Dirt and deity

Scotland's Music

Robert Burns,
page 9 of 17

his best friends. The Rev. George Lawrie, minister of the parish of Loudoun, a poet and a man of culture, sent a volume of Burns’s poems to his friend, the Rev. Dr. Blacklock of Edinburgh, a poet also, and author of many of the Paraphrases. He sent a most enthusiastic reply and an invitation to come to Edinburgh and publish a new edition. This was seconded by similar promises of aid from the Rev. Dr. Hugh Blair, who held a distinguished position in the literary circles of the metropolis. New prospects were thus opened up to him, of which-not without some delay-he availed himself. In November, 1786, he started from Mossgiel for the metropolis, a journey of about sixty miles. He travelled by the Ayr road. His fame had gone before him. Farmers and cottars came forth to see the new poet of Scotland. He rested over night with Mr. Archibald Prentice, the tenant of Covington Mains, near the foot of Tinto. Mr. Prentice* had discerned the genius of the Ayrshire bard, and sent on to him a pressing invitation, and had also asked the neighbours to meet him. The Mains lies in a hollow which can be seen from all parts of the parish. It was arranged that upon the poet’s arrival a white sheet attached to a pitchfork was to be displayed upon the top of a corn stack in the barnyard. Burns arrived about five o’clock, the signal was hoisted, and the farmers came trooping down to the cosy parlour of the Mains, and sat down to a generous feast followed by story, song and recitation. It is stated that on this occasion he made the address to a haggis—

“Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race.”

On the following morning he breakfasted with a large party at the next farmhouse, tenanted by James Stodart, brother to the Stodarts, the famous pianoforte makers of London and New York. I have heard his son, a James Stodart also, say, when nearly eighty, that he remembered passing the Mains that morning with other companions on his way to school. The pony was waiting at the door for the owner to start on his journey. The stalwart “Bauldy” came out and ordered him and the other boys to stop and baud the stirrup for the man that was to mount, adding, “You’ll boast of it till your dying day.” The boys said, “We’ll be late, and we’re fear’d for the maister.” “Stop and baud the stirrup; I’ll settle wi’ the maister.” They took courage, as well they might, for Prentice was six feet three, and the dominie but an ordinary mortal. That boy Stodart, almost an octogenarian at the time he spoke to me, said, “I think I’m prouder of that forenoon frae the schule than a’ the days I was at it.”

Burns started from Covington Mains and reached Edinburgh in the evening, 28th November. It was a memorable day in another respect. The citizens were greatly excited over the starting of Mr. Palmer’s mail carriages, by which letters were to be conveyed between London and Edinburgh in the surprisingly brief space of sixty hours!

At that time Edinburgh claimed a monopoly of culture and refinement. The title “Modern Athens” was not inaptly applied to the city enlightened by the philosophy of Stewart and the learning of Robertson. Hume had just disappeared from that proud circle of philosophers and wits who loved him in spite of his Toryism and heresy, but Blair was still seated on the throne of criticism measuring prose and verse by infallible canons, which have long been classed among curious literary antiquities. Into this brilliant

* Mr. Prentice, farmer as he was, subscribed for 20 copies of the second edition of Burns’s poems, more than any other individual did among either nobility, clergy, or gentry. The author, with some others, claims him as a great-grandfather, and we are justly proud of him.


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