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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 12


Few streets are more intimately associated with the memory of Robert Burns than that which branches off Tarbolton Cross. It is very appropriately bears his name, and was often traversed by him when residing at Lochlea and Mossgiel. In fact, it was and still is the direct line of communication between these farms and clachan, which, as we have seen, was a favourite resort of his when residing in the neighbourhood. Being aware that the poet toddled down it when returning from the Masonic meeting at which he had the famous dispute with the village pedagogue that provoked the satire of “Death of Dr. Hornbook,” I did the same, and soon arrived at a humble thatched cottage which stands at the right hand corner of its extremity. It is now occupied as a dwelling-house, but it was at one time a portion of a noted inn, and is now memorable as the house wherein the brethren of St. David’s lodge of Freemasons held their meeting and initiated the bard into the mysteries of their craft. Mr. Neil Murchy, who is in possession of the chair, toddy ladle, and drinking glass of this the mother lodge of Robert Burns, kindly allowed me to inspect the old minute-book of the society, and from it the following interesting extract is taken: “Sederunt for July 4th (1781)--Robert Burns, in Lochly, was entered an apprentice.--Signed, Joseph Norman.” “Sederunt, October 1st, 1781.--”Robert Burns, in Lochly, was passed and raised, Henry Cowan being master, James Humphrey being senior warden, and Alexander Smith, junior; and Robert Wodrow, secretary; and F. Manson, treasurer; and John Tannock, James Taylor, and others of the brethren being present.--Joseph Norman, W.M.”

At the cot referred to, a road turns abruptly to the right and winds round the base of a lofty green mound from which the village takes its name. [Tor, or Thor-Bol0ton, or town is the Town at Baal’s hill, i.e., the town at the hill where Baal was worshipped.--New Statistical Account.] Paterson affirms in his history of the county that it was used as a place of Pagan worship long before the era of Christianity, and goes on to say that it would seem, from the remains of trenches, that it had been used as an encampment, probably by the ancient Britons, or during the Scot-Irish wars. It is more certain, however, that it was the hill of which the open Courts of Justice, or Justice-aires of the district, were regularly held, and that fire worship was practiced on it is probable from the immemorial custom of the annual kindling of bonfires near its summit. “On the evening preceding the Tarbolton June Fair a piece of fuel is demanded [by the boys of the village] at each house, and is invariably given by the poorest inhabitant. The fuel so collected is carried to a particular part of the hill where there is an altar or circular fire-place of turf about three feet in height, and is placed upon the altar. A huge bonfire is kindled, and many of its inhabitants, old and young, men and women, assemble on the hill and remain for hours apparently chiefly occupied with observing a feat performed by the youths who are to be seen leaping with indefatigable zeal upon the altar or turf wall enclosing the ashes of former fires and supporting the present one.”** Instead of going :round about the hill,” as Burns tells us he did when he had the imaginary interview with Death, I turned into a path fronting a row of unpretentious dwellings and ascended to the top of the mound, for from it an excellent view of Willie’s Mill and its surroundings is obtained. This celebrated building stands in a vale on the banks of the Fail and is little more than three hundred yards from the village, but, saving the name, it is wholly changed since the days of the poet, and I suppose no more like the place he frequented than the farm-steading is where he dwelt and composed the verses which have made it so widely known; but nevertheless, although only a slight degree associated with his name, visitors come from all quarters and gaze with a kind of reverence upon it and the humble thatch-covered cots by its side. From the elevated position, I descended to the main road which seeps round the base of the hill, and toddled down to Willie’s Mill, passing on my way the spot where Burns and Death are supposed to have “eased their shank” and held the memorable conversation about “Jock Hornbook I’ the Clachan,” and the means he employed to foil the dread spectre of his prey. The seats are situated about half-way between the hill and the mill, and consists of a portion of rock which just out from beneath a high hedge by the wayside, but whether it is due to enthusiastic visitors sitting down or the exertions of the boys that mould is prevented from gathering and grass growing on them I am not prepared to say, but I am a little suspicious that it is owing to the latter that they are so well preserved.

