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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 10


After visiting “The banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,” I resolved upon a pilgrimage to the farm of Lochlea and the various places of interest in its immediate vicinity, for to it, as we have seen, the Burn’s family removed after a protracted struggle with adverse circumstances in the locality which formed the goal of last ramble. The day set apart for the journey being favourable, I crossed the old bridge at Riccarton, and passed up the village street as the clock in the church spire announced the hour of ten. Finding the gate of the churchyard open, I entered and sought out the grave of the Rev. Alexander Moodie, a Burns hero, “who,” as the weather worn stone states, “died 15th Feb., 1799, in the 72nd year of his age, and the 40th of his ministry. He was a zealous auld light preacher, and figures as on of the herds in the “Holy Tulzie”--a satire on an unseemly quarrel between him and the Rev. John Russell of Kilmarnock:--

“Oh, Moodie, man, and wordy Russell,
How could you raise so vile a bustle?
Ye’ll see how New Light herds will whistle,
An’ think it fine:
The L-----’s cause ne’er got sic a twistle
Sin’ I hae min.”

“O, sirs! whae’er wad hae expeckit,
Your duty ye wad sae negleckit,
Ye wha were ne’er by lairds respeckit,
To wear the plaid;
But by the brutes themselves elecket,
To be their guide.

“What flock wi’ Moodie’s flock could rank,
Sae hale and hearty every shank!
Nae poisoned sour Arminian stank
He let them taste;
Frae Calvin’s well, ay clear, they drank--
Oh, sic a feast!”

In referring to the dispute, Robert Chambers makes mention of its origin. “It happened,” says he, “that a dryness arose between them. The country story is, that as they were riding home one evening from Ayr, Moodie, is a sportive frame of mind, amused himself by tickling the rear of his neighbours (the Rev. John Russell’s) horse. The animal performed several antics along the road, but greatly to the discomfiture of black Jock, who, afterwards learning the trick, could not forgive Moodie for it. Afterwards a question of parochial boundaries arose between them. It came before the Presbytery for determination. ‘There, in the open court,’ says Mr. Lockhart, ‘to which the announcement of the discussion had drawn a multitude of the country people, and Burns among the rest, the reverend divines, hitherto sworn friends and associates, lost all command of temper, and abused each other coram populo, with a fiery virulence of personal invective such as has long been banished from all popular assemblies, wherein the laws of courtesy are enforced by those of a certain unwritten code. This was too much temptation for the profane wit of Burns. He lost no time in putting the affair in allegorical shape.”

The Rev. Mr. Moodie is also mentioned in “The Kirk’s Alarm,” and his style of oratory is hit off to a nicety in the following verses of “The Holy Fair”:--

“Now a’ the congregation o’er
Is silent expectation,
For Moody spiels the holy door
Wi’ tidings o’d----tion.
Should Hornie, as in ancient days,
‘Mang sons o’ God present him,
The very sight o’ Moodie’s him,
The very sight o’ Moodie’s face
To’s ain het hame had sent him,
Wi’ fright that day.

“Hear how he clears the points o’ faith
Wi’ rattlin and wi’ thumpin!
Now meekly calm, now wild in wrath,
He’s stampin’ and he’s jumpin’!
His lengthened chin, his turned-up snout,
His eldritch squeal and gestures,
Oh, how they fire the heart devout,
Like cantharidian plasters,
On sic a day.”

In the vicinity of Moodie’s grave are the burying-places of the Cuninghames of Caprington and the Campbells of Treesbank, and many curiously-carved headstones which will repay attention; but, with the exception of an eccentric miser who died in East Shaw Street, Kilmarnock, on the 17th July, 1817, and who is interred in an out-of-the-way corner near the gate, the unkept sward does not cover any other very celebrated individual. William Stevenson--as this character was named--was a native of Dunlop, and at one time filled a respectable position in society; but, owing to some unexplained cause, he became a professional beggar, and lived wholly upon charity. In the “Book of Days” the following curious account of his death and burial may be found:--

