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The Brig of Ayr
And something of its History by James A. Morris (1912)


THE poem, "The Brigs of Ayr," was written in 1786, and inscribed to the Poet's good friend, Mr John Ballantine, banker, Ayr. He it was who generously offered to advance the sum, happily not required, for the production of the Second Edition, published in Edinburgh in 1787, which, following by a year the Kilmarnock Edition, contained twenty-two pieces additional thereto, one of them "The Brigs of Ayr." To Mr Ballantine, Burns addressed several letters from Edinburgh, informing him of his reception by the world of birth, letters, and good fellowship; and, as indicative throughout all his triumphs and later troubles of how warm a place Ayr held in his heart, let the following letter establish:—

March 1791.

"While here I sit, sad and solitary, by the side of a fire in a little country inn, and drying my wet clothes, in pops a poor fellow of a sodger, and tells me he is going to Ayr. By heavens ! say I to myself, with a tide of good spirits which the magic of that sound, Auld Toon o' Ayr, conjured up, I will send my last song to Mr Ballantine. Here it is:—

"Ye flowery banks o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye blume sae fair!
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu' o' care!

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o' the happy days
When my fause luve was true.

Thou'll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o' my fate.

Aft hae I rov'd by bonnie Doon,
To see the woodbine twine,
And ilka bird sang o' its love,
And sae did I o' mine.

Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree,
And my fause luver staw the rose,
But left the thorn wi' me."

The second version of the song, one of the most beautiful lyrics ever written, is here given in the form in which it was sent to Mr Ballantine, and not the altered and later version now in general use.

Ayr, Scotland

The New Bridge, designed by Mr Robert Adams, and built during the Provostship of Mr Ballantine, was practically finished in 1789; but on what I am told was the middle baluster of the range above the midmost arch, on the west and untouched side, is the date 1785, and this baluster is in the possession of the heirs of the late Mr John Miller, Fort Castle, Ayr, to whom much of the dressed stonework of the Brig found its way during the period of its demolition. The four valuable cast-lead figures from the Bridge were at first secured by private individuals, but they are now and more fittingly in the gardens of Alloway Cottage and Burns' Monument, two in each ; Ceres and Bacchus disporting themselves on the cottage lawn, while Pan and Marsyas, having found for themselves secluded bowers by the riverside, tune their pipes to its music. In the Town Council minutes of the time, there is a series of interesting references to the building of this bridge. The Committee of the Council charged with the conduct of the work was, on the 24th February 1786, instructed to sign the contract "with Alexander Stevens, mason in Prestonhall"; and at the monthly meeting on the 3rd May of the same year, it was reported that the contract had been duly signed. On the 21st January 1789, there is the entry that the bridge "was finished"; instructions were given to have it inspected, and, if found satisfactory, taken over from the contractor. This was done, and on the 3rd March 1790 the accounts, amounting in all to £4063, 2S., were reported settled. The poem was written probably between the publication of the Kilmarnock Edition, on the 31st July 1786, and certainly prior to the 7th or 8th of October of the same year; and the foregoing notes from the Burgh minutes are of interest, because they give the authoritative dates of the beginning and close of the building operations. Between the 31st May, when it was reported to the Council that the contract had been signed, and the early days of October —the period of Burns' letter to Aiken—very little even of the " rising piers " could have been visible, and the "braw new coat" then existed only on the contract drawings, or in the poet's imagination; even the arches had not yet been "streeket ower frae bank tae bank." It was long a tradition among the older generation of Ayr masons—indeed I have heard it repeated by a descendant if not of Alexander Stevens himself, then of one who had a prominent sharein the work—that the foundations were, at the time of building, considered unsatisfactory. Whether, however, this applied to the actual foundations, or to the strata upon which they were placed, I was not able to ascertain. Burns' emphatic prediction,

"Then down ye'll hurl, deil nor ye never rise!
And dash the gumlie jaups up to the pouring skies."

may, therefore, possibly have been based on something more than prescience.

In 1844, four years after the opening of the railway between Glasgow and Ayr, powers were obtained from Parliament for the widening of the bridge—which had become inadequate for the increased traffic— the terminus of the railway being then on the north side of the river. This widening was carried out "on the upper side, in a line with the east side of Bridge Street, which will give an additional width of 13 feet 9 inches." Other than this excerpt from the minutes of the Council, there does not appear to be any further reference to the matter, either in the minutes of the Town Council, or in those of the Road Trustees, both of which bodies apparently had a share in the operations; nor is there seemingly any allusion to the widening of the Bridge, or its reopening, in any of the local newspapers of the day.

The new parapet abutted against the still existing old house, probably built with the Bridge, but its characteristic oriel windows are surely an unusual reproduction in Adams work, of what would seem to suggest descent from the plaster and timber oriels of a preceding, and more indigenous style. This older view, shown in the frontispiece, is from a large painted tray in my possession; interesting also as showing the Tolbooth with its "dungeon clock" and nineteen steps, as well as something of the earlier Ayr in the Bridge neighbourhood.

