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Searching auld wives' barrels,
Och hon! the day!
But-what'll ye say !
Would move the very hearts o'stanes!" Despite his antipathy to the office, Burns faithfully discharged his duties. Sometimes, however, he was wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to petty infringements of the law. Allan Cunningham tells how he and a brother exciseman one day suddenly entered a widow woman's shop in Dunscore, and made a seizure of smuggled tobacco. “Jenny,” said the poet, “ I expected this would be the upshot. Here Lewers, take note of the number of rolls as I count them. Now, Jock, did you ever hear an auld wife numbering her threads before check reels were invented ? Thou's ane, and thou's ane, and thou's ane a' ont.” As he handed out the rolls he went on with his humorous enumeration, but dropping every other roll into Janet's lap, Lewers took the desired note with much gravity, and saw as if he saw not the merciful consideration of his companion.
A late Professor of St. Andrew's remembered seeing Burns on a fair day in August, 1793, at the village of Thornhill, where, as was not uncommon in those days, a poor woman, named Kate Watson, had for one day taken up the trade of a publican-of course, without a license. the poet enter her door, and anticipated nothing short of an immediate seizure of a certain greybeard and barrel which, to my personal knowledge, contained the contraband commodities our bard was in quest of. A nod, accompanied by a significant movement of the forefinger, brought Kate to the doorway or entrance; and I was near enough to hear the following words distinctly uttered : 'Kate, are you mad? Don't you know that the supervisor and I will be upon you in the course of forty minutes ? Good by t'ye at present.' Burns was in the street and in the midst of the crowd in an instant, and I had access to know that the friendly hint was not neglected. It saved a poor woman from a fine of several pounds for committing a paltry offence by which the revenue was probably subjected to an annual loss of five shillings."O
6 I saw
* Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1829.
" I had an adventure with him in the year 1790," says Mr. Ramsay of Ochtertyre, in a letter to Dr. Currie, “when passing through Dumfriesshire on a tour to the south, with Dr. Stuart of Luss. Seeing him pass quickly near Closeburn, I said to my companion—That is Burns.'
On coming to the inn, the hostler told us he would be back in a few hours to grant permits; that where he met with anything seizable he was no better than any other guager; in everything else he was a perfect gentleman. After leaving a note to be delivered to him on his return, I proceeded to his house, being curious to see his Jean, &c. I was much pleased with his uxor Sabina qualis and the poet's modest mansion, so unlike the habitations of ordinary rustics. In the evening he suddenly bounded in upon us, and said as he entered—I come, to use the words of Shakespeare, stewed in haste. In fact, he had ridden incredibly fast after receiving my note. We fell into conversation directly, and soon got into the mare magnum of poetry. He told me he had now gotten a story for a drama, which he was to call · Rob Macquechan's Elchon,' from a popular story of Robert Bruce being defeated on the water of Caern, when the heel of his boot having loosened in his flight he applied to Robert Macquechan to fix it, who to make sure ran his awl nine inches up the king's heel. We were now going on at a great rate, when Mr S popped in his head, which put a stop to our discourse, which had become very interesting. Yet in a little while it was resumed ; and such was the force and versatility of the bard's genius that he made the tears run down Mr. S—'s cheeks, albeit unused to the poetic strain. From that time we met
Poor Burns! we shall hardly see his like again. He was in truth a sort of comet in literature, irregular in its motions, which did not do good proportioned to the blaze of light it displayed."
These pleasing anecdotes might be extended.
Burns rose early, and before starting on his long rides busied himself with the work of the farm. Mrs. Burns stated that she has walked with a child in her arms on the banks of the Nith, and seen him sow after breakfast two bags of corn for the folk to harrow through the day.* When
* Memoranda by Mrs. Burns-see the Rev. P. H. Waddell's edition of the poet's
he returned at night-tired and weary no doubt—he was not inactive, but burned the midnight oil in making up his report for the Excise, in writing letters to friends, or transcribing some lilt he had composed for “ Johnston's Musical Museum" when in the saddle. Reader, take down your Chambers from your shelf and glance at the Ellisland period of his existence, and you will feel astonished at the number of songs, poems, and letters he wrote under such circumstances, in the brief space of two and a half years.
There are many glimpses of the poet in his social and domestic sphere to be had during his existence at Ellisland, but suffice it to say that the calls upon his hospitality exceeded the limits of his income ; so, owing to this, and his inability to superintend his workpeople throughout the day, the little scheme of having two strings to his bow, or, in other words, of securing an income apart from the profits of the farm, failed, and he was forced to accept an appointment in the Excise in Dumfries, at a salary of £70 per annum.
