Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 18


Having realized £500 by the sale of the Edinburgh edition of his poems, Burns was enabled to live for a time on his means, and to indulge in tours through Berwickshire and the North of England; and also, the Highlands, by Inveraray, Loch Lomond, Dunkeld, Castle-Gordon, and Inverness.  In the course of these excursions he was received by men of rank and taste, and by the people generally with the most gratifying marks of respect for his brilliant talents, frank manners, and fluent conversation secured him many friends.  In referring to his return to Mossgiel, Dr Currie says, “It will easily be conceived with what pleasure and pride he was received by his mother, his brothers, and sisters.  He left them poor and comparatively friendless; he returned to them high in public estimation and easy in circumstances.  He returned to them unchanged in his ardent affections, and ready to share with them to the uttermost farthing the pittance that fortune had bestowed.”

With characteristic generosity of heart he handed his brother Gilbert £180 to relieve him from the embarrassment in which he was involved by the sterile soil of an ungenial farm, and, despite the seductive power of “Clarinda”--a talented lady of fashion whose acquaintance he made in Edinburgh--married his much-loved Jean, and began to look about for the means to earn daily bread.  In this world every man is left to work out his own fate, and it depends greatly upon the course he steers what that fate is.  Burns at this period of his history was still “without an aim,” and still far from the enjoyment of “the glorious privilege of being independent,” even although he had amassed a little money and had become famous by dint of his giant intellect.  As a means of subsistence he endeavored to procure a situation in the Excise, but ultimately abandoned the idea for that of returning to his original occupation of farming.  After some deliberation, he entered into negotiations with his patron, Mr Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, respecting the farm of Ellisland, and having procured it on favorable terms, set about preparing a home for his young wife on the banks of the Nith.  Thither, reader, we will follow him, and while tracing his footsteps in Dumfriesshire, it is to be hoped that my gleaning will prove at once instructive and entertaining.

On the afternoon of a bonnie summer day, I availed myself of a short respite from business, and left Kilmarnock by rail with the intention of wandering at leisure amid the scenery of Nithsdale, and visiting places celebrated by the residence or muse of Robert Burns.  At the train glided on the ever-changing scenery had a peculiar charm for me, not only on account of the fact that it was from it the bard drew inspiration, but because its every rood is hallowed by brave men who fought and bled for freedom and Scotland, when might was considered right, and liberty of conscience and action the property of those in power.  A short stoppage occurred at Mauchline, and another at the quaint village of Auchinleck, near to which is Auchinleck House, the residence of Lady Boswell.  Dr Samuel Johnson made a grumbling, discontented stay at it in the month of November, 1773.  The Lugar was then unsung, and the “moors and mosses many” had not been celebrated by the bard of Coila, for he was but in his fifteenth year, and had concluded a grand session of three weeks at the grammar school of Ayr to return to Mount Oliphant to swing the “weary flingin" tree in the old barn.  The doctor and his biographer have now a very small share of the affection and gratitude of mankind, but the name of the poor boy Robert Burns, who worked hard and fared hard, and received his education by snatches, fame has wafted over the whole world, and his immortal verses are the solace and delight of his countrymen in every land where their lot is cast.  The illiterate, the learned, the rich, and the poor admire them, and speak of the poet as of one with whom they were intimate-in fact, the birch-fringed, amber-flooded streams he has sung appear to murmur more sweetly and rush more proudly to the notes of his lyre--

“Nor skill’d one flame alone to fan;
His country’s high-soul’d peasantry
What patriot pride he taught--how much
To weigh the inborn worth of man!
And rustic life and poverty
Grow beautiful beneath his touch.”

Auchinleck House was also the residence of that enthusiastic admirer of Burns, Sir Alexander Boswell, to whose energy the erection of the monument on the bank of the Doon is due.  He was a poet of great merit, and it is no small honour to his muse that several of his songs have been mistakenly ascribed to Burns, and have found a place in Loudoun editions of his works.