“About the year 1787 he and his wife separated, making  the strange agreement that whichever of them was the first to propose reunion should forfeit one hundred pounds to the other. It is supposed that they never met afterwards. In 1815, when about eighty-five years old, Stevenson was seized with an incurable disease, and was confined to his bed. A few days before his death, feeling his end to be near, he sent for a baker, and ordered twelve dozen burial cakes, a large quantity of sugar biscuits, and a good supply of wine and spirits. He next sent for a joiner, and instructed him to make a good, sound, dry, roomy coffin; after which he sent for the Riccarton gravedigger, and requested him to select a favourable spot in a dry and comfortable corner of the village churchyard, and there dig for him a roomy grave, assuring him that he would be paid for his trouble. This done he ordered an old woman who attended him to go to a certain nook and there bring out nine pounds to pay all these preliminary expenses, telling her not to grieve for him for he had remembered her in his will. Shortly after this he died. A neighbour came in to search for his wealth, which had been shrouded in much mystery. In one bag was found large silver pieces, such as dollars and half-dollars, crowns and half-crowns, and in a heap of musty rags a collection of guineas and seven-shilling pieces; while in a box were found bonds of various amounts, including one for three hundred pounds, giving altogether a sum of about nine hundred pounds. A will was also found bequeathing twenty pounds to the old woman who attended him, and most of the remainder to distant relations, setting aside sufficient to give a feast to all the beggars in Ayrshire who chose to come and see his body lie in state. The influx was immense, and after the funeral, which was attended by a motley group of gaberlunzies, all retired to a barn that had been fitted up for the occasion, and there indulged in revelries but little in accordance with the solemn season of death.”

When “the decent church which tops the neighboring hill” was erected, the quaint, weather-worn structure which stood in the centre of the churchyard was demolished, and more the pity, for it was of great antiquity, being in existence, according to Chalmers, so early as 1229. “The chapel of Ricardtoun,” he states, “was afterwards established as a parish church, which belonged to the monks of Paisley; and it remained as such till the Reformation. The monks, meantime, received the tithes and revenues, while the church was served by a chaplain who was appointed by them. In a rental of Paisley Abbey, which was given up to Government in 1562, it was stated that the monks derived from the church of Richardtoun 17 chalders, 6 bolls, and 1 firlot of meal yearly.”

Upon resuming the journey I held along the wall of the manse garden and turned into Craigie Road, and after a brisk walk reached Knowehead, an eminence from which an excellent view of the surrounding district is obtained. Stroll- ing onward, I passed through the toll-bar of Shortlees, and soon gained a shady portion of the road near to the entrance gate of Treesbank estate. Here a nameless burnie gurgles through a small plantation and gladdens the heart of the wayfarer with its music as it steals from beneath a small bridge by the roadside. Its tone was seductive, but despite it and the picturesque scene, I commenced the ascent of Scargie brae, and soon gained the row of humble thatch-covered cots which present their gables to the highway.

There is nothing about the buildings of note, except perhaps the fact that John Burtt, author of “Horae Poeticae” and “Transient Murmurs of a Solitary Lyre,” spent his early  years in one of them may be of interest. Burtt was for some considerable time a schoolmaster in Kilmarnock, and afterwards a clergyman in America; but he is best known on this side of the Atlantic as the author of several lyrics, and more especially of the following, which is often mistakenly ascribed by Robert Burns, being supposed to have been written by the bard after the death of Highland Mary:--


“O’er the mist-shrouded cliffs of the lone mountain straying,
Where the wild winds of winter incessantly rave,
What woes wring my heart while intently surveying
The storm’s gloomy path on the breast of the wave.
Ye foam-crested billows, allow me to wail,
Ere ye toss me afar from my loved native shore,
Where the flower that bloomed sweetest in Coila’s green vale,
The pride of my bosom--my Mary’s no more.

No more by the banks of the streamlet we’ll wander,
And smile at the moon’s rimpled face in the wave;
No more shall my arms cling with fondness around her,
For the dew-drops of morning fall cold on her grave.
No more shall the soft thrill of love warm my breast;
I haste with the storm to a far distant shore,
Where unknown, unlamented, my ashes shall rest,
And joy shall revisit my bosom no more.”