Experiencing little difficulty in getting rid of the lease which bound him to Ellisland, he sold his stock and implements and bade it adieu, “ leaving nothing," says Allan Cunninghame, “but a putting stone, with which he had loved to exercise his strength--a memory of his musings that can never die, and £300 of his money sunk beyond redemption in a speculation from which all had augured happiness.”
After lingering about the fields and steading of Ellisland for some time, I cast a wistful look at the open door of the dwelling-house and sought the bank of the river. The view up and down is exquisite, and the green swelling slopes of Dalswinton on the opposite bank are very beautiful. The grass and herbage extend close to the water edge, and trees leaning at an angle over the pure pebbly-bottomed channel and the rich drapery of distant woods and dales, go to make up a picture at once charming and delightful.
The lands of Dalswinton belonged to the Comyns, a once powerful family who sternly opposed Robert Bruce. Allan Cunningham, who spent his boyish days in the neighbourhood, remembered seeing the ruins of their castle, and speaks of a tradition which stated that it was burnt by the heroking after he had given the Comyn “the perilous cash " and
Kilpatrick had “makit siccar” by plunging his dagger into his breast in the church of Dumfries. In 1792 part of the walls were standing, but no portion of them now remains.
“The Nith," says Cunningham, "instead of circling the Scaur of Ellisland, directed its course by Bankfoot, and came close to the castle.” He remembered a pool near the old house of Dalswinton called Comyn's Pool, which belonged to the old watercourse, and connected itself with the back water in the Willow Isle, by the way of the Lady's Meadow. Here Comyn is alleged to have sunk his treasure chest before he went to Dumfries, leaving it in charge of the water sprite. A net, it is said, was fixed in this pool, to which a small bell in the castle was attached, which rang when a salmon was in the snare.
When Burns came to Ellisland, Dalswinton was the pro perty of Mr Patrick Miller, an inventive genius, who not only patronised him immediately after his arrival in Edinburgh, but maintained a kindly disposition towards him while he resided in the district; and, curiously enough, while Burns on one side of the river was composing lays destined to have a lasting influence on the Scottish heart, Miller on the other was trying to elucidate a scheme which has given an impetus to commerce and facilitated navigation to an undreamt of degree. The idea of propelling vessels by machinery originated with him, and it was on a lake in the vicinity of Dalswinton house that he conducted a series of experiments which proved the practicability of his theory. Unfortunately, however, some obstacles occurred which he failed or neglected to surmount, and the fame of perfecting steam navigation was bestowed on others.
It is generally admitted that it was from his boat that Fulton and Henry Bell took the plans which they respectively realised on the Hudson and the Clyde.
The path down the furze-clad bank of the river is not only delightful but interesting to the admirers of Burns, on account of it having been a favourite walk of his.
While pacing it he composed “Tam o' Shanter
" and committed it to paper, making a sod-dyke do duty for a desk.
Mrs Burns remembered the circumstances. “ He spent most of the day on his favourite walk by the river, where, in the afternoon, she joined him with some of her children. He was busily engaged
crooning to himsel', and Mrs Burns perceiving that her presence was an interruption, loitered behind with her little ones among the broom. Her attention was presently attracted by the strange and wild gesticulations of the bard, who, now at some distance, was agonised with an ungovernable excess of joy. He was reciting very loud, and with the tears rolling down his cheeks, those animated verses which he had just conceived :
• Now Tam, oh Tam ! had thae been queans,
For ae blink o' the bonnie burdies !""* While wandering along this footway on one occasion the bard was startled by the report of a gun. Looking round, he observed a poor wounded hare hastening to conceal its mangled form in an adjoining copse. The man who fired the shot related the circumstance to Allan Cunningham. “ Burns,” he said, “ was in the custom when at home of strolling by himself in the twilight every evening along the Nith, and by the march between his land and ours. The hares often came and nibbled our wheat braird ; and once in the gloamin'-it was in April—I got a shot at one and wounded her. She ran bleeding by Burns, who was pacing up and down by himself not far from me. He started, and with a bitter curse ordered me out of his sight or he would throw me instantly into the Nith. And had I stayed I'll warrant he would have been as good as his word, although I
The sober eve or hail the cheerful dawn;
I'll miss thee sporting o'er the dewy lawn, And curse the ruffian's aim and mourn thy hapless fate." After a walk of something like half a mile along this classic pathway, I came to the tower of Isle, as a square block of ancient masonry, which was at one time the residence of the Fergusons, is termed ; and upon rounding it found