A branch line leads from Auchinleck to Muirkirk, a village famous in Covenanting annals.  John Lapraik, author of the song, “When I upon thy bosom lean,” resided there when in the song at a rocking held in the kitchen of Mossgiel on Fasten e’en, 1785, and was so taken with it that he addressed the author in verse, and in flattering terms solicited his friendship.  Lapraik speedily replied, and sent the letter by the hands of his son, who, upon arriving at Mossgiel, found the poet in a field engaged in sowing. “I’m no sure if I ken the hand, [“Contemporaries of Burns,” p. 26] said Burns as he took the letter; but no sooner had he glanced at its contents than unconsciously letting go the sheet containing the grain, it was not until he had finished reading that he discovered the loss he had sustained.*  Ever afterwards Burns and Lapaik became fast friends, and had frequent and familiar intercourse.

Lapraik was born in 1727.  He published a volume of poetry at Kilmarnock in 1788, and died in the eightieth year of his age, on the 7th May, 1807.  Robert Chalmers some-what rashly states in his edition of Burns that he must have stolen the ideas and nearly all the diction of his song from a poem in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine, October, 1773.  That Lapraik’s song, and the poem referred to, have more than a suspicious similarity is not to be disrupted, but whether Lapraik or the anonymous contributor to that periodical be the plagiarist has yet to be proved.

As the train rushed from the sweet village of Auchinleck it crosses a lofty viaduct which spans the Lugar, a stream celebrated in “My Nannie o’”--a song which is, and ever will be, a universal favourite--and in a short time passes the town of Old Cumnock, beautifully embosomed among the hills. Peden, of Covenanting memory, is buried in its churchyard; and in Breezyhill Cottage--a snug residence in its vicinity--resides Mr Adam B. Todd, author of “Poems, Lectures, and Miscellanies,” and other meritorious literary productions.  Like Burns he was bred to farm work, and like him also he cultivated literature under many difficulties.  The following extract is from one of his tributes to the memory of the ploughman bard:-- 

“A chequered lot was thine, O Burns, to bear,
Though short they course, thy struggles were severe;
But now life’s thorny path has long been past,
Weary the way, but sweet the rest at last,
And thou art not forgotten in the clay--
Thy fame increaseth with each opening day.
Seasons may pass as Time sublimely steers
His onward course, still heaping years on years;
But while the history of our isle is read,
Thy name shall rank among the honoured dead.”

Beyond New Cumnock--a modes village extending on both sides of the line--the country, if possible, becomes more fascinating.  In the distance is Glen Afton and the green swelling braes by which it is enclosed, and also the infant Nith coursing along.  It issues from the Black Loch, as a dark sheet of water in the upper part of New Cumnock parish is termed, and traverses twelve miles of Ayrshire soil before entering the county of Dumfries.  This loch is also the source of the Glaisnock, and in reference to this fact the writer of the Statistical Account of the parish of Old Cumnock points out the possibility of a trout crossing the mainland.  Were it, he supposes, to enter the Ayr at Ayr harbour it might pass into the Lugar at Barskimming, and from thence into the Glaisnock at Old Cumnock, by which it could reach the Black Loch and issue therefrom into the Nith, and eventually drop into the Solway Firth.  The Nith has many tributaries in Ayrshire, but the most important is the Afton--a rapid and beautiful stream which traverses Glen Afton and joins it on the east side of the village of New Cumnock.  The reader need not be reminded that this stream is celebrated by Burns in the song beginning--

“Flow gently sweet Afton among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise.” 

