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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 2


MONKTON is eight miles from Kilmarnock and four from Ayr, and the weather-beaten thatch-covered buildings which constitute the village line both sides of the highway. Upon entering its street, I was struck by its quaint appearance, and more so by the picturesque, ivy-clad, ruined church which stands in a grass-covered burying place by the wayside. After availing myself of the hospitality which a village inn affords, I turned my attention to it; but although I rugged and tugged at the rusty iron gate guarding the entrance, it refused to yield, and in a quandary I began to look around. The next best apparent means of entering the sacred enclosure was by scaling the wall, and this I was in the act of doing when a villager drew my attention to an avenue a little farther down the road in which she stated a wicket would be found which would open to the touch. Following her directions it was soon discovered, and also the fact that the residence of the parish minister nestled in a secluded nook at the end of the shady path. Passing through the wicket, I reverently trod on the resting place of "the rude forefathers of the hamlet," and approached the ruined sanctuary adorning the centre of the little Golgotha. The polished ivy clung to the tottering walls, and clasped the stones with its sinewy-like tendrils, as if desirous of binding them together and warding off the assaults of time and decay.

The modest building appears to have been dedicated to Saint Cuthbert, but when or by whom it was erected is unknown. Blind Harry mentions it in his metrical biography of Wallace as the building in which the hero had a wonderful vision, which he narrates with considerable minuteness.

In making mention of Monkton church, Chalmers, the celebrated antiquary, says: "In 1227 Walter, the Bishop of Glasgow, made an ordinance respecting all the churches belonging to the monks of Paisley, within his diocese, whereby it was settled that the vicar of the Church of Saint Cuthbert should have, in the name of vicarage, six chalers of meal yearly, with the alterages…..In Bagimont's roll, as it stood in the reign of James V., the vicarage of Monkton was taxed £4, being a tenth of the estimated value." At the Reformation, when church property was very liberally sliced up and divided, Lord Claud Hamilton, the commendator of Paisley, obtained a grant of the patronage of Monkton Church and its tithes, along with other property which belonged to the monks. The old bell hanging in the western gable of the ruin is not only a curiosity, but evidences the Romish origin of the structure. It bears the following in raised letters:--"SANCTE CUTHBERTI ORA PRO NOBIS" (Saint Cutherbert pray for us), but no date. Although this relic has done duty for many centuries, it has not rested from its labours, but may be heard any Lord's day summoning the villagers to the house of prayer.

After the parished of Monkton and Prestwick were united, Monkton church was looked upon as the parish church proper, but the clergyman of the united parishes preached every third Sabbath in that of Prestwick. In 1834 both churches were suppressed by the Court of Tiends, and authority granted for the erection of a new church equally distant from both places. When this was done the structures were gutted and unroofed, and left to the mercy of the elements.

The Rev. Thomas Burns, son of Gilbert, the poet's brother, was the last clergyman who officiated in the old church at Monkton. He was tutor to Sir Hew Dalrymple of North Berwick, and afterwards minister of Ballantrae. For a series of years he so ably discharged the ministerial duties of Monkton that the parishioners still remember and speak of him with the outmost respect. He came out at the Dispuption, and was for some time minister of Protobello Free Church. In conjunction with Captain Cargill and others, he projected a Free Church settlement in Otago, New Zealand, and sailed from Greenock in the end of 1847 as minister of the first body of settlers. He afterwards became minister of the Scottish Church in Dunedin, and died there in the 75th year of his age, on the 23rd January, 1871, leaving a widow with one son and six daughters.

From the ruin I turned my attention to the heaving turf around it, and while wandering among the long grass here and there

"Read auld names on auld grave stanes
Grown grey in the auld Kirk yard."

The majority of the unassuming memorials are comparatively modern, and merely record the fact that the sleeper lived and died--but what of that?

"Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honor's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?"

Two stones with semi-obliterated inscriptions bear date 1608, but the most ancient has the following in yet legible characters:--"HERE LYS YIN VARY HONRIBLE MON, DAVIT BLAIR OF ADMONTOUN, SPOUS TO MARGET HAMILTON, QUO DECESIT, SETP., 1577." This relic was discovered buried several feet beneath the sward. It is now reared against the back gable of the old church, and forms not the least of the many curious objects to be met with in is vicinity.

