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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 14


Having roved by bonnie Doon and winding Ayr, and sketched the town of Kilmarnock, I would now, courteous reader, ask you to accompany me in a ramble to Mossgiel and the places of interest in its vicinity, which are inseparably associated with the poet’s name, for he removed there in May, 1784, and with his brother Gilbert began life anew with the little the family had been able to wrench from the avaricious grasp of the Lochlea landlord.

The day set apart for the journey being favourable, I left Kilmarnock at an early hour, and after a pleasant walk reached Crookedholm, an unpretentious hamlet chiefly occupied by miners, who find employment in numerous coalpits in its vicinity. Unimportant as it is now, it was at one time a place of some note, and, according to a work lately published,* possessed a “flour mill, a cloth factory, and a place of worship near the beginning of the eighteenth century.” Beyond it I passed two handsome Churches, crossed a substantial stone bridge, and entered Hurlford, another mining settlement which has assumed the proportions of a town within the memory of persons still living. This transition is owing to the presence of rich seams of coal in the vicinity, to the opening of the Portland Ironworks, and to its connection with a line of railway which bears away the produce, and brings the village into direct communication with the large centres of industry. The village possesses the churches referred to, a mechanics’ institute, a Post and Telegraph Office, a flourishing co-operative store, a commodious police station, and a fair sprinkling of public houses and places of business. According to the work already quoted, “the inhabitants are a very mixed race, and a large proportion of them are either Irish or descendants of Irish. Of the exotic element of the population, a portion are Catholics, while those who are Protestants are Orangemen. Hence frequent quarrels leading to breaches of the peace arise between these two irreconcilable sections of Irishmen.” From this it may be inferred that renewals of the obsolete sports of Donnybrook Fair are of common occurrence on pay nights, and that “a party man” need have no anxiety about the turning blue-moulded for want of a sound thrashing.

The road to Mauchline branches off what may be termed Hurford Cross. It was the way Burns came to and returned from Kilmarnock when residing at Mossgiel. Allan Cunningham states that John Wilson suggested the propriety of placing a piece of a grave nature at the beginning of the poems he printed, and that acting on the hint the bard composed or completed “The Twa Dogs” when walking home to Mossgiel. The local work quoted states that “the first wayside inn was kept by James Aiton; it was on the western side of the Mauchline Road, and he occupied it at the Burns was in Mossgiel, and was having his poems printed by Wilson in Kilmarnock. He was acquainted with Burns, and being--like many Scotchmen of that era--an inveterate snuffer, was presented by the bard with a snuff-box. This box Aiton long retained, but after Burns had grown famous, he was often asked by his visitors for a pinch of snuff from the poet’s box, and at last it was stolen from him.” This is a very pleasing reminiscence, but the following is more so: An old man named Andrew Howat who “had wrought a good deal about coal-pits, which were then being worked at Norris bank, about two miles on the road to Mauchline and about four miles from Mossgiel, remembered Burns, and related that most of the farmers in the district were known to him as coming to the heugh for coals. Burns, he said, came frequently and generally carried a book with him which he red by the way.” How characteristic! “Some book he always carried and read,” says David Sillars, and another writer records that he wore out two copies of  “The Man of Feeling” by carrying them about in his pocket --he walked like a thoughtful man and was always meditative when alone.