For a long distance beyond New Cumnock the railway skirts the Nith, and as the train dashes along, many a bosky scene, and many a green hillside, which cannot fail to impart pleasure, catches the eye.  I just caught a glimpse of Kirkconnel as the train pushed past.  It is a nice little village, and likely to be notable in future years as the birth-place of Alexander Anderson, author of “Songs of Labour;” “The Two Angels, and other Poems;” &c. Mr Anderson, although a surface man or “common navy” on the line, has found leisure not only to educate himself and become conversant with the French, German, and Italian languages, but to woo the muses with such success that he is within a stride of being classed in the front rank of Scottish poets.  The following homely verses from his pen will be read with interest:--


“The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht,
Wi’ muckle faucht and din;
O try and sleep ye waukrife rogues,
Your faither’s comin’ in.
They never heed a word I speak;
I try to gie a froon,
But aye I hap them up and cry,
‘O, bairnies, cuddle doon.’ 

“Wee Jamie wi’ the curly heid--
He aye sleeps next the wa’--
Bangs up an’ cries, ‘I want a piece’--
The rascal starts then a’.
I rin an’ fetch them pieces, drinks,
They stop awee the soun’,
Then draw the blankets up and cry,
“Noo, weanies, cuddle doon.’ 

“But ere five minutes gang, wee Rab
Cries oot fraw  ‘neath the claes,
‘Mither, mak’ Tam gie owre at ance,
He’s kittling’ wi’ his taes.’
The mischief’s in that Tam for tricks,
He’d bother half the toon;
But aye I hap them up an’ cry,
‘O, bairnies, cuddle doon.’

“At length they hear their faither’s fit,
An’ as he steeks the door,
They turn their faces to the wa’,
While Tam pretends to snore.
‘Hae a’ the weans been guid?’ he asks,
As he pits aff his shoon.
‘The bairnies, John, are in their beds,
An’ lang since cuddled doon.’ 

An’ just afore we bed oursel’s,
We look at oor wee lambs;
Tam has his airm roun’ wee Rab’s neck,
An’ RAb his airm roun’ Tam’s.
I lift wee Jamie up the bed,
An’ as I straik each croon,
I whisper, till my heart fills up,
‘O, bairnies, cuddle doon.’ 

“The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi’ mirth that’s dear to me,
But sune the big warl’s cark and care
Will quaten doon their glee.
Yet, come what will to ilka ane,
May He who sit aboon,
Aye whisper, though their pows be bauld,
‘O, bairnies, cuddle doon.’” 

Beyond Kirkconnell the scenery wears a moorland aspect, but the train speedily tears through it, and in an amazingly short space of time reaches Sanquhar--a compact, neartly built town with which Burns was familiar when journeying between Dumfries and Mauchline.  We have an account of one of his visits in a letter to Dr Moore.  “In January last, on my road to Ayrshire,” says he, “I had to put up at Bailie Wigham’s in Sanquhar, the only tolerable inn in the place.  The frost was keen, and the grim evening and howling winds were ushering in the night of snow and drift.  My horse and I were both much fatigued with the labours of the day, and just as my friend, the Bailie, and I were bidding defiance to the storm over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald; and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of a tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my favourite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles farther on through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock.”  Sanquhar also figures in the “Five Carlins,” a political ballad by Burns, and is referred to as 

“Black Joan, frae Chrichton Peel,
O’ gipsy kith an’ kin.” 

“Peel” is an old Scotch term for a castle or fortalice, and refers in this instance to the ruined stronghold of the Chrichtons, Lords of Sanqhar, which stands in a field at the end of the town, and is seen to great advantage from the railway.  During the War of Independence it passed through many vicissitudes and was the scene of man y sanguinary engagements between the English and Scotch.  There are many curious traditions connected with it, and one is that Sire William Douglas wrested it from an English garrison in the following ingenious manner:--It appears that he and his men concealed themselves in Crawick Glen, while John Dickson, disguised as a carter, approached it with a load of wood.  Having succeeded in disposing of it to the Governor, the portcullis was raised to admit him, but he no sooner entered than he jammed his cart within it, and sounded the onset with might and main.  The English being off their guard, Sire William and his men obtained an easy victory.  When possessed by the Scotch on one occasion, Robert de Clifford and Sir Henry Percy attempted to reduce it by starvation, and would have succeeded had not the valiant Wallace come to the assistance of the garrison.  The besiegers fled at his approach, but they were overtaken near Dalswinton, and in the engagement which followed 500 of them were slain.