When strolling through the tangled grass I stood on the hard turf which covers the dust of once affluent and somewhat famous James Macrae, a favourite of fortune, who, from a state of the most abject poverty, rose to the high position of Governor of the Presidency of Madras. No stone marks his resting place, nor was there at any time anything to protect his grave from desecration. It is situated close to a tombstone to the memory of an individual named Bryden and within a dozen paces of the manse offices, and about the same distance from the wicket which serves as a back entrance to the obscure place of sepulture. Some years ago a sexton met with the defunct Governor's coffin when scooping out agrave, and plundered it of its leaden casing, but in justice to the callous individual it may be stated that the silver plate on the lid was delivered up and handed to the Sheriff of Ayr, who, in his turn, handed it to the representatives of the deceased.

In the previous chapter a monument to the memory of this remarkable personage is referred to; but now that mention of his grave is being made, a brief sketch of his life may be appropriately introduced, for its incidents are not only singular, but go a great way to prove that truth in many instances is stranger than fiction. The date of his birth is unknown, but it is generally supposed that he was born about the close of the reign of merry King Charles, and that he was the son of a poor widow who resided in a thatched cottage in the vicinity of Ayr, and earned for herself and boy a miserable subsistence by washing and doing other odd work for her well-to-do neighbors. The pittance thus earned was occasionally increased by odd coppers which her son picked up by looking after cattle, running errands, and such like. While thus employed, and while knocking about in an Arab-like condition, he became acquainted with a Hugh M'Quire, [Next to nothing is know of this individual. Mr. John Shaw, attorney of the High Court of Justiciary, Madras, considers him to have been the husband of Isabella Gairdner, a daughter of Macrae's mother's brother; while Mr J. Talboys Wheeler, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the College of Madras, distinctly states, in his "Annals of James Macrae," that he was the husband of Macrae's sister. Another writer--the late Dr. Norman M'Leod--states that he was his stepfather; but the popular opinion is that he was no relation whatever. However, it is a matter of little importance.] a jobbing carpenter, and an accomplished player on the fiddle, whose musical talent was highly appreciated by the "hones men and bonnie lasses" of the district, for to the strains of his instrument they delighted to whirl on the light fantastic toe. This man took a fancy to the boy, and, although poor, put him to school and acted the part of a father towards him for some considerable time. This guardianship would have continued had the protégé not been caught in the pardonable offence of pilfering apples from an orchard and severley punished by the authorities. The disgrace being more than his proud spirit could bear, he no sooner obtained liberty than he stowed himself away on board an outward bound ship, and for forty years never set foot in "the auld toon," nor, it is believed, held any communication with his friends. The events of his seafaring life must for ever remain unknown, for nothing can be ascertained about him until thirty years after he had so suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from his native place. Then he is referred to in the records of the Madras Government as Captain Macrae, and from this it is surmised that he had risen to be master of a vessel engaged in the trade of that country and had sailed between China, Sumatra, and Pegu. However, by some means he got into the good graces of the government of his adopted country and was sent to the West Coast of Sumatra to reform abuses which prevailed in an English settlement. This he did to such good purpose that he effected in saving of £25,000 a year, and rendered services by executing reforms which promised to greatly increase the amount. For this display of business tact he was appointed Governor of Port St David, and shortly afterwards (1724) second member of Council at Fort George. On the 18th January, 1725, the washer-woman's fatherless boy took his seat as Governor of the Madras Presidency, which was at that time, and for half a century afterwards, the chief British settlement in India. The proceeding is thus recorded:--

"Monday, 18th January, 1725.--The President, James Macrae, Esq., opened this consultation by telling the board that as this was the first time of their meeting since his taking the chair, he thought it would not be improper to acquaint them with his resolutions, of which the principal was that he would prosecute the Company's interest to the utmost, and endeavour to remove the abuses that had crept into the management of their affairs. He added that he was determined not to interrupt in any manner the commerce of the place; but that all the inhabitants, both whites and blacks, the free merchants as well as the Company's servants, should have free liberty of trade, and that he should expect the same freedom from interruption in whatever he should undertake; that he would endeavour to be as agreeable to the gentlemen as any of his predecessors, but that he was determined to maintain the privileges and immunities belonging to the President; and he concluded by saying that he expected a ready assistance from them in the pursuit of the above resolutions, which was accordingly promised."

