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

Chapter II. — Life in East Lothian

page 16

Chapter II.
Life in East Lothian.

Labor omnia vincit improbus.

Stages of development are often connected with changes of residence, especially in the early and formative years of life. The charm of travel, new scenes, fresh surroundings, and acquaintances, all have a stimulating effect on a growing personality. Education is a much bigger thing than mere schooling. The farmer 's son from Mossgiel and Nithsdale, with the blood of Burness in his veins, did not fail to respond to the challenge of changing circumstances. The fortunes of the family of Gilbert Burns underwent a considerable modification with the passing of the eighteenth century.

The death of the poet at a comparatively early age had aroused the public mind to a sense of the obligations due to his genius, and this extended to an interest in the well-being of his family and kindred. Possibly, this feeling induced Mrs Dunlop, of Dunlop, to offer, through her son, Captain Dunlop, to Gilbert Burns, the management of one of her farms known as Morham West Mains, or Morham Muir, as it is now called, in East Lothian. Gilbert had only just rented the farm of Dinning, in the parish of Closeburn, when this offer came to him, but he decided to accept it, leaving the care of Dinning to John Begg, who had married his youngest sister, Isabella. John Begg was a man of worth, and Gilbert reposed implicit trust in his management of the farm near Closeburn. The lease continued till 1810, when Gilbert relinquished his interest in Dinning. The relations between the brothers-in-law were very cordial throughout their lives. What became of the boys after their father moved from Dumfriesshire? The page 17answer seems to be that they remained at school for a time at least in the south-west of Scotland. Thomas would be only four and a-half years of age when his father moved to East Lothian, and he probably lived with his uncle at Dinning. He knew how to handle the plough, and he grew up as a farmer's boy, keenly interested in everything connected with the farming life, which he hoped to follow all his days.

Gilbert's sixth child, Agnes, was born at Dinning on November 16, 1800; and the increasing number of his family may have constituted a substantial argument for his removal to the homestead of Morham Muir. The farm lies about three miles to the south-east of Haddington, on an undulating slope close to the banks of the river Tyne. A couple of miles away stands the huge ruin of the Bothwell's castle of Hailes. Near at hand lies Whittinghame, now held by Earl Balfour. From the hilly parts of the district extensive views reveal the Firth of Forth, the Fife Hills, the Bass Rock, and Isle of May northwards; the Pentlands, Arthur's Seat, and even Ben Lomond to the west, while not far to the south stretch the Lammermuirs, a magnificent prospect from a height in clear weather. Morham Muir was mostly covered with whins, heather, broom, and poor grass, only a small portion being arable. A little prior to the arrival of Gilbert Burns this farm had come into the possession of Mrs Dunlop, of Dunlop, Ayrshire, and occasionally she and her husband lived in the house, which they had built upon their East Lothian estate. Several letters written by Robert Burns were addressed to Mrs Dunlop at this place. The soil of the farm was of a poor, stiff clay, and Gilbert found a hard job awaiting his attention as manager. There were but few visitors in those days of unremitting labour; among them, however, was the Rev. Dr Patrick Carfrae, who knew the poet, and had page 18removed to Dunbar from the manse of Morham a few years before Gilbert's arrival. Occasionally, he would ride over from Dunbar and spend some time at Morham Muir with Gilbert. Dr Carfrae's successor, Rev. John Steel, who cultivated twenty acres of land in addition to looking after his small parish, and Mr Thomas Henderson, the schoolmaster, were among Gilbert's chief friends.

Two more sons were born during the occupancy of the house at Morham Muir. Their names were John, born July 6, 1802, and Gilbert, the sixth and youngest son, born December 24, 1803. There were now eight children in the family of Gilbert Burns and Jean Breckenridge. The aged grandmother lived with the family in East Lothian. Another inmate of the home was Annabella, sister of the "head of the house." It was fortunate that the new house of the Dunlops was planned on a large scale. But another change was pending.

In the year 1803 the estate of Morham Muir was sold, and Gilbert prepared to move to a more important and congenial sphere. He was appointed factor to Katherine, Lady Blantyre, and took up his residence at Grants Braes in the spring of 1804. This large, two-storeyed house was to be the home of Gilbert Burns for the rest of his life, and was the scene of part of the boyhood and early manhood of the subject of this memoir. A brief description therefore of the place, which became endeared to Thomas Burns by a thousand associations, will be of interest.

