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The Brig of Ayr


THE Auld Brig of Ayr was reopened by the Right Honourable the Earl of Rosebery, K.G., K.T., on the 29th of July 1910. At the Brig the Provost of Ayr said, " Ayr has been given the sobriquet of 'The Auld Toon.' She would have forfeited her right to such a title had she allowed her Auld Brig to be demolished. We love the Auld Brig for itself as well as for its associations. We must protect and preserve those relics of the long-past ages, as there are sermons in Art as well as in Nature. Sentiment must not always be swept aside by utility. It is important that the future may read the records of the past. We are here to-day to congratulate ourselves on having successfully negotiated the last fence in connection with the Auld Brig, this 'ghaist alluring edifice' as Burns has called it, 'whose wrinkled arches' we can see to-day have been maintained, partly by preserving, partly by restoring, and partly by rebuilding. The preserving and restoring have been done at the expense of a very widely scattered company of loyal Scotsmen and admirers of our national bard, who look upon this Brig as the finest monument we have to his memory."

Lord Rosebery briefly replied, "I congratulate Ayr not merely on a great restoration, but on the prevention of a great desecration. It was with incredulity and with horror that the great mass of Burns worshippers throughout the world heard that there was any idea under any circumstances of tampering with this immemorial bridge. Fortunately, owing to the enterprise and energy mainly of Mr Oswald and Mr Morris, that desecration has been averted, and I think we may hope and believe that as long as the poet's works live, so long will the Auld Brig of Ayr stand as a testimony to him for ever."

At the Town Hall, and immediately following the reopening ceremony at the Brig, the Freedom of the Burgh was presented to Lord Rosebery and Mr Oswald. In the course of his speech his Lordship, in commenting upon the intolerance of the Church of Burns' day, said, "His,"Burns', "great horror was of anything which savoured of hypocrisy and cant, but what he had mainly in his mind then was religious hypocrisy and religious cant. Cant survives, though religious hypocrisy and cant are but little in fashion now. They do not pay as they did then. But are we quite sure that in avoiding one kind of cant we are absolutely free from any other? Are we absolutely certain that our characters in these days are as free from cant as Burns wished them to be ? There are a thousand forms of cant which form the dry rot of our country. It is not my task to-day to point them out. I might introduce division where 1 only wish to leave a united Ayr behind me. I do ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to apply yourselves the touchstone of Burns' diatribes against cant, and I prophesy for you that you will find yourselves none the worse for it. Now, Mr Provost, I must apologise for having detained you so long, but when one is given the freedom of Ayr one cannot but touch upon Burns, and when one touches upon Burns one cannot well check oneself. As I have said before, I am quite aware that you are only giving us this freedom to-day because we are living admirers of Burns, and because you cannot give it to the dead man himself. To speak the honest truth, Burns never seems dead to me. Of all dead men he is the most living to me, much more living than many men who to-day are alive. I know no man who has impressed his individuality and his vitality so strongly on his fellow-creatures as this man who was born here 150 years ago. His blood still courses warm and strong through the veins of Scotland. His spirit is abroad in all our country, and from our country it has passed over the world; but its home, its original source, its favourite region is this county of Ayr, and I trust that in the long days to come, when people remember with shame and almost with terror there was once a risk of the Old Brig being demolished, they will also remember in turn their responsibility, that the connection between Burns and Ayr is indissoluble and eternal."

On the afternoon of the day of the reopening, the Town Council caused to be placed on the parapet of the Brig a bronze tablet with this inscription:— .

29TH JULY 1910

The Preservation Committee on the 9th June 1911 placed another bronze tablet by its side, which records—


It is unfortunate that neither of the tablets are quite happily phrased, for while the one might readily convey to future generations that the work of preservation had been carried out by the Town Council; the other might also, and without hypercriticism, be held to imply that those who worked for or gave of their means toward the preservation of the Brig, were actuated merely by "admiration" of the poet, rather than by the deeper and more enduring sentiments of reverence and veneration. The noun implies less than the truth, and the inscription fails to recognise, or altogether ignores the devotion and even love which many or those who shared in the enterprise, bear in their heart for Robert Burns.


THIS tradition has survived in at least two forms. The first, that the lover was a knight, drowned while crossing the river to the Ayr side ; the second, that the sisters were enamoured of two monks from one of the Ayr monasteries, who, in fording the river from the Ayr side to the Castle of the New Town, met the same untoward fate. As indicating the pertinacity with which tradition survives, an old man recently told me he remembered the arched gateway of Newton Castle, through which, he stated it had long been said, these monks commonly passed.

Except as very vague and now almost forgotten traditions, these, as many of the uncertain happenings of the past, are rarely reliable in detail, although in circumstance often indisputable. In this case the second story is the more unlikely, not in practice but in sequence, for while the earliest known reference to the Brig is in 1236, it does not follow that the Brig was only then built; and one must not forget that the first of the two larger monasteries on the Ayr bank, that of the Dominican or Black Friars, was built but six years prior to the date named. Whether, then, it was a lover or lovers who essayed to ford the river, and whether soldier or priest, is of little moment to-day. The human element is always

as ever the essential factor and real interest, and the music of the song that remains clear and dominant centres round the circumstance that a devoted lover was by the river bereft of life, and in this tradition, or legend or tale, a tale as old as man and belonging to all ages, the Brig found its reputed origin and being.


THE following postscript from a letter which I received from Lord Rosebery a few weeks ago, is of interest psychologically as evidence, if not of fact, then at least of the power which sincerity and eloquence may exert upon a sympathetic and perhaps imaginative mind.

"P.S.—Since writing the above, I have been looking at the book, and a recollection comes across me that may be of interest to you.

"After my speech at Glasgow for the Brig of Ayr, I received a letter from a stranger saying that he had been .present at the meeting with his son, and that while I had been speaking he had distinctly seen the form of Robert Burns standing behind me, or walking in behind me as I was speaking, as I described him in my speech.

"I do not know who the man was, and give the story for what it is worth, but I think it is interesting."

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