During his tenure of office the trade of the place prospered beyond all precedence, nothing being too insignificant or too arduous for his attention. In 1731, having amassed a vast fortune, Governor Nacrae sailed for England, and upon his arrival in Ayr sought out his benefactor, "Fiddler M'Quire," and from him learned that his mother had been dead for a considerable time. [I am inclined to think, from the time Macrae had been away, that the individual on whom he showered his wealth was a son of the violinist, for it is probable that his old friend had paid the debt of nature before his return, or he must have married a young woman very late in life.] The fiddler and his family were in very poor circumstances, and to relieve his immediate necessities his old protégé gave him £100. The joy of the musician and his better half was unbounded, and to celebrate the event she purchased many delicacies, amongst which was a loaf of sugar and a bottle of brandy. When the banquet was spread, the solid mass of sugar was scooped out and the hollow filled with the generous liquor, which they supped with spoons until they became "owre a' the ills o' life victorious," and soothingly sank on the floor into the arms of Morpheus.

Having no heirs, and being grateful for the kindness bestowed upon him when a boy, Macrae resolved to elevate the fiddler and his family. With this object in view he purchased Drumdow, a small estate in the parish of Stair, and presented it to his early benefactor, and afterwards sent his family--a son and three daughters--to the best boarding school he could find. In 1733 he was admitted a burgess of Ayr, and is styled in the records--"James Macrae, late Governor of Madras." In 1734 he presented the city of Glasgow with the handsome equestrian statue of King William which still adorns its Cross. It is well worth the attention of the visitor, for on its pedestal a long Latin inscription will be found which concludes thus--"PSUIT CIVIS STENNUUS ET FIDUS JACOBUS MACRAE, COLLONLE MADARASSIAN AE EXPRAEFECTUS. M.D. CCXXXV." This statue cost £3000, which says much for the Governor's admiration of "William of Immortal Memory." It may be also stated that the two old guns which protrude their rusty muzzles out of the causeway at its base blazed at the Battle of Boyne, and were handled with deadly effect by the "Protestant Boys." In 1736 the old veteran purchased the estate of Orangefield, and in 1739 that of Ochiltree. The latter cost £25,000. The same year he purchased and conveyed to James M'Quire, the fiddler's son, the barony of Houlston, on the condition that he ever afterwards assumed the name Macrae. The fiddler's three daughters were considered handsome. Elizabeth, the eldest, was married to William, thirteenth Earl of Glencairn, and received from the Governor as dowry the estate of Ochiltree and £45,000. The old gentleman took a deep interest in this match, but being seized with a severe illness before its consummation he sent for his medical adviser and inquired if he could keep him alive until the nuptials were performed. The doctor replying that he could not promise, Macrae raised himself in bed and exclaimed passionately--"Then d--- you and all your drugs!" He  did live, however, for the marriage took place in 1744, and he did not die until 1750.

This marriage did not prove happy, for it turned out that the Earl admired his wife's wealth more than her person, and it is supposed that the twittings he received from his equals about her humble birth heightened the dislike. Upon one occasion Lord Cassillis made some taunting allusions to his wife's origin, and concluded by remarking that he wondered that he so far forgot himself and his rank as to marry a fiddler's daughter. Without the least show of anger at the insult, the Earl coolly said--"Yes, my lord; and one of my father-in-laws's favourite tunes was 'The Gipsies cam' to Lord Cassillis' yett.'" The repartee was pointed, for it will be observed that it referred to a frail but famous Countess of Cassillis who eloped with a gipsy named Johnny Faa. It is said that the Earl purchased the estate of Kilmarnock with his wife's dowry, and formed the fine street bearing his name.

James, the second son of the above marriage, became fourteenth Earl of Glencairn in 1775, and died unmarried in 1791. It was he who befriended the poet Burns, and it was on his death that the bard wrote the celebrated lament which concludes with the pathetic lines:--

"Thou found'st me, like the morning sun,
That melts the fogs in limpid air;
The friendless bard and rustic song
Became alike thy fostering care.

"Oh! why has worth so short a date?
While villains ripen grey with time;
Must thou, the noble, generous, great,
Fall in bold manhood's hardy prime!
Why did I live to see that day?
A day to me so full of woe;
Oh! had I met the mortal shaft
Which laid my benefactor low!

"The bridegroom may forget the bride
Was made his wedded wife yestreen;
The monarch may forget the crown
That on his head an hour has been;
The mother may forget the child
That smiles sae sweetly on her knee;
But I'll remember thee, Glencairn,
And a' that thou hast done for me!"

Margaret, the second daughter of "Fiddler M'Quire," married in 1749 James Erskine of Barjarg, advocate. He was elevated to the bench as one of the Lords of Session in 1761, and took the title of Lord Tinwald. His wife's dowry was expended in the purchase of the estate of Alva. Macrae M'Quire, the third daughter, was married to Charles Dalrymple, Sheriff-Clerk of Ayrshire, and received from the Governor as dowry the estate of Orangefield and a handsome sum of money.

