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Rambles Through the Land of Burns
Chapter 20


Dumfries is a town of pleasing aspect, its streets being regularly built and its outskirts studded with handsome villas.  It possesses a provost, three bailies, and a town council; and its population, including that of Maxweltown-a suburb separated from it by the Nith, but connected by bridges, parliamentary interest, and trade-is 19,500.  Formerly it was only notable as a great rural mart and a place of residence for the gentry of the district, but since the Glasgow and South-Western Railway, and the southern section of the Caledonian, have brought it into connection with the entire railway system of the country, its commercial prosperity has been marked, and it is now one of the chief seats of tweed manufacture in Britain.  Besides this industry, engineering, iron founding, basket-making, tanning, and other trades are carried on with great spirit, and afford employment to hundreds of the inhabitants.  The river being navigable until within a short distance of the town, an extensive coasting trade is carried on by vessels of a good size, and also a foreign trade, which is chiefly in timber from America.  The imports are principally hemp, tallow, coals, iron, tea, and wine; and the exports cattle, sheep, barley, oats, potatoes, wool, wollen goods, and freestone.

Dumfries contains thirteen places of worship, nine banking establishments, and many really handsome building.  It also forms the scene of many a border story, and not a few interesting historic incidents; but as a minute account of these would be out of place, I will resume the narrative and merely call the reader’s attention to notable objects and places met with n the course of a walk to the grave of him

“Who lives upon all memories,
Though with the buried gone.” 

Entering Dumfries from the Maxweltown side of the river by the New Bridge one cannot fail to be impressed with the magnificent street in front and the beautiful buildings by which it is lined.  Being more intent in this instance, however, on viewing the ancient than the modern portion of Dumfries, I turned into an open space on the bank of the river which lead to the Dock Green, a once favourite promenade of or poet.  The scene, although commonplace, is pleasing.  Spanning the river a little below the new is the old bridge, a ponderous old-fashioned narrow structure resembling the Auld Bridg o’ Ayr, not only in appearance but from the circumstance that it has withstood the floods and weathered the blasts of six centuries and is now fated to bear no heavier burdens than what may be imposed by occasional pedestrians.  Devorgilla, daughter of Allan, Lord of Galloway, and widow of Baliol, Lord of Barnard Castle, has the merit of its erection, and also the founding of a monastery for Grey Friars, which she endowed with the bridge customs.

This institution stood at the top of Friars’ Vennel (an antique thoroughfare opposite the bridge), and is historic on account of Bruce having slain Comyn beside its high altar.  Near to it was the Castle of Dumfries, a stronghold of great importance which underwent many vicissitudes in the olden time owing to its nearness to the debateable ground between England and Scotland; but, like its ecclesiastical neighbour, no vestige of it remains, and its site is now occupied by a building dedicated to the worship of God and the brotherhood of man.

After gazing curiously up the vennel, and watching the water of the river as it rumbled over a beautiful weir and churned itself into fleecy foam in its haste, I entered Bank Street, and paused before a humble three-storied tenement near its left corner and read the following on a stone tablet on the front of its second floor: --”ROBERT BURNS, THE NATIONAL POET, LIVED IN THIS HOUSE WITH HIS FAMILY ON COMING TO DUMFRIES, FROM ELLISLAND, IN 1791.”

Venturing into the low-roofed, causewayed, narrow passage, leading into its interior, I climbed a badly-lighted ricketty stair, and tapped at the front door on the landing, and while I did so, wondered why Burns and his Jean began life anew in such an abode.  Receiving no respone, I renewed the tapping, but this time in a more authorities manner.  “She’s no’ in,” said a woman whom I passed in the entry.  “Is this the house in which Burns lived?” said I.  “O aye, an’ gin ye come doon you’ll see the windows,” she replied, as she led the way and pointed them out.  “It was at that ane,” she went on, pointing to the mid one, “that he wrote a lot o’ his sangs an’ poetry, an’ mony a look folk has at it on that account, but mair especially since the stane wi’ the reading’ on’t was put up.”  “Do you not think this a very humble dwelling for such a great poet as Burns to have in?” I enquired.  “There’s nae doubt aff, an’ had but little to come an’ gang wi’ when he left Wllisland--hoo-ever, the house is no what it was when he leeved in’t, for it’s a’ gaun tae wrack for want o’ repair.”  Chambers states that “the first eighteen months of Burns’ life in Dumfries present him occupying a very small dwelling on the first floor of the house in Wee Vennel (now Bank Street).  He has three small apartments, each with a window to the street, besides, perhaps, a small kitchen in the rear.  The small central room, about the size of a bed closet, is the only place in which he can seclude himself for study.  On the ground-floor, immediately underneath, his friend John Syme has his office for the distribution of stamps.  Overhead is an honest blacksmith, called George Huagh, whom Burns treats on a familiar footing as a neighbour; on the opposite side of the street is the poet’s landlord, Captain Hamilton, a gentleman of fortune and worth, who admires Burns and often asks him to family Sunday dinner.”  While residing in this tenement, Burns composed some of his most popular dities, among which may be enumerated-- “The Soldier’s Return, “ “Duncan Gray, “ Mickle thins my love o’ my beauty,” “What can a young lassie do wi’ an auld man?” “Last May a braw wooer cam’ doon the lang glen,” “My heart is sair, I  daurna tell,” “Wandering Willie,” “My wife’s a winsome wee thing,” “Flow gently, sweet Afton,” “My love is like a red, red rose,” “Scots wha ha’e,” Auld Langsyne,” “A man’s a man for a’ that,” and a host of others, which in themselves would have been sufficient to stamp him a lyric poet of the first order.  John Syme’s office is now that of a grain mill in the vicinity, and the house of Captain Hamilton has given place to a handsome modern building.

