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

Robert Burns Lives!
A Forgotten Hero By Clark McGinn

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

We come today to pay tribute to the man responsible, more than anyone else, for us celebrating our annual Burns Suppers all over the world. He has been a hero of mine for many years, and I usually get around to mentioning him a wee bit when I speak at Burns Suppers or meetings. I do not believe he could foresee that he was starting a movement that would grow internationally and involve millions of people over the years. This remarkable man was the Rev. Hamilton Paul.

I know of no one more fitting to talk about Hamilton Paul that our friend Clark McGinn who has traveled more miles to speak on Burns than anyone else in history. You may think that is an inaccurate statement, but try and name another individual who, in the last seven years, has traveled 166,000 miles (6.7 times round the globe) to deliver 100 speeches on Burns in 26 cities in 13 countries, and all of them carbon neutral!

I have tried several times through my research to find a picture of Hamilton Paul, beginning with Clark and followed by Gerry Carruthers at the University of Glasgow, Patrick Scott at the University of South Carolina, and Alastair McIntyre, editor/owner of – all to no avail. If any of our readers are aware of a photo of Rev. Paul, please send it or any related information to me and I will see that it is placed with this definitive article by Clark and full pictorial credit will be given to the sender.

Thank you, Clark, for the time and energy spent on researching and writing your article on Rev. Paul for the pages of Robert Burns Lives! - I’m sure it will surface in other magazines or chronicles. You did him proud, and we are proud of you sharing this article with our readers! (FRS: 5.30.12)

By Clark McGinn

In the history of commemorating the life and works of Robert Burns, many names jump out: we remember national leaders and statesmen who contributed great speeches to his memory such as Abraham Lincoln or Lord Rosebery;  or churchmen who found solace in his words, including Henry Ward Beecher or Martin Luther King; there were those who found Burns in the land, as did Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir; we live with the ever growing  army of memorialists, biographers, sculptors, founders of Burns Clubs and the Burns Federation, in particular Colin Rae-Brown; and after a long period of academic neglect, a growing band of keen scholars.

There is one name, which should be shouted from the thatched roof of Burns Cottage, commemorated in countless Standard Habbie verses, and have his likeness engraved on the back page of every Burns Supper programme, yet, this engaging and interesting character is hardly known at all.

His name? The Reverend Hamilton Paul.

His gift to the world? The Burns Supper.

When the nine million or more folk who slice open a haggis and toast the Immortal Memory around Burns’s birthday on 25th January each year, a tiny handful know that they are following a ritual created by this forgotten Scottish clergyman.  And I for one would like to make amends to my fellow Ayrshire-man.

In 1773 while our Poet was travailing on the fields of Mount Oliphant and first thinking of verse and Nelly Kirkpatrick, a boy was born in Bargany, Near Cumnock (Carrick’s ancient capital) to Mrs John Paul the wife of manager of the Duke of Hamilton’s coal mines. This firstborn was christened after his father’s employer and in that guise, young Hamilton Paul made his first and not last into the records of the Kirk. By coincidence, after the Pauls moved, another famous minor poet – excuse the oxymoron - Hew Ainslie was born in the same cottage nineteen years after. This man was to emigrate to the USA and became one of the great promoters of Burns’s memory as a living example to the spirit of democracy and manifest destiny. Ainslie died in Louisville KY in 1878.

Hamilton was a bright lad and excelled at his books such that his father sent him up to The University of Glasgow and where he made lifelong friendship with a classmate called Thomas Campbell, one of the great Nineteenth century poets (although very out of fashion today). The poet and the poetaster treated, complimented, and debated with each other in rhyme – but when it came to their greatest poetic tussle – the University’s gold medal for poetic composition, it wasn’t the bookmakers favourite Campbell who carried the prize, it was the professors’ favourite, the charming Hamilton.

This untoward result made no difference to the two men and their friendship, who upon graduating took the then common role of tutoring in wealthy families, which left good time for the friends to correspond. After this pedagogic period, Paul went back to Glasgow to study Divinity, taking his Bachelor of Divinity degree and returning south to his home county in 1800. He couldn’t find a full time ministry – that needed patronage – so he took the post of assistant minister in the parish of Coylton (a village to the East of Ayr, traditionally supposed to have been the seat of ‘Old King Cole’ of nursery rhyme fame) but the records do not seem to show this as a particularly arduous role, even though the minister, Revd David Shaw was in his eighties, and it was the accumulation of free time which allowed Hamilton to join in the busy social life of a thriving market town like Ayr. 