At the death of the fiddler's son, the estate of Houlston devolved upon his son, "Captain" John Macrae. He walked not in the footsteps of his father, for he was know in fashionable circles as a libertine, bully, and professional duellist; and he ultimately to fly the country for the killing of Sir George Ramsay of Edinburgh in the settlement of an affair of honour. A story is told which aptly illustrates the character of the man. A servant having committed a mistake, in an outburst of passion he struck him a violent blow in the face. "Were you my equal," said the menial indignantly, "I'd make you smart for that." "Would you?" replied Macrae with a scornful sneer. "I would," answered the man. "Oh, very well, if it's boxing you mean I'll give it to you to your heart's content; but remember, you mustn't hit me on the face." This was agreed to, and both retired to a secluded part of the garden, where they fought with much bitterness; but the bully, finding that he had for once met his match, and was likely to get himself severely punished, cried "Hold!" and declared himself satisfied with what he had received. "There," said Macrae, as he handed the servant five guineas, "take that; you are a piece of capital stuff." "Thank you," replied the man, quite astonished at the result of the combat, "and if it please your honour I'll take a thrashing every day for the same amount."

As I closed the wicket of Monkton Churchyard, and stepped into the avenue, I felt sad, sad--for beneath the turf which my feet had pressed innumerable beings moulder and silently fulfil the immutable decree which pronounces man to be dust, and declares that to dust he must return. What  wisdom, valuable experience, misery, injustice, wrong, and misfortune lie buried in the bosom of mother earth! But we are comforted by the ennobling faith in immortality--the knowledge that the thinking something in man survives the silence of the grave--and this ray of hope illumes the dark hours of terrestrial existence.

Thoughts like these occupied my mind as I strolled towards the manse-a plain two-storied building, delightfully situated in a tastefully laid out plot of ground. At present (1878) it is the residence of the Rev. W.F. Lorraine, minister of the united parishes of Monkton and Prestwick, but was for thirty-four years that of his predecessor, the Rev. George James Lawrie, D.D., a grandson of the worthy minister of Loudoun, who was the means of introducing Burns to the literati of Edinburgh, and whose intercourse with the bard is noticed at length in another chapter. Being long in delicate health, he resigned his charge and removed to Elm House, Hythe, Kent, the residence of a very near and dear relative, and there "fell asleep" on the morning of the 14th February, 1878, in the 82nd year of his age. Like Goldsmith's preacher,

"To relieve the wretched was his pride,
and e'en his failings leaned to virtue's side;
But in his duty, prompt at every call,
He watched and wept, he prayed and felt for all;
And, as a bird each fond endearment tries
To temp its new-fledged offspring to the skies,
He tried each art, reproved each dull delay,
Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way."

He was not only sensible, upright, and kind-hearted, but possessed a highly-cultured mind, as his Songs and Miscel laneous Pieces (which, undoubtedly, will perpetuate his name) amply testify. The following popular lines by the worthy Doctor will awaken an echo in every heart:--

Tune--"John Peel."

Hae ye mind o'lang, lang syne,
When the simmer days were fine,
And the sun shone brighter far
Than he's ever dune syn syne?
Do you mind the Hag Brig turn,
Whaur we guddled in the burn,
And were late for the schule in the morning'?

Do ye mind the sunny braes,
Whaur we gathered hips and slaes,
And fell among the bramble busses,
Tearin' a' our claes;
And for fear they would be seen
We gaed slippin; hame at e'en,
But were licket for our pains in the morning'

Do ye mind the miller's dam,
When the frosty Winter cam'.
How we slade upon the curlers' rink
And made their game a sham;
When they chased us through the snaw
We took leg-bail ane and a',
But we did it o'er again in the morning'?

What famous fun was there,
Wi' our games at houn' and hare,
When we played the truant frae the schule
Because it was the fair;
And we ran fraw Patie's mill
Through the woods on Winny Hill,
And were feart for the tawse in the morning'.

Where are those bright hearts noo
That were then so leal and true?
Oh! some hae left life's troubled scene,
Some still are struggling thro',
And some hae risen high
In life's changeful destiny,
For they rose wi' the lark in the morning'.

Now life's sweet Spring is past,
And our Autumn's come at last,
Our Simmer day has passed,
And Life's Winter;s coming fast;
But though Iang its nights may seem
We shall sleep without a dream
Till we wauken on yon bright Sabbath morning'.

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