After lingering by this song-hallowed building, I passed up Bank Street, and entered the main artery of the town.  Notwithstanding its irregular construction it is spacious, and contains building and places of business equal to any in the principal streets of large cities.  One distinctive feature in the scene is a church-like erection termed, “The Mid Steeple,” which appears to stand most inconveniently in the centre of the street.  So far as I could learn, its history is void of interest, and to all appearance, it is of not great antiquity.  While viewing this populous thoroughfare my eye caught the signboard of the King’s Arms Hotel, a house that Burns occasionally frequented, and in which he scrawled the following veselet on a pane of glass while irritated by some sneering remarks whicha company of gentlemen made in his presence about officers of the excise:--

Ye men of wit and wealth, why all this sneering
‘Gainst poor excisemen? Give the cause a hearing.
What are your landlords’ rent-rolls? Taxing ledgers.
What premiers, what? even monarchs’ mighty gaugers.
Nay, what are priests, those seemingly godly wisemen?
What are they, pray, but spiritual excisemen?”

A short walk along High Street brought me to a quaint looking building in which there is a narrow, dark, uninviting passage surmounted by a gilded globe and a portrait of the poet bearing the superscription--”Burns’s Howff.”  It was the celebrated Glove, a taver fatally familiar to him, whose name is by far too often made use of to stimulate trade.  Venturing up the subterranean-like retreat I beheld a long strip of a dimly lighted causewayed path, in which two men might with difficulty walk abreast.  ON either side rose lofty, black-looking buildings, but one close to the entrance, with a flight of stone steps leading to its open door, riveted my attention.  Mounting the steps--steps often pressed by the poet’s feet-- I found myself in a gloomy, kitchen-like apartment, partly lighted by the gleam of a fire burning in a cosy corner; but had scarce time to look around when a smart, neatly-dressed lady made her appearance, and ushered me into a room on the left, in which two young men were complacently chatting over their beer.  Refreshments being placed before me, I began to look around. The apartment appeared to be some eighteen feet by twelve, and the ceiling and paint-faded paneled walls dingy and dim.  In the centre of the floor stood a table, surrounded with common chairs, but the most interesting feature was an old-fashioned armed chair by the fireside, directly beneath an inscription informing visitors that it stands in what was, and still is, “Burns’s corner.”  Often has the wainscoating of this apartment rung with his laughter and echoed the melody of his midnight song when seated in his favourite corner--the life, the soul, the alpha, and the omega of the company.  Thousands visit the tavern annually, and few leave the premises without sitting down in the poet’s chair.  Many do so with levity, but for my part, I did it with reverence and sorrow for him who

“Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the friendly glow
And softer flame”

of love and universal brotherhood.

I have a peculiar habit of making myself at home wherever I go, and some how or other I found my way into the kitchen and the good grace of the worthy landlady--indeed, like Tam o’ Shanter and the browster wife in Ayr, we “grew gracious,” and the result was that she conducted me up stairs and showed me everything in her possession associated with the poet’s name, and for her courtesy I tender thanks.  On a pane of glass in the window of a bedroom on the second floor, the following verse is inscribed in the unmistakable handwriting of the poet:--

“O lovely Polly Stewart,
O charming Polly Stewart,
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.”

And on an adjoining one in the same manner:

“Gin a body meet a body,
Coming through the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing’s a bodie’s ain.”

The inscriptions quoted are believed genuine, but one on another pane, as being of a doubtful character, I decline to give.  The Glove Tavern has undergone very little change since the days of Burns; indeed, the doors, windows, floors, and paneling are unaltered, and it may be stated that the present hostess--who is in her way an enthusiastic admirer of the poet--has collected several relics of him and his family which she exhibits with pardonable pride; but as an enumeration of them is unnecessary, it will be sufficient to state that they chiefly consist of two jugs and a basin bought at the sale of the poet’s household effects, and a punch-bowl recently purchased by her for the sum of ten guineas.