Leaving Scargie behind, a pleasant walk along the undulating, hedge-bordered highway brought me to Knockmarloch and the little plantation which all but conceals the shattered remnant of its manor house, and ultimately to the base of Craigie Hill, as a rugged upheaval forming the terminus of a rocky range of eminences rising to a height of some 550 feet above the level of the sea is termed. The view from the summit of this locally-famous height is very fine, comprising as it does the Firth of Clyde, the Coast of Ireland, the Mull of Kintyre, the Paps of Jura, the heights of Arran, Ben Lomond, and the Grampians. Landward, Loudoun Hill is also distinctly seen, and on the plain the town of Kilmarnock, with its surroundings, is witnessed to great advantage--indeed a better bird’s-eye view of the Land of Burns cannot well be had, and the pedestrian will do well to avail himself of it. Entering a rude path or cart-track leading past the lime mines of Howcommon, I followed the rugged way until it merged into a substantial parish road, and afterwards steered my course to a farm-house with the intention of making a certain doubly sure by inquiring the way to Lochlea. “Doon, ye deevil doon!” cried the stripling addressed, as with  a well-aimed kick he drove away a frolicsome whelp that nearly upset me in a mud-hole with its great paws while endeavouring to lick my face. “Lochlea! my certie ye’re a braw bit frae it; but it’s a fine day, and you’ll manage brawly. Ye’ll be looking’ for calves, nae doubt? “Yes; two legged ones,” and I, with a significant glance, and without the least suspicion that the joke would penetrate his dull pate and recoil upon myself. “Then,” said he, with roguish glee “ye’ll be hard to please gin ye judge ithers by yoursel’.” He laughed, and I laughed, and the whelp barked, and from that moment we were friends; and when I left, I did so perfectly satisfied that if I lost my way the fault would be his, so thoroughly bewildered had I become with his instructions, ad the intricate windings of the route he counseled me to follow.

Trusting to perseverance I returned to the road, and soon gained the extremity of the heath-covered heights behind which the remote but picuresque village of Craigie nestles. For a long way the scene was cheerless and barren, and nought was heard save the cry of the peesweep and the song of the lark; but gradually the country opened, and a rich agricultural district met the gaze. Arriving at a very conspicuous farm-house, according to instructions received I rounded a small pond on the wayside and turned into a hedge-bordered road on the right, and held onward, for the sun was in its glory, and the whin and the broom-clad banks and the fields and the green pasture lands looked luxuriant in  the exhilarating rays. At the termination of this road I found myself in that running between Mauchline and Ayr, but turning to the left I took the first on the right and held onward. It proved one of the old sort--steep and rugged--but following its undulating windings, a two mile walk brought me to the farmstead of Lochlea, and the fields which Burns furrowed with his plough and reaped with his sickle at harvest time.

The field pertaining to the farm slope gently to the road, which at this point verges on a low-lying track of mossy looking land. This at one time formed the bed of the loch from which the place takes its name. In 1839, when the speculative proprietor had the water drained off, two canoes of rude manufacture were discovered near a mound whose summit had formed a kind of island, but they attracted little attention, and in course of time the circumstance was all but forgotten. Towards the close of 1878 the marshy nature of the soil rendered its re-drainage absolutely necessary, and it was subjected to the operation. When cutting a portion of the mound referred to, the workmen came upon what they  considered to be the remains of a house which had rested upon piles systematically driven into the ground. The discovery coming under the notice of Mr. James Brown of TarBolton, a most intelligent and discriminating gentleman, he at once wrote to Mr. J. Anderson, keeper of the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, who communicated with R.W. Cochran-Patarick of Woodside, the respected secretary of the Archaeological Society for the counties of Ayr and Wigtown, and he proceeded to the scene of operations and at once recognized in the remains the remnant of a crannog or lake dwelling. In presence of Mr Cochran-Patrick, Mr Turner (factor of the Duke of Portland), Mr Anderson, and other gentlemen, a series of systematic excavations were begun, which in course of time disclosed rows of rude oaken piles driven firmly into what had been the bed of the loch, and secured by horizontal beams, planks of oak, and young trees, all of which were in an excellent state of preservation, and marked by the indentations of some cutting instruments. The area which the piles enclosed was some 60 feet in diameter. Within it were discovered four pavements of stone, which upon investigation were found to rest upon layers of clay, boulders, and logs of oak firmly imbedded and interspersed with charred wood, burnt bones, and ashes.