Grants Braes stood about a mile to the west of Haddington on the side of the road which follows the south bank of the Tyne. Between the old house and the river there lay a stretch of wooded land. On the opposite bank in the middle distance stood Clerkington, the ancestral home of the famous Cockburn family. From the upper windows of Grants Braes one could look over the park lands page 19of Lennoxlove, formerly known as Lethington, where Lady Blantyre resided. The factor and his sons could pass through a postern gate into this sylvan demesne. When Thomas left the glorious "Burns" countryside of the Nith, what associations awaited him in this fair land of the east! The earlier poetry of Scotland was linked with the writings of the "Blind Baron," Sir Richard Maitland, of Lethington, who lived in the sixteenth century, and among other poems, wrote one "In Prayse of Lethingtoun." A grove of ash and lime trees was called "The Politician's Walk," in reference to the restless pacings to and fro of "Secretary Lethington," Sir Richard's eldest son, William, who became deeply embroiled in the intrigues of Queen Mary's troubled reign. Here George Wishart, attended by his pupil, John Knox, had been the guest the night before his arrest, which led to his martyrdom. In the burgh of Haddington, almost under the shadow of the tower of the old parish church, but on the opposite side of the river, was the site of a former cottage, where John Knox was born—a hallowed spot, since marked by a sturdy oak planted by Thomas Carlyle as a fitting emblem to the great Reformer.

Gilbert Burns attended the parish church with the utmost regularity, and became so highly esteemed that he was appointed an elder. He acted for Lord and Lady Blantyre as mandatory at the Heritors' meeting, and in later life often presided and signed the minutes, as the records attest to this day. The influence of the kirk and its surroundings upon the impressionable minds of the boys and girls in his family would be enhanced by his own upright and honourable character. A picture of Gilbert Burns has been left us by Colonel Davidson, the friend of Jane Welsh Carlyle:—

Grants Braes happened then to be the residence of Gilbert Burns.… He was standing at his door … and brought page 20me into the house. I sat patiently and wonderingly by the side of the fireplace, and, young as I was, I felt a sort of awe. I knew about Burns and his songs, and a kind of reverential feeling possessed me as I sat in his brother's house. I had often seen Gilbert in church, where he was an elder, and had marked him, especially on sacramental occasions, when he solemnly dispensed the sacred bread. He had a splendid head, with high forehead and "lyart haffets wearing thin and bare." The lower part of his face was less refined than that of his brother, the mouth larger, and the chin well developed, indicating stronger moral qualities.1

As factor of the Blantyre estates, Gilbert had a fairly secure position, with a salary of £100 a year, afterwards increased to £140, with a free house. His work was congenial and yet arduous. He was a very different kind of factor from the tyrant depicted in his brother's poem "The Twa Dogs," sketched probably from the factor who had caused the old William Burness such distress.2

In the work of his factorship, farm-managing, wood planting, attending public meetings in the interest of his employers, surveying, and even drawing plans, Gilbert Burns led a busy life for nearly a quarter of a century. They were the happy days of his life, yet not unmixed with cares and sorrow.3

The following note on the subsequent fate of Grants Braes has a pathetic interest of its own:—

On the appointment of Mr Goodlet as his successor, the old house was pulled down, and a new residence erected on its site. On Christmas morning of 1891 this second structure was completely gutted by fire, and in that condition it still remains page 21(1895). The once trim garden is desolate, the fences torn down, and the boxwood borders trampled low; and the stranger, little expecting to view such utter desolation, hurries on to Bolton Churchyard, where so many relatives of the poet sleep beneath the well-kept sward of that sunny, sloping brae.4

It is not clear when Thomas Burns left Dumfries-shire and permanently joined the family circle at Grants Braes; but it was certainly before the spring of 1810. About that time a new school was opened in. Haddington, under the guidance of a young man, who was ere long to become famous as a preacher, Mr Edward Irving. Sir John Leslie, the Professor of Mathematics in Edinburgh University, had interested himself in the establishment of the school and in the appointment of the first teacher. Probably that gives the clue to the unusual name, "The Mathematical School," and also to the reason—or one of the reasons—for Mr Irving's appointment, inasmuch as he was one of Leslie's favourite students. The rather distinguished young man, although only in his eighteenth year, was a graduate of the University. Like his young friend, Thomas Carlyle, Irving had been born and bred in the vicinity of Annan. One of his old pupils at the Mathematical School of Haddington, thus described him:—"When Irving came to Haddington, he was a tall, ruddy, robust, handsome youth, cheerful and kindly disposed; he soon won the confidence of his advanced pupils, and was admitted into the best society in the town and neighbourhood."