A short walk along Mauchline Road brought me to a bridge which spans the Cessnock--a streamlet celebrated by our poet in an early love song. It takes its rise at Auchmanoch Moor in the parish of Sorn, and forms some fantastic windings in which it serves as the boundary line between the parished of Mauchline, Galston, and Riccarton, and empties itself into the Irvine a mile or so above Hurlford. Ellison Begbie, the heroine of the song referred to, was the daughter of a small farmer in the parish of Galston, but was a servant in a family on the banks of the Cessnock when Burns made her acquaintance. This attachment is spoken of as one of the purest he ever engaged in, and he declared in mature years, after he had visited Edinburgh, that of all the women he had ever seriously addressed, she was the one most likely to have formed an agreeable companion for life. He addressed a series of letters to her, and employs a song of thirteen stanzas to describe her personal charms, which tradition states were few in the eyes of her neighbours. Although his passion was not reciprocated, the poet maintained his suit with considerable, warmth, and in addition to that dangerous mode of courtship--letter-writing--visited the fair one at her home, and “beneath the moon’s unclouded light” poured in her ear the language of love. Mrs Begg had a distinct recollection of this attachment, and related that her brother went  frequently in the evenings to pay his addressed to the damsel, and generally returned home at a late hour; and Chambers tells us that “the old man resolved to administer to his son the practical rebuke of sitting up to let him in, and also to give him a few words of gentle admonition. When Robert returned that night the father was there to administer the intended correction, but the young bard defeated his plan. On being asked what had detained him so long, be began a whimsical narration of what he had met with and seen of the natural and supernatural on his way home, concluding with the particulars afterwards wrought up in the well-known verses his ‘Address to the Deil’:--

‘Ae dreary, windy, wintry night,
The starts shot down wi’ sklentin light,
Wi you sysel’ I got a fright,
Ayonst the lough;
Ye like a rash bush stood in sight,
Wi’ waving sough.

The cudgel in my nieve did shake,
Each bristled hari stood like a stake,
When wi’ an eldritch, stoor quaick--quaick--
Amang the springs,
Awa’ ye squattered like a drake,
On whistling wings!’

The old man was in spite of himself so much interested and amused by this recital as to forget the intended scolding, and the affair ended in his sitting for an hour or two by the kitchen fire enjoying the conversation of his gifted son.”

Beyond the bridge referred to a long stretch of road, which winds through an agreeably diversified landscape of gently rising grounds, lay before me. The walk proved lengthy and lonely, but the glorious sights and sounds of nature ministered delightfully to my eye and ear. I entered into conversation with a countryman driving a horse and cart in the direction I was pursuing. He was well acquainted with the district, and entertained the highest veneration of the Poet’s memory, and seemed to dwell with fondness upon every little trait and anecdote associated with his name. When we came to Cross hands, where there is a school and a smith’s shop, he said-- “Robin was often here about, and in a corner o’ a park ahent the wood there a horse o’ his lies buried that dee’d wi’ him when ploughin’; but haud on an’ ye’ll see Mossgiel in a wee.” The “wee” soon passed, and from the brow of a brae over which the road passes he pointed with his whip to a farm-steading on the summit of a swelling piece of ground, an in a self-satisfied manner added-”There it is. The parks are the same, but the hoose is a’ changed. Yonder’s the ane he turned up the mousie’s nest in ; but haud on a wee an’ I’ll set you doun at the yett o’ the ane whaur he ploughed down the daisy. Haud alang the side o’t--it’s the nearest way into the farm.” Upon arriving at the yett I took leave of my rough good-natured friend and entered the field. A number of cows were browsing in it, and myriads of daisies sprangled it surface. As I pensively gazed on the scene the following from the pen of William Scott Douglas, of Edinburgh, came to mind:--

“The warblers around me seem proud to repeat
The wild notes that gave rapture to him;
And the daisies that spangle the ground at my feet
Have their birth from the one of his theme;
There’s a boast from yon belfry-tower borne on the breeze
That it caught Robin’s ear every day;
And the murmuring waters and whispering trees
Can but sigh that their minstrel’s away!”

