Dirt and deity

The Glasgow Pub Companion

Robert Burns,
page 2 of 17

Before Doonside had been celebrated in song or story, William Burns, or Burness, a man of sterling worth and unusual intelligence, came to settle in the vicinity as a gardener, having left his native county of Kincardine in pursuit of a prosperity which for ever eluded his grasp. No man better deserved success. He possessed knowledge, integrity, indomitable perseverance; and the record of his heroic struggles and virtues, brought into notice by the fame of his illustrious son, reflects honour on the Scottish peasantry of the past. Late in life he married Agnes Brown, a woman of warm, emotional character, who lost by degrees her somewhat dim individuality in that of her resolute and sagacious husband. William Burns, resolving to secure a position of independence, proceeded to take a lease of seven acres of land at Alloway for the purpose of a nursery or market garden. There was no house on the small domain, but the tenant was equal to the emergency. With his own hands he built a cottage by the roadside, a little to the north of the kirk. There it still stands, only a little browner with a century’s rains, and men travel from every part of the world to look at the old man’s humble masonry. It was in this cottage — now about as well known as Westminster Abbey — on the night of the 25th January, 1759, that Robert Burns, the first-born of this proud peasant, entered on the first stage of his strange existence. Writers of a fanciful turn have read a prophecy of his troubled career in the storm which howled that night round the cottage walls. Ushered into the world by unkindly weather, he found a kindly welcome in his father’s heart. Apart from parental guidance and affection, the poet’s youth had a share of hardship and privation to which childhood in our days is seldom condemned. He was only a few years old when the family removed to the farm of Mount Oliphant, near Ayr, and the necessities of labour became multiplied. Arrived at the age of seven, the child had to trot to the field in company with his father and perform his allotted task, for in spite of pinching economy it required the united efforts of the little household to make headway against unfavourable seasons and barren soil. Throughout all his youth Robert worked, uncomplaining, with willing hands. We can hardly imagine that he experienced much of the careless freedom and abandon of boyhood—

                      “The thoughtless day, the easy night.
                      The spirits pure, the slumber light,
                      That fly the approach of morn.”

The few pleasures which he enjoyed sprang mainly from the fields in which he ploughed and reaped; for rural labour had not, in his time, completely lost the idyllic charms reflected, in ideal forms, in the ancient and modern pastorals. The ploughmen contended on the stubborn glebe as eagerly as ancient knights in the lists; and Burns has shown that the harvest-field frequently called forth displays of rustic chivalry, which invested the relations of the reapers with Arcadian attractions. Despite the simple joys which a sympathetic nature might gather in this humble lot-and Burns could find joy wherever men and women lived and moved-the never-ceasing pressure of labour told heavily on his sensitive frame. He became subject to frequent moods of still melancholy, to indulge which he often retired at sundown to the river-side or the neighbouring woods. Quick and vehement in emotion even in his boyhood, he surprised the family sometimes by sallies of reckless mirth, and sometimes by unexpected tears. In after years he attributed the fits of depression from which he never escaped to the toils which overtaxed his youth. In this belief he was, no doubt, mistaken. The dark malady has been developed in poets softly cradled and delicately


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