Beyond Sanquhar the railway passes through a track of country unsurpassed for picturesque beauty. Having passed Carronbridge and Thronhill--both quiet villages--Closeburn is reached.  Streaching away on the east side of the line are Closeburn Hills amid which is the fine waterfall, Crichope Linn, and a cabe which tradition states was used by the Covernanters.  Sire Walter Scott seems to have been aware of its associations, for in “Old Mortality” he portrays it has the hiding place of the Balfour of Burley.  Burns was familiar with Closeburn.  He used to visit an inn at Brownhill, and made the landlord, whose name was Bacon, the subject of an impromptu effusion.  His friend, Kirsty Flint, also resided in Closeburn.  She was well acquainted with old music and ballads, and nothing delighted the poet better than to hear her sing her songs--indeed, he generally got her to “lilt” over any new effusion before giving it to the world.  A short distance from Closeburn is Auldgirth station.  Upon the train drawing up at it, I stepped on to the platform, a pilgrim in the land.  However, this added piquancy to the excursion, and was just the thing to gratify my love for adventure and sight-seeing.  Following the straggling passengers down a rather steep roadway, I entered the village--if village it can be called, for it only consists of a Gothic-like building called Auldgirth Hotel, and some two or three one-storeyed houses--and beheld a scene of bewitching beauty.  In front lay a fine alluvial holm through which the Nith winds like a silver thread, and from which verdant wood-draped, sheep-speckled hills raise in rugged grandeur.  Enraptured with the scene I wandered down a broad tree-shaded road, and in an ecstasy of delight listened to the water rippling beneath a stupendous ivy-mantled bridge and to the wild notes of a mavis and a blackbird, which sang an accompaniment in a neighboring thicket and with other warblers of the grove bade a vocal farewell to departing day.  The lowing of cattle and the shouts of a group of rompish children sounded in the distance with a strange captivating solemnity which lured me onward all unmindful of the fact that I had omitted to secure a lodging for the night.  Returning to the village, I entered the hotel and was delighted to find that the accommodation, although homely, was good, and completely belied the external appearance of the building.  Mr Emerie (for such is the name of the landlord), and his lady proved affable, obliging, and kindly, and I experienced n difficulty in being “put up” for the night; but the hours of the evening wore slowly away, and I was only too happy to be shown to the chamber assigned me.  I slept soundly, and when morning returned awoke to find that the sunbeams had entered the apartment and were streaming across the floor.  After partaking of a substantial, well-served breakfast, I took leave of mine host and started to visit those scenes in Dumfriesshire which the residence or muse of Robert Burns has rendered famous, but will not readily forget the hospitality of the inmates of Auldgirth Hotel.

I lingered a while at the bridge referred to, to take a farewell look at the lovely scene.  A short distance above it is the tree-embosomed mansion-house of Blackwood, the residence of an ancient Dumfriesshire family, who claim descent from Sir John Copland, a Northumbrian knight, who took David II. prisoner at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, and knocked out the monarch’s front teeth with the haft of his dagger in the struggle.  The father of Allan Cunningham, the celebrated Scottish poet, was gardener on this estate, and the house he lived in and in which his illustrious son was born stood under one of the fine yew trees lining the approach to the princely residence.  Small wonder it is the boy imbibed the spirit of poesy in such a retreat, for dull the eye must be that cannot behold the grand, the lofty, poetry of nature in the scenery.  The clear pebbly-bottomed stream glistened in the sunshine and purled from among the woods which stud the vale and deck the sides of the steep uplands, rolling on until concealed from view in a cleft of the verdant hills in the distance.

“How lovely, Nith, thy fruitful vales,
Where spreading hawthorns gaily bloom!
How sweetly wind thy sloping dales,
Where lambkins wanton through the broom!”