Looking back at those halcyon days, his obituary recalled that the young reverend not only juggled with teaching French and Latin to five families, and covered the pulpit for a similar number of the Ayr Ministers, he:

was whirled about in a perpetual vortex of business and pleasure, never a single day without company at home or abroad. If he could obtain three or four hours sleep, he was satisfied. He was a member of every club, chaplain to every society, had a free ticket to every concert and ball, and was a welcome guest at almost every table.

And on all these occasions, his wit, good nature and facile poetry gained him many friends (and a fair few free dinners!) Most of his poetry was literally ephemeral – a thought or sentiment captured on a day, scribbled on a scrap of paper or a napkin, recited to the cheers of the diners, concertgoers or presbyters, then lost on the wind.  Again, with hindsight his obituarist remembered:

Volumes might be filled with selections from Mr. Paul's poetical compositions. They are to be found scattered over magazines, reviews, and newspapers, for upwards of sixty years. He wrote on every kind of subject, and in every species of measure. His compositions are characterised by great elegance, but they exhibit versatility of talent and facility of versification rather than capacity to reach the higher flights of poetry.

His felicity with words prompted his muse to exercise herself on many subjects: the rolling Ayrshire countryside, the glory of the Psalms, the joys of friendship. His enquiring mind though drew him to some rather more unusual topics including the wisdom of teaching girls physics (‘First and Second Epistles to the Female Students of Natural Philosophy in Anderson's Institution’), in advocating new developments in healthcare (‘Vaccination, or Beauty Preserved, a poem), or a hymn to the art of making Ayrshire’s famous Dunlop Cheese. The combination of love of both food and county makes this a typical Paul poem:

On Tuesday morning at the peep of light,
Take all the milk that has stood overnight,
and, by the lustre of the dawning beam,
With a clean clam shell, skim off all the cream,
And from her lazy bed the dairy maid
Be sure to rise, and call her to your aid;
With rosy cheeks and hands as soft as silk,
Bid her hang on the pot and warm the milk,
Let not her heat it with too great a lowe,
But make it tepid, as warm from the cow;
Restore the cream, and put in good strong steep,
But through the molsy first let the milk dreep.
Now pay a due attention to my words;
And press, O gently press, the snow white curds;
Nor mash them small, (now mark well what I say)
Till you have squeez'd out almost all the whey.
Light be the weight for hours, one, two, or three,
And then the pressure may augmented be,
Oft change the clouts, and when the cheese is dried,
Send for the Parish Minister to try't.

His love of writing pressed him to submit his longer works to the press, and in 1810, Peter Wilson (the brother of Wilson the printer of the Kilmarnock Edition) was a sick man seeking retirement and he offered the editorship and majority shareholding of The Ayr Advertiser to Paul, who snapped up the opportunity. For three years he relished the role – the recorder of the comings and goings of his town and the attendant country parishes, adding historical and regional essays to the news and views, amidst the ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’ that are still the core of that paper’s appeal to the people of  Ayr today.

In 1813 his hard work paid off, as a local landowner Richard Oswald (whose grandfather was the largest slave dealer in Scottish history and whose granny was the Mrs Oswald whom Burns horribly lampooned when he was thrown out of an inn to make way for the poor lady’s funeral party) had interests in the Borders and presented Hamilton to the charge of Minister of the trifold parishes of Broughton, Glenholm and Kilbucho, in Peebles-shire. Now facing the responsibilities of a real parish and the duties attendant on his own pulpit, Paul had to pack up his comfortable life in Ayr, selling his shares in the advertiser for a whopping £2,500 and in a final happy jeu d’esprit, preaching his farewell sermon to the ‘honest men and bonnie lasses’ of Ayr on the text :Acts of the Apostles chapter XX, verse 37.

(In case you have forgotten the quotation it is: ‘And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck’ – he did have the sense not to finish the verse which concludes ‘and kissed him’).

