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Loss of valuable letters of Burns to Robert Aiken.—Mistaken
inference and misrepresentation of Mr. Allan Cunningham.Letter to him of Miss Aiken, confirmed by letters from Burns and other proofs.-His exile to the West Indies averted by the publication of his poems.
HAVE lately read the “Life and Works of Burns,” by the lamented Robert Chambers, who spoke at the Centenary Meeting in Edinburgh, in January, 1859, and died in March, 1871. With his accustomed care and diligent research, he collected from every quarter whatever could elucidate the subject of his com
plete biography. I feel truly grateful for the just and pleasing light in which he placed the character of my beloved and revered grandfather. His arrangement of the poems, according to their proper dates, enables me, with other evidence, to prove that Robert Aiken's friendly relations with the poet were never interrupted, and that Mr. Cunningham's allegation to the contrary, was erroneous.
I shall not here allude to the marriage of Burns with Miss Armour, further than is necessary to refute Mr. Cunningham's misstatement, that Burns having given to her a written declaration, which, under the circumstances, constituted a legal marriage, and her father having taken possession of the document, my grandfather was accessory to its destruction, which gave such offence to Burns, as to put an end to their former friendship. Allan Cunningham asserted this on no better authority than the following letter, without date or address, which he published as having been written and sent to my grandfather's friend, Mr. Ballantine, banker, in Ayr: - .
“ HONOURED SIR,
“My proposals came to hand last night, and “knowing that you would wish to have it in your power “to do me a service as early as anybody, I enclose you “half a sheet of them. I must consult you, on the first “ opportunity, on the propriety of sending my quondam “ friend, Mr. Aiken, a copy. If he is now reconciled “to my character as an honest man, I would do it with “ all my soul ; but I would not be beholden to the “ noblest being ever God created, if he imagined me to “ be a rascal. Apropos, old Mr. Armour prevailed with “him to mutilate that unlucky paper yesterday. Would “ you believe it?”
Probably this letter was written hastily in anger on hearing some false report of what had happened, but was never sent. Robert Chambers was misled by Cunningham's assertion, and, guided by its allusion to the proposals for publishing, fixed the date of the document as between the 3rd and 17th of April, 1786.
After its publication by Cunningham, Miss Aiken wrote to him as follows:
“TO ALLAN CUNNINGHAM, ESQ.
“I beg to introduce myself to you as the only “surviving child (save a brother, long in India) of Mr. “Aiken, the early and unchanging friend of Burns. On “ reading your first volume, there seemed nothing regard“ing my venerated father or brother Andrew of conse“ quence to correct, though the latter was not a military “man, as you state, but a merchant, and latterly British “ Consul at Riga, at which place he died in 1832. But
MISS AIKEN'S LETTER TO CUNNINGHAM.
“I was much distressed by the impression left on the “ public mind by the eighteenth letter in the sixth “ volume, without date, and believed to have been “addressed to my relative, Mr. Ballantine, and would “ immediately have written to you on the subject, had “not the last volume of your work been published “ before I saw it.
