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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter I. — In the Land of Burns

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Chapter I.
In the Land of Burns.

How oft inspired must he have trod
These pathways, yon far-stretching road!
There lurks his home; in that abode
      With mirth elate,
Or in his nobly-pensive mood,
      The Rustic sate.

Every lover of the songs and poems of Scotland's national Bard knows something of William Burness, the father of Robert and Gilbert Burns. He is the original of the "toil-worn Cotter" and "priest-like father" of "The Cotter's Saturday Night"—

The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, with patriarchal grace,
The big ha'-bible, ance his father's pride;
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care;
And "Let us worship God!" he says with solemn air.

The Burnes or Burness family belonged originally to the Campbell clan, and were yeomen on the lands of the Keiths of Kincardineshire. William Burness was born on the estates of the Earls Marischal; but he left the bleak slopes of the Grampians for the south in the year 1748. Leaving his home at Clochnahill, he stayed for a time in Edinburgh, working as a gardener; thence he turned his face towards the milder west; and he settled on a small page 8farm in the lovely Doonside, south of Ayr, not far from the "auld brig o' Doon." With his own hands he built upon a corner of his seven acres of ground his "wee clay biggin," and thither he brought his young wife, Agnes Broun, or Brown, the daughter of Gilbert of the same name, farmer of Craigenton, Kirkoswald. In the Doonside cottage the sons Robert and Gilbert were born, Robert on January 25, 1759, and Gilbert on September 28, 1760.

The "wanderlust" was in the blood of the family of Burness. William's elder brother settled at Montrose, and achieved a certain eminence. His son, a legal practitioner, rendered assistance to the poet in his closing years. He was the father of Alexander, who became celebrated as Sir Alexander Burnes, the great traveller in Afghanistan, and the hero of Kabul. It is significant to remember such a career of imperial service and adventure in connection with the memoir of his relative, the pioneer minister and co-adjutor of the Scottish colony of New Zealand.

In 1766 William moved to Mount Oliphant, and thence to Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton, in 1777, where he toiled on his farm until his death on February 13, 1784. His sons had been given the best education their honest father could afford, amid the conditions of hardship and privation which beset the family. The two boys were sent to the small school at Alloway Mill. Thereafter, John Murdoch was engaged as their tutor; and he has left us his opinion of the father and sons. He praised William Burness in very high terms:—"By far the best of the human race that ever I had the pleasure of being acquainted with." The words of Thomas Carlyle come to mind:—"The brave father, I say always; a silent hero and poet; without whom the son had never been a speaking one!" And again, "The poet was fortunate in his father; a man of intense, thoughtful character, as the best of our page 9peasants are, valuing knowledge, possessing some and open-minded for more, of keen insight and devout heart, friendly and fearless; a fully unfolded man seldom found in any rank in society, and worth descending far in society to seek."

Agnes Brown, the wife of William Burness, and grandmother of the subject of the present memoir, was described as "a very sagacious woman, without any appearance of forwardness, or awkwardness of manner"; and the poet is said to have resembled her more than the father. She is depicted as one who had a wide knowledge of "the auld Scotch sangs," and her memory was stored with the folklore of the countryside. As we shall see later, she lived with her son Gilbert for many years as a member of the household in which Thomas Burns grew up.

Murdoch was thrown into close contact with the family by his residence with them, for a time at least; and he became greatly attached to the boys, Robert and Gilbert, who showed unusual brightness and enthusiasm for their lessons. The father and the tutor gave great help to them by their conversations; and a writer has thus described the household after the day's labours were over: "The young ardent teacher, the upright, faithful, kindly-severe father, the mother looking in that father's face, and listening to his discourse as if he were of men the chief, the two brothers, both so superior to what is found at their age, all intent on the work of education, proceeding in a style and spirit so strangely at variance with its humble environments. Gilbert, and not Robert, would have been fixed upon by him as the likely poet, he being of a 'merry,' while Robert was of a 'sad,' countenance."