“Birds sang love on ilka spray,” and everything was fresh with the dew of the morning, but business and time were pressing and would not permit me to linger long in the locality. Moving slowly along the road I tapped at a cottage door to make sure that the right direction was being pursued.  It was opened by a smart girl, who, in answer to a query, called her father, a blythe old shoemaker, with spectacles on brown and a huge leather apron in front of him.  He was the real prototype of a village souter, and just the sort of man I was desirous of seeing; therefore, without formality, I made him aware that I was a stranger and anxious to gain information regarding the district, but more especially of the Poet’s residence in it.  Drawing himself up and pushing the spectacles higher on his forehead he said--”Weel, if it’s Burns you’re speerin’ aboot, there’s Friar’s Carse, the Hermitage, and Ellisland, doun the river there a bit, but there’s naething here about, I’m sorry to say, connected wi’ him.  Of course he was often here, and gaed alang this road when riding to or frae Machline, but that’s a’. Auld ruins?  Weel, there’s nane herawa’ except the tower whaur Lagg, the persecutor o’ the covenanters, leeved; it’s mang the hills yonder, but there’s nocht to be seen about it.  But up in yon wood by the river-side there’s the reamins o’ a Druidical temple; gin ye haud doun the bankin’ to the Carse it will be on your way, an’ ye should gag an’ see it.  Antiquarians dispute about it, for you see Glenriddle spoilt it by completing the circle wi’ new stane, but I’m inclined to think it genuine, for the basin that received the blood of the victim and let it rin into the earth is aye there.  You can get a glint o’ the Carse yonder at the bend o’ the river, so gin ye haud alang the bankin’ you’ll come to it, and anybody’ll let yo usee the Hermitage and Ellisland, for they’re a’ close heighten--’deed it hadna’ been ‘Preaching Saturday’ I’d gane wi’ you myself’, but I canna very weel get awa’.”  I was sorry for this, for such a campanion would have been invaluable. This specimen of the old man’s conversation is given that readers who may be inclined to follow my footsteps may have a knowledge of the route to be pursued and a slight idea of the antiquities to be met with.  Shoemakers are highly, intelligent as a class, but his one, “remote from towns,” and who “never changed nor wished to change his place,” is exceptionally so.  He proved himself conversant with the life and writings of Burns.  On no account will he allow the one or the other to be disparaging spoken of, and woe betide the man who is his presence dares

“To draw his frailties from their dread abode.”

In illustration of the Poet’s magnanimity and kindness of heart, he told me that his grandmother, who lived in the vicinity of Ellisland, “selt a dram without a license,” and carried on a very fair illicit trade.  This coming to the ears of the authorities, Burns received notice to call and make a seizure.  Before doing so, however, he sent a few hanks of yarn to the old lady with the intimation that she was to wind it speedily, for the gauger would call for it in the afternoon.  He went, but all exciseable commodities were removed, and he found nothing to reward the search.  This act of course lost a fine to the government but saved the woman. Following the path recommended, I held along the bank of the river until the plantation containing the Druidical remains were reached. It crowns the summit of a high embankment overlooking the stream, and commands a charming prospect of hills, dales, and leafy woods.  The place was somewhat “eerie,” and the dead leaves rustled strangely beneath my tread, but I had no difficulty in finding the whereabouts of the supposed temple, which consists of a circle of rudely-hewn stones set on end.  They are some five feet in height and ten apart, and surround a central one of somewhat larger proportions. Passing through the plantation, greatly to the dismay of its inhabitants, who sounded their notes of alarm as they flew from branch to branch, or bounded away in timorous haste to seek refuge in their burrows, I came to a low stone wall, which I cleared with a bound, and landed in a field. Holding along its edge, I entered a roadway, and after a short walk reached Friars’ Carse.

The mansion--a beautiful Gothic building--occupies the site of a monastic house, and is pleasantly situated in a wood-embosomed dell on the banks of the Nith.  The present proprietor has made an extensive and tasteful addition to the old residence, improved the grounds in its vicinity, and by the restoration of the Hermitage evinced an appreciation of the poetic genius inseparably associated with the estate.