From this peculiar structure three rows of closely-set wooden piles, which had evidently supported a gangway extending to what had been the shore of the loch, were also laid bare; but the most curious circumstance connected with the discovery was the enormous quantity of bones which the excavators met with. They were strewn about in all directions, and in sufficient quantities to have filled several carts, and when the writer visited the spot every turn of the spade disclosed others which were interspersed with brushwood and small boulders. These bones were evidently the remains of  animals which had been used for food by the occupants of the peculiarity situated structure which occupied the spot, but who or what they were can only be conjectured. That they were the primeval inhabitants of the district, and lived in a rude, barbarous age, however, is evident from the numerous articles which the explorers brought to light--such as stone hammers, bone chisels, querns, boars’ tusks, and rudely formed instruments made of deers’ horns, bone and wood; and also a canoe formed out of a solid log; a knife of metal, with a yellow ferrule adhering to the remains of the haft; and a variety of iron and flint implements. Dr Munro of Kilmarnock took a deep interest in the excavations, the success of which was greatly owing to his personal exertions, and to his able and elaborate account of the discovery, which is illustrated with plans, sections, and drawings of the crannog, I must refer the reader.

The whole of the articles discovered being found on the ground of the Duke of Portland, were the property of His Grace; but through the intervention of Mr Turner, he generously presented them to the town of Kilmarnock, so that they might form the nucleus of a Museum and be open to the inspection of the curious.

Upon entering the farm-yard of Lochlea, a glance was sufficient to show that the hand of improvement had wholly changed its aspect, the buildings surrounding it being modern, substantial, and slated. In the poet’s time the steading consisted of a one-storied thatched dwelling house, with a barn on the one side and a stable and byre on the other. The old dwelling is now converted into a stable, and a comfortable residence has been erected in its stead; and the barn, which the poet is said to have roofed with his own hands, thanks to the Duke of Portland’s factor, Mr Turner, contains at least one stone of the old fabric. It bears the following inscription:--

RE-BUILT 1870.”

While surveying the old dwelling-house strange thoughts passed through my mind. At Whitsunday, 1777, the flitting from Mount Oliphant drew up before its door and the Burns family entered, and for seven years they valiantly strove to avert the crisis that had its beginning at the farm they had left. Robert was in the nineteenth year of his age then, and to him “life was young and love was new,” but the tender passion had no sooner animated his bosom than he burst into song and celebrated his amours in verse. Authorship with him may be said to have had its beginning at Lochlea. Within the old dwelling he penned many of his early effusions, and, in the language of Dr Currie, “while the ploughshare under his guidance passed through the sward, or the grass fell under the sweep of his scythe, he was humming the songs of his country, musing on deeds of ancient valour, or wrapt in the illustrations of fancy as her enchantments rose on his view.” Within the old dwelling, also, the poet’s father closed his eyes in death. Mrs Begg remembered the event, and affirmed that he had a presentiment of Robert’s future career, and more than feared that Robert would wander into paths from which he had preserved his own footsteps. On the day of his death the old man said that there was one of his family for whose future conduct he feared. “Oh, father! is it me you mean?” said Robert. Upon learning that it was, he turned to the window, and, with smothered sobs and scalding tears, acknowledged the reproof; but why he did so is more than I can understand, for his brother Gilbert assured Dr Currie that his temperance and frugality were everything that could be wished during his residence at Lochlea.

