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FROM "THE COTTAGE TO MOUNT OLIPHANT-THE APPEARANCE OF
THE STEADING-GOSSIP, ETC. —PRIVATIONS ENDURED BY THE
From December, 1757, to Whitsunday, 1766, the parents of Robert Burns lived a contented, happy, and comparatively prosperous life in the cottage, and would have continued to do so had they not been ambitious to improve their condition and make a better provision for their family. In an evil hour his father resolved to become a farmer, and with this object in view applied to Mr. Ferguson of Doonholm—to whom he had proved a faithful servant-for a lease of Mount Oliphant, a then tenantless farm on his estate. The request was generously granted, but with its acceptance a series of misfortunes commenced which pursued the worthy man to his grave.
Being aware that this farm is only some two miles distant from the poet's natal cot, I resolved to visit it, and for the purpose turned into a pleasant rural lane which branches off the highway some fifty yards beyond the celebrated “biggin'.” As the braes over which this old lane winds is climbed; the, landscape becomes more varied and picturesque, and a wide expanse of country lies around, which, when once seen, can never be forgotten. Even now I can picture it, and in fancy scan the view.
Yonder are the heights of Arran towering from the glistening bay ; nearer are the Heads of Ayr, and the old Castle of Greenan standing out on the verge of the wave, while stretching inland are the brown rugged hills of Carrick, and on the table land below the shady woods of Newark, Doonholm, and Mountcharles, with their mansion-houses peering above the tree-tops ; but the most interesting of all the objects on which the eye rests is the cottage in which the poet was born, the monument to his memory, and "Alloway's,
auld haunted Kirk,” the scene of Tam o'Shanter's adventure with the witches. There is no saying how romantic one might become over a delightful prospect; but, suffice it to say, a broad traffic-worn cross road was soon reached by whose side a burnie murmured, and along which a man was driving a flock of sheep. Here I rested on a small stone bridge over which the lane passes, and looking down into a clear brook, listened to its sweet babbling music, and the birds singing in gladsome minstrelsy in the rich foliage draping the bank. After lingering by the delightful scene for a space, a sharp uphill walk brought me to a by-road which proved rugged and steep, and ultimately to Mount Oliphant, the farm on which the parents of our poet toiled and suffered for the long period of eleven years. The humble buildings which constitute this steading are compactly built round a spacious quadrangular courtyard, opening to the road, but there is nothing about them to interest the visitor. A number of hens were gathered round the kitchen door, clucking and cackling over the corn which a rosy-faced, bare-armed milk-girl was throwing them, and a eollie, not unlike the one whose
lay basking in the sun. As I approached it rose, and after sniffing curiously about me, began to fawn and frisk in such a way that I wished him at a safe distance. How far this familiarity would have extended it is hard to say had not an elderly dame appeared on the scene and told him to “gang an’ lie doun *—an order which, to all appearance, he intended to obey when it suited him. To my question, “Is there aught of interest here in connection with Robert Burns?” she replied—“'Deed no. There used to be an auld crab-tree at the mouth o' the close there that he used to play below when he was a bairn, but it was blawn doun ae windy nicht short syne. The house, did you say? Weel, like every ither thing it's changed too, an' I dinna think there's a stane stan'in' that was in it in his father's time.” To all appearance the statement was true, so the reader need not be troubled with more than the burden of our conversation. During the summer months they have many visitors, “maistly gentry,” and one man, she
affirmed, who had been sent by some society in America to view the place, was so enthusiastic that he sat in the kitchen and wrote for upwards of an hour, and told them things about Burns and his parents that they never knew. “He was an extraordinar' body,” she remarked, “an' muckle ta'en up wi' everything here awa.” According to her, the rent of Mount Oliphant is seventy pounds a year. The poet's father had it at forty-five pounds, and found it all but impossible to wring the amount from the ungenial glebe, but now, with an improved system of husbandry, the first-mentioned sum is considered the reverse of excessive. From its elevated situation Mount Oliphant is conspicuous from a great distance, and consequently commands a wide