Gilbert Burns, in his "Letter to Mrs Dunlop," furnishes certain biographical details of his famous brother, the poet, shortly after his death, and throws light upon. page 10the later stages of the education of Robert and himself. He says: "My brother was about 13 or 14, when my father, regretting that we wrote so ill, sent us, week about, during a summer quarter, to the parish school of Dalrymple, which, though between two and three miles distant, was the nearest to us, that we might have an opportunity of remedying this defect… About this time, Murdoch, our former teacher… came to be the established teacher of the English language in Ayr, a circumstance of considerable consequence to us." The list of books mentioned by Gilbert as loaned by Murdoch and other friends to the brothers, shows that they profited greatly by the limited opportunities which they had of obtaining a good education, in view of the adversity that constantly dogged their father in his farming ventures.

John Murdoch, to whom the boys owed so much for the foundations of their education, has bequeathed to the world (in his letter to the Rev. Wm. Adair) his impressions of his pupils. They are somewhat surprising. "Gilbert," he says, "always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of the wit than Robert… and if any person who knew the boys had been asked which of them was the most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind."

In 1784, about the time of the death of their father, Robert and Gilbert took a farm at Mossgiel. The rental for 119 acres was £90. The elder brother, then entering upon a period of brilliant authorship and early trouble, remained in the partnership only for about three years, and was on the point of sailing for Jamacia, when a letter from Dr Blacklock and the news of the reception of his first small volume of poems induced him to stay in Scotland. He says, "I gave up my part of the farm to my brother; in truth, page 11it was only nominally mine." Elsewhere in the same letter (to Dr Moore, 1787) he pays a generous tribute to Gilbert, saying, "my brother wanted my hare-brained imagination, as well as my social and amorous madness; but in good sense, and every sober qualification, he was far my superior."

Mossgiel, in the parish of Mauchline, was the scene of many of the poet's creations, and it became the home of Gilbert for nearly a dozen years. The old steading has long since passed away; but when the brothers lived in it, the simple clay "biggin" was of one storey with a thatched roof, and containing a room, or "spence," a kitchen, and a garret. The allowance for the brothers amounted then to £7 a year, which represented the profits of the farm! The fields of Mossgiel derive little beauty from the lavishness of nature, although the landscape is by no means devoid of loveliness. Wordsworth has pictured the view from the neighbourhood:—

"There," said a stripling, pointing with much pride,
Towards a low roof, with green trees half concealed,
"Is Mossgiel farm; and that's the very field
Where Burns ploughed up a daisy!" Far and wide
A plain below stretched seaward; while, descried
Above sea clouds, the peaks of Arran rose;
And by that simple notice, the repose
Of earth, sky, sea, and air was vivified.
Beneath the random beild of clod or stone,
Myriads of daisies have shone forth in flower
Near the lark's nest, and in their natural hour
Have passed away; less happy than the one
That, by the unwilling ploughshare, died to prove
The tender charm of poetry and love.

To that simple thatched cottage Gilbert brought his wife on June 21, 1791. Jean Breckenridge was then 27 years of age. She was the daughter of James Breckenridge, a farmer of Kilmarnock. His father was the parish school-master of Irvine. The mother of Jean was Janet Aird, a page 12relative of Sir James Shaw. Later in life Jean inherited certain property in Kilmarnock. She proved herself an excellent wife and mother. William, the eldest son, was born May 15, 1792. He lived to a great age, and died at Portarlington, in Ireland. The second son, James, was born at Mossgiel on April 20, 1794. He became a Writer to the Signet, first in Haddington, and then in Glasgow. Later he became factor to Lord Blantyre, and died at Erskine, in Renfrewshire, on June 22, 1847.

The third son, Thomas, the hero of these memoirs, was born at Mossgiel, on April 10, 1796, the year of the death of the Poet. The bond that unites the southernmost portion of the British Empire with "the Burns country" is drawn closer by the fact that the wee Thomas was three months old when his uncle Robert closed his brilliant and tragical career. There is a vague legend that the future founder of Otago was once held in the arms of the Bard, but the story lacks confirmation. It is certain, however, that the faithful brother, Gilbert, was much in the poet's mind during the last sad weeks at Dumfries and Brow. One of Robert Burns's latest letters, dated July 10, 1796, was addressed to him. After briefly recounting the hopeless condition of his health and affairs, it concludes with the commendation of his wife and children to Gilbert's care, and closes with the tearful message, "Remember me to my mother."