Among the "advanced pupils" who attended this school was Burns, who was then in his fifteenth year. He was a strong, healthy lad, already showing the promise of a tall stature. His work at school had developed his intellectual abilities, and his cheerful labours on the farm had strengthened his muscles and his practical aptitude page 22for husbandry. The devout spirit of "the Cotter," William Burness, and of Gilbert Burns, dwelt also in him. The pure exercises of "the family altar," which were unfailingly observed in the home, reinforced the teachings of the kirk and school; and Thomas Burns sought to express in his life the noble Christian heritage which had come to him, by example no less than by precept. Like his brothers and sisters, he was trained in sound Christian knowledge, and he set the highest standards of probity before his eyes.

There is every reason to believe that the ministry was not the first choice of Thomas Burns. He intended to follow in his father's footsteps and become a farmer. But we have here an instance where parental influence, and even firm pressure, produced a good result—in fact, consequences of the most far-reaching nature and of a commendable utility. John, the fifth son, was destined for the Church; but he did not live to realise the goal of his ambition. After a brilliant career, he died of typhus fever in his twenty-fifth year, when a teacher of mathematics in Edinburgh, and on the eve of ordination for the ministry. That sad blow happened long after the events which we are now recording; and it seems impossible to connect it with the direction of the vocation of Thomas, who was six years the senior of John—although there is a mysterious tradition in the family that does connect it in this way. It is possible that the younger boy showed in early life symptoms of a delicate constitution, which led to an increased urgency that Thomas should turn his steps towards the office which has always been so venerated in Scotland. However that may be, the fact which stands out is that in later life Dr Burns often spoke of this crisis in his career, and stated again and again to his family that it was not his wish to be a minister. He did not feel that he was worthy of such a sacred vocation, or fitted for it. He page 23reminded his father, who urged him to this course, that he had a slight impediment in his speech. His father said, "You can overcome it!" And Thomas Burns felt this to be the call of God. He lived to realise the new purpose that formed itself within his heart, and which grew in its spiritual appeal until it became the deepest passion in the soul of the young man. He resolved also to overcome the defect in his speech, and he succeeded in doing so, and thus he prepared the way for his notable power as a preacher of the Gospel in Scotland and New Zealand. By whatever means he was drawn into his life's work, surely the hand of Providence was in it; for if ever a man was raised up by God to lead a band and establish a distant colony, that man was Thomas Burns.

We must imagine, then, the third son of Gilbert Burns throwing himself into the work set by Edward Irving with the greater zest, because he had now a definite and lofty purpose in view. The pupil made good progress under his unconventional master, whose points of contact with the family at Grants Braes were not limited to the classroom. He was a frequent visitor at the home of Gilbert Burns. And another interesting personage was also no stranger there. Jane Welsh Carlyle, the daughter of Dr Welsh, of Haddington, has left in her own charming way the record of her impressions of the family, in a letter written in later life to a friend:—

That little picture of your visit to Grants Braes! How pretty, how dream-like! Awaking so many recollections of my own young visiting there! The dinners of rice and milk and currants—a very few currants—kind, thrifty Mrs Gilbert Burns used to give me such a welcome! Of playfellows, boys and girls—all, I fancy, dead now—who made my Saturdays at Grants Braes white days for me! I went to see the dear old house when last I was at Sunny Bank, and found the new page 24prosaic farm-house in its stead; and it was as if my heart had knocked up against it! A sort of (moral) blow in the breast is what I feel always at these revelations of the new, strange, uncared-for thing usurping the place of the thing I knew as well as oneself and had all sorts of associations with, and had hung the fondest memories on! When I first saw Mrs Somerville (of mathematical celebrity) I was much struck with her exact likeness to Mrs G. Burns—minus the geniality and plus the feathers in her head! And I remember remarking to my husband that, after all, Mrs Burns was far the cleverer woman of the two, inasmuch as to bring up twelve children, as these young Burns were brought up and keep such a comfortable house as Grants Braes, all on £80 a year, was a much more intricate problem than the reconcilement of the physical sciences! And Mr Carlyle agreed with me.5

Which was surely very remarkable!

