Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia

Single-Malt Whiskies of Scotland

Robert Burns,
page 6 of 17

sported with his powers, shewing, not without conscious ambition, his unrivalled force and skill; but when love came

“O’er his heart Like the breath of the sweet south,”

or when sorrow and rage swept it like whirlwind gusts, his emotion found its natural utterance and relief in floods of passionate music. It will be seen, hereafter, that as the shadows deepened around him, his “swallow flights of song” grew more frequent, more fervid. His last effusion, written when his fingers could hardly hold the pen, was like his first, a song.

Emerson has somewhere described the wonder and delight which thrilled through an American village when the community learned that a genuine poet had arisen in their midst. A similar excitement agitated Kyle and Carrick when “My Nannie’s awa” and “Mary Morison” began to be circulated and sung. Unfortunately the admiration which the author attracted among his friends was not sufficiently hedged about with deep respect. Like the shepherds of Admetus they failed to recognise Apollo in his mean disguise. The poet’s knack of rhyming, his flow of wit, and, more than all, his abounding sympathy with every human joy and woe, rendered him a desirable friend and a delightful companion in village taverns. It may be questioned if this local and lower fame conduced to strengthen the purpose or elevate the sentiments of Burns. It initiated him, however, in the meantime into a deeper knowledge of human life and character-the sphere which he had marked out as his own. At the age of twenty-three, with a view to make a position for himself, he left Lochlea and joined a flax-dresser in Irvine. Everyone knows the pretty burgh, built long ago on the margin of the sand-blown links which sweep round the coast to the Heads of Ayr.

The town was smaller then than now, but to Burns the change was great — from green solitudes, sacred to the skylark, to smoke, confinement and the murmur of many tongues. In this town, as in Kirkoswald, the poet mingled freely with men, being as little fastidious as then in his choice of associates. Among other companions less noticeable he contracted a warm friendship with a man whose depraved moral sense obscured the lustre of his nobler qualities. Exerting his influence to loosen the ties which still bound the poet to virtue and religion, he succeeded only too well. The design of this sketch, however, is not to dilate upon the sins and shortcomings of the ill-starred Burns. Human frailty, born in the bowers of Eden, and renewed in a thousand forms in every passing generation, is a stale and unprofitable theme. It is the genius of Burns, and not his defects, that invests his story with immortal interest. In other ways also his residence in Irvine was unhappy. His mill was burned down and his little capital lost. A damsel, to whom he was betrothed, proved false to him, under circumstances which he considered peculiarly painful. To crown his sorrows he learned that his father, who had ruled the little household so wisely and well, was stricken with a mortal ailment. Sick of his experience of Irvine, he returned to the farm and resumed the plough.

In the spring of 1784, the aged William Burns, broken in constitution by his long life-battle, passed to that land where the weary find rest. We read that he expressed on his death-bed a trembling anxiety for the future of his gifted son, who turned away to hide the gushing tears. Had the veil of the future been lifted for a moment before the final darkness, the grand old Calvinist might still have trembled. The course of Burns’s life during the remaining years, so


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