Like the before-mentioned vessels, it is common earthenware, but so much shattered that it is held together by ten clasps, a number, as I jocularly remarked, symbolically representing the price paid for it.

When Burns frequented the Glove it was kept by a John Hyslop and his wife Meg.  Their frail niece, whom the poet has celebrated in the song “Yestreen I had a pint o’ wine,” acted as barmaid, and in the capacity became familiar with him.  This familiarity, however, it is to be deplored, exceeded the bounds of chastity during a temporary residence of Mrs Burns in Mauchline, and resulted in the birth  of a child.  No event in the whole course of Mrs Burn’s life displayed the noble qualities of her mind to greater advantage than this trying incident, for she not only forgave her repentant husband, but took the helpless babe home and brought it up as one of their own children.  In fact, when her father glanced at the cradle and asked in surprise if she had again had twins, she screened her husband by the statement that the second baby was that of a sick friend. [This child was named Elizabeth, and resided with Mrs Burns until her marriage.  She became a Mrs Thomson, and lived to see the celebration of her father’s Centenary.]

To redeem this sad association with the Globe, another of a humorous cast may be narrated. “Nicol and Masterton had come to spend a week of their vacations at Dumfries, for the purpose of enjoying the society of their friend Burns.  The scene of the Peck o’ Maut was renewed every evening in the Globe Tavern.  Excepting, indeed, that Burns attended to his duty in the forenoon, and that Willie and Allan took a rattling walk before dinner, to give themselves an appetite, it might be said that the week was one entire chrysolite of merry-making.  One day, when they were to dine at the Globe, they found on coming in at three that no dinner had been ordered.  As Burns had taken on himself this duty, the fault was his, and the other two gentlemen were wroth with him accordingly.  ‘Just like him,’ quoth Mrs Hyslop; ‘ye might hae kent that he’s ne’er to lippen to.’ ‘Weel, but can we have anything to eat?  You know that we must dine somehow.’  Mrs Hyslop, or as Burns called her, Meg, proved propitious.  There was a tup’s head in the pot for John and herself; and, if they pleased, they might have the first of it. Now a good tup’s head with the accompanying trotters--seeing that, in the Scottish cuisine, nothing is taken off but the wool--is a dish which will amply satisfy six or even eight persons, so it was no contemptible resource for the hungry trio.  When it had been disposed on the board, ‘Burns,’ said Nicol, ‘we fine you for neglect of arrangements: you give us something new as a grace.’  Our poet instantly, with appropriate gesture and tone, said:--

‘ O’ Lord, when hunger pinches sore,
Do thou stand us in stead;
And send us from thy bounteous store,
A tup or wether head!  Amen.” 

They fell to and enjoyed the fare prodigiously, leaving, however, a miraculously ample sufficiency for the host and hostess. ‘Now, Burns, we are not done with you.  We fine you again.  Return thanks.’  He as promptly said:--

‘O Lord, since we have feasted thus,
Which we so little merit,
Let Meg now take away the flesh,
And Jock bring in the spirit!  Amen.’”

Upon taking leave of the inmates of the Globe Inn, I held along the gloomy, unsavory passage, and in a short time emerged into a commonplace thoroughfare named Shakespere Street.  Pausing, I accosted a young man and asked in what part of the street Burns was found lying on the fatal morning he quitted the Globe Inn. “There,” said he, as he pointed to the portion of the roughly-causewayed footway at the mouth of the passage, “that is said to be the place.”  He spoke in a careless, matter-of-fact manner; but to me the spot was invested with a very painful interest, and I gazed upon it with feelings of the deepest regret for this humiliating incident in the Poet’s life.

It appears that that early in the month of January, 1796, when barely recovered from a severe illness, Burns ill-advisedly joined a jovial party in the Globe Inn, and tarried till about three in the morning. “Before returning home.” says the writer quoted above, “he unluckily remained for some time in the open air, and, overpowered by the effects of the liquor he had drunk, fell asleep.  In these circumstances, and in the peculiar condition to which a severe medicine had reduced his constitution, a fatal chill penetrated to his bones. He reached home with the seeds of a rheumatic fever already in possession of his weakened frame.  In this little accident, and not to the pressure of poverty or disrepute, or wounded feeling or a broken heart, truly lay the determining cause of the sadly shortened days of our great National Poet.”

Nearly opposite the entrance of the Globe Inn passage in Shakespere Street is a crooked, common-looking narrow thoroughfare named Burns’s Street.  Entering it I rounded an abrupt turn, and having paced a few yards of a steep roadway, stopped in front of a respectable two-storied house on the left, which I at once recognized as that in which Burns died.  In the wall of the building next to it there is a bust of the poet and a stone bearing this inscription:--


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