He packed his clerical bags and decamped to the beautiful Borders, setting up his convivial home round a cheery heath and a welcoming table in Broughton Manse, where he ministered to the spiritual, poetical and culinary needs of his happy flock until he died on 28th February, 1854, a well-loved bachelor minister (he poetically proposed to the landlady of the ancient Crook Inn – the poet Hogg’s local pub and a bar which had Burns, Scott and century later John Buchan as regulars, but his versicles were insufficient to turn Jenny’s head). Looking at his life, he appears almost a walk-on character in a novel by Sir Walter Scott and in death, true to form, he sleeps under a crazy monument ornamented extravagantly with a cherub, a lyre and sheaves of poetic his ephemeral compositions.

A thousand words into this essay, and I hear the reader say – might have been nice to meet him, bet you the poetry got a bit dull after a while , but he’d make sure your glass was full. But why is he anything important – there are hundreds of dead and eccentric ministers – why choose this one?

Fair point, dear reader, the great centre of Paul’s life and the reason he is one of my heroes (and I hope will be one of yours after reading this) is that as a poet, and a ‘New Licht’ (reform-minded) minister, Hamilton Paul was an avid reader of Robert Burns’s works.  So in 1801 when ex-Provost John Ballantine, Burns’s old patron, decided to mark the fifth anniversary of the poet’s early death with a Memorial Dinner, he asked two friends to persuade Hamilton Paul to make the arrangements. And this it was that on 21st July, 1801 in the ‘But’ of the Burns Cottage in Alloway, Reverend Hamilton Paul invited eight men to convene and eat dinner in memory of their poetic friend, in a way that seems so modern, so recognisable to us:

These nine sat down to a comfortable dinner, of which sheep's head and haggis formed an interesting part. The 'Address to the Haggis’ was read, and every toast was drank by three times three, i.e., by nine

Hamilton Paul had invented the Burns Supper.  He used concepts familiar to him as a Scottish Freemason, and took themes from the poet’s own like to create this memorable commemoration. The guests were very happy: Ballantine and ‘Orator Bob’ Aitken (to whom RB had dedicated the Brigs of Ayr and The Cottar’s Saturday Night respectively); Patrick Douglas of Garallan (who found him that damnable job in Jamaica); David Scott (the banker who had been arbiter for RB’s father’s dispute with his landlord); William Crawford (whose father employed the poet’s father); Captain Primrose Kennedy (who had been ambushed with Braddock, and invalided out after Bunker Hill); Thomas Jackson (the Rector of Ayr Academy) and Captain Hugh Fergusson, the barrackmaster of Ayr.

Before breaking up, the company unanimously resolved that the Anniversary of Burns should be regularly celebrated, and that H. Paul should exhibit an annual poetical production in praise of the Bard of Coila, and that the meeting should take place on 29th January, the supposed birthday of the Poet

And in the interval, Hamilton Paul wrote reports for the papers starting an annual event which took hold, as we well know, not just in Alloway, but through the West of Scotland and out to the whole world, each dinner following Paul’s blueprint of haggis, toasts and poems. For the toast to Burns – what we now call ‘the Immortal Memory’ – Paul started a tradition of writing a poetic tribute (and he was known as the ‘poet laureate’ of the Allowa’ Club) and to modern ears, this is a tradition that will not be missed. While we applaud the sentiments, the style seems at least quaint, and maybe simply awful.

He wrote the first nine Odes and attended each Supper (though he would give the honour of recitation often to the chief guest) until his decampment to Peebles, but in the following years, he helped his Ayr friends by mailing an annual verse for them. This is an untypical example, it is shorter than most:

He also established the first Burns Supper in Glasgow, for The Glasgow Ayrshire Society in 1812, and ghost-wrote its Annual Ode to The Immortal Memory for a long time (all of these are lost), and finally was the lynchpin of the Broughton Burns Club, his enthusiasm being so keen that the local publican changed the village pub’s name to The Burns Inn. While living in Broughton, it was Paul who rescued the Brig o’Doon, made famous by Tam o’Shanter, from destruction by the philistine Roads Commissioners who saw not the beauty and poetry in the bridge, but sought the ‘keystane o’ the brig’ as good stones to repair a few furlongs of road at a lesser expense. Paul’s poem ‘An Appeal from the Old Brig o’Doon’ captured the attention of everyone whose imagination had been captured by the closing scenes of Tam’o Shanter and the public subscription shamed the petty officials into saving this piece of national heritage.