The widened Bridge became dangerous in 1877, and was removed in that and in the following year, during the occupancy of the civic chair by Mr Thomas Steele ; from whom I have it that early one morning the chief constable, Captain M'Donald, a decorous, douce, and usually deliberate highland-man, rushed in upon him and with upraised hands and gestures of consternation cried out, " Provost, the brig's doon the water!"

The location of "Simpson's" Tavern is established by an old hand-bill dated 5 th September 1792, which is here reproduced by the kindness of Mrs Campbell of Daldorch, who recently accompanied me to the Black Bull Inn, and identified the old house next it on the east, as the house referred to in the circular. It may therefore be reasonably assumed that Burns, whether in the body or out of the body, must have wandered across the Auld Brig, and, turning to the left at "Simpson's," taken his stand somewhere on the northern bank of the river between the Brigs, and from thence beheld his vision. Reference is also made in the Town Council minutes of the ist July 1789 to "John Simson, Innkeeper at Bridgend of Ayr," whose petition to be made exempt from payment of toll on the New Bridge was refused, on the ground that he kept a public stable, and that "even his own horses are let out for hire."

I have here to acknowledge with pleasure the kindness of Mr P. A. Thomson, the Town Clerk of Ayr, and my indebtedness to him for ready access afforded me at all times to the Burgh minutes and other documents.

The version of "The Brigs of Ayr," now reproduced, is taken from the volume in which it was first published; "Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. By Robert Burns. Edinburgh: printed for the Author, and Sold by William Creech, m, dcc, lxxxvii." Lord Rosebery, however has in his possession the MS. of another version, which I saw, and which his lordship took with him and held in his hand while he addressed the meeting at Glasgow, in aid of the Lord Provost's Fund for the preservation of the Auld Brig of Ayr.

The accompanying outline of the more salient features of the history of the preservation movement, was published prior to the reopening ceremony, as an article written for The Glasgow Herald, which identified itself, through Dr Wallace, the then editor, so strongly with the preservation movement; and for its reproduction, in a revised and perhaps more conveniently permanent form, I am indebted to the courtesy of Mr F. Harcourt Kitchin, the present Editor of that newspaper.

As the reopening ceremony followed the article by several days, no reference could of course therein be made to the proceedings; and the brief extracts from the speeches bearing more directly on the Brig, now added in the form of an appendix, have been incorporated, as also Lord Rosebery's always eloquent and in this instance peculiarly reverent and touching peroration, at the request of many readers of this little book; who, having kindly expressed a strong desire that such reference should be included, are here accommodated ; in order, as they said, that the outline record of the preservation movement should be made relatively complete, and the story carried onward, meantime at least, to the day of the reopening ceremony.

The History of AYR - Short Scottish Film/Documentary - 2016 HD

Several correspondents abroad, and long absent from Ayr, have asked if the old sundial they remember as boys has been retained? Most gladly do I answer that it is as they knew it, unaltered and untouched. It was carefully taken down in one block together with its several supporting stones, and all in one block as carefully replaced ; so that to-day the sundial stands on the parapet, exactly as it stood when they and I first saw it—now perhaps nearly fifty years ago.

The old wrought-iron lamp, with its particularly long back stay reaching down to the steeply inclined cutwater, which so many of them recall, is also still in position ; and not a few have reverted to their foolhardy and venturesome scrambles down its slender length to the precarious foothold afforded by the cutwater slope, in predatory incursions after the fragrant wall-flower which found roothold in the open joints between the stones. The wall-flower, alas! a stray gooseberry bush, and all the luxurious vegetation which grew so thickly on the several cutwater slopes,—upon one of which a Brig story tells that, in the dawn of a long-ago morning, a goat was found browsing,—have been cleared away, and the picturesque covering and colour sacrificed at the shrine of preservation.

It is very pleasant to receive letters inquiring about these things, indicating as they do that grown men in far-off lands can become boys in heart again in the remembrance of the Brig. These are among the things that hold a people together, and the spirit which impelled many to clamber down the lamp stay, as also round the narrow cliff edge, now impassable, between Greenan Castle and the sea; the same old "Daur ye do it?" in the vernacular of the past, has doubtless carried the same men round many a tight corner and up many a stey brae, in other and later times.


Savoy Croft, Ayr,
14th January 1912.

Ayr and something of its Story

Escape to the Perfect Town - Ayr, Scotland

Annals of Ayr in the Olden Time
1560 - 1692 by John H. Pagan, B. D. (1897) (pdf)

A History of the Ayrshire Yeomanry Cavalry
By W. S. Cooper M.A., L.L.M., F8A Scot., Captain, Ayrshire Yeomanry Cavalry (1881)

Ayrshire: Its History and Historic Families
By William Robertson in two volumes (1908)

In Ayrshire
A Descriptive Picture of the County of Ayr with relative notes on interesting local subjects, by William Scott Douglas, Editor of 'The Kilmarnock Edition" of Burns (1874) (pdf) Contains much information on Burns & his associations & is valuable to the Burns Student. J Williamson, Meadowfield

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