It is thus made evident that Gilbert had already taken the widowed mother to Mossgiel to share his home; and this continued until the end of her life, which came at a ripe old age, on January 14, 1820, when the family of Gilbert was living at Grants Braes, near Haddington. The presence of the old grandma in the house must have exercised a considerable influence upon the children who grew up about the knees of Gilbert and Jean Burns. The page 13venerable mother of the famous poet would have much to tell the boys and girls, anecdotes of the earlier years of her life, and the old stories, rhymes, and songs of Scotland, which fired their youthful imaginations as they had helped to kindle the genius of Robert during the years in which his powers were maturing.

Miss Agnes Burns, the surviving daughter of Dr Burns, relates the following characteristics of Mrs William Burness, senior. Like the mother of Thomas Carlyle, she could read, but not write. Her reputation was that of a wise old autocrat of the breakfast table. She used to sit by the window of the homestead, and she knew every sheep by its face. She was the incarnation of prudence and thrift —as she had every reason to be after her life-long struggle with adversity. One day she happened to espy a bottle perched on the rafters. She called to the boys, "Ah, there's that bottle of Glauber's salts; they're getting dry! But there maun be nae waste. Come an' tak' a dose!" The boys disappeared with great speed, but the daughters fell victims to the apostle of thrift.

While Thomas, the third son, was an infant of one year, Gilbert removed his family to a farm at Dinning, near Closeburn, in the lovely valley of the Nith, in Dumfries-shire. A writer, familiar with the country, has thus described it as it was fifty years later:—"Beyond Sanquhar the railway passes through a tract of country unsurpassed for picturesque beauty. Having passed Carronbridge and Thornhill—both quiet villages—Closeburn is reached. Stretching away on the east side of the line are Closeburn Hills amid which is the fine waterfall, Crichope Linn, and a cave which tradition states was used by the Covenanters. Sir Walter Scott seems to have been aware page 14of its associations, for in "Old Mortality" he portrays it as the hiding-place of Balfour of Burley. Burns was familiar with Closeburn. He used to visit an inn at Brownhill, and made the landlord, whose name was Bacon, the subject of an impromptu effusion. His friend, Kirsty Flint, also resided in Closeburn. She was well acquainted with old music and ballads, and nothing delighted the poet better than to hear her sing his songs—indeed he generally got her to 'lilt' over any new effusion before giving it to the world."1

Amid such scenes the first impressions of Thomas Burns were formed, as he lived on his father's farm, becoming familiar with all the sights and sounds of rural life, the routine of farming, and the delights of the beautiful southern country of Scotland. His boyish imagination would be caught by the lure of ancient times, the exploits of Bruce and Wallace, the devotion of the Covenanters, and many associations with the warlike and romantic past. Although he would be too young to understand the full meaning of the lore which found an echo in every dale and on every hill, his eager nature would respond to the atmosphere in which he lived and moved.

The first teachers of Thomas Burns were his admirable parents. All the children were given the best education possible at the time. Thomas went with his brothers to the parish school and afterwards to the Wallace Hall Academy, at Closeburn. A lad from the village of Ecclefechan was attending Annan Academy, which was under the strict rule of the dominie, Adam Hope. Thomas Carlyle was a few months older than Thomas Burns. A few years before, Edward Irving had passed through the Annan page 15School. It is very remarkable how these three lads from the south-western corner of Scotland afterwards found themselves thrown into contact in East Lothian.

It was of Adam Hope and his kind that Carlyle wrote in "Sartor Resartus" regarding the Hinterschlag professors, that they "knew syntax enough; and of the human soul thus much: that it had a faculty called memory, and could be acted on through the muscular integument by appliance of birch-rods." Edward Irving used to have his ears pinched by the master till they bled. It is probable that Burns endured the educational fashions of his day, which were very different from ours, happily enough, for the comfort of pupils of our schools. There is good reason to believe that he was an eager scholar, and made the most of his opportunities. But his thoughts were not restricted to his lessons. He intended to become a farmer like his worthy father. But he had early dreams of travel. A story is preserved in the family that as a small boy, Thomas was heard to say, "When I'm a man, I'll go to New Zealand, and then I'll be able to look over the edge of the world!"

1 A. A. Adamson's "Rambles through the Land of Burns," p. 222.