At the foot of the brae a small stream of water foamed from beneath the road and surged onward to a waterwheel laboriously revolving behind the mill a short distance off. Passing a byre and a thatch-covered dwelling-house I entered the mill, and found the miller and his man busy among sacks of grain; but in answer to the question, “Have you anything connected with Burns here?” they at once left off their labour and entered into conversation. “We have a barrow that was about the place when the friend of Burns leev’d in’t,” said a dusty denizen as he produced an old-fashioned two-wheeled hurly, whose moth-eaten spokes and trundles bespoke the tear and wear of former years. “In what way it is connected with Burns?” said I. “Atweel, I dinna ken,” was the reply, “but there’s little doubt that Burns has often had it in his hand.” “O yes,” added the miller, “an’ a lady frae America wanted to buy it, an’ gin I’d selt it she’d taen it hame wi’ her.” “And what on earth would she have done with it?” I enquired. “O, she said that she would place the poet’s portrait in’t.” “What!” I exclaimed, “place the portrait of the bard n a wheelbarrow!” and I laughed at the absurdity of the proposal. The miller proved racy of speech and very obliging. After pointing out that the mill was not wholly rebuilt as supposed, and showing me the water wheel, he accompanied me to the road and bade me a cordial good-bye.

The parish mill of Tarbolton--or “Willie’s Mill,” as it is called-was for many years tenanted by Mr. William Muir, an intimate friend of the Burns family. The poet frequented it when residing n the neighbourhood, and on many occasions assisted his friend in the mill, and doubtless often used the barrow referred to in the laborious operation of shifting sacks from place to place. In fact, this is borne out by the interesting gleanings of the Rev. Hately Waddel, for, in referring to his gift of eloquence and story-telling, he says:-- “When assisting at the mill at ‘hand-sifting’ of the meal in trough, all hands go so absorbed in listening, that no sifting could proceed; in consequence of which the machinery in producing overtook the in removing, and a general block-up took place.”

“The late Mrs. Grannie Hay, aged 04 in 1866,” he also states, “was servant at ‘Willie’s Mill’ at the age of 14 to 15. Her sister also followed her in the same place and situation. She remembered Burns distinctly as a tall, swarthy, and at that time rather spare young man, with long black hair on his shoulders, accustomed to ride Tarbolton from Lochlea or Mossgiel on Freemason lodge nights or other special occasions. He rod booted; he used to stable his horse at the mill; was remarkably kind, pleasant, and affable, and ‘straiket her head wi’ his hand on the last occasion when she was ther.’ Her mistress, Mrs. Muir, was a superior woman; could read, write, and cipher easily; and was fit to maintain discourse with Burns on all topics, even on poems occasionally rehearsed by him at the tea-table at the mill: ‘aye took his tea when he cam’ about four hours.’ He ‘was a great frequenter o’ kirks and preachings, baith at Tarbolton and round about, on which occasions he was often, almost invariably, accompanied by the ‘miller himself’,’ who had a taste for pulpit oratory, and was ‘an unco judge o’ doctrine.’ ‘Burns would speir in for him as he gaed by, and the twa gaed awa heighten.’ On one special occasion Grannie Hay remembered well that Burns complained to the mistress of not being able to finish some song that had occurred to him on a Sabbath morning, in consequence of which he was afraid he could not attend church that day--’it wouldna be richt; he couldna hearken when he was fashed.’ In despair, he rambled out by some dykeside, where he strolled alone ‘till he got the sang a’ right.’ when he repaired to church as usual with the cheefulness of relief and of a good conscience. This difficulty and deliverance, it appears, he related in Mrs. Hay’s hearing with the simplicity of a boy ‘that very morning’ at the mill afore they gaed up to the kirk!’ One would give much to know what very song that was. His conversation then and always was cheerful, entertaining, and correctly pure.”