When Burns tilled the soil of Ellisland, Friars’ Carse was the residence and property of Captain Riddle, a gentleman of taste, and an antiquary of some note, whose social disposition won many friends, but none were more welcome to his home that his gifted but less affluent neighbour, the Poet.  At his table Burns mad eth acquaintance of Captain Francis Grose, the antiquary--

“A fine fat fodgel wight,
O’ stature short, but genius bright”--

and was introduced to Maria Woodley, daughter of a governor of Berbice, and the wife of Glenriddle’s young brother, “a lady,” says the Rev. Hately Waddell, “of great beauty and spirit, with some fashionable foibles and perhaps follies incident to her sex, but many gifts and accomplishments also--one of the most favoured correspondents and heroines of our author, his friend, his adversary, and his enlogist.”  She gives graphic and affecting account of her last interview with the poet, which will be noticed in its proper place.Another lady of culture, whose society was enjoyed by Burns at Friars’ Carse, was a Miss Deborah Davis, a relative of Glenriddle, and the heroine of two of the poet’s songs.  She was of short stature, and from this circumstance was made the subject of the following epigram, which the bard uttered on being asked by a friend why God made her so little and the lady beside her so large--

“Ask why God made the gem so small,
And why so huge the granite?
Because God meant mankind should set
The higher value on it.” 

A rather romantic incident in the life of this lady deserves notice.  At an early age she fell in love with a Captain Delany, who, to all appearance, reciprocated the passion.

“He made himself acceptable to her by sympathizing in her pursuits and writing verses on her, calling her his Stella, an ominous name, which might have brought the memory of Swift’s unhappy mistress to her mind.”  Says Allan Cunningham:--”After offer of marriage was made and accepted, but Delany’s circumstances were urged as an obstacle; delays ensued; a coldness on the lover’s part followed; his regiment was called abroad; he went with it; she heard from him once and no more, and was left to mourn the change of affection--to droop and die.  He perished in battle or by a foreign climate soon after the death of the young lady, of whose love he was so unworthy.  The following verses on this unfortunate attachment form part of a poem found among her papers at her death.  She takes Delany’s portrait from her bosom, presses it to her lips, and says--

‘Next to thyself, ‘tis all on earth
Thy Stella dear doth hold;
The glass is clouded with my breath,
And as thy bosom cold--
That bosom which so oft has glowed
With love and friendship’s name,
Where you the seed of love first sowed
That kindled into flame. 

‘You there neglected let it burn;
It seized the vital part,
And left my bosom as an urn
To hold a broken heart.

I once had thought I should have been
A tender, happy wife,
And passed my future days serene
With the, my James, through life.’”

Beside these and other friendships, the mansion-house of Friars’ Carse is celebrated on account of a bacchanalian contest which took place in one of its rooms on the 16th October, 1789.  The prize was a little ebony whistle which a Danish champion of Bacchus in the train of Annie of Denmark brought to this country.  There was many a contest for its possession, for it appears that he was in the habit of laying it on the table at the commencement of a drinking bout, and whoever outdrank his companions and blew it when they were all under the table carried it off as a trophy.  After proving victor on many occasions, this champion of the bottle encountered Sir Robert Lawrie of Maxweltown, and defeated him after three days and three nights’ hard drinking.  The whistle afterwards came into the possession of Captain Riddle, who decided upon having a friendly contest for it at Friars’ Carse.  For that purpose he challenged Mr. Ferguson of Craigdarroch, and Sir Robert Lawrie of Maxwelton, and invited Burns to witness the fray.  The following affidavit graphically describes the proceedings:--

“Closeburn Hall, Dec. 2, 1841.