" It was only yesterday that I learned from my cousins, “ the Misses Stewart, of Afton, that a second edition is “ now in the press, and I hope to anticipate the re“ publication of your sixth volume by stating that I am “ sure no such letter as the above was ever received by “ Mr. Ballantine, and unless I saw the autograph I can“not believe that it was ever written by the poet. Be“ cause, however grieved my father was on his account “ for his irregularities, Mr. Aiken had no knowledge of, " or interest in, the Armours, even if his principles would “ have allowed him to be a party in any such transaction, “ which was impossible. Besides, as there never was any “ interruption in their friendship or correspondence, “Burns could not have applied the phrase quondam “ friend to my father, and your idea, in the note, eighty“seventh page, that they were no longer correspondents “is quite a mistake, as they never ceased to be so, till “ Burns had been long in Dumfriesshire; but his beau- tiful, pure, and interesting letters, during a period of “ ten years, were, unhappily for his friend and our coms fort, lost, as I shall now state. Having heard, in the “ spring of 1796, that our friend was in very bad health, " we felt how doubly valuable his letters would be in the • event of his death, and I collected them all, and tied " them up according to their dates, laying them away " safely, as I then thought, before setting out for Dum“fries and Liverpool, where my brother Andrew was “ settled as a merchant, and recently married. At the “ former place, I stayed some days with my uncle, Dr. “ Copland, and one of those days my emaciated, but “ still animated friend, Burns, spent delightfully with “ me there-our last meeting! He, alas ! sunk rapidly " after, and before winter, I had much communication
“ with Dr. Currie, at Liverpool, our friend and medical “man, as to his proposed work, and finding a want of " letters, and knowing there were few so favourable to " the poet's memory as those to my father, I wrote to • him to send them by the mail. On going to the place “where the parcel had been deposited, it was gone ! and “ though every exertion was made then and often since to “ discover and recover the letters, we could never trace “them. We were forced to conclude, that a gay youth “ of some genius, then a clerk of my father, had secretly “taken them to peruse, and my demand coming un“ expectedly, he could not restore, and so destroyed “them, as he soon left his situation and the country, and “ died some years after without making any discovery.
“I merely, Sir, state these circumstances to prove “ that there was no interruption in the correspondence “ between Burns and my father, and that, therefore, the “ eighteenth letter (at least as regards the Armours) “ must be spurious; besides, the statement regarding “the marriage lines in your first volume, page 97, is “ quite at variance with the other story, and a much “ more natural account of the matter, than that a man “ of my father's station and strictly honorable feeling, “ should have so nefariously interfered in such an “ affair!
“I therefore trust, Sir, you will not give the eighteenth “ letter or the note appended, or the conclusion of that “page 87, a place in your new edition. I sadly fear “there is no way of correcting the error in the first, “ which has spread over the length and breadth of the “ land, to the injury of my father's memory (though “unintentionally on your part). I know not if Miss “ Stewart mentioned to you that Doonholm (not “ Doonside) is the name of Mr. Fergusson's place. My “mother's brother, Mr. Hunter, married his daughter, " and their son is now the proprietor of that beautiful “ spot, as well as Alloway Kirk, and all the classic “ground around the monument, which I regret you had “not visited before the publication of your Life of “ Burns.' His son, James, was much delighted with the
GRETNA GREEN MARRIAGES.
“ day he spent there with me. I have no unpublished
GRACE AIKEN. Ayr, 6th July, 1835."
This letter claimed the attention of Mr. Cunningham on its own merits, as having been written by the daughter of one of the earliest and best friends of Burns, and as referring to the Misses Stewart, of Afton Lodge, her cousins, whose mother, Mrs. General Stewart, of Stair, had also been the poet's early friend and patron, and who had evidently taken a similar interest in Allan Cunningham. But he neither replied to the letter, nor corrected his own blunder. I briefly adverted to the subject at the meeting at Bristol (p. 12), and when the Illustrated Edition of Burns' Works, published in Glasgow, in 1867, was advertised as being in the Press, I wrote to the Editor, Dr. Waddell, with information, which he courtecusly and thankfully acknowledged. He, too, had been misled by Cunningham, but my letter arrived in time to enable him to correct his error by a full and proper explanation.
By the civil and the Scotch law, marriage is a contract which may be proved by a declaration in writing, or before witnesses. The Gretna Green marriages of runaways from England, formerly so frequent, were thus contracted, the Green being just over the border, where the blacksmith and his witnesses were always in readiness to forge the fetters. Upwards of fifty years ago, while I was on a visit to Colonel Christopher Maxwell, at Gretna Hall, several of these marriages took place at the Green ; and if the fugitives were pursued, it was an exciting scene, a race with four horses, for which innkeepers and postillions got a high tariff.