When the result of Jean Armour’s second intimacy with the poet was discovered, she was driven from the dwelling of her incensed parents, and was left in a manner friendless and destitute. Finding her, says Burns in a letter to Mrs. Dunlop, “literally and truly cast out in the mercy of the naked elements,” he took her under his charge, and, according to the writer from whom the above is quoted, secretly conveyed her to Tarbolton Mill, where she gave birth to twins under the superintendence and care of his friend and admirer, the miller’s wife. She was a kind, motherly woman; and when  Jean’s marriage was made public went to Ellisland to “brew the first peck o’ maut“ for the family and celebrate the home-coming. Grannie Hay had a vivid recollection of the circumstance, and informed the writer quoted above that “the visit was protracted for a fortnight, and was the cause of much offence to the old miller, and did not know of his wife’s departure, and threatened to ding her wi’ a stock when she cam hame. Na, he keepit his stick by the chimla-lug for twa or three days on purpose, but when he saw her coming down the road his han’ trummilt, and he set by the stick, and didna ken what to do wi’ her when she cam ben. But she was angry when he spiered ath her afterhin’ what way she gaed awa without telling hi or asking his leave, and syn mair angry words cam on baith han’s. and she wadna speak to hi ony mair that night; but she spak’ to me, and they war never sic guid friends after.” The miller, in fact, was much older than his wife, and her conduct in undertaking such a visit without his knowledge or permission was decidedly reprehensible. She left the mill, it appears, one afternoon when the old gentleman was asleep on the ‘deas,’ ‘for fear he wad hinder frae gangin’ if he waukenit.’ Grannie Hay, who was an accomplice in the mistress’s manoeuvre, was charged with the responsibility of appeasing his wrath when he awoke, and ‘had ill doin’ o’t!”

Burns kept up correspondence with Mrs Muir after his settlement in Ellisland, and, in recognition of her kindness to his Jean, presented her with a pair of silver sugar tongs, which she long treasured. On her death-bed, she gave them to Mrs Humphrey of Tarbolton. They afterwards came into the possession of her niece, Miss Ann Humphrey, but for a consideration she was induced to part with them, and they  are now the property of Mr J.S. Gregory, Kilmarnock. Having had the pleasure of seeing them and hearing their history narrated, I may add that they are of plain make, and of the ordinary size. Over the bow the Poet’s name is engraved in fac-simile of his hand-writing, and on each blade the names of the several possessors; and the dates on which the relic changed hands are inscribed in the same manner.

Upon returning to the village, I entered the Crown Inn for the purpose of recruiting my energies and enquiring about the memorabilia in possession of the brethren of St James’ lodge. Here I was shown the chair Burns occupied when Depute-Master, and also the minute book in which his bold signature repeatedly occurs as such. The jewel, or badge to which he alludes in his “Farewell: to the lodge, was put into my hand, as also another interesting relic in the shape of an autograph letter, dated Edinburgh, August 23rd, 1787. These, with a flag and mallet, I think constitute the whole of the Burns relics in the possession of this lodge, and the brethren are justly proud of them, as they have every right to be.

After a rest, “a crack” (well, I may as well write it down), and a toothful of good malt liquor, I thanked the brethren in attendance for their courtesy, bade them good-bye, and crossed over to the Churchyard.

Like most places in the locality it has undergone a great change since the days of Burns. The dingy little building in which he worshipped is wholly removed, and a neat modern edifice, with an elegant spire and clock, erected in its stead. In pensive mood I wandered among the grassy hillocks and read semi-obliterated memorials of the now forgotten dead, for many of the tombstones are old and not a few bear curious and interesting devices. One near the church door deserves more than passing notice, because it testifies that Tarbolton, like other districts in Ayrshire, shared in the perils of the Persecution. It bears the following inscription:--


Shillaw’s name occurs in a list of Lieutenant Lauder’s victims in the appendix to “The Cloud of Witnesses,” but in no other work to which I have had access is it mentioned, and curious enough, the circumstances of the martyr’s death appear to have entirely worn out of the traditional mind.