The Burns Monument, too, owes a debt to our cheery chaplain. He read a notice in the papers that there was to be a public meeting in the town hall of Ayr to raise the subscription to a fitting Monument to Ayrshire’s bard. He arrived post-haste to find but one other in the room: Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck (Bozzie’s son and a leading Tory landowner). Slightly perplexed at the absence of popular support Paul called Boswell to take the Chair anyway, and from that position of authority Boswell appointed Paul Secretary of the meeting, with the upshot that the motion to proceed with the subscription was carried (as Paul reported to the papers) ‘nemine contradicente’, but then it’s pretty easy to get unanimous majority of both attendees!

All’s well that ends well, and the two gentlemen were proud on Burns‘s Birthday 1820 when in full Masonic fig, in the company of hundreds of brethren, Brother Boswell (Depute Grand Master) followed the benediction prayer of Brother Paul (Lodge Chaplain) to lay the foundation stone. They worked together until poor Boswell was slain in a duel, leaving the Auchinleck properties embarrassed, and Hamilton Paul lonely.

The culmination of Paul’s love of Burns was his editorship of the 1819 Ayr (or Air) edition which was printed by his former colleagues at the Advertiser: Wilson Jr and McCormick: not one to wear his colours on his sleeve Hamilton resolutely entitled his edition:

The poems & songs, with a life of the author, containing a variety of particulars, drawn from sources inaccessible by former biographers. To which is subjoined, an appendix, consisting of a panegyrical ode, and a demonstration of Burns' superiority to every other poet as a writer of songs. By Hamilton Paul

He upheld banner for Burns against naesayers like his fellow minister William Peebles, who called the Greenock Burns Supper ‘Burnomania’ and was insightful on Burns’s pastoral poems and the value of Burns’s work in capturing Scottish song. Where he broke ranks was on the clerical satires. This causes a firestorm. Holy Willie’s prayer alone was seen by many as utterly unacceptable, our Hamilton looking for a softer view of human frailty than the ‘Auld Licht’ über Calvinists, saw Burn’s sharp tongue as a refiner’s fire to burn out the hypocrisy of the old school.

The case drew much comment for and against, JG Lockhart, Scott’s pugnatious Tory son-in–law

The Reverend Hamilton Paul may he considered as expressing in the above, and in other passages of a similar tendency, the sentiments with which even the most audacious of Burns's anti Calvinistic satires were received among the Ayrshire divines of the New Light. That performances so blasphemous should have been, not only pardoned, but applauded by ministers of religion, is a singular circumstance, which may go far to make the reader comprehend the exaggerated state of party feeling in Burns's native county

While in a later edition of the Complete Works, Hogg (The Ettrick Shepherd’) could but cuddle him:

the Rev. Hamilton Paul. There is a hero for you. Any man will stand up for a friend, who, while he is manifestly in the right, is suffering injuries from the envy or malice of others; but how few like Mr Paul to have the courage to step forward and defend a friend whether he is right or wrong.

The Rev. Hamilton Paul stood forward as the champion of the deceased bard, and in the face of every obloquy which he knew would be poured on him from every quarter as a divine of the Church of Scotland ... yet he would neither be persuaded to flinch from the task, nor yet to succumb, or eat in a word afterwards. ... I must acknowledge that I admire that venerable parson although differing from him on many points.

The wrath of the diehards almost caused the case to appear before the highest disciplinary court in the General assembly of the Church of Scotland, but the debate petered out before the wrathful divines could meet in Edinburgh. But it would take a lot more than these tempests to blow the equanimity of the jolly clerical gent off course.

He carried on hosting happy dinner parties and undertaking the duties of his cloth – in those days and until comparatively recently in the kirk the mark of a Minister was the quality of his sermons, which his obituary called ' not of the kind calculated to attract the million’ but it was neither his prose, nor even truly his verse which makes him a forgotten hero. It was taking elements of Burns life and writings and creating a ritual to remember him by. He even foretold the global spread of the Burns supper:

In his Edition of the Bard’s works, Hamilton said that the world had given our poet ‘ever honour except canonisation’ and because of his efforts, and genius in inventing the Burns Supper, 193 years after Paul wrote that summation, , Burns has even achieved a secular form of canonisation, with Burns Night being the true national day of Scotland.

Thank you Hamilton Paul!
© Clark McGinn, 2012.

Return to Robert Burns Lives! Index Page


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