My arrival in Mossgiel farm-yard was announced by a demonstrative collie dog, whose “bow-wows” not only startled but caused me to think seriously about taking to my heels Finding, however, that it kept at a respectful distance, I ventured forward, and as unconcernedly as possible addressed a sturdy servant girl and enquired for her master. “Just bide ye a wee, sir,” and she, when she had left off scolding the guardian of the steading for kicking up such a row, “and I’ll find him for you.” Off she went on her mission, and left me to watch the dog and the dog to watch we, but he proved a good-natured brute and offered no further molestation. The dwelling-house is a substantial two-storeyed slated building, and bears no resemblance whatever to “the auld clay biggin’” which rises before the mind’s eye when perusing “The Vision,” while the offices which form an angle round the paved court are all modern and roofed in the same manner. The master soon made his appearance, and, in answer to my request, led the way into the house and began to show the little about the place which is associated with the poet’s name. “This, “ said he, as he opened the door of a neatly-furnished room, “is ‘the spence,’ but the roof, as you will observe, is heightened, and the set-in beds which occupied the apartment when  the Poet lived here are torn out.” Yes, torn out and the place spoiled, thought I, but nevertheless I felt gratified to stand within the walls which had sheltered the most wonderful peasant that ever lived. On the walls the original copy of “The Lass o’ Ballochmyle,” and the letter which accompanied it, hang in separate frames, having been kindly placed there by the late Boyd Alexander, Esq. of Ballochmyle, for the inspection of visitors. The documents are somewhat faded  and aged looking, but the bold vigorous writing of the poet is still legible, and almost as clear as it was when it left his pen. On the table lay a bulky visitor’s book, which I was informed might have been filled over and over again had a tithe of the pilgrims recorded their names. The first entry is dated “August 30, 1872,” and is as follows:--”W.H. Glen, Melbourne, Australia, and Mrs W.H. Glen, Melbourne, Australia--both delighted with Mossgiel and country round.” Not a few are those of person of distinction, and very many names belong to individuals who have travelled long distances to visit the lone farm steading. After a pleasant chat my cicerone next lead me to the front of the house and pointed out a tall neatly-cut hedge, which the poet had planted with his own hands, and afterwards the fields wherein he turned up the “wee sleekit, cow’rin’, timorous beastie’s” nest, and turned down the “modest crimson-tipped flower’ with the plough. These fields adjoin each other, and are in much the same con- dition as they were when the poet traversed them. An old man named John Blane, who had served in Mosgiel when a boy, told Robert Chambers that he had a distinct recollection of the mouse’s nest. “Burns was holding the plough,with Blane for his driver, when the little creature was observed running off across the field. Blane, having the pettle, or plough-cleaning utensil, in his hand at the moment, was thoughtlessly running after it to kill it, when Burns checked him, but not angrily, asking what ill the poor mouse had ever done him. The poet then seemed to his driver to turn very thoughtful, and during the remainder of the afternoon he spoke not. In the night-time he awoke Blane, who slept with him, and reading the poem which had in the meantime been composed, asked what he thought of the mouse now.”

The incident was trivial, but it formed the groundwork of a beautiful and interesting poem, and evidenced his tenderness of heart: he saw in the smallest of all quadrupeds an “earth-born companion and fellow-mortal,” and felt equally for a pet ewe, an auld mare, and a wounded limping hare.

The lines to “The Daisy” were composed while the poet was ploughing, but I am not aware of any anecdote associated with the incident. “These two poems,” says a celebrated write, “derive additional interest from the attitude in which the poet is himself presented to our view. We behold him engaged in the labours of the field, and moving in his humble sphere with all dignity of honest independence and conscious genius.”

The view from the height on which the farm-steading stands is well described by William Wordsworth in the following sonnet:--

“’There,’ said a stripling, pointing with much pride,
Towards a low roof, with green trees half-concealed,
‘Is Mossgiel far; and that s the very field
Where Burns plough’d up the daisy! Far and wide
A plain below stretched seaward, while, descried
Above sea clouds, the peaks of Arran rose;
And by that simple notice, the repose
Of earth, sky, sea, and air was vivified.
Beneath the random bield of clod or stone,
Myriads of daisies have shown forth in flower
Near the lark’s nest, and in their nature’d hour
Have passed away; less happy than the one
That, by the unwilling ploughshare, died to prove
The tender charm of poetry and love.”

Mossgiel possesses very many interesting associations, but the only thing pertaining to the original steading is the walls. When they were heightened and repaired, every scrap of wood about the roof and floor was purchased by a boxmaking firm in Mauchline and converted into fancy ornaments, “warranted from the farm of Mossgiel.” When the Burns family dwelt in it, it was a simple thatched cottage of one storey, which afforded the limited accommodation of a room and kitchen and a small garret which was reached by a trap stair. It contained a bed and a small table, which stood under a sloping window in the roof, and there Burns committed to paper the verses he composed during the day. John Blane, the gandsman or driver, already referred to, shared the bed with the poet, and in after years told of his services to him in amorous nocturnal visits to farm steadings, and how he was often roused from sleep to listen to new-composed poems. These effusion were stored in a little drawer, and Chambers relates that the poet’s young sister often stole up after he had gone to his afternoon labour to search it for verses he had just written off.