Upon leaving the churchyard I commenced by homeward journey, but had not proceeded far when the ringing tones of an anvil smote my ear, and brought to mind the well-known lines of the poet--

“When Vulcan gies the bellows breath
And ploughmen gather wi’ their graith.”

Being anxious to see if this village blacksmith was aught like the one Wordsworth describes, I looked in at the open door. He lifted his dusky visage, and with several onlookers glanced enquiringly at me. “Is this the smithy where Burns got his plough irons sharpened?” I jocularly enquired. “Deed isn’t,” he replied, “an’ he made a poem sittin’ on that hearth there, an’ wrote it on the slate on which my grandfather marked his jobs.” This was an unexpected discovery. “Do you know the name of that poem?” “Deed I dinna, though I should hae a copy o’t somewhere; but the way it was, my father was for opening a shop, an’ he askit Burns to make him twa or three lines mentioning the things he was gaun to sell, so that he might get them set owre his door--for it was customary in thae days to hae a verse o’ poetry on a body’s sign--so he sat doon an’ wrote hm aff a screed in which was named maist everything you can think on.” “Aye,” broke in a friend of the smith, “an’ there’s a poet here that’s maist as guid as Burns himself’,” “As Burns!” said I, “then I’d go a good way to see that cahp--Where is he?” “o, he leeves about a mile up that road; gin ye gang up you’ll likely fin’ him--he aye carries a pickle o’ his poetry i’e his pouch.” After some further con- versation with the smith about the verses composed on the hearth, I bade him goodbye, and set out to make the acquaintance of the man that promised to be “maist as good’s Burns.” Having held along the road indicated, in due time I arrived at the farm-steading of Torrcross, and found my man on the top of a stack filling a cart with sheaves of grain. Having accused him of “committing the sin of rhyme,” he frankly admitted the charge, and in proof of his guilt handed me a copy of the Freemasons’ Journal containing one of his pieces, which, I must say, flowed smoothly, but to give the reader an idea of John Campbell’s poetic abilities, the following Masonic song, which was composed for and sung in the lodge St. James, is subjoined:--


“If e’er there was an honored name
To Masonry and Scotia dear,’
“Twas his who gave our lodge to fame,
And oft has worn the ‘jewel’ here.
Then surely ‘tis our duty here,
Whene’er his natal day returns,
To pledge his memory with ‘a tear’--
The memory of Robert Burns.

On Coila’s plains he first drew breath,
‘Twas Coila’s maids he loved and sung,
He won the bard’s immortal wreath,
Lone wand’ring Coila’s woods among.
And Coila’s sons shall honour now--
For sadlly still old Scotland mourns--
The might minstrel of the plough,
The gifted mason, Brother Burns.

“His songs are sung on Ganges’ side,
Zambezi’s banks his strains have heard,
Siberian forest wild and wide
Have echoed strains of Scotia’s bard.
The broad St. Lawrence hears his voice--
Where’er the Scottish wanderer turns,
His name can make the heart rejoice--
The deathless name of Brother Burns.

“But here within our native vale,
On every glen and flowery brae,
On classic Ayr and winding Fail
His fame hath shed a brilliant ray--
And here shall reign his glorious name
Until here shall reign his glorious name
Until the grave its dead unurns,
For every craftsman here can claim
Reflected fame from Brother Burns.

“Then brethren of the lodge St. James,
And sister lodges gathered here,
One silent round his memory claims--
The round requested with ‘a tear.’
Let’s be upstanding to the call
Of him, the bard whom Scotia mourns,
To pledge in solemn silence all--
The memory of Brother Burns.”