John Murdoch, a young man who at one time acted as tutor to the poet and his brothers, tells us that William Burness was an excellent husband and a tender and affectionate father, taking a pleasure in leading his children in the path to virtue--”not in driving them, as some parents do, to the performance of duties to which they themselves are averse. He took care to find fault but very seldom, and therefore, when he did rebuke, he was listened to with a kind of reverential awe; a look of disapprobation was felt, a reproof was severly so, and a stripe with the taws, even on the skirt of the coat, gave heart-felt pain, produced a loud lamentation, and brought forth a flood of tears. He had,” we are told, “the art of gaining the esteem and good-will of those that were labours under him.” In fact, “he practiced every known duty, and avoided everything that was criminal; or, in the Apostle’s words, ‘Herein did he exercise himself in living a life void of offence towards God and towards men.’” His sons are no less earnest in their expressions of admiration for their father. Gilbert says:--”My father was for some time almost the only companion we had. He conversed familiarly on all subjects with us as if we had been men, and was at great pains, while we accompanied him in the labours of the farm, to lead the conversation to such subjects as might tend to increase our knowledge, or confirm us in  virtuous habits.” Robert, again, writing in February, 1784, says:--”On the 13th curt. I lost the best of fathers. Though, to be sure, we have had long warning of the impending stroke, still the feelings of nature claim their part, and I cannot recollect the tender endearments and parental lessons of the best of friends and ablest of instructors without feeling what perhaps the calmer dictates of reason would partly condemn.”

The present guidman of Lochlea is William Spiers, Esq., late of Shortlees, in the parish of Riccarton, a jolly good-natured farmer, who is at all times glad to see visitors. I found him affable, jocular, and hospitable, and will not readily forget the pleasant hour spent with him in his spacious kitchen, nor the courtesy of his amiable daughter,

“A dancing’ sweet, young, handsome queen,
O’ guileless heart.”

With a lingering look at the wall of the old dwelling wherein Burns spent some of the happiest days of his life, I returned to the road and resumed my journey, having determined to enter Tarbolton by way of Coilsfield--a round-about approach certainly, but nevertheless best suited to my purpose, because it winds through scenery immortalised by our Poet, and past places associated with the most pathetic passage in the history of his life. Passing up the road, which somewhat steep and skirted form some distance by a plantation of young firs, I arrived in the highway between Mauchline and Tarbolton, near to the toll-bar of Mossbog. The country here is unattractive, being composed of undulating uplands which rise from the bank of the river Ayr, and slope downwards in the direction of Lochlea. After indulging in a little gossip with the toll-wife, as she sat knitting a stocking by the door of her cot, I turned down a road on the right, and, according to her instructions, held “straight on.” The way proved long, hilly, and thoroughly rustic, being skirted on the left for a considerable distance with a long strip of pleasant woodland, through which the sunshine glinted as if toying with the bramble bushes in its shade. The knolls by the wayside were decked with tufts of fragrant broom and whin, and spangled with many a “bonnie gem” which the summer sun had called from dust to splendour. Dear wild flowers--

“Like orphan children silent, lone,
I’ve met you spread o’er wild and moor,
Where wand’ring ye have cheer’d me on
And sooth’d me, ramble-toil’d and poor.

“I’ve seen you when the matin ray
First dawn’d upon the purpling east,
Your petals ope, and noiseless pray,
More eloquent than cassock’d priest.

“Sweet teachers, you from green hillside
Brathe fragrance forth to sooth and cheer
The heart of those whose tread of pride
Has mad thy beauties disappear.”

At the termination of this really pleasant walk I found myself in the highway between Mauchline and Ayr, and in the immediate vicinity of Coilsfield. Passing through the toll-bar of Woodhead the scene suddenly changed from the commonplace to that of the most romantic description, for down in the a gorge by the wayside,

“Ayr gurgline kissed its pebbled shore
O’erhung with wildwoods thick’ning green,”

and dashed its waters into foam against fragments of rock as it rolled on its way. The scene was enchanting, and to enjoy it more fully I descended to the water edge and sat down on a mossy bank to rest and gaze on the beautiful scene. How long I remained it is unnecessary to say, but when the journey was resumed it was with a more elastic step and happier frame of mind, for

“The saddest heart might pleasure take
To see a scene so far.”

Reaching Failford--a cluster of neat cottages at the mouth of the rivulet from which the place takes its name--a pleasant walk along a beautiful wood-fringed road brought me to the entrance gate of the grounds which surround Coilsfield House, one of the most romantically situated mansions in the country--but it will be as well to reserve the account of it and King Coil’s grave for next chapter.

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