« PreviousContinue »
Because Burns traversed the same ground, and enjoyed the same scenery. Holding along a beaten path running through the grass I crossed a purling burnie by a rustic bridge, and passed along the margin of the river. The difficulties of the way were many, but in spite of trailing bramble bushes which seized my legs and laid hold of my clothes, and of branches which brushed my face, I succeeded in reaching a steep tree-shaded path. Ascending it I entered the farmyard of Ellisland, and looked curiously around.
ELLISLAND, ITS SITUATION, APPEARANCE, AND ASSOCIATIONS—BURNS
AS AN EXCISEMAN-HIS ANTIPATHY TO THE OFFICE-HIS
FINDING Ellisland deserted by man and beast, I went up to the open door of the dwelling house and “cannily keekit ben." The apartment was in the utmost confusion, and the scene which met my gaze odd in the extreme. A young woman, with a handkerchief bound round her head, was decorating the walls with indiscriminate dashes of a white-wash brush, while a portly, pleasant-looking woman, whose features were almost hid in the folds of a sun-bonnet, busied herself among the furniture in an endeavour to put matters straight. In the midst of all this sat a man deeply engrossed in the contents of a newspaper ; but I am sorry to record that he never lifted his eyes off the page nor in any way recognised the presence of a stranger—a breach of good manners certainly which a previous tenant named Robert Burns would never have been guilty of. The gudewife—for such I understood the dame in question to be-was communicative enough, and although answers drawn from her were generally monosyllabic, yet they were clear and respectful, and made some amends for the reserved demeanour of her lord. Among other things, I learned that the dwelling-house and offices around the courtyard are in the same condition as they were at the time our agricultural Apollo and his bonnie Jean went in and out amongst them. This in itself was something, and, despite the freezing reception experienced, I felt gratified to stand in a door-way through which thcse near and dear to his heart had often passed, and look upon walls which sheltered him from the blast and upon a floor of stone which echoed the tread of his manly footstep. Having it proven in this particular in
stance that a conversation cannot be carried on between a less number of persons than two, I withdrew, and commenced an exploration, during which imagination and a previous knowledge of the premises supplied what the occupants declined to communicate. The farmstead of Ellisland is situated on the verge of a high cliff or scaur overlooking the Nith, and commands a prospect which no sordid-minded farmer would care to look upon. The dwelling-house is a humble but commodious one-storied building, and the offices attached to it are of a commonplace description, and appear—with the exception of a barn—to have been erected since the poet's day.
When Burns entered on the farm (Whitsunday, 1788), the dwelling-house was in a ruinous condition—a circumstance which compelled him to leave his Jean in Hauchline until he got one in readiness for her reception. This was built by his brother-in-law, and according to Allan Cunningham, the poet had to “perform the duty of superintending the work ; to dig the foundations, collect the stones, seek the sand, cart the lime, and see that all was performed according to the specification,” and, I may add, the plan he had drawn out. During the progress of the work he lodged with the outgoing tenant in a hovel which was pervious to every blast that blew and every shower that fell ; but more of it by and by.
When Burns fixed on Ellisland, the shrewd factor remarked that he had made a good choice as a poet but a bad one as a farmer. From what I saw of its soil he was correct, for it is perfectly astonishing that he ever thought of devoting his time to its cultivation. He was in the habit of saying that after a shower had fallen a newly-rolled field reminded him of a paved street, but I can assure the reader that one turned over with the plough has a closer resemblance to a macadamized road dug with a pick-axe than anything yet witnessed -in fact, such a mixture of boulders and loam is rarely to be met with beyond the precincts of a dried up water-course. There is nothing under 'cultivation to equal it in Ayrshire ; nevertheless, with the present system of agriculture, excellent crops are grown on it, and the tenant can pay more than four times the rent Burns did when he tilled its acres, and that too with less difficulty.*
* Burns paid £50 a year, the present tenant pays £230.
When straying about the steading I entered the barnyard, and leaning on my stick mused. Here, thought I, is the veritable spot where the poet, in an agony of soul, composed the sublime ode “ To Mary in Heaven.”
“ Thou lingering star, with lessening ray,
That lov'st to greet the early morn,
My Mary from my soul was torn.
Where is thy place of blissful rest?
Hear'st thou the groans that rend his breast ?
Can I forget the hallowed grove,
To live one day of parting love !
Those records dear of transports past;
Ah ! little thought we 'twas our last !" Although married to his Jean—and all the world knows he loved her—he could not forget Mary Campbell, nor “the golden hours ” he spent with her in “ the hallowed grove” on the banks of the "gurgling Ayr." No, though “green was the sod and cold the clay” which wrapt her form, he cherished her memory; and on the third anniversary of her death-a few days after the carnival mentioned in last chapter" the twilight deepened he appeared to grow very sad about something,' and at length wandered out into the barnyard, to which his wife, in her anxiety for his health, followed him, entreating him in vain to observe that frost had set in, and to return to the fireside. On being again and again requested to do so, he always promised compliance, but still remained where he was, striding up and down slowly and contemplating the sky, which was singularly clear and starry. At last Mrs Burns found him stretched on a mass of straw, with his eyes fixed on a beautiful planet 'that shone like another moon,' and prevailed on him to come in. He immediately, on entering the house, called for his desk, and wrote exactly as they now stand, with all the ease of one copying from memory, the verses 'To Mary in Heaven.'»*
• Lockhart's “Life of Burns.'
The first year of Burns' occupancy of Ellisland passed pleasantly away. He was frugal and temperate, and paid every attention to his farm, but his seclusion did not obtain privacy. Lockhart states that “his company was courted eagerly, not only by his brother farmers, but by the neighbouring gentry of all classes ; and now, too, for the first time, he began to be visited continually in his own house by curious travellers of all sorts, who did not consider, any more than the generous Poet himself, that an extensive practice of hospitality must cost more than he ought to have had, and far more money than he ever had at his disposal.” The farm under these circumstances could not pay, and to make matters better he applied to his patron, Mr. Graham of Fintry, to use his interest in procuring him an appointment in the Excise. This was done, and “the golden days of Ellisland,” as Dr. Currie calls them, began to wane. “ He might indeed still be seen in the spring,” says that author, “directing his plough-a labour in which he excelled; or with a white sheet, containing his seed-com, slung across liis shoulder, striding with measured steps along his turned-up furrows, and scattering the grain in the earth ; but his farın no longer occupied the principal part of his care or his thoughts. It was not at Ellisland that he was now in general to be found. Mounted on horseback, this high-minded poet was pursuing the defaulters of the revenue among the hills and vales of Nithsdale, his roving eye roving over the charms of nature, muttering his wayward fancies as he moved along."
This new occupation brought Burns a paltry £35 a year, but the amount of drudgery it imposed on him overtasked his energies, and did much more to undermine his constitution than the hard drinking his traducers say he indulged in. He had ten parishes to survey, which formed a tract of fifteen miles each way. These had to be continually ridden over. On an average he rode from thirty to forty miles every day, stopping at all the breweries, public houses, tanneries, and grocery shops on the route to take note of exciseable stock, enter the same in the memorandum book he carried for the purpose. Burns disliked the unpopular occupation, and was always apologising to his friends for engaging in it