Upon taking leave of my poetic friend, I struck through the fields and steered my course to Fail Tool. It is situated on the Kilmarnock road about a mile distant from Tarbolton, at the entrance of a little village--if it may be dignified by that name--and near to the ruins of what is locally termed Fail Castle, but which is nothing more than the remains of the manor-house of Fail monastery--founded and dedicated to Saint Mathurine in 1252. It was inhabited by a tribe of monks, styled “Fathers of Redemption,” who wore a white habit with a red and blue cross upon the shoulder, and religiously devoted themselves to the humane task of redeeming captives from slavery; but, notwithstanding their sanctity, they appear to have been a merry lot, who knew what was good for them--that is, if there be any truth in the following traditional rhymes:--

“The Friars of Fail
Gat never owre hard eggs, or owre thin kail,
For they made their eggs thin wi’ butter,
And their kail thick wi’bread;
An’ the Friars of Fail they made good kail
On Fridays when they fasted,
An’ they never wanted gear enough
As lang as their neighbors’ lasted.”

“The Friars of Fail drank berry-brown ale,
The best that ever was tasted;
The Monks of Fail they made gude kail
On Fridays when they fasted.”

However, the jolly fathers have passed away, and no portion of their house now remains save the shattered gable and side-wall of the residence of the prior or chief minister. But a word may be said regarding its last occupant--a notorious warlock laird--who was said to possess an evil eye, and to have the faculty of charming milk from cows, butter from the churn, cheese from the dairy tab; and to be able not only to foretell future events, but to control human actions-spreading disease and death among men and cattle by the simple exercise of his will. One of his acts is made the subject of the following ballad:-


“As Craigie’s knight was a hunting one day
Along with the Laird of Fail,
They came to a house, wherein the goodwife
Was brewing the shearers’ ale.

“Sir Thomas alighted at the door
Before the Laird of Fail,
‘And will ye gi’e me, goodwife,’ quo he,
‘A drink of your shearers’ ale?’

“’I will gi’e thee, Sir Thomas,’ quo she,
‘A drink of my shearers’ ale;
But gude be here how I sweat and fear
At sight of the Laird of Fail!’

“’What sees auld lucky the Laird about
That may not be seen on me?
His beard so long, so bushy, and strong,
Sure need not affrighten thee!’

“’Tho’ all his face were cover’d with hair,
It never would daunten me;
But youn and old oft have heard it told
That a warlock knight is he.

“’ He caused the death o’ my braw milk cow,
And did not his blastin e’e
Bewitch my barn, cowp many a kirn,
And gaur my auld doggie die?’”

Sir Thomas tells the laird of the goodwife’s tremor and asks
him to “put in the merry pin.” This is agreed to, and the
result is somewhat ludicrous.

“He put then a pin aboon the door
And said some mysterious thing,
And instantly the auld wife she
Began to dance and sing--

“’O good Sir Thomas of Craigie tak’
The warlock laird of Fail
Awa frae me, for he never shall pree
A drap of our shears’ ale!’

“The Laird he cried on the auld gudeman
And sought a drink of his beer;
‘Atweel, quo he, ‘kind sire you shall be
Welcome to all that is here.”

“But just as he passed under the pin,
He roared out--’Warlock Fail,
Awa frae me, for you never shall pree
A drap of our shearers’ ale.’”

The laird and the knight watch the sport, and as the reapers drop into dinner, they are asked for a drink of the ale, but they no sooner pass under the merry pin than they take up the strain of the goodwife and join in the dance, and, according to the poet,

“They would have sun the same till yet
Had not the Laird of Fail
Drawn out the pin before he went in
To drink of the shearers’ ale.”