range of scenery which has undergone very little change since the boy poet wandered in its midst. Indeed the eye of man has seldom rested on a more pleasing or extensive prospect than that witnessed from this eminence. Beautiful as it is, however, it brought neither peace nor contentment to the Burns' family. The soil of Mount Oliphant was poor and the rent high, and, to add to the discomfiture of a bad bargain, they entered upon it burdened with a debt of a hundred pounds. Hard labour and rigid economy were vainly opposed to the tide of misfortune by which they were overtaken, but allow Gilbert Burns, the poet's brother, to tell the sorrowful tale in his candid, simple way. In a letter to Mrs Dunlop, he says: “For several years butcher's meat was a stranger in the house, while all the members of the family exerted themselves to the utmost of their strength, and rather beyond it, in the labours of the farm. My brother, at the age of thirteen, assisted in thrashing the crop of corn, and at fifteen was the principal labourer on the farm, for we had no hired servant, male or female. The anguish of mind we felt at our tender years, under these straits and difficulties, was very great. To think of our father growing old (for he was now above fifty), broken down with the long-continued fatigues of his life, with a wife and five other children, and in a declining state of circumstances—these reflections produced in my brother's mind and mine sensations of the deepest distress.” Notwithstanding incessant labour, and the retrenchment of expenses, the worthy father managed to give his boys several snatches of education, and by the time Robert was twelve years of age
he was “a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles."
It was at Mount Oliphant that our poet first “committed the sin of rhyme.” He says
“ Amaist as soon as I could spell,
Though rude and rough ;
Does weel enough." And again, in somne noble verses, we have the following passage :
“I mind it weel in early date,
And first could thrash the barn,
Yet unco proud to learn ;
A man I reckoned was,
Still shearing and clearing
The ither stookit raw,
Wearing the day awa.
Shall strongly heave my breast,
The rough bur-thistle, spreading wide
Amang the bearded bere,
And spared the symbol dear." He speaks here of ranking his “rig and lass.” Who was the lass ? Let us see. In a letter to Dr. Moore he says—“ You know our country custom of coupling a man and woman together as partners in the labours of harvest. fifteenth autumn my partner was a bewitching creature, a year younger than myself. My scarcity of English denies me the power of doing her justice in that language; but you know the Scottish idiom, 'she was a bonnie sweet sonsie lass.' In short, she altogether, unwittingly to herself, initiated me in that delicious passion which, in spite of acid disappointment, gin-horse prudence, and book-worm philosophy, I hold
to be the first of human joys, our dearest blessing here below! How she caught the contagion I cannot tell. You medical people talk much of infection from breathing the same air, the touch, &c.; but I never expressly said I loved her. Indeed, I did not know myself why I liked so much to loiter behind with her, when returning in the evening from our labours; why the tones of her voice made my heart-strings thrill like an Æolian harp; and, particularly why my pulse beat such a furious ratan when I looked and fingered over her little hand to pick out the cruel nettle-stings and thistles. Among her other love-inspiring qualities she sang sweetly; and it was her favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme. I was not so presumptuous as to imagine that I could make verses like printed ones, composed by men that had Greek and Latin ; but my girl sang a song which was said to be composed by a country laird's son, on one of his father's maids, with whom he was in love; and I saw no reason why I might not rhyme as well as he; for, excepting that he could smear sheep and cast peats, his father living in the moorlands, he had no more scholar-craft than myself. Thus with me began love and poetry." Yes, they were kindled on the braeside of Mount Oliphant, and burned brightly until quenched by the cold hand of death in the little tenement in Mill Street, Dumfries.
The damsel, so affectionately referred to in the above extract, was named Nelly Kilpatrick, and although, in after years, he characterised the song in her praise as a very puerile and silly performance," it contains several good lines, as the following will show :
" A bonnie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e,
She's no the lass for me.
An, what is best of a',
An' fair without a flaw.
Both decent and genteel,
Gars ony dress look weel.”