—

“Oh, I suppose I have met with the apostle Paul this morning!”

“No,” replied the old Moravian, coolly, “you have not met the apostle Paul, but I think I have met one of those wild beasts which he says he fought with at Ephesus!”


In May 1875 there died at Town-head, Dumfries, a well-known and singular character, John Brodie, at the patriarchal age of 96 years. For half a century Brodie was one of the social landmarks of Dumfries. When a lad he was in the habit of running messages for Burns, on the poet taking up his residence at Dumfries, after leaving Ellisland farm. John was fond of field sports and fishing, though he repudiated the charge of being a poacher, and he was noted for his keen repartee. He was an indefatigable collector of old relics, and boasted of being in possession of a brace of pistols which had belonged to Burns, as well as the sword used by him when in the Excise. Brodie kept a small shop, which contained a most extraordinary collection of articles, including, among other curiosities, a silver toothpick which had belonged to the celebrated Duchess of Queensberry. Time had not made much impression on his mental powers, but an accident to his foot some two years ago latterly confined him to his house. Until within a few weeks of his death, however, he might have been seen at his door sedulously inquiring what was the news from passers-by. Brodie was out of his bed the day before he died (which was a Sunday), and falling into a slumber from which he never awoke, he passed calmly away.


Speaking one day of his own poetry, Burns said—

“I have much to answer for: my success in rhyme has produced a shoal of ill-spawned monsters, who imagine, because they make words clink, that they are poets. It requires a will-o’-wisp to pass over the quicksands and quagmires of the Scottish dialect. I am Spunkie—they follow me, and sink.”


It is a curious fact that Burns very often wrote on his books thus: “Robert Burns, Poet.” Allan Cunningham remembered a favourite collie at Ellisland having the same inscription on his collar.


"When Burns was first invited to dine at Dunlop House, a westland dame, who acted as housekeeper, appeared to doubt the propriety of her mistress entertaining a mere ploughman who made rhymes, as if he were a gentleman ot old descent. By way of convincing Mrs M'Guiston (for that was her name) of the bard’s right to such distinction, Mrs Dunlop gave her The Cottar's Saturday Night to read. This was soon done, and she returned the volume with a strong shaking of the head, saying, “Nae doubt gentlemen and ladies think mickle o! this, but for me it’s naething but what I saw i’ my father’s house every day, and I dinna see hoo he could hae tauld it ony other way.” The M‘Guistans are a numerous clan. Few of the peasantry personally acquainted with Burns were willing to allow that his merit exceeded their own.

“Indeed, sir,” said one of these worthies, named Hugh Cowan, to an inquiring admirer, “Robbie Burns, save in clinking words, was just an ordinary man. I taught him the use o’ the cudgel, and should ken what he had in him, I think.”


Henry Bruce, the last laird of Clackmannan, who died in 1772, was descended, it is said, in a direct line from King Robert. His widow, the old lady of Clackmannan, was equally remarkable for wit, good humour, economy, and devotion to the house of Stuart. She had the sword of King Robert in her possession, with which she assumed the privilege of conferring knighthood. When Burns visited this old Jacobite lady, she knighted the poet with the king’s sword, observing, while she performed the ceremony, that "she had a better richt to do so than some other folk!" When asked if she was of Bruce’s family, she would answer with much dignity, “King Robert was of my family.” She bequeathed King Robert’s sword, with a helmet, said to have been worn by him at Bannockburn, to the Earl of Elgin, and these interesting relics are now at Broomhall.


The poet and a brother exciseman one day suddenly entered a widow woman’s shop in Dunscore, and made an extensive seizure of smuggled tobacco.

“Jenny,” said the poet, “1 expected this would be the upshot; here, Lewars, take note of the number of rolls as I count them. Now, Jock, did ye ever hear an auld wife numbering her threads before check reels were invented?

"'Thou’s ane, and thou’s no ane, and thou’s ane a’ out—listen.’” As he handed out the rolls, he went on with his humorous enumeration, but dropping every other roll into Jenny’s lap. Lewars took the note with as much gravity as he could muster, and saw the merciful conduct of his companion as “if he saw it not.”


A writer who happened to be present in a company along with Robert Burns, when the conversation turned on “Tam o’ Shanter,” and stung, perhaps, with that sarcastic touch on the legal fraternity—

'Three lawyers’ tongues turn’d inside out, With lies seam’d like a beggar’s clout, remarked, that he thought the witches’ orgies obscure.

“Obscure, sir!” said Burns; “ye know not the language of that great master of your own art, the devil! If you get a witch for a client, you will not be able to manage her defence.”


Burns called once on a certain lord in Edinburgh, and was shown into the library. To amuse himself till his lordship was at leisure, the poet took down a volume of Shakspeare, splendidly bound; but on opening it lie discovered from the gilding, that it had never been read, and also that the worms were eat* ing it through and through. He therefore took out his pencil and wrote the following lines in it. They, however, were only discovered by accident about twelve years afterwards!

“Through and through the inspired leaves,
Ye maggots, make your windings;
But, oh! respect his lordship’s lasie,
And spare nis golden bindings."

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