It may be remarked here that Thomas Carlyle, who became a teacher in Kircaldy, after Irving had removed thither, also visited Grants Braes in the company of his friend. He and Irving went on a walking tour to Haddington, and spent a profitable and happy hour or two in the home of Gilbert Burns. After their marriage, Mr and Mrs Carlyle called on the family at Grants Braes. These links with Irving, Carlyle, and other famous persons had a direct influence in forming the thought and life of the future founder of Otago.

Edward Irving was about four years older than Thomas Burns. He had a giant's physique, and was alive with interests that appeal to growing youth. Mr Patrick Sheriff, one of his former pupils, says:—

Having the use of some fine instruments, he (Irving) devoted many of his school holidays to the measuring of heights and distances in the surrounding neighbourhood and taking the altitudes of the heavenly bodies. Upon such occasions he was invariably accompanied by several of his pupils. About this time Mr Irving frequently expressed a wish to travel in page 25Africa in the track of Mungo Park, and during his holiday excursions practised, in concert with his pupils, the throwing of stones into pools of water, with a view of determining the depth of the water by the sound of the plunge, to aid him in crossing rivers.6

What a happy union of fun and fancy, with the slightest substratum of fact! The lad, who, when little, had wanted some day to go to New Zealand, so that he could "look over the edge of the world," must have entered into these pursuits with zest. His longing to travel would also be strengthened by the teacher's desire to become an explorer or missionary in Africa. Burns, the pioneer minister, showed all through his career the effects of the scientific recreations of the Haddington master.

But Irving's deepest interest lay, after all, in the religious sphere. The former pupil, quoted above, relates an incident in which, we may be fairly sure, Burns participated:—

Upon one occasion when Dr Chalmers, then rising into fame, was anounced to preach in St. George's, Edinburgh, upon a summer week-day evening, Irving set out from Haddington after school hours, accompanied by several of his pupils, and returned the same night, acomplishing a distance of about 35 miles, without any other rest than what was obtained in church. When the boys sought to enter an unoccupied pew, they were stopped by a man who, with outstretched arm, informed them that the pew was engaged. Irving remonstrated, and represented that at such a time all the seats were open to the public, but without effect. At last his patience gave way; and raising his hand he exclaimed, evidently with all his natural magniloquence of voice and gesture: "Remove your arm, or I will shatter it in pieces!" His astonished opponent fell back in utter dismay while the rejoicing boys took possession of the pew.7

The connection of Irving with the Mathematical School of Haddington came to an end in 1812. He accepted a. page 26similar post in Kircaldy Academy. It would appear that this was Thomas Burns's last year in the school also, for it is recorded that he entered Edinburgh University at the age of 16. That may seem to us an early age for beginning the studies of a higher education. But it was then usual in Scotland to commence the course at the University at an earlier age even than that. The parting of Thomas Burns from the school was signalised by the award of a prize which indicates the progress made by him under his teacher, and it tells of mutual esteem founded upon respect and affection between master and pupil. The following inscription was penned by Irving in the book:—

From Edward Irving to Thomas Burns, this book is presented as a testimony of that esteem which his industry and success, while his pupil, have procured for him.

Haddington, October 12, 1812.

"Industry and Success!" Viewed from life's larger standpoint, they are no mean verdicts; and they may justly be applied to the whole career of the recipient—not selfish success, as men count success, perhaps, but service, which is as much before success in the final reward as it is in the motive of those most worthy of the world's esteem.

1 "Memories of a Long Life," page 7.


Poor tenant bodies scant o' cash:
How they maun thole a factor's snash:
He'll stamp an' thunder, curse an' swear,
He'll apprehend them, poind their gear:
While they maun stan', in aspect humble,
An' hear it a', an' fear, an' tremble.

3 "Gilbert Burns in East Lothian," by Edward J. Wilson. (Annual Burns Chronicle, No. V.)

4 Ibid.

5 Memories of a Long Life," page 314.

6 "Life of Edward Irving," by Mrs Oliphant.

7 Ibid.