“When my father’s affairs grew near a crisis,” says the stolid, worldly-wise Gilber in his memoir of the Poet, “Robert and I took the farm of Mossgiel, consisting of 118 acres, at the rent of £90 per annum (the farm on which I live at present), from Mr Gavin Hamilton, as an asylum for the family in case of the worst. It was stocked by the property and individual savings of the whole family, and was a joint concern amongst us. Every member of the family was allowed ordinary wages for the labour he performed on the farm. My brother’s allowance and mine was seven pounds per annum each, and during the whole time this family conconcern lasted, which was four years, as well as during the preceding period at Lochlea, his expenses never in any one year exceeded his slender income. As I was entrusted with the keeping of the family accounts, it is not possible that there can be any fallacy in this statement in my brother’s favour. His temperance and frugality were everything that could be wished.” Really! and so they might, for whatever charges may be brought against the poet, his bitterest traducer cannot add that of extravagance to the list. Seven pounds a year! Egad, the sum is barely sufficient now-a-days to keep some of our young men in pipes and tobacco.

The room, or “spence” as it was termed, was the scene of “The Vision.” To its seclusion the bard often withdrew of an evening when tired with “the thresher’s weary flingin-tree.”

“Ben I’ the spence right pensivelie,
I gaed to rest.”

“There, lanely, by the ingle cheek
I sat, and e’ed the spewin’ reek,
That filled, wi’ hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld clay biggin’;
And heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin’.

“A’ in this motty, misty clime,
I backward mused on wasted time;
How I had spent my youthful prime,
And done nae thing,
But stringing blethers up in rhyme,
For fools to sing.

“When, click! the string the sneck did draw,
And jee! the door gaed to the wa’,
And by my ingle-lowe I saw,
Now bleezing bright,
A tight, outlandish hizzie, braw,
Come full in sight.


“With musing deep, astonished stare,
I viewed the heavenly-seeming fair,
A whispering throb did witness bear
Of kindred sweet,
When, with an elder sister’s air,
She did me greet.

“’All hail! my own inspired bard,
In me thy native muse regard!
Nor longer mourn thy fate as hard,
Thus poorly how!
I came to give thee such reward
As we bestow.


“’And wear thou this,’ she solemn said,
And bound the holly round my head;
The polished leaves and berries red
Did rustling play,
And, like a passing thought, she fled
In light away.”

His father’s death and parting words seem to have made a deep impression on the poet’s heart. When he entered Mossgiel he did so with the determination of becoming wise, He read farming books, calculated crops, attended markets, and believed that “in spite of the world, the flesh, and the devil” he would succeed; but alas! the first year he purchased bad seed and the second lost half his crops in inclement weather and a late harvest. Things were trying enough, but when they were at their worst he solaced himself with song, and laid the foundation of his fame by composing the very cream of his poetry.

The four years the bard spent on this farm may be considered the most eventful of his chequered career. What agony of mind, what cares, troubles, and disappointments he experienced in the brief period, and what scenes of social enjoyments and literary triumphs he passed through! From obscurity he rose to flame, and from abject poverty to comparative affluence--an affluence, however, of short duration.

After lingering about the celebrated and now classic spot, and gazing upon some stately plane trees beneath which the poet loved to recline, I took leave of my cicerone, and in  passing the front of the house plucked a sprig from off the thorn hedge and carried it away as a keepsake. It lies on my desk withered and dry, but serves as a memento of a visit to the farm wherein Burns composed his keenest satires and most beautiful poems and songs. Passing along a narrow unfenced road, I soon reached the highway, and after a walk of something like a mile entered Mauchline--a place to which Burns was often decoyed on “a nicht at e’en” to “pree the clachan yill” or perchance “the mou’ o’ some bonnie lass”-- but more of him and it in next Chapter.

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