“I, Wm. Hunter, blacksmith, in Lake-head, parish of Closeburn, was, for three years and a half previous to my bein apprenticed to John Kilpatrick, blacksmith in Burnland, parish of Dunscore , servant to Capt. Robt Riddle, of Friars’ Carse, in Dumfriesshire.  I remember well the night when the Whistle was drunk for at Friars’ Carse by the three gentlemen--Sir Robert Lawrie, Mr. Ferguson of Craigdarroch, and Captain Riddle.  Burns the poet was present on the occasion.  Mrs. Riddle and Mrs. Ferguson of Craigdarroch dined with the above gentlemen.  As soon as the cloth was removed the two ladies retired.  When the ladies left the room, Burns withdraw from  dining table, and sat down in the window looking down the river Nith; a small table was before him.  During the evening Burns nearly emptied tow bottles of spirits--the one of brandy, the other of run--mixing them in tumblers with warm water, which I often brought to him not.  He had paper, pen and ink before him and continued the whole evening to write upon the paper.  He seemed, while I was in the room, to have a little conversation with the three gentlemen at their wine.  I think from what I could observe he was composing the ‘Whistle’ as he sat with his back to the gentlemen, but occasionally turned towards them.  The corks of the wine were all drawn by me, and it was claret the three gentlemen drank.  As far as I can recollect, I did not draw more than fifteen bottles of claret.  It was about sunrise when the two gentlemen were carried to bed. Craigdarroch never during the course of the night fell from his chair.  The other two gentlemen often fell, and had to be helped, with the assistance of Burns and myself, on to their chairs.  After Burns, myself, and the other servants now dead, had carried upstairs Sir Robert Lawrie and Captain Riddle, Craigdarroch walked himself upstairs without any help.  Craigdarroch then went into one bedroom where Sir Robert Lawrie was and blew stoutly the whistle; next he entered Captain Riddle’s bedroom and blew the whistle as stoutly there--Burns being present.  Burns, after had had seen and assisted the two above-named gentlemen to bed, walked home to his own farm-house of Ellisland, about a mile from Friars’ Carse.  He seemed a little the worse of drink, but quite able to walk and manage himself.  Burns often afterwards talked to me of the evening that was passed at Friars’ Carse when the whistle was drank for, and he told me again and again that he wrote the whole poem of the ‘Whistle’ that evening at Friars’ Carse.  Indeed, he filled that evening, I well recollect, four sheets of paper larger that the present one (large post) with writing, all of which he took home with him.  As I was apprentice to Kilpatrick, the blacksmith, who always shod Burns’ horses when he was Ellisland, I often saw Burns while I was shoeing his horses.  All the above particulars I am willing to verify on oath.


“December 2nd, 1841.”

It seems strange at this date that “three jolly good fellows”--one an elder of a church and another an M.P--could indulge to such excess, but then it was considered no breach of decorum to be “as drunk’s a gentleman,” or to fall from one’s chair overpowered by liquor at the festive board; and there is no apology required for Burns being present at such an orgie.

I would have had a peep at the room in which the contest took place and in which “The Whistle” was composed, but upon learning that the family were from home, I contented myself with a stroll through the grounds, and a right enjoyable one it was.

Accosting a man engaged in mowing grass, I enquired for the Hermitage.  Being told that its situation was on the verge of a neighboring wood, I acted on his advice, and sought out the head gardener.  He proved of a cheerful disposition, and so extremely obliging that he proffered to accompany me to the spot and give what information he could regarding it.

After climbing a steep ascent we entered the wood in question, but as we threaded a narrow path among the trees, a colony of crows in the branches over our heads began to caw! caw! caw! and raise a clamour as if indignant at the intrusion of their privacy.  I rather liked their din, and stopped now and again to watch their circuitous flight far above our heads, guessing the cause of their alarm to be that some objects of his murderous aim, for here and there among the grass lay numerous stiffened sable members of the fraternity.  Poor things! many had the appearance of having died in great agony, and lay crouched and cramped as they were when mercifully relieved from suffering by death.  I lifted a live but disabled one, but not before it seized my finger with its bill, and being accustomed to look upon man as a common enemy.  I did my utmost to assure it of the kindness of my intentions, but it was no use, and I could not do anything for it I laid it down saying--

“Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wanted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom pressed.”