The laird does not appear to have been very malicious, for many of his cantrips are of a humorous cast. “One day a man leading an ass laden with crockery ware happened to pass the castle. The laird, who had a friend with him, offered for a wager to make the man break his little stock in pieces. The  bet was taken, and immediately the earthenware dealer, stopping and unloading the ass, smashed the whole into fragments. When asked how he had acted so foolishly, he declared he saw the head of a large black dog growling out of each of the dishes ready to devour him. The spot where this is said to have occurred is till called ‘Pig’s Bush.’ On another occasion, the laird looked out of the upper south window of the castle. There was in sight twenty going ploughs. He undertook upon a large wager to make them all stand still. Momentarily eighteen of them--ploughs, ploughmen, horses, and gadmen--stood motionless. Two, however, continued to work. One of them was ploughing the Tarbolton croft. It was found out afterwards that these two ploughs carried each a piece of rowan-tree--mountain ash--proverbial for its anti-warlock properties.

‘Rowan-tree and red thread
Keep the devils frae their speed.’

In what year the death of the warlock took place is unknown; but circumstances lead us to believe that it must have been near the close of the seventeenth century. When about to depart, he warned those around him not to remain in the castle after his body was carried out; and it being autumn, he further recommended them not to buy him until the harvest was completed, because on the day of his interment a fearful storm would ensue. He was accordingly kept as long as the state of his remains admitted. Still the harvest was not above half-finished. True as the laird’s prediction, the moment of the body, on the funeral day, had cleared the doorway, a loud crash was heard--the castle roof had fallen it. The wind rose with unexampled fury, the sheaves of corn were scattered like chaff, and much damage was sustained all over the land. [This ballad and some very interesting information regarding the monastery and the Warlock Laird will be found in “songs and ballads of Ayrshire.” From this excellent but scare work the above anecdotes are taken.]

Passing Fail Mill I held along the road, and after a long walk reached a spot where two ways meet. The one to the left--as the milestone states--leads to Kilmarnock and the other to Galston. Although anxious enough to reach home, I decided upon a circuitous approach, and held along the Galston highway. The country in this district is almost wholly under cultivation, and the pedestrian as he trudges onwards finds little to engage his attention beyond the chirping birdies that flit in the hedges and the wild flowers whose fragrance is wafted on the wings of the wind. After a mile of weary thoughtful plodding, I reached the avenue leading to the farmhouse of Adamhill, which occupies a rather romantic situation, being planted near to a stripe of woodland and close to a row of stately trees, whose arms in all probability, have often shaded Robert Burns when he came to visit the “rough, tude, redy -witted Rankine” of poetic memory, who had his residence here. According to Chambers, “he was a prince of boon companions and mingled a good deal in the society of the neighbouring gentry, but was too free a liver to be on good terms with the stricter order of the clergy. Burns and he had taken to each other no doubt the consequence of their community of feeling and thinking on many points. The youngest daughter of Rankine had a recollection of the poet’s first visit to their house at Adamhill, and related that on his coming into the parlour he made a circuit to avoid a small carpet in the centre, having probably at that time no acquaintance with carpets, and too great a veneration for them to tread upon them with his ploughman’s shoes.” The farmhouse is well built, and the present occupant, Mr. A.G. Parker, is well known for his genial hospitality.

A little beyond Adamhill, I entered a pleasant byeroad which winds over hill and dale, and terminates near the village of Craigie, but before it was traversed

“The sun was out o’ sight,
And darker gloamin’ brought the night.”

Nevertheless, “my heart rejoiced in Nature’s joy” as I trudged along enjoying the solitude and watching “the glimmering landscape” fading on the sight. Having passed Craigie Manse, the snug residence of the Rev. David Stirling, the respected parish minister, I soon reached the summit of the rocky ridge over which the highway passes and beheld the light of Kilmarnock gleaming in the distance. The reader may rest assured that their appearance was most cheering, and that I stepped out with renewed vigor. After a  brisk but lonely walk, I arrived in Riccarton, and shortly thereafter received a hearty welcome from my bits o’ bairns. Laying aside my hat and stick, I sat down by the ingleside a tired but better man from having visited scenes rendered famous by the poet Burns.

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