Crows are certainly thieves, and, despite their black attire and gravity of mien, are not so just and upright as farmers desire, but if the safety of crops demand their partial destruction it should be gone about in a humane and efficient manner.

The Hermitage is situated in an obscure corner of the wood, and looks as somber as if it had not been visited for months.  It is a small modern-looking building of one storey with an inscription over its doorway stating that it was restored in 1874.  Previous to its restoration it was in ruins, and it says much for the present proprietor of Frairs’ Carse that it is in the present tidy condition.  The original building measured ten and a-half feet by eight, and was erected by Captain Riddle. When Burns came to Ellisland he delighted to wander by the Nith and through the grounds and woods of Friars’ Carse, a circumstance which probably induced the Captain to provide him with a key for the Hermitage, so that he could go in and out when he felt it convenient to do so.  He often retired to this retreat, and in its solitude under the character of bedesman, composed “Verses in Friar’s Carse Hermitage.”  He inscribed the first six lines on the window pane, but his--Robert Chambers informs us--”was removed on a change of proprietors, and being brought to sale at the death of an old lady in 1835 was purchased for five guineas.”

When the gate of the railed enclosure of the present retreat is thrown open the first thing that  attracts attention is the rigid form of a monk, with shaven crown, chipped nose, and folded hands, lying on its back at the entrance.  Possibly it is a remnant of the  “auld nick-nackets” which belonged to honest Glenriddle, and commemorates some holy friar whose name and qualifications are alike forgotten.  The little building contains a chair and small table, and is supplied with two windows and a fireplace.  The glass of one window bears the following in fac-simile of the poet’s handwriting:--

“To Riddle, much lamented man,
This ivied cot was dear;
Reader, dost value matchless worth?
This ivied cot revere.”

The glass of the other is inscribed in like manner, and bears the following lines:--

“Thous whom chance may hither lead,
Be thou clad in russet weed,
Be thou decked in silken stole,
Grave these counsels on thy soul.
Life is but a day at most,
Sprung from night, in darkness lost;
Hope not sunshine every hour,
Fear not clouds will always lower.
Stranger, go! Heaven be thy guide,
Quod the bedesman of Nithside.’”

Ellisland is a couple of fields distant from the Hermitage, and the instant I took leave of my obliging guide, I hastened towards it by way of the river bank, for it is close by, and accessible by scaling a low stone wall which appears to be as old as the wood it encloses. The Nith winds along its shallow pebbly shore, and the wide swelling verdant uplans which rise from its brink looked so fresh that they appeared like a portion of a newly-created world.  Despite a sense of loneliness I felt happy--happy as the bird in the brake, and why?  Because Burns traversed the same ground, and enjoyed the same scenery. Holding along a beaten path running through the grass I crossed a purling burnie by a rustic bridge, and passed along the margin of the river.  The difficulties of the way were many, but in spite of trailing bramble bushes which seized by legs and laid hold of my clothes, and of branches which brushed my face, I succeeded in reaching a steep tree-shaded path.  Ascending it I entered the farmyard of Ellisland, and looked curiously around.

These pictures show part of the New Cumnock flood plain which was once a vast loch holding Patrick Dunbar’s Cumnock Castle.

Castlemains Farm sits on a hill next to the River Afton, New Cumnock. There is a track, shown by the line of young trees, which crosses the river on its way to Cumnock Castle behind the farm.  The second section just shows the Python on the left, rising up into the hills behind Pathead, New Cumnock.  The middle picture shows a new hill made from earth taken from opencast workings on the horizon behind farm cottages.  The penultimate picture shows Craigdullyeart Hill on the left and Corsencon (Parnasus Hill) on the right, where the Python begins its journey.  The final picture shows the Nith valley, Dalhanna Hill and the eastern start of New Cumnock.

Our thanks to Geoff Crolley for the above pictures and notes.

Return to Book Index


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus